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‘The Shining’ Anniversary: Stanley Kubrick & His Mysterious Classic

May 23 marks the 36th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” one of those rare works that wasn’t a huge hit when it opened but has grown into a movie classic.

Among its many fans is Lee Unkrich, the director of Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” and the upcoming “Coco,” who says it’s one of the reasons he was inspired to become a filmmaker.

Unkrich has been collecting memorabilia for years and decided to share it with other devotees, via TheOverlookHotel.com. Since the website’s debut several years ago, other admirers have shared things with him. There are now about 700 pieces online, including photos and notes on the film’s production, as well as work inspired by the movie: paintings, sculptures, songs, perfume, clothing, vinyl figures, a skateboard, even a gingerbread house re-creating the Overlook Hotel. The site also offers a few short films, such as “Wes Anderson’s The Shining,” a 75-second faux trailer by Steve Ramsden that brilliantly intercuts footage from the film with “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Unkrich continues to collect ephemera for an upcoming book on the making of the film, interviewing the surviving crew and cast members, and finding rare bits that had been stored away, “including some photos that have only been seen by eight pairs of eyes.”

In the Variety Archives, “The Shining” was first mentioned as a possible Kubrick project in January 1977, the same month that Stephen King’s novel debuted. Anticipation was high, since Kubrick was a source of fascination for the industry and King was hot from his two earlier novels, “Carrie” (a hit film in 1976) and “Salem’s Lot.”

On June 22, 1977, Elstree Studios boss Andrew Mitchell told Variety that the film would lense there. Mitchell said studio lensing was making a comeback, thanks to “the astronomical cost of making a big film entirely on location,” and he said the trend was boosted by the success of the Elstree-shot “Star Wars.” “The Shining” used four of Elstree’s nine stages, and the studio’s outdoor street scene, used in many movies, was bulldozed to create a “mysterious hotel” on the site.

On Jan. 5, 1978, Jack Nicholson told Variety’s Army Archerd that he expected six months of shooting, because a young actor’s hours are strictly limited by British law. (Danny Lloyd, the five-year-old unknown, wasn’t mentioned by name at that point.) As it turned out, the filming went way beyond that. A fire in January 1979 ruined one of the sets, causing an estimated $2.5 million to rebuild. It also delayed the pic’s wrap until mid-March; Shelley Duvall said she spent 13 months working on “Shining.” The editing took another year. Variety reported that its final production cost was $18 million, double its original budget.

When Warner Bros. launched the film in 1980, reaction was mixed. Variety’s Jim Harwood was one of the most negative reviewers, saying “Stanley Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller”; he lamented the performances of both lead actors, but saved most of his dismay for the filmmaker.

Some, like Harwood, were disappointed that it strayed from King’s book; the novelist also was vocal in his disappointment. But Unkrich says, “Stanley used the novel as a springboard. You can’t look at it as an adaptation. They’re in the same airspace, but the characters are so different.” King wrote about a normal family that began slowly disintegrating; Kubrick showed a family that was a ticking time-bomb of dysfunction from the very start. Over the years, fans have grown to love the performances of Nicholson and Duvall for the same reasons they were criticized in 1980.

“The Shining” ended up No. 14 at the domestic box office that year, taking in $44 million. That was okay, but less than the $60 million for “The Omen” (1976), $47 million for “Halloween” (1978, which was made at a fraction of Kubrick’s budget) and $81 million for “Alien” (1979). All of them paled beside Warner Bros.’ 1973 phenomenon “The Exorcist,” which earned over $230 million domestically.

Kubrick (who died March 7, 1999, at age 70) made only 13 feature films, including “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” However, “The Shining” remains his most mainstream and most widely seen, with frequent screenings on TV and in revival houses.

Virtually all of Kubrick’s films initially befuddled audiences and critics. Each was so different from Kubrick’s previous films that people weren’t sure what to expect, but were still thrown. In addition, his films take time and multiple viewings.

Kubrick was such a master that he was generally given latitude to make the film he wanted, even if it went over budget and over schedule. And because he included quirky details in each film, they are open to multiple interpretations.

Some consider “The Shining” as the ultimate scary film. Others think it’s a dark-black comedy: In a decade filled with horror films about crazy slashers, killer sharks and sci-fi monsters, Kubrick was saying that the true terror is spending time with your family.

And there are many extreme, personal interpretations of “The Shining” — that it’s a metaphor for the Holocaust, the Native-American genocide, or an apology for the 1969 moon landing, for example; they’re explored in Rodney Ascher’s entertaining 2012 docu “Room 237.” However, Unkrich avoids them in his website and book; he’s interested in the making of the film from a historic and artistic perspective, and in the film’s impact on filmmakers and artists.

Unkrich also points out that all of Kubrick’s films are filled with enigmas and unanswered questions: “I don’t know if even Stanley could tell you what the film was about.” However, Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson discussed Sigmund Freud’s essay on the uncanny, which concerns a feeling of disorientation because things seem familiar yet incongruous. The writers used some of those ideas — e.g., repetition, mirrors, twins, the recurrence of seemingly random numbers and the concept of retracing one’s steps.

“I think he was interested in evoking a feeling of the uncanny in the audience with a lot of choices he made, in terms of visual design, costumes, music, everything,” says Unkrich. Kubrick was also a big fan of “The Exorcist” and the ways William Friedkin got under the skin of audiences, in terms of sound design, music and brief, almost subliminal edits.

In the book, “shining” is described as a special talent, including the ability to see the future. On the website (designed by Roger Erik Tinch), there is a syndicated column by Marilyn Beck from 1980, a few weeks after the film opened. Nicholson expressed surprise at the negative reviews and predicted that the film would become profitable and someday be considered a classic. So apparently Nicholson has the shining himself, at least where the film is concerned.

Visit VarietyUltimate.com for every issue of Variety starting in 1906. Educational and research institutions, please call 323-617-9555.

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