It probably wasn’t very obvious at the time, but May of 1980 ended up being a pretty important month in the history of the horror film genre. Two weeks after Sean S. Cunningham introduced the world to Friday the 13th (you can read our oral history on it here) a different style of horror film was released, and unlike the incredibly low budget Halloween knockoff, this one was expected to be an epic cinematic experience. Based on Stephen King’s novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick, The Shining starred Jack Nicholson and had a budget of roughly $19 million that allowed Kubrick to make big, beautiful sets and truly deliver on his terrifying vision, even if it came at the expense of Shelly Duvall’s mental health. If Friday the 13th was the little engine that could, The Shining should have been a bullet train destroying everything in its path. Except some critics didn’t care for it either.
In 1980, the Razzies were created and Kubrick and Duvall were nominated for their efforts, while other critics didn’t care for the differences between the director’s vision and King’s original story. The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott called it “an overreaching, multi-levelled botch,” while Variety wrote that Kubrick and King destroyed “all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller.” Perhaps the most damning critique of this film comes from King, whose own screenplay was rejected by Kubrick. King has always been dissatisfied with the way that Kubrick failed to deliver on the real horror element of The Shining. (He also said that he never cares about the movies, but it’s The Shining that really gets him going.) What has always mattered, though, has been the film’s legacy to fans, as people have long considered The Shining to be a horror masterpiece, no matter how much it pisses King off.
For the film’s 35th anniversary, we talked to some of today’s aspiring horror directors and writers about the impact that The Shining has had on them and their work. But we started it all off by reaching out to someone who knows a thing or two about being a horror legend…
Don Mancini, Writer of Child’s Play
When it comes to horror franchises, Don Mancini is responsible for one of the most beloved and recognizable homicidal maniacs of the last 27 years. He is the writer who brought Chucky to life, as the story of a serial killer whose soul was transferred to a lovable toy led to six films between 1988’s “Child’s Play” and 2013’s “Curse of Chucky.”
When was the first time you saw The Shining?
The first time I saw The Shining I was in high school. I was 17, this was May or June 1980 and it was, as I recall, a special sneak preview showing. It was a Saturday afternoon a week before it opened generally. I think it had already opened in New York and Los Angeles officially. Being a horror enthusiast and having read the book and loved it, it was definitely something that I was constantly checking my watch and waiting for. I also recall reading rave reviews in both Newsweek and Time Magazine. This was back in the day when weekly news magazines were a really big deal and the critics for those magazines were a really big deal. So the fact that those magazines—both of them—gave the movie big spreads, I was intensely excited.
What was your initial response to seeing it?
My initial response was complicated, I would say. There was certainly an element of disappointment because having loved the book—and also I was really young and relatively unsophisticated about movies and literature—I was attached to the book. The book, of course, although it’s a supernatural horror story—it being written by Stephen King—there’s a certain naturalism about it, a realism regarding the characters. The whole approach to the story, Kubrick deliberately had gone in a very different direction. I think, at the time, I was so young I was thrown by it slightly.
Although my appreciation for the movie has grown enormously and I’m one of the legions of people who consider it a classic of the genre, it’s also still surprising to me that so many people love it, because I think it’s a really weird movie in a lot of ways. I think it’s like a lot of Kubrick movies increasingly as his career went on, it’s an absurdist comedy and his approach to characterization is 180 degrees from Stephen King’s. He’s less interested in the realism of characters. He’s more interested in them as representational figures, in my opinion.
I’m also curious because you mentioned reading great reviews in magazines. But I know it was generally not loved by mainstream critics.
That’s true. Generally speaking the movie had bad reviews. After these initial positive reviews in Time and Newsweek, even as a 17-year-old I was really into Pauline Kael and I was eagerly awaiting her review in The New Yorker. She pretty much panned the movie, as you may know. I think as a kid my reaction was somewhere in the middle, because I still found the movie enthralling and I went back to see it several times just trying to get a fix on my own reaction to it, which I didn’t completely understand initially. But yeah it’s not surprising about the reviews, because again, it’s a weird movie.
Are there any other scenes that you regard as your favorite or that stuck with you?
Another favorite scene of mine is the scene where Wendy interrupts Jack while he’s working and he gets angry with her. This probably speaks more to my specific personal taste in writing and drama. I’m drawn mostly to scenes that are about characters and actors interacting in this movie. There’s actually a realism about it. As a writer I know that I’ve played that scene before. Someone comes in and goes, “Oh, how’s it going?” You’re going, “Fine.” It’s like, “Oh! It’s just a matter of coming up with another idea!” You’re like, “Yup. That’s all it is.” He can barely keep a lid on his incredulous anger at how clueless this person is about what it’s like to be writing. I think that’s also a great scene. The two of them are really great together in the film.
