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The Shining (1980)

Something terrible is about to happen, and we can tell it from the very first minutes. The Shining, often referred to as the masterpiece of the horror genre, opens with a very suspenseful credit sequence. Even though there are no visible characters nor a particular action in the scene, Stanley Kubrick skillfully sets the sinister mood in the first few minutes of the film. The dominant atmosphere is set in the very beginning to sync the spectator’s expectations to what is upcoming, leaving no room to doubt that this is a horror film. As there are no characters involved in an action, the scene should be analyzed in terms of camera movement, sound, setting, and the mise-en-scene, in relation to the whole mood and the theme of the film. Here I’ll analyze in depth the opening credit sequence of the film.

The film opens with an aerial shot over the pristine lake and between the mountains of the Montana Glacier National Park in Colorado. The scenery is beautiful, and there is a perfect reflection of the mountains, the forest, and the sky over the lake. In terms of montage, the opening sequence is a collection of follow-shots of the car. The camera follows the car through various geographies and weather conditions: there is sun and snow; forest and moorland; grass and rocky cliff. It almost feels like the seasons change while the Torrance family is on their way to the hotel. The multiplicity of shots stretch out the experience of them arriving at the hotel. It implies a long wait for the hotel to unfold its mystery. 

The aerial shot provides the spectator with a god-like perception over the events that are about to unfold. The focalization is deliberately pulled away from the characters; it is significant that there isn’t any direct shot of them during the opening sequence. The spectator can only assume that the main characters are in the chased car. Where focalization is significant for the representation of characters’ consciousness, perception, and cognitive conditions over the events, the director invites the spectator to regard the film from an omniscient perspective while restraining from limiting the spectator’s perspective to the characters’. The spectator is invited to pursue a broader sense through an extended perception.

The Shining is more than a jump scare horror film; it has undertones of criticism of the Native American genocide. Before production, Kubrick’s team researched the town and the hotel’s history to reveal the tension between the Navajo tribe and the white man in the early twentieth century. Therefore, the omniscient shot that suggests a ghost-like point of view could be referring to the ghosts of the long lost victims of the genocide. In this sense, the spectators are positioned in an all-knowing and all-seeing standpoint from high up above.

The essential element that determines the mood and implies beforehand the whole atmosphere of The Shining is the creepy music accompanying the opening credit sequence. If the scene was to be played with a joyful tone such as “Happy Together” by The Turtles, or even simply played mute, this sequence could as well be mistaken for the beginning of a sweet road trip movie. In this case, the primary use of sound in relation to narration is the psychological characterization of the whole film. The shots of the beautiful landscape are rendered to be threatening through the tone created by the intimidating music. In contrast to the aesthetically pleasing shots of the peaceful driveway and the spectacular nature, the musical score is alarming and dissonant, which gives the spectator chills.

We hear sound only with the image, but the song itself is meaningful for the educated ear. The song is an old Gregorian chant used in funerals, called Dies Irae, which means “day of judgement” or “day of wrath” in Latin. The funeral song foreshadows death while taking the sequence to a mournful tone. Relating to the Native American genocide undertones of the film, the title of the song might refer to the judgment of the Americans over an ignored issue. In fact, the title of the film does not necessarily refer to a downslope of events as “to shine” simply means being able to communicate with others using the mind and to see things that have happened in the past or will happen in the future. In this sense, what happened in the past is revealed to be terrible, and Kubrick aims to confront the history of this geography from a magical realistic point of view.

The car is the only object which serves somewhat as a character as the camera follows its action along the road towards the hotel. It is a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, which looks very vulnerable. Yellow stands for ill, unstable, and innocent; foreshadowing the catastrophic events will involve mental instability and a child’s innocence. Halfway through the sequence, it passes near a hoarse that is stopped on their side of the road, which is symbolic in terms of signaling the upcoming disaster. 

The setting in which the film takes place is revealed at the end of the opening sequence to be a remote hotel. Throughout the sequence, the montage editing was emphasizing that they came a long way to get there. They drove through nature without coming across any settlement or residential areas. The hotel has been standing alone with all its secrets and mystery, almost as if it was waiting to be heard out for years. The setting itself has a story to tell. The hotel is called “The Overlook Hotel.” It refers to how the Native American genocide is overlooked within history, and it is haunting them in this film.

Based on the actual research of Kubrick’s team, the characters are told during the tour that the hotel was built on an old Indian burial ground and that they had to repel “a few” Indian attacks as they were building it. Moreover, the first time the hotel enters the scene is very subtle, almost invisible. The shot invokes attention to the immense snowy mountain, and the hotel is camouflaged on its foothills. The fact that it does not pull direct attention refers to the hidden historical shame within its walls. Juxtaposing this shot to several follow-shots of the easily detectable car adds a discursive dimension: some victims are easy to remark whereas others are not. The argument would be that when the sufferer is a middle-class white American family, we notice them. When the Navajo tribe was the case, it was overlooked.

The opening sequence of a film is essential in terms of setting the mood and the genre of the film. The Shining opens with such a tone that it makes sure to imply that the viewer’s expectation of a horror film is going to be met. The selected sequence proves that Kubrick was a genius filmmaker who succeeded in meticulously utilizing cinematic techniques to create a distinct atmosphere even in a scene in which there are no characters nor a particular action.

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