There is something of a perfect storm of artistry in 1980’s The Shining that more than accounts for that film’s widely held distinction as a classic. The novel was written by Stephen King, a guy even your great-grandmother’s skittish bridge partners recognize as a master of literary horror. The inevitable film adaptation was then directed by certified mad genius Stanley Kubrick. Anyone who’s seen the film, and there are probably a few, knows that eerie supernatural atmosphere and strikingly offsetting imagery abound. What may not be so ingrained in the collective consciousness is the legion of conspiracy theories surrounding The Shining. Rodney Ascher‘s documentary Room 237 seeks to shed light on these various conspiracies with the help of a host of unseen interviewees whose explanations are then diagrammed using footage of the celebrated horror film and other inserted images.
On the surface, hearing the name and digesting the premise of this doc, Room 237 offers extraordinary promise to genre fans. The idea of actual mysterious, ominous context to our favorite horror films somewhat legitimizes our fandom and presents the possibility of mining new scares out of movies we’ve undoubtedly watched enough times to have memorized forwards and backwards. In fact, Room 237 actually suggests a new, hidden meaning to The Shining exists in viewing it backwards and forwards simultaneously; one transparently laid over the other. This feat may be difficult to accomplish, but it exists in a realm of intrigue along with the age-old theory of listening to Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz. To top it off, Room 237 is underscored by some truly creepy music (including remixes of The Shining’s score), and snippets from other, less renowned horror films are used to emphasize the points made by the interviewed subjects; Lamberto Bava’s Demons, perpetually, for the win.
The problem is that a vast majority of the subjects featured in this doc are frustratingly confusing the word “conspiracy” with the word “subtext.” The filmmakers organize Room 237 into segments, one of which specifically refers to the nine conspiracies. But pointing out Kubrick’s subtle use of Native American motifs or tinges of Nazi Germany as an allusion to man’s inherent inclination toward genocide is not but an argument for The Shining’s subtext. All it really does is remind us why Kubrick was a brilliant artist who made films with densely layered narratives and painstakingly constructed visuals. But it’s as if these interviewees believe that the illustration of these nuances is tantamount to the unveiling of a major Hollywood mystery. This arrogance is confirmed by the subject who routinely spouts, “I uncovered this” and “I discovered that.” What it’s actually akin to is false advertising on the part of the documentary.
This convenient use of terminology would be wholly forgivable if the evidence offered for some of the more outlandish takes on The Shining were in any way well-founded. So often, the inexplicably self-assured subjects are dealing in nothing but half-truths and suppositions. They routinely present circumstantial evidence as incontrovertible fact. It’s laughable to the point of being an embarrassment. The best of this lot has to be the woman who insists the ski poster in the game room is actually the image of a minotaur…just because there wouldn’t be a ski poster there. Or perhaps the gentleman who freeze frames a scene in the office so that the hotel manager is standing beside his desktop document tray, and then proceeds to say, “well that’s clearly supposed to be a hard-on and this movie is all about sex.” Providing substantial support for one’s arguments and seeing what one wants to see are two entirely different things.
The one honest-to-goodness conspiracy explored in the movie is perhaps the most famous in American history: the faking of the moon landing. The story goes that the United States government hired Kubrick to falsify the Apollo 11 moon landing and that The Shining features many clues that act as surreptitious confessions from the director as to his involvement with this coverup. To the doc’s credit, this portion is among the most (if one of the only) fascinating aspects of the film. If you don’t subscribe to this theory, you most likely won’t be swayed by the evidence, but it’s spooky nonetheless.
The most aggravating issue plaguing Room 237 is it’s amateurish editing. So much of a director’s job on a documentary is to carefully assess the accumulated footage and sound bites and arrange them in such a way as best serves the material. Apparently, no one bothered to tell Ascher. There are such blatantly boneheaded flubs with the connectivity of visuals or quality of audio, that it makes it difficult to take seriously, especially in light of the already flimsy arguments.
For example, at one point you can clearly hear the son of one of the interviewees whining in the background so loudly that the interviewee actually acknowledges it. Ascher may find that charming, the rest of us are taken out of the otherwise serious tone of the film and left wishing the director believed in second takes. Kubrick would often do 20-30 takes of a single scene…just sayin’. Or how about the wild accusation made by one subject that Kubrick’s face is superimposed into an early scene in the film? We inch forward frame by frame in an anticipatory ascent toward that moment of revelation…only to cut to the next scene without ever seeing it. No matter how you slice it, that’s terrible editing.
The Upside: Digs into several of The Shining’s interesting stratum and reminds us that Kubrick was operating on another level as a filmmaker.
The Downside: The theories presented as often as silly as they are miserably supported and the editing leaves much to be desired.
On the Side: Fantastic Fest actually offered attendees the opportunity to view The Shining in the backwards and forwards format.