It's hardly news that many fans of Stephen King's The Shining took issue with Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film adaptation of the seminal horror novel. Even the author himself has voiced his displeasure with the movie cited by the AFI as one of the best American thrillers ever produced (The Shining came in at 29 on their Top 100, beating out even Night of the Living Dead by a decidedly wide margin). Yet despite all of the controversy over Kubrick's handling of King's material, some cinephiles have opted to focus their analytic eyes on the possibility that the director known for his perfectionism may have had little interest in telling the story of the Torrance family's experiences in the Overlook Hotel, but was instead driven by a hidden agenda that's only revealed through careful study of the film's dialogue, symbolism, and imagery.
In his compelling, occasionally hilarious documentary Room 237, director Rodney Ascher allows five fans and film scholars the opportunity to explore a variety of thought-provoking conspiracy theories related to The Shining. Against the backdrop of footage from the movie (and clips of various other pictures employed primarily to provide a context), Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner all speak at length about the various hidden meanings they have detected during repeated viewings. From the theories that The Shining was a veiled commentary on the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans to the possibility that Kubrick was using the story as a means of admitting to his role in faking the moon landings, no detail goes unnoticed as scenes are repeatedly dissected down to the most minute detail (including, in one of the more humorous instances, the paper holder on Stuart Ullman's desk). As entire sections of the film play out forward, backward, in regular speed, in slow motion, in frame-by-frame, and even backwards and forwards superimposed, we become completely immersed in The Shining and all of its vast potential. This approach is enhanced by Ascher's decision to never once show us the faces of his five subjects (though occasional ambient noise and audio anomalies give the impression that this was due more to budgetary constraints rather than creative license). But the technique also proves something of a double-edged sword: Once his subjects are cited onscreen in the opening scenes, their names never appear again, making it difficult to get a handle on any one researcher's theory as Ascher repeatedly cuts back and forth between them throughout the documentary's nine parts.
Meanwhile, though many of the subjects use their extensive backgrounds in history and film study to make compelling points (especially when it comes to addressing Kubrick's notoriously slavish attention to detail), at certain points we sense that each of them may have let his or her imagination run a bit wild. Fell Ryan in particular comes off as either stoned or overly self-enamored as he continually giggles to himself after every comment before backing up his own brilliant theories with a hazy "yeah...". Even Weidner, whose own documentary Kubrick's Odyssey addresses the faked-moon-landing theory in painstaking detail, seems lucid by comparison (despite some amusing oversight in his claim that "you can only form two words" out of the letters "R," "O," "O," "M," and "N" -- hint: there is a third one that isn't "moon" or "room," and it's not very complimentary).
The beauty of Room 237, however, doesn't lie in the validity of any one of the commentators' thoughtful (and occasionally well-informed) speculations, but instead in that mysterious grey zone between an artist's intentions and audience interpretation. After all, every one of us brings our own experiences into the films we watch, so much like Mona Lisa's mysterious smile, we all notice subtly different details of the same picture. Our theories are shaded not just by the movies we've previously seen, but by virtually every moment we've lived, no matter how seemingly insignificant they may seem to others (a concept illustrated quite astutely by Blakemore as he reveals why the Calumet baking-soda cans featured in the film hold special meaning for him because of where he was raised). That's just one of the reasons it pays to watch Room 237 with an open mind, and why, despite the many deviations from the widely praised source material, Stanley Kubrick's movie remains one of the most unique -- and uniquely terrifying -- horror films ever made.