Even though I tend not to believe most fan theories regarding hidden details and messages in certain classic films I have to appreciate the imagination and insight that goes into their creation. It’s amazing when your love of a movie inspires you to look at it again with a modestly skewed perspective to see what you may have missed before, and then to try and interpret what it all means. I may not buy into the theory that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon functions as an alternate soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz, but for every five people who are told that same theory for the first time at least one of them will sneak away from the others to their nearest Barnes & Noble to grab the Moon CD and Oz DVD so they can test it out for themselves.
There isn’t a ghost hiding behind some curtains in Three Men & a Baby. James Bond is a character name and not a code name to maintain a sense of continuity in the series due to the six actors that have played Bond on the silver screen so far. Chewbacca could have been a secret agent for the Rebellion long before he and Han Solo first met Luke Skywalker, but the question of whether or not Rick Deckard was a replicant may never be answered to the satisfaction of Blade Runner‘s fans. It’s difficult to ascertain the true intentions of a filmmaker, and sometimes urban legends are spawned by what are really random mistakes and editing mishaps. But fewer films have triggered the inauguration of some many diverse and complex postulations of its genuine meaning as The Shining, the classic 1980 adaptation of the Stephen King novel directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick.
The purposely elliptical new documentary Room 237 goes into great detail about several of the theories that have inspired the lengthiest debates and discussions, and in doing so desires to compel the audience into viewing this cherished masterpiece of horror with a far more open mind than before. Through interviews with five of the most notable Shining theorists, director Rodney Ascher constructs an elaborate and often eerie puzzle of a film and a shrewd commentary about the enduring power of great art in any form and its ability to alter perceptions and allow us to embrace audacious concepts, or at the very least give them some consideration.
The people interviewed are Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, Jay Weidner, Geoffrey Cocks, and John Fell Ryan. Eschewing the typical documentary structure of actually showing us the faces of his subjects from time to time, Ascher strings the various interviews together to form an ongoing narration under a series of clips from The Shining as well as films like Schindler’s List, The Terror (an early Jack Nicholson feature made before he became a household name), Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the late-’70s conspiracy thriller Capricorn One, Creepshow, Wolf, An American Werewolf in London, and Kubrick’s own Eyes Wide Shut, Paths of Glory, and Full Metal Jacket. Shots of an audience of moviegoers are taken from Lamberto Bava’s 1985 Italian splatter horror gem Demons. The lack of a traditional doc layout will have a jarring effect on the uninitiated, but since this isn’t exactly one’s idea of traditional filmmaking you have to admit that Ascher’s design was the best way to go.
Each participant gets a fair amount of time to spin their elaborate theories about the secret messages embedded in the narrative and production design of The Shining. We get the usual suspects: Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 moon landing and the movie was in fact his thickly-veiled confession, the movie was about the slaughter of untold tribes of Native Americans, The Shining was Kubrick’s way of finally making the Holocaust feature he had long envisioned, etc. But many of the new theories presented here are really subversive in their alternate interpretation of the film. Kearns espouses at great length about the similarities between the film and the Greek mythological story about the Minotaur and the labyrinth designed by Daedalus and his son Icarus. The theory was initiated by the presence of a skiing poster in the game room of the Overlook Hotel, despite the hotel being built in a location too isolated to accommodate skiers. Upon closer inspection the skier in the poster begins to resemble the Minotaur, and then you have to wonder why Kubrick changed the topiary animals that came to life in the original King novel to the hedge maze where the final chase was set. If Jack becomes the Minotaur at the end, then his extraordinarily gifted son Danny would be Theseus, who slayed the great bull-headed beast in legend.
It’s understandable at first why such a great amount of analysis would be applied to The Shining. Stanley Kubrick was not a filmmaker who made ordinary, easy-to-comprehend features. This is the man who made 2001: A Space Odyssey (which Weidner describes his first time seeing with the rapturous fondness of a religious revival attendee), the movie that single-handedly redefined cinematic science fiction. Countless books have been written about his filmography, most of them devoted to in-depth critical appraisals of just one of Kubrick’s directorial achievements. Even when he decides to make what appears on the surface to be a straightforward adaptation of a popular horror novel (most of Kubrick’s best films were based on novels or short stories), there can be no doubt that one of cinema history’s greatest visionaries has something more ambitious and provocative brewing in the fertile depths of his imagination.
I’ve seen The Shining a few times in my life and it is one of the most terrifying modern horror films ever made. We all know the memorable scenes that haunt our dreams (“Redrum! Redrum!”, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, and “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” to name a few) and the iconic performance by Jack Nicholson. Anyone familiar with the production history knows that Kubrick would push his actors to the brink of madness on a daily basis by creating an authentic atmosphere of claustrophobia and mounting dread; leading lady Shelley Duvall in particular was forever altered by her experience on the film. Author Stephen King was less than thrilled with the liberties the director took with his novel and those feelings continued to stick with him for more than three decades since The Shining‘s theatrical release. In 1997, he seized the chance to adapt his novel into a more faithful television miniseries for ABC, and though his long-cherished dream of seeing his version of The Shining made into a movie the results were not as successful with critics and viewers as the Kubrick feature. No less an authority on filmmaking than Martin Scorsese once named The Shining the seventh scariest horror film he had ever seen.
