I’m a card-carrying member of the cult of Stanley Kubrick, but I confess that I have never found The Shining to be a very scary experience. The movie doesn’t work, at least to me, as the shivery primal horror film that Kubrick thought he was making. Yet it works as something else — as metaphysical puzzle, as text, as a pop-up maze of projected psychosis you can get lost in. Room 237, a documentary that consists entirely of superfans of The Shining talking about the film’s secret themes, hidden clues, and resonant eccentricities, is an amazing experience, because it works like a Kubrickian Da Vinci Code, and it lures you into seeing The Shining as a kind of feature-length Zapruder film. Some of what its subjects have to say is nutty, and some of it might be described as advanced paranoia — like the tendency to ascribe deep meaning to continuity errors. But most of Room 237, which has been put together with great cunning and love of cinema by its director and editor, Rodney Ascher, consists of incredibly passionate and savvy and audacious film criticism. It’s criticism infused with the power of conspiracy theory.
We hear the fan theorists on the soundtrack, but we never see them, which only adds to the aura that they’re geek obsessives holed up with a VHS player in the basement. What we do see are clips and images from The Shining, layered and arranged and interpolated, often stretched out to super-slow motion. Kubrick, by this point, had become deeply fascinated by how television commercials employ subliminal imagery, and there’s no question that he filled The Shining with it. Every poster on the wall, every rug pattern, every extra in a uniform wheeling luggage around wasn’t just window dressing but a directorial choice, there to conjure an effect. Room 237 starts to suck you in when it maps out the fantastically complex and motif-studded geography of the Overlook Hotel: the movie set as interior bunker of the mind. Or when it shows us the welter of subtextual ways that the film makes the past into the present. Or even — and this is where I really knew it had hooked me — when it makes the case that Kubrick not only helped fake the moon landing but recast The Shining as an allegory of his hiding of that secret. That’s what great conspiracy theory does: It draws you out of yourself and provides the catharsis of having solved the Mystery. (And then, of course, your rationality wakes up. Or maybe it doesn’t.)
So watch Room 237 and delight in the fact that The Shining is really about World War II, or the Minotaur at the center of the maze (hint: Just look at the poster of the skier). Or that the movie works as well backward as it does forward. Room 237 makes perfect sense of The Shining because, even more than The Shining itself, it places you right inside the logic of how an insane person thinks. A