He blows up at her. “Whatever the f*ck I’m doing that means you stay out of here. Now get the f*ck out of here.” Her reaction mirrors our own. Jesus, this guy is scary. And she’s so cowed by him, she doesn’t stand up to him. At least not yet. She is just like a child. He treats her like a child and she responds like one. So, our reaction to that is complicated. On one level we’re thinking this is a horrible representation of a male-female relationship. It’s just so politically incorrect, and again it was so different from the book, I think it really threw people. I find that to be a genuinely scary scene and I think all of those scenes of domestic tension are the scariest stuff in the movie. Scarier than the supernatural, metaphysical manifestations. I think that even as a kid my response to this movie was I don’t know how “scared” I am of this movie, per se.
That same summer I found Friday the 13th more traditionally scary and more suspenseful and certainly made me jump out of my seat more. But obviously The Shining is a far more interesting movie and a movie that you can chew on three decades later that you don’t really with Friday the 13th.
It’s a movie that people read into and obsesses over in so many different ways. What was your takeaway on what the film meant? And what do you think of these various conspiracy theories people have?
I honestly find that ridiculous. I have not seen that documentary, Room 237. I instinctively knew it wasn’t for me and it would annoy me. Kubrick is obviously a legendary filmmaker and one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but I think he has also somehow accrued, particularly in the wake of his untimely death when he was in post on Eyes Wide Shut, this mythological, legendary status that went beyond the pale in a way that makes me role my eyes slightly. People look at The Shining and just think that there is something in all the contradictions in that movie, people just decide that there was some kind of grand scheme that he had in mind that he just really didn’t. And certainly his surviving associates have said this is ridiculous, this is about making a horror story. It’s not about the white man’s rape of the American Indians, et cetera et cetera.
On the other hand, it is a testament to how endlessly fascinating the movie is that people are constantly trying to explain it. That is ultimately the mark of a very successful horror story, and really a very successful work of fiction, period. It’s opaque enough and unresolved enough that it makes it endlessly fascinating. He doesn’t cross all his t’s and dot all his i’s. So everyone is constantly trying to do that for him. While I roll my eyes, it’s also a mark of greatness. It’s such a compelling movie.
Adam Robitel, Director of The Taking of Deborah Logan
Making his directorial debut on “The Taking of Deborah Logan,” Adam Robitel set out to tell the terrifying story of an Alzheimer’s patient whose past is far more sinister than the woman making a documentary about her could have imagined. Available on Netflix, the film currently carries a 3-star rating from the rather uneasy to please commenting community.
When was the first time you saw The Shining?
It’s funny, I don’t quite remember. I remember a good friend of mine talking about the movie and being so incredibly frightened by it. So, my first impression of The Shining was literally the fear of someone else, post haste, talking about it. I don’t remember the first time I saw it but I was definitely young, and it scared the living Christ out of me. I think it might have been a simple broadcast where they edited out a lot of the scary stuff but it was still enough—blood coming out of elevator doors—it was still enough to scare me.
What elements did you like about it most? And was there anything about it you didn’t like?
I’m a huge Kubrick fan so I’m a little bit biased. He’s my favorite filmmaker and one of the reasons I went to film school. Growing up in the woods and loving ghost stories, I think it has a little bit of everything. The paranoia and the slow burn of a father who is slowly going insane. You have all the great tapestry of the ghosts that live within the hotel—the hotel being the metaphor for limbo, relating to a writer having writer’s block, and then that’s the metaphor for him getting angrier and angrier. It has so many different elements that I just love, set in an amazing isolated place.
Did you have a favorite character?
The movie wouldn’t have worked without Jack Nicholson. Some people take umbrage with the fact that he’s sort of crazy from the very beginning. You have that slow, creepy helicopter shot and you hear the Penderecki music and he goes, “See, he heard it on the television,” he’s already off. Some people complain that there wasn’t a full arch. In the book it’s more of a gradual process but when you hear Jack speak there’s instant fear and tension for him. It feels like a guy who could lose his mind. I think it was right for Kubrick to cast Jack. He was able to inhabit that role. It’s a slow burn by modern audience’s standards. They would say, “Oh, it’s slow at parts.” It takes its time. You get up there, you get the tour of the hotel, you get a little of the backstory. We learn, oh, by the way, it’s on a Native American burial ground so you get a little of the magic of maybe this place has some sort of spiritual significance. You meet Scatman Crothers, who is amazing. It just has all these other elements, like Danny being telepathic. All those early scenes of Danny talking to himself in the mirror, they’re just terrifying.
Did you read the book?
