Overburdened by its fame and its status as a classic in the horror canon, The Shining (1980) could only ever be a disappointment see outside its initial release. It is an unfortunate fact that horror, unlike other genres, simply cannot bear the brunt of repetition. Its iconic scenes – “redrum”, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, “Here’s Johnny” – were already so deeply ingrained in popular consciousness that there was little chance of the film making the same impact as a “blind” viewing. Without shock value and surprise, the scenes that make The Shining so memorable are ultimately impotent, especially when against the rest of the film, which is at-times an absurdly baroque work, saturated with empty symbolism, and therefore subject to the kind of wild interpretative theories that are under the spotlight in Rodney Ascher’s new documentary Room 237.
So while it seems as if I would not be the best person to review Room 237, a documentary tribute to The Shining that examines responses to and theories about the film. But a truly great documentary should be able to hold the viewer’s attention no matter what the subject matter. Films like The King of Kong (2007) or Senna (2010) – niche documentaries that have deservedly garnered large audiences – have proven in the past that a film can transcend its subject matter simply by showing the passion that people have for their particular interests. This seems to be a factor that Ascher is more than aware of, as he opens the film with various impassioned accounts of the first time these fans saw the object of their obsession. The trembling excitement in their voices as they describe the profound effect The Shining had on them would leave only the most bitter of Shining cynics unmoved. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
Ascher seems fully aware that presentation is key for this type of film. What could have been delivered as a dull-looking series of talking heads includes instead footage from Kubrick’s films spliced together with others from The Shining to illustrate or counterpoint to what the film’s fans are saying. The film turns from being an idea worthy of a DVD extra to an expertly, and on occasion mesmerisingly, made work in its own right. The enthusiasts are never seen and their occupations only revealed piecmeal as they explain the reasons behind their particular readings of the film.
The analyses themselves range from the blindingly obvious to the ridiculously obscure. Some branch into the wild conspiracy theories that makes their proponents sound really quite mad, focusing as they do on individual scenes that another fan will never point out. While some could argue that this simply points a wilful obscurantism on Kubrick’s part, creating as he does a smorgasbord of symbols with no overlap and no explanation in The Shining, to these viewers something far more profound is at play.
What Room 237 does masterfully is to illustrate that no two people are ever truly watching the same film. Given different ethnicities, upbringing, gender, personal interests, each individual makes his or her experience of the film unique, and such experiences can be accommodated in a film with as much mystery and symbolism as The Shining contains. While this postmodern approach to film criticism keeps the casual viewer interested for the most part, Room 237 is still a film for fans of The Shining made by fans of The Shining. Its crackpot theories entertain but even the more logical readings of the film start to grate if you are not enthused by the film in the first place, and even the obvious passion of its proponents might fail to overcome that problem.