Published November 20, 2014
Some think Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is a horror masterpiece. Others find it a mix between overblown fright flick and art film.
Then there are the conspiracy theorists, who meticulously study the 1980 film for hints as to what Kubrick really intended: maybe a commentary on the Holocaust, an exploration of the oppression of American Indians, even a treasure map of clues that the filmmaker was enlisted by NASA to fake the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
"Room 237," a documentary playing the Toronto International Film Festival, attempts to decrypt the adaptation of the Stephen King horror novel, providing no definitive answers, yet offering a fascinating glimpse into the enigma of Kubrick himself, who died in 1999.
"For me, it confirmed the idea that there is much more to the movie than just the surface layer of the story," said "Room 237" director Rodney Ascher. "There are so many anomalies and so many unusual choices and so many heavy moments that seem like they're referring to other material that you realize there's a lot going on underneath. It's meant to be seen again and again."
"The Shining" stars Jack Nicholson as a writer who holes up with his family as caretaker of a resort hotel in the Colorado Rockies that's closed for the winter. Instead of completing the book he intended to write, he falls under the influence of spirits and demons, turning homicidal against his wife (Shelley Duvall) and their young son, Danny, who has visions of ghosts and misdeeds from the creepy hotel's past.
After redefining genre filmmaking with his futuristic tales "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange," Kubrick could never make a straightforward scary movie. "The Shining" was an operatic riddle, loaded with puzzles and impossibilities — props that vanish from one shot to the next, a typewriter that changes colors as the film progresses, windows to the outdoors on walls where no windows could exist.
Among the film's best-remembered scenes are a river of blood gushing from an elevator down a hotel hallway and Nicholson hacking through a door with an ax and maniacally pronouncing, "Here's Johnny!"
Yet "Room 237" concentrates on the details, centering on five devotees of "The Shining" who have scrupulously deconstructed the film scene by scene and frame by frame.
Historian Geoffrey Cocks sees it as a representation of the Nazi Holocaust, identifying German symbols and artifacts throughout the film and citing Kubrick's repeated use of the number 42 to stand for 1942, the year the order came down to exterminate the Jews.
Bill Blakemore fixated on cans of Calumet baking powder, with an Indian in headdress on the label in the hotel pantry, and began ferreting out clues that "The Shining" was about the genocide of American Indians.
Jay Weidner found signs that Kubrick was intimating to viewers that he faked the 1969 moon landing footage, the filmmaker dressing Danny in an Apollo 11 sweater, putting cans of Tang in the background and changing the number of the story's mystery room from 217 in King's novel to 237 in the film to represent the mean distance from the earth to the moon — 237,000 miles.
"Room 237" producer Tim Kirk first saw "The Shining" when he was about 14 and recalled that during the closing credits, the shadows of other viewers were projected onto the screen as they left the theater.
"I was peering at these ghostlike images thinking, what does that mean? I was still looking for clues as the film was ending. The next time I saw it, I thought it was about the dangers, the toils of the creative life. I'm really confused about it at this point," said Kirk, who finds all the theories in "Room 237" potentially valid. "I feel like each person we interviewed is passionate, intelligent and truly believes what they're saying."
Director Ascher sneaked into a screening of "The Shining" as a boy and was scared out of the theater after only a few minutes of the film. He did not see the full movie until a couple of years later, and now has seen it countless times.
For all the theories his film sets forth, Ascher has a direct and simple interpretation of "The Shining."
"I think it's a cautionary tale about fatherhood," Ascher said. "Both Tim and I have young kids and spend a lot of time in front of keyboards working on films, like Jack writing in the movie. Jack is the worst-case scenario of myself and a very handy reminder to pay a little attention."
"Room 237" is scheduled for theatrical release in 2013.