I read the book after for a USC class and there are lots of elements that would be very difficult on a practical level to shoot. I remember one scene where a fire hose comes to life like a snake and that would have been really neat to see but they didn’t have CG at the time and it would have been impractical. A lot of times these movies are better when it leaves things to the imagination. So, much of The Shining is a performance and Kubrick, if you watch the making of documentary, he really agitated Shelley Duvall and fucked with her. And you feel it. You really feel her, she’s not acting. She’s genuinely having a nervous breakdown. For our movie, The Taking of Deborah Logan, we knew we weren’t going to have special effects, but if the performances are there and they are grounded and captivating, that’s a special effect. And Jack delivered. By the time he’s using the ax to break the door, you really believe he’s going to kill his family. I think on set people had to clear away from him and he was very wound up and genuinely in a method sort of acting capacity.
What is your favorite scene?
I love the stuff with Grady in the bathroom. Jack tells him you killed your entire family and you’re the caretaker, and Grady turns it back around and says, “You’ve always been the caretaker,” which sets up that great end shot when you see Jack Torrance in that little photo, which is just so creepy. Just the idea that troubled souls get stuck somewhere in a limbo is really frightening to me. There’s all kinds of little Easter Eggs in the movie. There are these two weird men, one in a bear costume. It’s this weird shot as he’s walking throughout the hall and I was always like, “What the fuck is that?” Things like that.
Obviously the biggest scare of the movie for me as a kid was in room 237, the older woman. Jack is being sort of seduced by this pretty woman and then he turns around and she’s all zombie like. That is so shocking, you’re not expecting it.
When it came out critics did not like it, how do you feel about the way mainstream critics, overall, review horror films? Do you think it should be left to someone who actually appreciates the genre?
I think there’s a change happening. My film was just dumped right to Netflix and it was this little drop in the bucket. What happens is, if people respond emotionally or viscerally, now all these movies are streaming and that’s becoming the new platform. There are instant critics, so that they can immediately, with the click of the button, say four stars or five stars or write a review. What happens is, and I can only speak to my own experience, you have instantaneous feedback for your product. We had such a great groundswell of people responding to our film, it was irrelevant what the “reviewers” were saying because the grass roots had spoken. So, there’s a weird change happening. Before, you had the 10- or 12-key reviewers and if they panned your movie you’re screwed. But I think they’re a little out of whack with what people are wanting. It’s really interesting. On Netflix, over the course of a couple weeks, 400,000 people watched the film and reviewed it, so I think there’s an overlap, and that it is going to change. They’re not going to have as much power. They’ll still matter but their relevance will be lessened.
Ivan Kavanagh, Director of The Canal
A tale as old as time, “The Canal” asks the question: just how far can a man be pushed before he loses his mind? In this case, that man is a film archivist named David who thinks his wife is cheating on him, but he’s equally concerned that some truly awful and terrifying murders were committed in his home in the early 1900s, and the man who committed them might just be haunting David. Ivan Kavanagh is the director behind this well-reviewed Irish horror film.
What horror films have inspired your work, or is there a style of film you prefer?
I prefer more psychological horror films myself, though the first one that really made an impact on me was Rosemary’s Baby. And I saw that when I was quite young, when I was seven years old, and it absolutely terrified me. I love most of Polanski’s stuff and of course I adore The Shining, it’s one of my favorite films of all time.
How old were you the first time you saw The Shining?
I saw it in my mid-teens, the film was about 10-years-old then so critical consensus hadn’t quite swung around for it just yet. That’s only happened in the last maybe five or six years. When it first came out it got pretty bad reviews and it was panned by a lot of critics, as far as I know. And in fact it was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award and all this sort of stuff. So it’s only recently that the consensus has come back around for it. But I saw it quite late and I was blown away. I’ve watched it countless times since.
It’s interesting that it was panned. And Friday the 13th, which came out around the same time, got horrible reviews as well. What do you think of the way mainstream critics review horror films?
Horror films are never going to be taken as seriously as other types of films, but it’s because most horror films are mostly trash and they view them all like that. Of course, there are more intelligent horror films like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby that are about more than just the horror. I know a lot of people say The Shining is one of the most frightening films ever made, but it probably isn’t. It’s about so much more than just the frights and I think critics failed to see that. Also, there was always a build-up, an expectation for Kubrick’s films when they came out. Critics were expecting one type of film, and he gave us something completely different. I think they were really charmed by the performances which are really pushed to almost caricatures, but are really amazing and entertaining and fantastic performances.
When you first saw it, were you scared?
I think I was more scared by other films, but I was more fascinated than anything else. It seemed to be about more than what I was watching and I think that’s because the way Kubrick constructed it, it leaves a lot to the imagination. There’s a lot of plot holes in there for you to fill in yourself. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t quite make sense. I think he did it on purpose so that you constantly question, you bring your own interpretation to it. And you only have to look on the Internet at all these wild theories of what the film is about. It worked, whatever he did, whatever way he constructed it, it completely worked for your own interpretation.
