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.