Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 really shouldn’t work. It’s a compilation of deeply bizarre theories about the true meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Essentially a film school debate dressed up with artful editing, Room 237 should be of interest only the most obsessive film theorist determined to mine every conceivable deep reading of The Shining. However, what Ascher has made is a fascinating ode to film obsession that treats the readings not in a dry academic doctrines, but as playful conspiracy theories as open dismissive laughs as wide-eyed fascination. It’s safe to say that the documentary is for cinephiles only and specifically those who have soaked up The Shining plenty of times. The good news is that for that crowd, it’s a pretty fascinating and entertaining experience of intense movie geekery.
Even though it’s considered a classic now, it’s easy to forget that the The Shining wasn’t exactly rapturously received when it hit screens in 1980. Kubrick was coming off of a series of timeless masterpieces (plus Barry Lyndon) that all landed him Oscar nominations and box office glory (except for Barry Lyndon). Critics were confused that the enigmatic master filmmaker would waste his time on a pulpy Stephen King yarn, while audiences felt that the beautifully photographed movie was a little confusing and over the top. Yet, the film gradually eased its way into becoming a pop culture staple and one of the most accessible entry points to Kubick’s career. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who denies the peculiar power of power of Kubrick’s lone horror movie and film scholars have been anxious to find ways to reframe it as a philosophically and thematically complex as 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s where Ascher’s documentary comes in.
Acher’s film eschews any talking head interviews in favor of simply letting the voices of his various participants explain their theories over carefully edited footage of The Shining illustrating their arguments. The theories are weird and wild including everything from folks claiming that the movie is about Stanley Kubrick confessing he faked the moon landing, to an exploration of the US’ treatment of the Native Americans and the holocaust, or a carefully conceived exploration of mirrored images that needs to be played backwards and forwards simultaneously to properly understand. The cases the theorists make range from compelling to batty with identical footage often used to explore a variety of theories. Acher is playful in how he presents his interviewees and footage throughout, including recordings where subjects have to leave the room to quiet a child and cutting in hilariously out-of-place footage from movies like Demons or An American Werewolf in London to depict a personal story being told. The filmmaker neither condemns nor celebrates any particular theory, instead giving them all equal weight and underlining it all with a creepy synthesizer horror score that makes the audience feel like they’re trapped in a conspiracy thriller being told secrets that they shouldn’t hear. And of course, since every frame of The Shining is designed to provoke at least subtle chills, that tone is reflected visually.
In the end, all of these theories could be true and they all could be bullshit. The point of Room 237 isn’t to finally unlock the mysteries that Stanley Kubrick hid in The Shining over 30 years ago, but show how a single exquisitely crafted film can mean so many different things to so many different people. It’s film theory as a psychological thriller, where simply applying deep reading skills to The Shining can turn any viewer in Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper tumbling into a world of surreal evil that they will never fully understand. It’s an enlightening, entertaining, ingenious, and entirely unique documentary that richly deserves a theatrical release and the inevitable cult status coming its way. If the concept sounds remotely appealing to you, rush to see Room 237 immediately without any fear of disappointment. If nothing else, it’ll provide an excuse to watch The Shining a few dozen more times and with a movie that good, that’s never a bad thing.