It’s regularly hailed as the perfect horror film by cinephiles but Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is actually about: 1) the white European genocide of North America’s native population; 2) the Holocaust; 3) the faked Apollo 11 moon landings; 4) a frustrated writer whose growing marble-loss leads him to try and murder his wife and son. If you answered ‘4’, then you clearly aren’t au fait with the plethora of conspiracy theories abounding on the internet about the hidden meanings in Kubrick’s seminal Stephen King adaptation. But director Rodney Ascher and producer Tim Kirk are, and have rounded them up in their amazing, mesmerising documentary Room 237, which has been included in Cannes’ prestigious Director’s Fortnight section.
It’s a lo-fi exercise made on “a non-budget”, as Kirk calls it – basically two friends getting together to make a film in their living rooms (although they did raise a few grand for post-production polishing and a score before the film debuted in Sundance). The limitations mean that we hear but don’t see the five theorists (two others dropped out after learning their interpretations wouldn’t get an exclusive airing… divas of the theory world). Even though the approach was forced upon them (Ascher interviewed each truth-seeker over the phone), it gives Room 237 a creepy, disembodied vibe and allows him to illustrate their points with expressive cinematic imagery, not just from The Shining but other films in the Kubrick canon and those of other filmmakers.
Some of the conspiracy theories in Room 237 (the chamber where Jack Torrance snogs the lady in the bathtub) are vaguely persuasive, others just plain daft. Trying to convince us that The Shining was Kubrick’s oblique confession for faking the moon landings, for instance, is a hilarious stretch (Danny wears a jumper with a rocket on it; the works on the keychain for Room 237 can be jumbled into ‘Moon Room’, etc).
But then Kubrick was a master of purposeful ambiguities, and his perfectionism always had a purpose to it. “There are no mistakes in his films,” says Kirk. “If he put a stack of seven crates of Coca Cola in the corner of the storeroom, there’s a reason it’s not six or eight. It’s easy to ignore ambiguity by a lesser filmmaker but he’s a master storyteller so you get drawn in.”
Not wanting to pollute their minds with “the truth”, Ascher and Kirk never approached Kubrick’s Shining collaborators or his wife Christiane. “We were never doing a Making Of,” says Ascher. “I wanted to explore these theories but keep the mystery, without that authoritative voice of someone who could say, ‘Yes, that skiing poster was put there because Stanley thought the figure looked like a minotaur.’ Now that I would have no temptation to go back and change it, yes, I’d love to talk to them.”
So what does Ascher think The Shining is about? “I can’t help but look at it as a cautionary tale about fatherhood,” he laughs. “Having a young son and an insanely patient wife, I see Jack as a cautionary tale of the worst version of what I could become. When I was working on this movie, it was certainly a case of ‘All work and no play…’”
The fact that Room 237 was selected for a slot in Cannes’ prestigious Director’s Fortnight might boggle their minds but it isn’t a huge surprise. What they’ve created is compelling, celebratory and a unique dissection of the only real horror movie Kubrick ever made (unless you count Eyes Wide Shut, although maybe that’s just us). “The fact that we’re even here is just ridiculous,” says Kirk. “Our intended audience was YouTube and friends’ living rooms.”