It's hard to believe that back in the summer of 1980, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining was a "failure" on many levels. I still vaguely recall the critics and moviegoers complaining about the film - that it wasn't scary; that the acting was over the top; that it was too long. Stephen King even killed the movie in the press when it was released.
But to me, the trailer just scared the shit out of my 12 year-old self. I wanted to see it. Bad. That low tracking shot of Nicholson in semi-profile, limping through the snow with an axe, chasing after his little boy, was enough to give me nightmares for a week. That's still one of my favorite images from any movie, ever.
I never did see The Shining during its theatrical run; my parents wouldn't allow it. Ironically, they did let me see The Amityville Horror the prior year, and Poltergeist a couple years later - two other films dealing with supernatural events tearing at the family unit. Kubrick's film seemed reviled upon its release. No one really championed it, and few wanted to see it.
I finally saw it on a pay TV channel called ON-TV a year later and, not surprisingly, I fell in love with it. Curiously, I was most drawn to the scene of Nicholson at the bar conversing with “Lloyd,” the bartender. I didn’t know much about acting back then, but I was fascinated with all the little things Nicholson was doing with his face, his eyes, and his hands. I could watch that scene over and over and still see new things going on. I still do.
I also really dug the various smooth tracking shots, which I later learned was accomplished with the Steadicam, operated by its inventor, Garrett Brown. But the music was what really sent me over the moon. It created a palpable mood and atmosphere. It was also an assault on the senses. I’d never heard music like that before - dissonant and beautiful; ominous and foreboding. Many years later, I tracked down Gordon Stainforth, the assistant editor who was instructed by Kubrick to create the sound montage that would become the soundtrack, along with cues written by composer Wendy Carlos. Here’s my interview with Stainforth.
The production of The Shining also fascinated me. I heard/read that it took two years to make; that Kubrick had his actors do 20, 30, 50 or more takes; that the entire interior of the hotel was a constructed set which burned down toward the end of production; that Kubrick edited his film after it had been released to theaters; that he wanted all home video releases of his flat (non-widescreen) films - including The Shining - presented in a 4:3 non-letterboxed “square” ratio. Etc., etc. Here’s a great site which answers pretty much any question you ever had about The Shining. If you're a fan, be careful, you'll be there a while!
Of course, the film is now considered a classic. Kubrick's films all have a way of gaining in reflection. I own the laserdisc, two different DVD releases, and now the Blu-ray, which for the first time presents The Shining in a 1.85:1 ratio in a glorious 1080P VC-1 encode and accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. I can’t really express how beautiful this film looks (and sounds) on Blu-ray. You can see the snow falling behind the blown out windows, lit by the late, great John Alcott; the small details in Nicholson’s jacket during the job interview; the texture of the Overlook Hotel’s walls. Wow.
Vivian Kubrick’s wonderful behind-the-scenes documentary, “Making ‘The Shining’” has been ported over from the last (good) DVD release from 2001, and there is just a wealth of stuff in the special features. More than one can imagine.
So is The Shining a horror film? A domestic tragedy? A black comedy? I’ve seen the film dozens of times and depending on my mood and/or state of mind, I find that the answer is…yes.
The Shining on Blu-ray is must-viewing this Halloween season.