This Month in Horror: May 1980

May 1980 was a HUGE month for horror. Two films – one a scrappy, low-budget independent, the other a big-studio blockbuster helmed by a major director – were released to theaters, and both now hold an esteemed place in the pop-culture canon. In other news, a made-for-TV “mummy” movie made its less-than-esteemed debut, and a founding member of one of the premiere rock bands of the 1970s departed the group after allegations of severe drug abuse. Inside you’ll get a brief history lesson thanks to Chris Eggertsen.

Period song to take you back:

“Shandi” by Kiss

Album/Release Date: Unmasked/May 20, 1980

Movies

Film: The Shining

Release Date: May 23, 1980

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Box-office Gross (Domestic): $44 million

The Plot: Frustrated novelist Jack Torrance takes a job as winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, where the spirits haunting the place slowly drive him to murderous insanity and cause his psychic young son to experience terrifying visions.

Production & Reception: After Barry Lyndon‘s lukewarm box-office reception in 1975, director Stanley Kubrick set out to make a more commercial project for his next film and settled on adapting Stephen King’s blockbuster novel The Shining for the screen. While King penned an early, more book-faithful draft of the screenplay, it was ultimately rejected by Kubrick, who then set about co-writing the adaptation with novelist Diane Johnson (who, incidentally, has no other screenwriting credits to her name). Upon completion, the production went about building enormous interior and exterior hotel sets at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, England, where the majority of the movie was filmed.

The casting process was perhaps the first sign of major tension between Kubrick and King, when Kubrick insisted on casting Jack Nicholson in the lead despite King’s feeling he was not right for the part. The casting of Duvall, too, presented a point of contention, as she deviated strongly from King’s interpretation of the character as a more resilient and capable woman. Nevertheless, the director’s wildly different vision for the characters – and, as it would turn out, the film as a whole – ultimately won out over the author’s more book-faithful leanings.

Typical of a Kubrick production, the shoot in total took over a year to complete, with the fastidious director demanding dozens of takes for nearly every scene (including a reported 148 takes for a dialogue exchange between Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers’ characters). Arguably, the toll of the production was hardest on Shelley Duvall, who was famously bullied by Kubrick during filming (see “Making of” video below); the director even went so far as to order others on set not to show her any sympathy. The actress has since gone on to acknowledge this treatment was key to the effectiveness of her piercingly volatile performance, but has also stated that she would never want to go through the experience again.

Released on only ten screens on May 23, 1980, the film grossed over $600,000 its first weekend before going wide a week later. Interestingly, the prints shown in this first week included a late-third act hospital scene – following the chase sequence through the hedge maze and prior to the famous final Steadicam shot down the hallway towards the B&W photograph – that Kubrick decided to cut before the film’s wide release. While the film started slow and was far from a runaway success, it ended its run with slightly more than $44 million in box-office receipts off a budget of around $20 million, a disappointing though not disastrous total.

The reviews were decidedly mixed, with top critics like Roger Ebert and Variety in particular giving the film a poor appraisal. And while it’s hard to believe now, the film even received two Razzie Nominations – one for Stanley Kubrick for Worst Director (hysterical) and the other for Shelley Duvall for Worst Actress (a typically unfair assessment of her still severely underrated performance). Adding insult to injury, the film was the only one of Kubrick’s last nine films not to score either an Academy Award or Golden Globe nomination.

Legacy: Through the roof. While it should be noted that many of King’s fans (and King himself) still dislike the film for sharply deviating from the novel’s plot and characterizations, it has been viewed incredibly favorably in the decades since its release, and is now generally regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever produced. It was ranked #29 on AFI’s “100 Years…100 Thrills”, #1 on Channel 4’s list of the scariest films of all time, and #5 on Total Film’s. None other than Martin Scorsese named it one of the eleven scariest horror films ever, and on IMDB it comes in at #48 on the user-voted top 250 films. And its influence on the next generation of horror filmmakers is basically irrefutable; it is often cited as an inspiration by contemporary directors, including Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project), Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon), David Slade (30 Days of Night), and Brad Anderson (Session 9).

More than its A-list critical standing and enduring audience popularity, what truly puts The Shining over the top is its status as a frequently-utilized pop-cultural reference point. From being the frequent subject of parody and homage on television shows (The Simpsons and Family Guy) and countless other media, to quotes like “Redrum” and “Here’s Johnny!” becoming some of the most enduring cinematic catchphrases in American life (if not worldwide), The Shining is more than just a film – it’s a cultural landmark.

Part 1 of The Making of the Shining, filmed by Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian:

Film: Friday the 13th

Release Date: May 9, 1980

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Box-office Gross (Worldwide): $59.8 million

The Plot: A group of young camp counselors are stalked and murdered one-by-one by a mysterious killer.

Production & Reception: Sean S. Cunningham, who’d directed several minor films previously but was best known for producing Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left in 1972, set out to create a film that would capitalize on the massive success of Halloween and settled on the title Friday the 13th before a script had even been completed, even going so far as to place an ad in Variety with the now-famous “breaking-glass” logo from the opening credits. The script, under the working title “Long Night at Camp Blood”, was written by scribe Victor Miller (with uncredited contributions from Ron Kurz), who had previously penned the screenplay for Cunningham’s 1978 family comedy Manny’s Orphans.

