“A Bloody Bore and Embarrassment of the First Magnitude”: What Critics Said About ‘The Shining’ in 1980
Posted on Tuesday, November 5th, 2019 by Matthew Monagle
(Welcome to The Film Historiography, a series that explores the initial reactions to important, iconic, and memorable films.)
“Writing about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which is now playing at the Capitol Theater, is a lot like writing about God or politics. Everybody’s doing it.” – Vivi Mannuzza, The Berkshire Eagle
In the late 1970s, Stanley Kubrick set out to make the “ultimate horror film.” Bringing together his mastery of cinema as an artform – and working from a much-beloved Stephen King novel – Kubrick labored to bring to the screen The Shining, the now-iconic horror film about isolation, domestic violence, and the bad places in the world that call to broken people. Fans flocked to see the film, which diverged early and often from King’s novel; disappointed by the Kubrick’s creative liberties with the novel, The Shining labored as an arthouse curio for years before finally earning its place atop the modern horror canon.
As far as historiographies goes, it’s mostly true. Kubrick may indeed have set out to create the “ultimate horror film” – though that phrase seems more directly attributable to a May 1980 Newsweek article hyping the film than any direct quote from Kubrick himself – but he did so at a time when both horror and Stephen King were capturing the imagination of mainstream audiences everywhere. Hollywood was still adjusting to a new wave of horror films like Halloween (1978), The Amityville Horror (1979), and Alien (1979), and Kubrick’s meticulous shot construction and melodramatic character work seemed at odds with the naturalistic direction of the genre.
These were the threads that regional film critics were running with when The Shining hit theaters in May 1980. While the overarching narrative remains the same – it was underappreciated, it was misunderstood – the reasons for this are rooted in these cultural touchpoints of the era. As we look forward to Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, a sequel to both Kubrick and King’s versions of The Shining, it’s worth looking back at the critics and the conversations that helped shape the film’s legacy for the next 30 years.