Perhaps harder to believe than the fact that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining — which turns 36 today — wasn't universally beloved by critics in 1980 is the idea that it was nominated for two Razzies (Worst Director and Worst Actress, Shelley Duvall) following its release. First off: Shelley Duvall's Wendy Torrance may very well have been a misogynistic portrait (Stephen King once colorfully described the character as a “screaming dishrag”), but Duvall was nothing short of great in that role, a perfect reflection of the audience's mounting terror. It seems to me that there is also some misogyny at work in the widespread idea that Nicholson was brilliant and she was terrible, but that's another post.
So just what did the critics say in 1980? While a number of reviewers enjoyed the film (People magazine's critic described it as a “near-miss auto accident: You don't know how scared you really were until you start shaking a few hours later”), but a shocking number were out of sync with the director's chilly, symmetrical vision. Here's a sampling of the pans.
(Note: I encourage those interested to read the full reviews for further context; many of those listed below are less cut-and-dry than the quotes indicate.)
“…though we may admire the effects, we're never drawn in by them, mesmerized. When we see a flash of bloody cadavers or observe a torrent of blood pouring from an elevator, we're not frightened, because Kubrick's absorption in film technology distances us.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker
“With the formidable amount of technical work represented by this movie, it”s painful to see it produce so little and such a sorry contrast with preceding works like Dr. Strange[love], Lolita, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange (the sadistic violence of which had a point). This is not Kubrick”s finest hours [sic].” – Ernest Leogrande, New York Daily News
“I can”t help thinking that the Stephen King original, with its spook-ridden, other-worldly junketings, gets in the way of Kubrick”s grim vision, finally cheapening and distorting it. The genre within which the film is cast exerts too great a price. Nicholson”s performance, even if deliberately over the top, still shouldn”t encourage as much laughter as fear. Nor should the final twists of the plot look so illogical. If The Shining isn”t trivial, it certainly encourages one to think that it is.” – Derek Malcolm, Guardian
“The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.” – Variety [credited to “Variety Staff”]
“I can't recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie. You might say that The Shining, opening today at area theaters, has no peers: Few directors achieve the treacherous luxury of spending five years (and $12 million-$15 million) on such a peerlessly wrongheaded finished product.” – Gary Arnold, The Washington Post
“Kubrick is after a cool, sunlit vision of hell, born in the bosom of the nuclear family, but his imagery-with its compulsive symmetry and brightness-is too banal to sustain interest, while the incredibly slack narrative line forestalls suspense.” – Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
“There are moments so visually stunning only a Kubrick could pull them off, yet the film is too grandiose to be the jolter that horror pictures are expected to be. Both those expecting significance from Kubrick and those merely looking for a good scare may be equally disappointed.” – Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
“Kubrick's grandiose Jack-in-a-box shocker is a fright, but it's hardly up to his earlier brilliance.” – Thomas Delapa, Boulder Weekly