The greatest departure Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining took from the King novel is diluting the supernatural elements of the story to make it appear as if the ghosts compelling Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance to murder his family are possibly just figments of his slowly deteriorating imagination. Of all of the books written by King that were made into motion pictures The Shining is the one that feels less like a “Stephen King movie” (a term applied to many movies based on his writings) and more like the singular creation of its director. Brian DePalma, David Cronenberg, and Frank Darabont came close to achieving that same effect in their film adaptations of King novels and short stories, but as Room 237 demonstrates time and time again The Shining is a Stanley Kubrick film and not a film merely directed by him. Kubrick was infamous for his perfectionist nature and demanding total control over every aspect of his movies, from the script development to the theatrical release marketing campaign. It isn’t inconceivable to think that he would not have the same amount of control over the production design of The Shining, which leads to the some of the more fascinating theories that have been concocted by its feverishly ardent admirers.
Even the presence of the very typewriter Jack Torrance uses throughout the movie lends itself to Cocks’ belief that Kubrick intended for The Shining to be a metaphorical indictment of the horrors of the Holocaust. Room 237 takes its name from the hotel room in the Overlook that conceals an evil that reveals itself in one of the most horrific set pieces in The Shining, but in the original novel the room number was 217 (named for an actual hotel room King and his wife Tabitha stayed in that was said to be haunted). The seemingly innocuous detail alteration became one of the clues integral to the theory that Kubrick used the film to confess to his part in faking the historical 1969 moon landing, a widely-believed urban legend that exists far outside the confines of the Overlook in the public’s imagination. To the people interviewed for this documentary something as harmless as a continuity error – the disappearance and reappearance of a piece of furniture in a particular scene for example – can contribute to the creation of a new theory or add depth to one already established.
I could go into several more of the truly bizarre theories excavated from the unsettling sets, screenplay, and performances of The Shining, but to do so would ruin the joy of discovery that permeates every frame of Room 237. Some of them made me think, others had me scratching my head to the point I could almost make contact with my skull, and every so often one would get a laugh out of me. This doc isn’t a barrel of hilarity, but when you come to the moment where one of the interviewees interprets a wrecked red Volkswagen Beetle as a subtle upturned middle finger from Kubrick to King you can’t help but chuckle not only at the depths Shining theorists will go to in order to uncover some hidden meaning in each scene, but also at the thought that in this case they may really be on to something.
Room 237 really gets to the heart of our love of the cinema and our desire to look beyond the “received reality” (as the late George Carlin once described it). When it comes to forming our own interpretation of a work of art we all see what we want to see. In Ascher’s documentary there is a lot to see and many varying opinions about what it all means. You might hate this movie once it’s over, but at least it will have made you think. If that’s not a reaction Stanley Kubrick himself would have welcomed with fond appreciation I don’t know what is.
MPI Home Video presents Room 237 in a solid anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The quality of the image varies depending on the film clip and there is a high level of grain in some of the older archival images, but the scenes taken from Kubrick’s films look absolutely terrific with vibrant colors and shadows and little visible print damage.
Two audio options are offered: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and English 2.0 PCM Lossless. There are few differences between the dual soundtracks that my ears could detect. The interviewees sound very clear and Hutson and Snipes’ great music score comes through fantastically in the overall mix, though I would have loved to have the original compositions on an isolated 5.1 track. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
The supplements begin the moment you load the Blu-ray. Previews for the IFC releases My Amityville Horror, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, Maniac, and Byzantium play upfront before the main menu.
The film-related extras start off with an audio commentary with Kevin McLeod, who has written extensively about The Shining‘s hidden themes and messages online under the name “the Mstrmnd”. McLeod’s observations add some additional analysis and depth to Room 237 and is very scholarly in tone without sounding stuffy or dry. If take his theories about the film seriously then you will find what he has to say fascinating. Otherwise you will get sick of it after a few minutes.
“Secrets of the Shining: Live from the First Annual Stanley Film Festival” (50 minutes) is a panel discussion moderated by Devin Faraci of Badass Digest and featuring Ascher, Weidner, Mick Garris (director of the 1997 miniseries adaptation of The Shining and countless other Stephen King-based features), and longtime Kubrick collaborator and friend Leon Vitali. The panel was held following a screening of Room 237 at the inaugural Stanley Film Festival held in the same Estes Park, Colorado hotel that inspired King to write the original novel.
Next we have eleven deleted scenes (24 minutes) comprised of interview snippets that didn’t make it to the final cut, so no corresponding clips were used. Instead we hear the narration while the screen presents us with shots of the editing software the film was completed on. I’ve never seen cut scenes presented this way before, but given the nature of the Room 237 production it’s perfectly understandable.
“The Making of the Music” (3 minutes) eschews interview footage for a montage of video clips showing Snipes and Hutson composing and recording their evocative score. Short video, but fascinating all the same.
Aled Lewis, the artist who designed the Mondo poster for Room 237 (pictured above) is the subject of a brief interview (3 minutes). Finally we have four trailers for the film: one that was actually released, and three alternates that were never used. Each potential preview was inspired by the classic original trailer for The Shining, but rather than have the blood come flowing out of an open elevator it…well you have to see it for yourself (the official trailer is presented below). One of the alternates uses YouTube video comments instead of the bog-standard critic quotes, while another has Gerry Fialka’s review of the film from Otherzine scroll up the screen.
One of the most polarizing films released this year, Room 237 is a veritable cinematic head trip that will either leave you weary and angry or invigorated on an intellectual level. Either way, this movie is going to be inspiring discussion over its exhausting interpretations of The Shining and the unique filmography of Stanley Kubrick for the rest of time. For the undiscriminating cinephile looking to take a leap into some serious brain-teasing territory this Blu-ray comes recommended.