Certain bits, like the kids, when he turns the corner and sees two girls at the end, and the use of 20th century classical music all the way through in the most mundane moments gave the sense of unease all the way through it and a sense of dread. I’ve seen more frightening films but I think it’s still one of the best horror films ever made. Maybe one of the best films ever made as well.
Do you have a favorite scene?
I have a few favorite scenes. The interview at the beginning, and I love that because I don’t know how he does it, but I have a theory why he did it once. There’s this beautiful sense of déjà vu about it that you see the look on Jack Nicholson’s face, he’s thinking to himself, I’ve heard this before, I’ve heard this story before, but I can’t quite place it. And I think Kubrick does it by the repeated takes. It’s like everyone knows and you can see it, what everyone is going to say next. It creates this wonderful sense of eeriness about it. I love those hooks to the assistant hotel manager and he has this very serious look on his face and you don’t quite know why and it’s very unsettling. I also love the scene in the bathroom between the butler and Grady and Jack Nicholson, where the butler begins the scene with this very subservient guy but then the tables are completely turned after this brilliantly written dialogue. It’s mostly two shots between the two of them and it’s so, so brilliant.
If you were asked to re-make The Shining, would you? Or do you think it should remain untouched?
No, no way. That would be sacrilege. No one could ever do it as good, I think. It would be pointless. It would be impossible to live up to that, for me as a filmmaker. So, that’s one I would turn down.
What if you were told you needed to make a sequel?
I don’t think you could do a sequel that would rival what Kubrick did, it would be impossible. But isn’t there a sequel written? Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s follow up to The Shining, which I haven’t read but I believe is about Danny when he grows up. I haven’t read it but it could be great. I don’t know. It would be a hard act to follow, the original. Of course you can see the influences on other films ever since then. In a way people have been trying to imitate it ever since.
Even when they don’t realize it.
Absolutely, it gets right into your bones and you can’t help but be influenced by these things. It’s the atmosphere he creates and the wonderful dense sound design, which was a huge influence on me. And I believe Kubrick, one of his favorite films at the time before he made it was Eraserhead, the David Lynch film, which has a very, very similar soundtrack. Really dense soundtrack, really dread-filled, and Kubrick apparently watched this over and over and he invited people over to watch Eraserhead. It was one of his favorite films. So, you can see the influence of Eraserhead on The Shining, the sound design especially. But, of course, David Lynch was influenced by Kubrick after 2001, so I suppose it goes full circle.
Did you see the documentary Room 237?
Yeah, I saw that. Some of those theories are interesting. I’m not sure Kubrick meant any of that but it’s wonderful that a film inspired those types of people’s imaginations. Because so many films give you all the answers, it’s great to see a film that makes people read so much into it even if it isn’t there. They almost wish it to be there, even if it isn’t. Everyone has their theory of what it’s about, or what the ending means, which is great.
James Cullen Bressack, Director of Pernicious
“Pernicious” was released on June 19 for a limited theatrical run and VOD (it will be available on DVD in September), and it tells the story of three girls looking to get loose and party in Thailand, but they accidentally invoke the wrath of the spirit of a homicidal child and the trip goes to hell. It happens. Director James Cullen Bressack’s next effort is the ghost movie “Bethany,” which stars Tom Green and Shannen Doherty. “It’s basically ‘Mommie Dearest’ meets ‘The Grudge,’” he says.
When was the first time you saw The Shining?
I believe I was 7 or 8 when I first saw The Shining. It was a freaky movie but I just liked the character who lived in his finger. I remember doing that as a child, going, “Danny’s not here, Mrs. Torrance.” It wasn’t till I was older that I started appreciating the film and understand what was going on in it.
Were you scared when you saw it or did it have a different effect on you?
I was not scared when I first saw the movie. I think I was too young to understand what was going on. So, it was just interesting. To me it was like a little story in a strange hotel. I’m not really sure how much I remember of it from when I was a kid. I know one movie that really scared me as a child, the only one that did, was American Werewolf in London. The Shining definitely didn’t scare me, I think I just enjoyed watching Jack Nicholson.
At one point in seeing the movie did it hit you, the meaning, and started re-interpreting it?
When I got older, around 15, 16, I really started getting into film and really studying it. I definitely realized that there was so much more depth to the film and it’s a beautiful movie because you’re watching this person fall apart while trying to hold themselves together. When I started writing movies myself I really started to relate to it just because of the fact “all work no play makes Jack a dull boy,” it’s really the insanity that we go through when we’re trying to come up with a story and we can’t. The whole movie is really about writer’s block to me. Yeah, it’s haunted and it was built on the Indian burial ground, but it’s really just the insanity that’s spinning in your mind when you’re like, hey, I have to write something and I can’t get anything out. The ghosts are almost symbolic of different ideas that you may have, but they can’t really come together in fruition and you’re just going completely insane. Because I’ve been there. I’ve been on a deadline and not being able to figure out anything and I literally just start laughing to myself inside, “All work no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I think that’s what it really is.
