“It’s Called ‘Shining'” – Room 237 Review

The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror films. Ever since my parents cruelly had me watch it as a young child (maybe around the age of seven or so–and yes, they covered my eyes during scenes featuring nudity), I’ve been terrified by it. The desolate hotel setting, barren snowy landscape, echoing hallways and corridors, drab ’70s and ’80s art and furniture, and the fact that the main protagonist shared my age (at the time of my first viewing) and my name all make me shiver. Hearing Jack Nicholson running through the Overlook Hotel hallways while shouting “DANNY” over and over again startles me to this day.

After hearing about and going to see Room 237, a documentary film based on the theories and analyses of The Shining, I learned that what I originally thought to be a pure horror film may very well be something else entirely. Multiple film critics, professors and historians spend the entire length of the documentary pitching their theories on why The Shining is really about the British colonists slaughter of the Native Americans, Adolf Hitler and his rise to power alongside the Nazi army, mythological creatures and fantasy in reality, and my favorite, the faking of the moon landing in the 1970s.

Danny having fun in the Overlook.

Danny having fun in the Overlook.

 

The Shining was based off of the novel of the same name written by Stephen King, but the screenplay was re-written and directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980. Since there already existed a laundry list of films directed by Kubrick like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove that really made people analyze and discuss the filmmaking process behind the movies, people began to analyze and discuss The Shining. The main problem with this was that there was no feasible way that anyone could verify or fact-check a lot of their theories due to the fact the movie was really only available to see in theaters. With the advent of the VHS tape and home video players around the time of the film’s release, people were finally able to re-watch and comb through every little bit of the film.

Over three decades later, Rodney Ascher began researching and consulting various film critics, theorists, college film professors, filmmakers and just about everyone else who theorized about The Shining at one point or another. After writing, producing, editing and releasing Room 237 in 2012, Ascher went on to win awards for Best Director and Best Editor, and the editing is where the film really shines.

Writer, director and editor Rodney Ascher did some serious research on The Shining and spoke to some serious followers of the film.

Writer, director and editor Rodney Ascher did some serious research on The Shining and spoke to some serious followers of the film.

 

When I went to see this at Lincoln Center, I was very surprised that the film didn’t make use of the traditional setup of a “talking heads” documentary. Instead, Ascher made it so that each interviewee has his or her own introduction, but their faces are never seen on-screen. Without those introductions, it would have been a little hard to put a face to the name. For the most part though, this style really works, and I found myself focused on The Shining and Stanley Kubrick, not the people who were talking about the two–and I think that was one of the main points of the film.

Another thing that struck me about the film’s editing was its constant use of other films and television shows. Whenever the interviewees would discuss how they came to watch and become a diehard fan of The Shining as well as discuss their theories on the film, various clips from other forms of media were played to further what they were saying. For example, when the first interviewee discusses how he first saw The Shining in a movie theater in France, clips of Tom Cruise walking down a street and passing a theater from Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, are played. Another example could be the multiple times during the film that WWII combat footage is used, as well as the infamous “fake moon landing footage.” Bringing this outside material into the film adds another level of storytelling and helps to keep viewers inside the documentary experience.

Sound also plays a large role in the documentary. On top of analyzing the sound that’s provided to viewers in Kubrick’s film, Room 237 uses sound bytes of scratching record players, Native American chants, Nazi armies and UFO sound effects to really sell the theories. While we’re in the Overlook Hotel listening to one person describe his/her theory, we’re also hearing sounds pertaining to that theory. Subconsciously, this really helps to sell the theory and make viewers believe that it’s what Kubrick originally intended. In an interview with The Verge media review website, Ascher says that “[the] idea was to try to present each of [the interviewees] ideas as persuasively as possible. And that’s an interesting challenge… trying to make the audience of 237 watch The Shining through the eyes of these other people.”

 

This effect was also achieved with the trailer, only in the opposite way. The trailer recreates the original trailer for The Shining in its entirety, only with a VHS player and a remote replacing the Overlook Hotel elevator doors and a lounge chair. In the background, Kubrick’s original music selection is heard, but this time we get a somewhat happier feeling (more lighthearted than horrified, since we know this is a documentary ABOUT the film and not the film itself). The trailer was also the first thing related to the film that made it clear to me how much immense attention to detail would be paid in this documentary.

 

A lot of film critics and websites have been giving this film low to medium ratings with the same common complaint that the people featured in the film (as well as their theories) are ridiculous, silly, self-enthralled and obnoxious. Although I do agree with this statement to a certain extent, I think that all of them are missing the point that the documentary is self aware. It and the people featured in it know that everything it documents is all silly conjecture. Obviously Stanley Kubrick is dead, so there’s no way to know what’s really right or wrong, what’s really intentional or unintentional. One of the interviewees even says that everything in the documentary could be completely false, but that doesn’t change the fact that everything they’re discussing is there.

Whether or not it was intentional, Danny really does wear an Apollo 11 sweater, the chair behind Jack really does disappear mysteriously, and there are an awful lot of Calumet baking soda cans placed about in the background of shots.

About Daniel

Daniel is a graduate of CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College, summa cum laude with a B.A. in Film Production and TV/Radio. He can be reached via his website, www.passingplanes.com. The Utopia of Daniel was his college blog and he has since transitioned to posting on other sites.