The Shining is terrifying for what it doesn’t do.
The movie relies on very little suspense (it’s clear the moment we see Jack Nicholson’s arched eyebrows that he’s going to go after his kid). There is relatively little violence (even though the blood bursting from those elevators must have come from somewhere). Stanley Kubrick took the Stephen King novel and used it to fashion a horror film drained of the very tricks of King’s trade. We’re left to fill in the blanks with our own active imaginations. And of course we fill them with pure dread.
This isn’t to say that Kubrick isn’t pulling the strings all along. The Shining is above all a movie about spaces, and how few things are more frightening than not knowing which way to go. The picture begins with a detailed tour, as the Overlook Hotel manager (Barry Nelson) guides Jack Torrance (Nicholson) through the premises before handing him the keys for the long, lonely winter. It’s crucial that we know – or think we know – where each of the Overlook’s corridors leads. This way we have a sense of (false) safety established before Kubrick manipulates our movement through the space he and production designer Roy Walker have so intricately established.
The Shining is above all a movie about spaces, and how few things are more frightening than not knowing which way to go.
Why are those famed Steadicam shots of Danny (Danny Lloyd) pedaling down the hallways on his Big Wheel so unnerving? Because there’s a moment – nicely discussed in the documentary Room 237 – in which Danny turns a corner and has inexplicably gone from the first floor of the hotel to what we understood to be the second. Why the epic opening helicopter shots following the Torrance family car up the mountain? To emphasize their later isolation. Why is Room 237 the only room the movie enters? Because it’s the only one we fear. Just about everything that’s scary about The Shining depends on where we are.
In one way, The Shining could have been even scarier. As much fun as it is to watch Nicholson, his performance works as something of a relief valve for the movie. His gonzo routine – the madman grin, the chewy chat with Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel), the quips – is the stuff of instant camp. (That Kubrick let him go perhaps tells us how much he valued his own movie.) Would a performance tied to actual psychology have made The Shining that much more insidious, more tied to our reality? Perhaps.
By the time Johnny comes busting through the door – notice how Kubrick’s camera lunges along with the axe – Nicholson has become an ironic comfort of sorts. I knew how to watch his type – the crazed killer with the blunt instrument. What I didn’t know how to handle were murdered twins fixing me with their blank stares; decomposing bodies rotting in tubs; whatever was going on in that room with the well-dressed man and the person dressed as a rabbit (bear?). For all the fast edits and ugly insert shots that have come to dominate contemporary horror, Kubrick is the only one who truly perfected what those poseurs are after: sheer, subliminal terror.