Did you see the documentary Room 237? With all the different theories people have about the movie.
I actually have not seen the documentary, but I’ve heard a lot of things about it.
Did you hear a lot of negative things?
I heard some crazy theories. That’s one of the beautiful things I find about film, especially a film that is so iconic, is the fact that everybody has a theory and it’s one of the beautiful things about movies, we reflect our own personal experiences and our own emotions onto the screen and we pull that meaning from it. Who’s to say what Stanley Kubrick was really trying to do except Stanley Kubrick? A movie like this, with how iconic it is, every single time you watch it—depending on where you are in your life—you’ll take a different meaning, a different feeling. And that’s great. It’s one of those movies that never gets dull, that never gets stale. I’m sure when I get older and I have the chance I’ll see it as a story about family. Right now I see it as writer having writer’s block and going crazy [laughs].
What did you think of the differences between the book and the movie?
The book is a lot longer [laughs]. And there are a lot more intricate stories. One thing Stephen King always did that was so brilliant is not only build so much tension in every single moment, but he’ll describe every single character so much so you feel like you understand that person so much and then they’re gone. One thing that I think is more brilliant about the book is you find out more of a backstory. I definitely think that Kubrick did such amazing things with this movie and it was in the most capable hands possible. You definitely spend the first half of the movie establishing the Overlook hotel as a character, which is amazing. All these amazing wide shots and tracking shots that he did. Watching how they did that whole maze sequence and that it was built is just something I aspire to whenever I want to make movies. I’m obsessed with Steadicam, so seeing these long shots is just amazing.
And just that opening aerial shot, with the eerie music.
I actually did a movie that I shot in Thailand and we follow a car from above in the beginning, and I stole that from The Shining [laughs]. But the music sets the mood immediately and we’re a tiny car in this vast open world and we’re nothing to our surroundings. I think that’s what he was trying to establish — he sets that very early in the beginning.
Do you have a favorite scene?
Definitely when Jack Nicholson is losing it and he’s saying, “Give me the bat.” And he goes, “Wendy, Tommy, light of my life, I’m not going to hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in” [laughs].
I also think of iconic moments like the blood coming out of the elevator.
That’s amazing. That scene, and the little girls in the hallway, “Come play with us Danny.” It’s one of the most quotable movies ever, so it’s hard to compete with that. There would be riots in the street if you remade that movie. It could be a miniseries. The Shining miniseries.
When it came out, it didn’t get good reviews at all.
Yeah, everyone thought that Jack Nicholson was too hammy.
So weird. What are your thoughts on the way mainstream critics review horror films?
I think mainstream critics always tend to pan horror films and that’s okay because I don’t think horror films are for mainstream critics. I think horror films are for horror fans and are for horror reviewers. At the end of the day, they gave some of the worst reviews to a movie that ended up being a classic that everybody, including them, will now say that they love. I think it’s just people trying to spout opinion and trying to knock genre film before realizing that sometimes genre films make the best movies. If you look at Rosemary’s Baby, you look at Silence of the Lambs, these are Academy Award-winning movies. And they transcend being a genre film because ultimately they’re just a story about people. The best genre films are ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances.
What’s the best horror movie you’ve ever seen?
The Shining is definitely one of my favorite horror movies, but I’m a fan of cheesy ’80s movies. My two favorites are Brain Damage by Frank Henenlotter, which is about a singing little alien that eats people’s brains, which is kind of fun. It’s an ’80s movie. And the other one is Hostel by Eli Roth. Or Takashi Miike’s Audition.
Nick Antosca, Writer of Friday the 13th (2016)
Having written for MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and NBC’s “Hannibal,” Nick Antosca has proven that he has a knack for small screen frights. Next year, though, he’s poised to become a household name to horror fans as the man tasked with bringing the legendary Voorhees name back to the big screen in the latest “Friday the 13th” film. We’ll have plenty of questions for him about that incredible responsibility soon enough.
When was the first time you saw The Shining? Were you legitimately scared?
My parents showed me The Shining when I was 9 or 10, but I wasn’t allowed to watch the naked woman in the shower scene. Yes, I was scared. I ran out of the room when the Grady twins showed up. I loved the music and the weird cold sinister framing. The shot of the axe hacking through the door with Wendy’s face in the background stuck with me. I still think that’s the single greatest shot in the horror genre.
What did you think of the differences between the book and Kubrick’s film? Do directors have an obligation to remain loyal to the original material?
I love Stephen King. Along with Revolutionary Road and Light Years, The Shining is one of the greatest novels ever written about marriage. But I think the Kubrick version is as good as or better than the novel. And no, directors and screenwriters don’t need to adhere to the source material. A movie is its own thing. The best novel-to-film adaptations depart wildly from the novels.
