My first memories of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining are of that creepy-as-hell music that was attached to both the trailer/commercial and the beginning of the film, by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. I was twelve years old, and was visiting my grandmother in Griffin, Georgia (where both my mother and sister were born). Beyond the music, I don’t remember much — but the music was enough. Carlos’ and Elkind’s take on Hector Berlioz’s take on “Dies Irae” — with bonus freaky ghost voices — scared the shit out of me every time I heard it. While I had known who Stephen King was, and had even read a few of his books (Night Shift, Cujo and my all-time fave, Danse Macabre), The Shining had yet to be read when the movie first came out. Most of the information I had on the film was from the magazines I devoured at that age, such as Fangoria and Cinefantasique. Through them I learned about this Kubrick character, who apparently was known to be sonofabitch genius filmmaker. It was a while after that that I became acquainted with the films of Stanley Kubrick.
2001: A Space Odyssey was the first, and it literally astounded me (as it does to this day). At the time, I could not conceive how a film that premiered the year I was born could look as good (if not better) than my hallowed Star Wars movies. That technical brilliance was my first insight to Kubrick’s legacy. The film also stupified me, as in it was a mostly visual process, with little to no dialogue. A parallel experience I had at the time was with the work of Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius and his Arzach series. The feat of showing a story instead of telling one has ever since been a hallmark of a true craftsman to me.
It wasn’t until after A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket that I finally got around to The Shining — nearly a decade after its release — and to be honest, I thought it was more a black comedy than horror film. This may be due to my being a longtime fan of the horror genre, and somewhat jaded in regard to the subject matter, but to this day I don’t find the film particularly effective as a tale of terror. Granted, all the tropes are still there — glinting knives, savage axes (a certain masked character some may find familiar) and even a ballroom full of cobwebbed skeletons — but outside of that damned theme music, I never found anything about it scary. Jack Nicholson especially had me tickled in nearly every scene — from telling “Wendy Darling” that he intends to bash her brains in, to the infamous “Here’s Johnny!” — and I took him as seriously as Snidley Whiplash twirling his moustache. Mind you, the technical skill and visual cues were also there in full effect, but the story simply fell flat for me. While I still love the film, it’s not for the reasons most people consider it great.
Fast forward some twenty or so years later, when the trailer for Room 237 appeared on the interwebs. At first it seemed to be some sort of documentary about the “real” story behind The Shining, which had me intrigued. The film had always been something of an enigma to me, seeing as how I figured that if anyone could create a seriously scary film, it would be Stanley Kubrick; but The Shining, his only entry into the genre, was so curiously ineffective. Possibly because of this (and the theories thrown around about his last film, Eyes Wide Shut), I felt that I may have subconsciously been harboring my own thoughts that there was more to The Shining than was apparent on the surface. After viewing Room 237 that opinion has changed significantly, but an interesting perspective has been gained.
From the aspect of being a documentary — which typically injects some thesis about a subject, and then illustrates (or documents) the points of said thesis — Room 237 initially fails. I say “initially” because the film does succeed ultimately, but on a level that isn’t immediately apparent. I know I’m being amazingly vague here, so let’s dig into the details. The film uses footage from The Shining as well as other Kubrick’s other films and several behind-the-scenes clips and photos to help illustrate the myriad of points it has to offer. The ideas range from The Shining “really” being about American imperialism (based on the appearance of Calumet Baking Powder cans — with its Native American logo, and the similar motif in the fictional Overlook Hotel’s decoration), that Kubrick actually photographed the Apollo 11 moon landing (as Danny Torrence wears an Apollo 11 sweater in the film while playing on the hotel’s carpet, the pattern of which resembles the NASA project’s launch pad) and even analyzes the film by running it simultaneously forward and backward, superimposed. There are also suggestions about the Holocaust, and Jack Torrence’s being Kubrick’s take on the classical Greek myth of the minotaur. The theories fly fast and furious throughout Room 237‘s 102 minute running time, and none of them seem to stick. The Apollo conspiracy appears to be the most thought-out of them, but even it is strained — at best — at several points.
But the validity of the theories isn’t the point to Room 237, the fact that so many of them exist is. The Shining, whether effective as a horror film or not, is a meticulously crafted, beautifully and skillfully shot motion picture which has become a classic of modern cinema (like Kubrick’s other films). Films like it can be viewed and reviewed again, with more insight (whether intended by the creators or not) brought to the viewer each time. Kubrick in particular was known for being a perfectionist, often shooting innumerable takes for certain scenes, and known for being intimately involved at all levels of production. These elements make a film ripe for the picking, so to speak. The likes of Kubrick, with his love of extraneous detail and control, could be up to anything within the context of his films. Therein lies the appeal of Room 237 — it’s essentially a game of “what was he thinking?”, not unlike one of those puzzles where two seemingly identical photographs are shown, leaving the viewer to spot the differences (with the instance of a missing chair in one scene of The Shining, this is actually the case). The players of the game may not be very good at it, but the fact that they are allowed to play makes for an interesting commentary about film and its cultural impact. This is the “hidden message” of Room 237. Cue the creepy-as-hell music.