The Shining (1980) and Room 237 (2012)
I’ve decided to combine my reviews of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with Room 237, the 2012 documentary about theories surrounding the meaning of The Shining. This is largely because just about everyone and their mother has written a review of The Shining and I have little new to add to the general consensus that it’s one of the scariest movies ever made.
The Shining (in case you’ve managed to miss both it and The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror sequence “The Shinning”) is about a nuclear family that decides it’s a good idea to hole up in a massive hotel in the mountains of Colorado, where they will see no one else for five months. The last caretaker happened to chop up his entire family into little tiny pieces, but whatever. Five months rent free!
You know the drill. Jack Nicholson goes all kinds of crazy – as if he wasn’t already – and chases Shelley Duvall and the adorable Danny Lloyd around with an axe after his ghostly friends tell him to. Kubrick creates a deep sense of wrong and foreboding from the very beginning. Subtlety is the name of the game in The Shining; the hotel seems off, with winding corridors that don’t quite make sense, offices with windows where there should be none, shifts in decoration that feel unnatural. The Shining trades on peripheral vision, the sense that something is just not quite right. Kubrick pulls this off by introducing or eliminating small elements in a single frame: a chair that’s there one minute and gone the next; a cigarette with smoke circling inward instead of outward. There are undercurrents of abuse – Danny’s shoulder was once dislocated by his father, though this is claimed as an accident – and unnamed violence. Is the hotel really haunted, or is this Jack having a breakdown? Does Danny cause the madness of his father, a mental projection of anger and hatred? It’s a fascinating, labyrinthine film that gives no real answers or explanations. As Scatman Crothers remarks to Danny, there are just traces left over from the past.
If The Shining is indeed a movie about traces, Room 237 spins a few convincing (and less convincing) yarns about those traces. Giving voice to some of the interesting, odd and often outlandish theories about the meaning of The Shining, Room 237 largely avoids passing judgment on the theorists, allowing them to speak for themselves. And the theories are interesting indeed. One presupposes that the whole story is about the genocide of the American Indians, marking out instances of Native American decorations and photographs that dot the hotel. Oddly, the issue of the Calumet baking soda cans prevalent in several shots is dwelt on more than the fact that the Overlook is built on an ‘ancient Indian burial ground,’ that favorite of horror story tropes.
Another less convincing analysis has a German history scholar examining relations of The Shining to the Holocaust – because all post-war violence has something to do with the Holocaust, and Jack totally uses a GERMAN typewriter. A third theorist tries to claim that Kubrick was using The Shining as a way of telling us all that he was involved in faking the moon landing (what?).
Room 237 is not all crazy, though. Most of these theorists have noticed fascinating elements in the film that might otherwise pass unnoticed. All, however, take their analysis just that one step too far, claiming that the film is ABOUT this and only this, and trying – sometimes in very extreme ways – to prove their case. What none of them focus on, though, are the very disturbing gender relationships, eliding over Jack’s aggression towards his wife and the notion of ‘correcting’ the bad behavior of women and children through physical violence. I’m amazed that anyone can spend twenty minutes proving the genocide of the American Indians via baking soda cans, but miss the whole “I’m gonna bash your fucking brains in”.
The Shining and Room 237 are fascinating to watch together, however, and well worth the time. While none of the proposed explanations are convincing on final analysis, they all pick up on elements within the film that make it so very fascinating to watch. The Shining is not just a great horror film; it’s a great film, and still has the power to scare the hell out of you.