Movie Review: Room 237 (2012, Dir. Rodney Ascher)

Room 237

The first time I saw The Shining, it deeply upset me. For this reason it will always be my favorite horror film. At the probably far too young age I saw it, I couldn’t really process the images I was watching. Blood pouring from elevators. A man in a bear suit performing fellatio. The final image of Jack at a party in 1921. It messed with my head in a way that no film really had before and it began my love affair with the genius that was Stanley Kubrick. Now, I always attributed the uneasy hold the film had over me to the fact that I was so young, but according to the absorbing new documentary Room 237 the film might have haunted me all these years because deep down it’s really a Holocaust parable. Or is it the story of the white man’s genocide of the American Indian? No, no, no, it’s about how the U.S. government commissioned Kubrick to fake the moon landing. Yeah, that’s it!

Is it possible for The Shining to be all these things and more? Room 237 makes a strong argument for it. The documentary focuses on six Shining conspiracy theorists. We watch as they break down the Kubrick classic scene by scene often even frame by frame, telling us how each moment might fit their theories. They point out many blink and you miss it things I’ve never noticed. They range from fascinating (Why is Jack reading a Playgirl magazine in the lobby while waiting for his new employers? Does this allude to not only physical but sexual abuse towards Danny?), to the blatantly stupid (When Stuart Ullman greets Jack the paper tray on his desk makes it look like he has a giant erection. A Kubrick sex joke?). But you have to appreciate that filmmaker Rodney Ascher is willing to throw every detail out there no matter how small or crazy.

The other thing Ascher does a great job of is putting you in the mind of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. He wisely never shows any of the experts. We only hear their voice-overs. Instead we see constant images of not only The Shining, but other Kubrick masterpieces. Images of Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut slowed down to give the footage a trippy feel. Then we see footage from old silent films or of people watching The Shining in a movie theater. It’s bizarre, confusing and it really forces you into an uneasy headspace. A space that might allow your mind to open just enough to let some of these theories sound plausible.

And what of those theories? Well, I’m here to tell you that no, Room 237 didn’t make me believe Kubrick faked the moon landing. But it’s not trying to. This is less a film about The Shining and more a film about the nature of conspiracy theories. It shows you how, especially in a complex work of art like The Shining, an individual can transpose whatever they want to believe onto it. Of course the man who seriously studied the Holocaust might see a German named typewriter and start thinking about lists the Nazi’s typed up on similar typewriters. He’s predisposed to see it, where as I’m predisposed to believe sometimes a typewriter is just a typewriter. When the British poster came out for the film the tagline read “The Wave of Terror That Swept Across America.” Most would assume this meant that the film scared audiences across the nation. But Bill Blakemore immediately thought the “terror” that swept across America was the white man’s treatment of the Indian. Thus he viewed The Shining with that thought in mind. For him an Indian burial ground isn’t just an Indian burial ground.

The question that Room 237 explores is, why The Shining? Why have so many different theories been built around this particular film? Although it never directly answers the question, the film does give us some ideas. First is the meticulous and often mysterious nature of Stanley Kubrick. He was known for paying such attention to detail. Measuring bullet holes in the background of Barry Lyndon, making sure they were authentic to the size of that time period. Forcing actors to engage in take after take after take after take. For a man this detailed oriented nothing in his films could possibly be an accident. And yet The Shining seems littered with continuity errors. Wouldn’t a master of cinema notice that a chair in one shot is gone in the next? But then again, what does a missing chair really have to do with a conspiracy? Finding the connection is often a stretch, albeit a fun one. Some of the continuity errors reveled (if they really are errors and not “coded messages”) are pretty amazing and I won’t spoil them here.

However I think it all goes back to the uneasiness of The Shining. As I said, the film disturbs you. It gets under your skin and festers there. It’s what makes it such a brilliant horror film. It’s that discomfort that forces you to try and rationalize it. A great deal is made in the documentary about how the layout of the Overlook Hotel makes no earthly sense. But rather than that be a way to justify the faking of the moon landing, isn’t it just part of the horror? Images your mind can’t comprehend. Kubrick may not have been sending us a secret message by making the hotel set impossible to figure out… he just may have been trying to drive us mad.

Room 237 is a must see for fans of The Shining or Kubrick. Whether you believe the theories or like me take the more Occam’s razor approach, there is something interesting in it to take away. For example there’s a pretty hypnotic sequence in which they project The Shining onto itself simultaneously forwards and backwards, which I hope becomes the new Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon. What this film did for me was just reinforce how much of a complex master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to re-watch The Shining to try and figure out what it’s saying about the Kennedy assassination.

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