Few films have the power to truly haunt their audience in a way Stanley Kubrick's The Shining does, and continues to do, 30 years after its initial release. Like many of Kubrick's films, it received a relatively lukewarm reception upon initial release (Kubrick even received a Razzie nomination for Worst Director), with Variety and Roger Ebert both initially giving the film negative reviews.
Many fans of the Stephen King novel, upon which the film is based, were upset with Kubrick's fairly loose adaptation, while the film's languid pacing and relatively low body count ran contrary to the slasher flicks that were popular in 1980. The years have been kind to Kubrick's film, however, and it is now widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, sitting comfortably among the director's most beloved works.
There are some fans of the film, however, who appreciate more than its startling imagery, blood-curdling atmosphere and the deranged powerhouse performance by Jack Nicholson at the film's centre. Some believe that The Shining is riddled with hidden messages and deeper meanings that go way beyond its surface tale of isolation, obsession and even alcoholism. And this is where Rodney Ascher's delightfully bizarre documentary Room 237 comes in. A series of extended interviews with experts and obsessives of The Shining, the film, in some cases, pieces together fascinating arguements about symbolism clearly inherent in the film's make-up, while at other times appears to be indulging the absurd rantings of ridiculous obsessives willing to see meaning in almost anything.
The strength of Ascher's film is in its presentation, and its refusal to take sides with or against these closeted conspiracy theorists. Instead, the film simply unfolds with them imparting their knowledge, ideas and paranoid musings, intercut with the relevant moments from the film or footage from other films in Kubrick's oeuvre, used as illustrations or even reenactments when necessary. We are given little information about who each of Ascher's five "experts" are, rather allowing their testimonies to speak for themselves, and the results are by turns hilarious, revelatory and utterly bewildering - but always totally enthralling.
The theories themselves run the gamut from pointing out small details in the film's mise-en-scene to incredibly broad and sweeping gestures about Kubrick's past, the state of his marriage, and even his loyalty to his country. I'm reluctant to reveal the different accusations levelled at The Shining in any great detail, as half the fun of the film is not knowing where it is going to take you. However, in order to highlight the extremes to which Ascher goes - or allows his speakers to take us - I will reveal that at different stages in Room 237 Jack Torrance's (Jack Nicholson) sexuality is called into question along with that of hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), new importance is given to the tiny role of Barry Dennen's Bill Watson, and at one moment we are even asked to believe that Kubrick's own face actually appears in the cloud formations above the Overlook Hotel.
However, these moments are merely examples of late-night musings by bored stoners compared to the larger themes explored in Room 237. Most memorable, and probably the most believable of which is that Kubrick weaves a strong subtext into The Shining condemning the poor treatment of Native Americans by the first pilgrim settlers. Everything from a tin of baking soda to a poster adorning the rec room wall takes on new meaning in the hands of Ascher's conspiracy theorists, and knowing Kubrick's obsessive nature and attention to detail, it soon becomes impossible to dismiss this theory as merely a string of coincidences. The film's coup de grace however is best left unrevealed, suffice to say it ties together Danny's sweater, the patterns in the carpet, and Kubrick's previous collaborations with Douglas Trumbull into a jaw-dropping revelation that purports The Shining to be a single grand confession to his wife about a secret he was never able to reveal. Exactly what that secret is is best left for the film itself to expose.
Regardless of what you think of the theories and imagery being constantly pointed out in Ascher's film, there is no denying that the whole affair is extraordinarily entertaining - and the better you know Kubrick's film, the more you will get from the whole experience. It appears that many festivals are screening Ascher's film back to back with The Shining, and really this is the ideal way to watch it, as the minute Room 237 is over, you will be compelled to re-watch Kubrick's film, whether to marvel at "the impossible window" or realise for yourself the true importance of "Room No. 237". The result is a hilarious, mind-blowing, one-of-a-kind experience that is also one of the year's very best films.
(Review originally published during the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) in July 2012. The film will screen at TIFF today, and also on Saturday and Sunday. )