Inspiring devotion, imitation and obsession in equal measure, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining inarguably stands as one of the most influential, intelligent and technically superb examples of post-war American horror cinema. From its spellbinding opening sequence through to its gnomic final shot, The Shining eschews the usual bumps and jumps that are the standard stock in trade of horror, and instead creates a mood of ambiguity and paranoia, planting seeds of doubt and uncertainty that linger long after the final credits have rolled.
Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s recently crowned masterpiece, Vertigo, Kubrick’s film did not find favour on its original release, with many in the wider critical community sniffily concluding that ‘a silly ghost story’ was beneath the talents of the director.
This was reflected in The Shining becoming the only one of Kubrick’s post 1960s films not to receive a single Oscar or Golden Globe nomination in any category. In fact, The Shining’s most significant piece of contemporary recognition was to earn the filmmaker a nomination for Worst Director at the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards in 1981.
This was all a long way from Kubrick’s stated intention when he launched himself into the project back in the late 70s after the commercial and critical failure of his classic costume drama, Barry Lyndon. Claiming his interest in making the movie was fired by reading the galleys of the novel and his own fascination with the concept of ESP, Kubrick was also aware of the commercial advantages that horror offered.
The mainstream success of films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen had shown the genre was amenable to a more grounded and personal style of filmmaking, while it was certainly no bad idea to hitch oneself to the rising star that was Stephen King.
A confirmed admirer of Friedkin and Polanski’s films, Kubrick was also heavily influenced by David Lynch’s 1977 debut feature, Eraserhead. A brilliantly surreal portrait of urban isolation and familial dysfunction, Eraserhead’s stunning use of sound and evocative camera moves made a big impression on Kubrick, and he screened Lynch’s film for cast and crew to communicate the mood he was trying to achieve with The Shining.
Key to establishing that mood was Kubrick and production designer Roy Walker’s construction of the Overlook Hotel interior at the EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood. Magnificently lit by director of photography John Alcott, the sets created a vast and seamless virtual world that appears to be perpetually bathed in bright, white light. There are no dark corners in the hotel. No obvious places to hide. No traditional gothic horror trappings to fall back on.
Also aiding this disquieting sense of space and size was the film’s pioneering use of Steadicam. One of the first movies to use this new technique, the floating, disembodied camerawork was initially intended to only make up a small portion of the film, but its use grew considerably during the almost year-long production.
In typical Kubrick fashion, the director worked closely with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, and together they came up with a new ‘low mode’ bracket for the camera. Allowing Kubrick to shoot much closer to the floor than had previously been possible, several of the film’s signature sequences – including Danny’s iconic race around the Overlook’s corridors on his tricycle – ended up being filmed using this particular set-up.
As was typical on a Kubrick film, the shoot itself was arduous and fraught, with the director famously clashing with leading lady Shelley Duvall over her more improvisational approach to acting. The tension became so bad that Duvall fell ill for months during the production and her hair began to fall out due to the stress of working with the director.
Relations were similarly tense with star Jack Nicholson, who would also cross swords with the perfectionist director over his propensity for dozens of takes. Riling Nicholson further was Kubrick’s habit of lighting scenes with the lead actors rather than stand-ins, requiring him to be on set for far longer than was necessary, while the constantly evolving script meant that the cast had little time to learn their lines.
But Kubrick’s issues with his creative partners weren’t just confined to his onscreen collaborators. The director’s relationship with author King was famously tense, with Kubrick rejecting King’s initial screenplay adaptation and replacing him on the project with novelist Diane Johnson.
Perhaps by way of retaliation, King was famously dismissive of Kubrick’s casting of Jack Nicholson as struggling writer Jack Torrance, instead favouring the casting of Richard Dreyfuss in the lead role. This enmity continued long after the film’s release, with King falling foul of the reclusive director in the late 1990s when Kubrick refused permission for King’s own, less than successful TV remake of The Shining to be released on home video.
With production finally wrapping on The Shining in April 1979, Kubrick then set to work with editor Ray Lovejoy on shaping the film for its US release the following summer. Settling on a 146 minute cut of the film, this version of the film was premiered to the press and went on general release in the US on May 23rd 1980. However, one week into its run, Kubrick chose to cut a scene from the film’s conclusion, which resulted in a run time of 144 minutes.
While this truncated cut continued to play in US theatres, when the film was released in Europe during the autumn of 1980, Kubrick had again trimmed the film back to a lean 119 minutes. This version completely excised characters played by actors Tony Burton and Anne Jackson from the film, but significantly tightened both the beginning and end of the picture.
Finally grossing just over $44 million on a $19 million budget, The Shining was a moderate commercial success during its theatrical run, but was on the whole seen as a disappointment by audiences and critics alike. However, much like the previously mentioned Vertigo, The Shining’s influence and reputation grew with the advent of home video, and since the 1990s, has been rightly reappraised as a genre classic.
In 2002, critics Jonathan Romney and Kim Newman both placed the film in their BFI Top Ten list of all time, while in 2006 Roger Ebert placed it in his series of Great Movie reviews. No less an authority than Martin Scorsese has named The Shining as one of his eleven scariest films of all time, while David Lynch himself has frequently cited it as one of his own personal favourites. But it’s in the broader popular culture where The Shining has made the biggest impact, with the strangled repetition of “Redrum” and Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” routine being parodied, homaged and sampled by all comers.
Its influence on other filmmakers has also been immense, with Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent There Will Be Blood and The Master all owing a huge debt to the atonal and moody brilliance of Kubrick’s work on The Shining.
Perhaps the most high profile devotee of the film is Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich. A seemingly unlikely candidate, Unkrich has been an obsessive fan of The Shining for many years, even going so far as to launching his own brilliantly detailed fansite, The Overlook Hotel.
This fan obsession has not just been limited to websites, blogs and magazine retrospective pieces – later this year, Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk’s eagerly awaited documentary Room 237 finally hits cinema screens. Taking an in-depth look at the numerous theories floating around about the movie’s various supposed hidden meanings, Room 237 is perhaps the ultimate expression of The Shining’s enduring appeal.
However, most highly anticipated of all is the BFI’s Halloween re-release of the US cut of The Shining. Finally coming to UK screens for a limited run to promote its release on DVD and Blu-ray, the extended cut is a stranger, darker and altogether more unsettling experience than the original European cut.
Adding a modicum of extra explanatory material, this extended cut manages the unenviable feat of obfuscating the truth about the Overlook Hotel even more, making the conclusion even more ambiguous and yet thoroughly satisfying.
Between The Shining’s release in 1980 and his death in 1999, Kubrick only completed two more features, the interesting and intermittently breathtaking duopoly of Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. However, despite the undoubted merits of those two films, it’s The Shining that stands as the last great film of Kubrick’s career.
Now rightly heralded as a masterpiece, this belated re release offers fans of film in all its forms a welcome, and sadly all too rare, chance to engage with that most cinematic of filmmakers in the arena where his work truly makes the most sense: up on the big-screen.
The BFI will screen The Shining extended cut on the 31st October, ahead of its wider release on the 2nd November.
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