What is your favorite scene from The Shining and why does it stand out to you?
The “give me the bat” scene is my favorite. He’s really savoring and relishing the moment in this just insane terrifying way. It’s like he’s been waiting to behave this way toward her for years. When I was a kid I made my Legos do that scene. I also love the scene where Danny goes in the bedroom when Jack is supposed to be asleep and Jack says in like the most menacing distant voice possible that he would never hurt him. It’s just the most chilling father-son bonding moment of all time.
The Shining received a lot of bad reviews when it was released as did Friday the 13th two weeks before it. What are your overall thoughts on mainstream critics who review horror films?
Well, we can’t segregate critics by genre. And who cares? The Shining and Friday the 13th left a footprint and reviews wash away.
What’s the best horror movie that you’ve ever seen, or the best that people don’t necessarily talk or know about?
The Shining is the best horror movie I’ve ever seen. Besides that, Night of the Living Dead, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Lost Highway, and It Follows are the best. As for ones people don’t talk about, I love the original The Vanishing.
Where do you stand in the battle of franchises? Was it Friday the 13th, or did you also feel a connection with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre… none of the above?
I feel a connection to all of them. And let’s not forget Child’s Play. Out of all those movies and sequels, the two stand-alone masterpieces are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, and all the others are varying degrees of fun. But the iconography transcends any one movie. It’s the hockey mask and chainsaw and burn scars that stick. It’s not a battle of the franchises, it’s a family of American bogeymen (and one killer doll).
Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, Directors of Starry Eyes
What would you be willing to trade for fame and fortune? That’s what writers and directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer examined in their 2014 blood-soaked thriller “Starry Eyes,” which starred Alex Essoe as an actress who signs an unholy pact to make it big in show business. Earlier this year, it was announced that Kolsch and Widmyer would next be taking part in the horror anthology “Holidays,” as they’ll be directing the Valentine’s Day segment. That is sure to be romantic.
When was the first time you saw The Shining?
Dennis: I think the first time I saw The Shining, I was probably about 13 or 14. I think I was home alone for the afternoon and/or I had seen it already on HBO and it scared the piss out of me because of the twins. I remember I was scared to come back to it, so I sort of challenged myself to see if I could watch it alone. My mom was either outside somewhere or I was in the house alone. And I watched it again — it’s so cliché but it was a rainy day and very grey, a creepy day, and I watched it again to see if I could get through it. I think I did but it was one of those movies that always scared me as a young kid because, I would say, it was one of the most frightening films I saw at that time — still is one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. But that image of the twins standing in the hallway, to this day it’s one of the scariest things I’ve seen in film and as a kid it really got to me.
Kevin: For me it’s a situation of, if you grew up kind of where me and Dennis did and had older siblings or friends with older siblings and things like HBO and whatnot, I think there’s not a first time you necessarily see movies. You’re a kid flipping through the channels and you land on something you know you’re not supposed to be on, and you watch part of it or you walk into the room and your older sibling is watching something and you’re not supposed to. When we were growing up, I remember vividly with a lot of Stephen King adaptations for some reason, I remember it happening with Carrie, I remember watching from another room as my older siblings are watching Carrie and watching the ending of that and going, “Ohhh.”
With The Shining it actually happened at a friend’s house when his older siblings were watching it, and I caught the scene where Jack goes into room 237 and sees the woman and turns into the old woman with the sores on her back. I remember seeing that as a kid, and it was unnerving to me and it wasn’t just that I was seeing this older woman. Even at the time Kubrick’s set design, his score, everything worked together. I couldn’t put it into words back then but I knew something was unnerving and bothersome about it. Maybe even before I saw the movie whole I just had a mark in my head as this thing that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch again, because I remember being so scared of what I saw as a kid. Then when I was a bit older and getting into film and branching out and seeing things other than what you’re seeing in the mainstream cinema at the time and seeing other directors, I went back and watched it again and saw it through new eyes. That was basically the first time watching it fully.
Have either of you read the book? Was there any aspect from the book you wish had been included?
Dennis: I read it many years after I saw it, probably 15 years after the first time I saw it. It was a good time to visit it for the first time, because by then I had already seen the movie to where I was able to distance myself from it and see what the original source material was. And I think they’re perfect counters to each other. I like the fact that the movie is pretty different from the book in a lot of respects. And I think it’s one of Stephen King’s best books.
Kevin: I read the book after the movie as well and I think it’s one of those situations where, and I know what Dennis is saying about perfect counters, the book definitely stands on its own for its own thing, so I don’t want to sound like I’m putting the book down, but I was always used to reading the book first then seeing the movie and a lot of the King adaptations back in the day were iffy. I remember reading the book after seeing this movie that was done by a master filmmaker and just going like… yeah. I feel it’s one of the first times when I actually think the movie was better. I started reading the book and it was things with the hedge animals that moved, and King always writes well where he can take things and make it work, but when I was reading moving lawn sculptures after having seen what Kubrick did with the maze and how terrifying it was, it almost felt silly to me. I really stick by the changes that he made.
