Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is all about isolation. It’s a theme I think a lot of us can relate to right now. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been mostly locked inside for 2 or more months now. It’s a little maddening, isn’t it? So is it fitting or is it ironic that this landmark film celebrates its 40th anniversary when most of us are self-isolating in the wake of COVID-19? Maybe a little of both. I revisited The Shining recently after being quarantined with my wife and two children for about a month. I’ve always loved the film, but this last viewing seemed to somehow resonate with me even more. Let’s look back on this modern masterpiece together as we celebrate four decades of terror at the Overlook Hotel. First up? The official trailer. Have a look!
The Shining (1980) Synopsis
Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and their young son Danny move into the Overlook Hotel, where Jack has been hired as the winter caretaker. Cut off from civilization for months, Jack hopes to battle alcoholism and uncontrolled rage while writing a play. Evil forces residing in the Overlook – which has a long and violent history – covet young Danny for his precognitive powers and exploit Jack’s weaknesses to try to claim the boy.
The film stars Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Danny Lloyd. It’s based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel, The Shining (read our raking of King books from the ’70s here). Stanley Kubrick adapted the screenplay and directed the film. The movie opened on May 23, 1980 and took in a reported $622,337 in a limited release opening weekend. Its competition? None other than the second chapter of the Star Wars saga. The Empire Strikes Back opened on May 21, 1980 (a Wednesday) en route to a $4.9 million weekend. The Shining would go on to have a respectable box office run despite mixed reviews. It would ultimately secure a $46.2 million haul against a $19 million budget.
A Classic Poster
The Shining‘s official movie poster came courtesy of renowned graphic designer Saul Bass. Bass did dozens of classic posters for such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and North By Northwest, plus The Magnificent Seven, and Schindler’s List. It’s simple and striking, like many of Bass’ posters. My favorite part? The tagline:
“A Masterpiece of Modern Horror.”
Talk about a bold statement! Perhaps also prophetic?
While studying Bass’ work, I found a fascinating article about The Shining‘s poster design. There were several designs created over the course of the project. The article details several iterations and includes Kubrick’s notes for proposed design changes. You can read that article here (you’ll love it), and check out the final poster below!
Getting Better With Age
Critics and fans consider The Shining a modern classic. Not just as a horror film, but as a film, period. Rotten Tomatoes lists the film as “Certified Fresh,” with an 85% critical score and a 93% audience score. The National Film Registry, who preserves films with “cultural, historic and aesthetic significance” chose to preserve the film in 2018. An honor, to say the least.
The Shining was not always showered with critical acclaim, however. Reviews from 1980 cited deviations from King’s novel as a reason to bash the film. Many outlets, including Variety, ridiculed Nicholson’s over the top performance. Famed film critic Gene Siskel called it:
“More boring — and on a couple of occasions downright embarrassing — than anything else.”
Siskel’s colleague, Roger Ebert, didn’t even bother reviewing the film until 2006. The Shining even received two Razzie award nominations, if you can believe it: Kubrick for “Worst Director,”and Shelley Duvall for “Worst Actress.” Can you imagine?
The Wendy Problem
Speaking of “Worst Actress,” Shelley Duvall has taken a lot of heat over the years for her performance as Wendy. If the film’s most ardent fans have one criticism, she’s it. Stephen King himself called Duvall’s character:
“One of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid. And that’s not the woman I wrote about.“
He would go on to call her performance “Olive Oyl revisited” and that her character is a “screaming dishrag” in separate interviews. Harsh. Roger Ebert asked Duvall about working on The Shining in his aforementioned 2006 review (Four Stars, by the way). She said:
“Almost unbearable. Going through day after day of excruciating work, Jack Nicholson’s character had to be crazy and angry all the time. And my character had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week. I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to Primal Scream therapy, because after the day was over and I’d cried for my 12 hours… after all that work, hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick, like I wasn’t there.”
I find her performance impressive, especially considering her treatment on set. Behind the scenes videos show Kubrick berating her for missing cues. The scene where Nicholson menaces her and she tries to defend herself with a baseball bat took a reported 127 takes! Grueling. It really puts things in perspective. I think Duvall deserves all the credit in the world for enduring and for grounding the film’s cast in reality.
The Shining – A Modern Viewing
I sat down on a lazy Sunday in April to watch The Shining in UHD. What struck me first was the cinematography. Frequent Kubrick collaborator John Alcott (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange) shot the film. Alcott won a cinematography Academy Award for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in 1976, and his cinematography in The Shining is gorgeous. From the opening shots of the Torrance family in the car driving up the mountain roads to the final chase scenes through the hedge maze, it’s all just stunning. Every shot seems perfectly set up and framed for maximum effect. A truly masterful effort.
Jack Nicholson is great in pretty much everything, so it’s easy to forgive his over the top performance. I’m not sure any other actor could have pulled it off and still be taken seriously. Intense? Yes. Unhinged? Totally. As I said earlier, many people don’t like Shelley Duvall as Wendy, but the reality is, the film couldn’t succeed without her. I can’t think of anyone who sells “terrified” like she does. Young Danny Lloyd shines as well (no pun intended). He stood head and shoulders above the 500 plus children interviewed for the role. A natural. His guttural “REDRUM” recitations still give me shivers: flashbacks from seeing this film as a boy.
The Shining is riveting. Two and a half hours go by in a flash. There’s so much to see and every scene is multi-layered. If a four hour long cut of this film exists, I want to see it. It’s that engaging. Like many critics, my opinion of the film has changed over time…for the better. I enjoyed it as a kid on a basic level. Watching it as an adult and as a more seasoned film veteran has opened my eyes to a whole new level of enjoyment.
The Shining got a 4K restoration Blu-ray release in late 2019, just in time for the 4oth anniversary!
We wrote about it here. I’m happy to report it’s going for about $20 and not the original MSRP of $41.99. Your wallet will thank you! I can’t say enough how gorgeous this film is. If you can catch it in 4K, or on the big screen, or both, you definitely should. Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re isolated with your family. Can you think of a better time for a revisit? If you’re feeling truly inspired, be sure to follow it up with Mike Flanagan’s fantastic sequel, Doctor Sleep (read our review here).
Stephen King once said:
“I think The Shining is a beautiful film, and it looks terrific, and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.”
I hate to dispute the horror master on this subject, especially when he wrote the book, but I’m going to do it anyway. People like to throw the term “masterpiece” around, but The Shining really is a masterpiece. It’s part psychological horror, part isolation horror. It’s part ghost story, part haunted house story, with slasher elements thrown in. There’s something here for nearly every kind of horror fan.
What about non-horror fans? We all have that friend who says they don’t like horror. You can show this film to that friend, and I can almost guarantee they will love it. If they don’t? Well, you can always find new friends, right? I’m kidding. Kind of.
The PopHorror writers talk about their feelings on The Shining here.