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‘The Shining’ Debuted on This Day 40 Years Ago, but Critics Tore the Masterpiece to Shreds

Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece celebrates its 40th anniversary on May 23, but its legacy wasn't certain when the movie first opened.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1635823a)The Shining, Jack NicholsonFilm and Television

“The Shining”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

May 23 marks the 40th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and while today it may be hard to dispute its masterpiece status, the Stephen King adaptation did not satisfy critics in 1980. Sure, the movie has spawned countless imitations and parodies, the sequel “Doctor Sleep,” and even an entire documentary centered on its many obsessives and their far-fetched close reads with “Room 237.” But its legacy wasn’t certain when Warner Bros. opened the movie, which went on to earn two Razzie Awards at the first ceremony in 1981. Author King has famously derided the Kubrick adaptation as “misogynistic” and “cold,” but he did give his stamp of approval for “Doctor Sleep” last year. Here’s a sample of what first reviews for “The Shining” had to say in 1980.

“Though we may admire the effects, we’re never drawn in by them, mesmerized. When we see a flash of bloody cadavers or observe a torrent of blood pouring from an elevator, we’re not frightened, because Kubrick’s absorption in film technology distances us,” wrote The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.

“I can’t help thinking that the Stephen King original, with its spook-ridden, other-worldly junketings, gets in the way of Kubrick’s grim vision, finally cheapening and distorting it,” wrote Derek Malcolm for The Guardian. “The genre within which the film is cast exerts too great a price. Nicholson’s performance, even if deliberately over the top, still shouldn’t encourage as much laughter as fear. Nor should the final twists of the plot look so illogical. If ‘The Shining’ isn’t trivial, it certainly encourages one to think that it is.”

This pan from Variety, meanwhile, is just plain rude: “The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.”

“Kubrick is after a cool, sunlit vision of hell, born in the bosom of the nuclear family, but his imagery — with its compulsive symmetry and brightness — is too banal to sustain interest, while the incredibly slack narrative line forestalls suspense,” wrote Dave Kehr in Chicago Reader.

For The Washington Post, Gary Arnold took issue with the film’s famously expensive and lengthy shoot — par for the course for a Kubrick film, but he notoriously wore Shelley Duvall down to a nub to elicit her frittered performance. “I can’t recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie. You might say that ‘The Shining,’ opening today at area theaters, has no peers: Few directors achieve the treacherous luxury of spending five years (and $12 million-$15 million) on such a peerlessly wrongheaded finished product,” Arnold wrote.

And here’s this one from Kevin Thomas for the Los Angeles Times: “There are moments so visually stunning only a Kubrick could pull them off, yet the film is too grandiose to be the jolter that horror pictures are expected to be. Both those expecting significance from Kubrick and those merely looking for a good scare may be equally disappointed.”

Still, despite pessimistic reviews, “The Shining” opened big for Warners, grossing $626,000 in just 10 theaters in its first four days, according to the AFI Catalog. That’s the equivalent to about $2 million today. While it mystified many critics at first — a phenomenon Kubrick was never a stranger to — even Roger Ebert, initially dismissive of the movie, came back around with a four-star Great Movies review in 2006.

“The Shining” is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.

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