You both mentioned scenes that stuck with you at kids that freaked you out. But when you revisited the film, saw it completely, what became your favorite scene?
Dennis: Ironically, the first scene that scared the crap out of me was the twins. The scene that scared Kevin the most is now my favorite scene, the room 237 scene is pretty great. It’s also pretty great in the book. In the book you actually see Danny’s scene, whereas the movie subverts that and you actually see Jack do it instead, which I thought was interesting. The movie, in a lot of ways, is more about Jack than the book is. The book is more about Danny. But that scene, just the way the score sounds like a backwards heartbeat on a vinyl record that is skipping. If you turned the TV off and just listened to the score of that scene, it’s very hypnotic and unnerving and just gets under your skin. But the way it plays out, and the way it’s framed, the color of the bathtub, the way they make it look on the woman’s back, the way it’s revealed in the mirror, Jack’s reaction to it, probably one of the best scenes in the movie, for me.
Kevin: I don’t know if I have a specific favorite scene. When I watch it now, it’s some of the techniques. Like the use of Steadicam, being one of the earlier movies where that was used. When I was a kid, it was more like scenes like that stuck out, where it bothered me because I saw it at a young age. Now when I watch it it’s like I’m just really impressed by the filmmaking that’s on display. It’s really masterfully done.
Did you see the documentary Room 237? What do you think of all the different theories people have about The Shining?
Dennis: We’ve definitely both seen it and the guy who did the score for that, Jonathan Snipes, worked with us on Starry Eyes, he was our composer. So, we have some connection to that film. I think it’s fun. I think it’s one of the reasons that people love movies so much. It’s the type of thing that you could spend an entire night at a diner discussing. Like great artwork. I think sometimes people go a little too far. It can be a little grating or annoying, but I think that was the point of that documentary. It was illuminating how far people could take theories like this. You only want to go so far with it, but it’s sometimes the most fun about a movie, unpacking the layers of the film and what the filmmakers are trying to hide there through the subtext.
Kevin: I was really excited to see the movie because I love The Shining and I find some of those conspiracies theories fun. Like Kubrick directed the moon landing and this is his confessional piece. I thought that was a fun idea and I thought, I can’t wait to hear this. But I thought a lot of the arguments weren’t even that compelling and were kind of a stretch. If they had said some of these things and they were really things I didn’t notice in The Shining I would think, okay I don’t buy that but it really does do that. But some of the theories were just like, when people are just picking little things in the background, reading completely into it, and there’s tons of other stuff in the movie that negates their theory and it felt very far-fetched. I couldn’t subscribe to it, even for entertaining the idea for fun’s sake.
Jerome Sable and Nicholas Musurca, Director and Editor of Stage Fright
Starring Allie MacDonald, Meat Loaf, and Minnie Driver, the 2014 musical slasher “Stage Fright” marked the directorial debut of Jerome Sable. It’s certainly one of the more creative and ridiculous horror films that you’ll watch, and you’ll get an idea of how this movie came together reading Sable and editor Nicholas Musurca talk about “The Shining” and their wild new idea for a horror film (that we would 100 percent watch).
What are some of the films that you’ve been influenced by in your work in horror? Is there a style that you prefer to work with or are you more focused on creating your own style?
Nick: I should warn you that Jerome doesn’t actually watch a lot of movies—
Jerome: Hey now. I’ve seen quite a few in my day.
Nick: A “Fraggle Rock” marathon doesn’t count as a movie.
Jerome: Fine, well I may not have the whole Criteria collection like you–
Nick: It’s “Criterion—”
Jerome: But I have seen at least a couple movies. I’m sure of it.
When was the first time you saw The Shining? What was your initial personal review of the film? Did it succeed in scaring you?
Jerome: This may surprise you, Nick, but I have actually seen that movie. In fact, I saw it in the theater when it first came out. I remember going to it with my mom, and absolutely loving it. Totally scared the shit out of me, especially because of the relationship I had with my mom at the time.
Nick: Okay. That’s a little weird.
Jerome: I loved his performance and particularly how committed he was to his craft, despite all those obstacles getting in his way. It really spoke to me.
Nick: Who, exactly, did you identify with in the movie?
Jerome: The main character. Who else? He’s the one who has to sit there and actually do the work. That kind of thing takes focus, and talent, you can’t be distracted.
What is your favorite scene from The Shining and why does it stand out to you?
Jerome: Definitely the famous one, you know, when he’s feeling all that pressure, working away, and he feels all those eyes watching him, his hands working furiously, his mind racing, and then BANG—that blow to his head, and he’s never again the same. Tragic.