With a skimpy budget of $550,000, Friday the 13th commenced shooting at an actual summer camp in New Jersey in September of 1979. Filming took place in already-existing structures, with the exception of the bathroom set where Marcie meets her gruesome end via an axe to the head. The only recognizable actors in the cast were film and T.V. veteran Betsy Palmer, who by her own admission only took the part of Pamela Voorhees because she was in dire need of a new car, and a young Kevin Bacon, who had previously enjoyed a supporting role in the massive comedy hit Animal House. The now-famous score was produced by composer Harry Manfredini, who himself voiced the most memorable portion (“ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”) into an echo reverberation machine to complete the desired effect. Tom Savini, who had previously worked on the George Romero films Martin and Dawn of the Dead, was hired to create the special makeup effects, which were an important part of the kill-heavy script.

Filming took place over a brisk 28 days, and after editing the film was shopped around to distributors, with Paramount ultimately buying the distribution rights for a cool $1.5 million after screening the film (a number undeniably goosed by the enormous box-office take of the similar Halloween less than two years before). Opening wide on May 9, 1980, the film grossed nearly $6 million in its first weekend, leading an ecstatic Paramount to put up another $500,000 for marketing expenses. It ultimately went on to gross nearly $40 million domestically, with its huge reception followed by a rare (for an independently-financed film) international release, where it would go on to gross an additional $20 million. All in all, Friday the 13th became an enormous commercial success, although it was generally lambasted by critics, with Siskel & Ebert devoting an entire show to badmouthing the film. Siskel even went so far as to publish Betsy Palmer’s home address and urged filmgoers to write to her and express their disgust.

Legacy: Like The Shining, Friday the 13th became a landmark film in the horror genre, but unlike Kubrick’s film this distinction was less a result of its artistic qualities than for its blockbuster commercial success. Cementing a trend that had begun with Halloween, the film not only spawned several hit sequels (not to mention a divisive 2009 remake) but a raft of copycats, starting what would become the “slasher boom” of the 1980s. Critically, the standing of the film has improved over time, although it enjoys nowhere near the artistic credibility of slashers like Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Indeed, since the film’s debut director Cunningham has generally been considered more an efficient copycat than a genuine auteur in his own right, as opposed to contemporaries like Carpenter, Craven, and Tobe Hooper.

However, where Friday the 13th does surpass other slasher franchises of the era, with the possible exception of A Nightmare on Elm Street, is its sheer ubiquity in popular culture. From that oft-lampooned Manfredini score, to the series’ endless array of fresh, attractive teenaged victims, to that iconic hockey mask worn by Jason Voorhees in the later installments, for better or worse the series’ blunt, efficient formula – more than any other of its type – came to define the slasher era, not to mention giving us one of the most recognizable movie villains in cinema history. It’s ironic, then, that both Cunningham and screenwriter Miller both initially decried the idea of Jason appearing in the sequels (lest we forget he was not the killer in the first film).

Television

Program: The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb (TV Movie)

Premiere: May 8, 1980 (Part 1)/May 9, 1980 (Part 2)

Network: NBC

Plot: After an archeological crew discovers King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt, they begin mysteriously dying off.

Production & Reception: This made-for-TV movie, directed by Philip Leacock and based on the book Behind the Mask of Tutankhamen by Barry Wynne, is a fictional account of Howard Carter’s real-life archeological expedition to open King Tut’s tomb in 1922 and the supposed “curse” that was visited upon some of those present in the intervening weeks, months and years. Carter here is played by British actor Robin Ellis, but the real story is that Raymond Burr, Eva Marie Saint, and Tom Baker (aka “Doctor Who”) appear in supporting roles.

Originally aired in two parts on two consecutive nights, the production itself became the subject of several news items when a number of strange occurrences (no doubt trumped up for publicity purposes) were said to have happened around the shoot. Actor Ian McShane, originally cast as Carter, had to be replaced when he was involved in a car accident and broke his leg prior to filming. Raymond Burr, playing an Arab villain, collapsed in the desert heat of Egypt and lapsed into a temporary coma after hitting his head on a chair in the fall. And Eva Marie Saint was reportedly almost electrocuted on set.

Legacy: More a curiosity than anything, and certainly a mere footnote in the careers of its biggest names (Burr, Saint and Baker), this TV movie has mostly been forgotten in the intervening years, although a more fantastical film of the same title starring Casper Van Dien was released straight-to-DVD in 2006 (though the names of the real-life characters were changed for that version).

Compilation of Tom Baker’s Scenes:

Headlines

Drummer Peter Criss Quits Kiss: Peter Criss (aka “Catman”), founding drummer and sometime lead vocalist of the band Kiss, was officially announced to have left the group on May 18, 1980, although his actual involvement with them had ceased months before. Criss in fact didn’t play a single note on that year’s Unmasked, despite appearing in the promotional video for the album’s first (and only) single “Shandi” and being credited in the liner notes.

While Criss maintained that he had quit the band, other members, particularly Gene Simmons, were quick to note that he’d been fired after years of heavy drug use and erratic behavior. Criss, who wrote and provided lead vocals on the band’s highest-charting single “Beth” (a demo of which was first recorded during a tenure in his pre-Kiss project Lips), would later embark on a failed solo career before donning the “Catman” makeup once again for the band’s highly-successful `96/’97 reunion tour. His relationship with the band continued to prove erratic, however, and his last official involvement with them was in 2004 following their “Rocksimus Maximus” Tour.