Nick: So you feel bad for him after he gets hit in the head?
Jerome: Have you ever bumped your head on a piano like that? I have, and it hurts.
Nick: He doesn’t hit his head on a piano in The Shining. Shelley Duvall hits him with a baseball bat.
Jerome: Who’s Shelley Duvall?
Nick: Wait—are you talking about the movie Shine? With Geoffrey Rush? The biopic about mentally ill concert pianist David Helfgott?
Jerome: Oh. Hmm… I guess I’ve never seen The Shining. Hold on–
[tape goes silent for 3 hours]
Jerome: Wow. Okay. I see where I went wrong now. Can I change some of my answers?
Nick: Let’s just move on.
What did you think of the differences between the book and film? Did the differenes affect the way that you viewed the film? Do you think directors, in any genre, should adhere to the original material or should they be allowed to take some liberties?
Jerome: Nick’s probably read it. He reads.
Nick: I did actually. It’s good, but like Jodorowsky said when he was adapting “Dune,” by Frank Herbert: the best thing is for a filmmaker to “rape the author–but with love.”
Jerome: I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just say that.
Nick: It’s a metaphor.
Jerome: Well, I’m blowing my metaphor whistle and saying, “next question.”
If a studio called you up and said, “We want you to remake The Shining,” would you take the job? What if that studio told you that you could make The Shining 2, what would your story be?
Jerome: Off the top of my head? Here goes: Steven Spielberg finds Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished script for The Shining Part 2, and decides that he’s the only one who can complete the project. He immediately attaches beloved A.I. star Haley Joel Osmont and heads off to an isolated hotel to write.
Nick: And his nagging wife Kate Capshaw tags along for the free vacation, claiming she’ll totally “let him work”?
Jerome: Even better–there’s an old man already at the hotel who cuts off his legs and stuffs him in a walrus suit, and now the only person who knew where he was and what he was up to—
Nick: —is Haley Joel Osmont, who’s actually having an affair with Kate Capshaw—
Jerome: YES, and now they have to find him and rescue him. But they get there too late, and now Steven Spielberg is a walrus forever.
Nick: Wait a minute—
Nick: This is really good. We should make this.
Jerome: You see? It’s like I tell you: sometimes the best way to make a movie is to just riff off the top of your head, and then never, ever revise it.
The Shining received a lot of bad reviews when it was released, as did Friday the 13th two weeks before it. What are your thoughts on mainstream critics who review horror films?
Nick: I think the scarier thing would be if horror filmmakers started looking for validation from mainstream critics. Good horror exposes repression and taboo in a way that should make audiences uncomfortable. If a horror movie is reviewed favorably by the New York Times, for instance, I think that’s a pretty strong indication that it’s not a very good horror movie.
Jerome: So you’re saying that you want the New York Times to give us a bad review.
Nick: I’m not exactly saying that—
Jerome: Well, careful what you wish for, because we got one right here for Stage Fright. BOOM. Here it is. Congrats, buddy. Frame it and hang it above your bed. Oh wait, I forgot—you can’t, because you already have that huge poster of David Bordwell with his shirt off.
Nick: Don’t be ridiculous. That poster’s over my couch. Over my bed is the one with Laura Mulvey leering at me.
What’s the best horror movie that you’ve ever seen? What’s the best horror movie that you’ve ever seen that people don’t necessarily talk or know about?
Jerome: Well, that’s kind of a trick question, isn’t it? Because if I say it, then people will know about it.
Nick: That’s the point. We’re here to share.
Jerome: No, because it’s MY obscure movie. If other people watch it, what am I going to say in the next interview?
Nick: Are you going to tell me at least?
Jerome: Don’t trust you.
Nick: It’s probably just some shitty Canadian movie.
Jerome: It’s not! It’s–
[Jerome whispers something in Nick’s ear]
Nick: The Gate??
Jerome: Fuck you. Please don’t print this.
Nick: The Gate IS a shitty Canadian movie.
Jerome: Are you kidding? Very scary, great practical effects, AND it stars a young Stephen Dorff.
Nick: When was the last time you saw The Gate?
Jerome: When I was 7. In the theatre, with my mom. Can we move on, please?
Where do you stand in the classic battle of franchises? What do you think about the news that Friday the 13th is being resurrected again for 2016? Should the classic franchises keep slashing away or is it time for some new blood?
Nick: I think what we need is more franchise mash-ups. They’ve already done Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator—
Jerome: —which were great—
Nick: So why not expand outside of the horror world? I’d like to see Leatherface versus Larry David. I honestly don’t know who would win.
Jerome: Or Michael Myers versus Mike Myers. We need to settle that once and for all.
Nick: And why do they have to fight? Maybe they should work together like the Avengers–
Jerome: Stop right there. Holy shit. Yes. Don’t say another word. Sorry, we have to go. We have a movie to write.