Why Kubrick’s hotel horror is very mysterious

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Room 237
July 4-7, RPL Film Theatre
3.5 out of 5

There’s something compulsively watchable about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Maybe it’s Jack Nicholson’s inexorable descent into madness. Perhaps it’s the kitsch-creepy Overlook Hotel and its personnel, past and present.

According to the documentary Room 237, it’s something else.

The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s most deliberate film: There isn’t a detail that lacks meaning: the way the cans are lined up in the pantry, the color of Jack’s typewriter, every liberty Kubrick takes with Stephen King’s novel. Room 237 digs into the most substantial interpretations of the film and uncovers several additional layers. It also includes some readings that say more of the state of mind of the interviewees than of the movie, but are entertaining enough to get a pass.

Of all the analyses presented in the documentary, the one that rings the truest understands The Shining as an allegory of extermination. The film is beset with both Nazi (eagles, typewriters) and aboriginal (the cans of Calumet baking soda, pictures and paintings all over the hotel) imagery. Jack Torrance is the aggressor — the invader who betrays the trust of his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny. By identifying a historical pattern, the filmmaker may have wanted to contain the history of the world in one seemingly ordinary horror film.

Without negating the previous interpretation, Kubrick peppered his film with subliminal ingredients. The most remarkable: the building,  the design of which seems straight from a M.C. Escher sketch. Kubrick expected that the public would make associations on a subconscious level, and toyed with their instinctive acceptance of visual information.

The most audacious theory about The Shining explains the film as Stanley Kubrick’s mea culpa for his involvement in faking the moon landing. It could be easy to dismiss, but there are many connections between the film and the historical achievement: Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater; the distance from the Earth to the moon is reported to be 237,000 miles (but you might wanna Google that one yourself). The room itself is even supposed to be the stage in which the enactment took place, although others see it as a symbol for intercourse — your pick.

As enjoyable as Room 237 is, there’s certain lack of rigor. It’s not immediately clear why these people are authorities on the subject. Also, plentiful clips from Kubrick movies aside, the visual aspect of the doc is rather poor. At some point we are shown a diagram of the architectural impossibilities of the Overlook Hotel, which stands out just because it breaks with the routine of watching the same excerpts over and over.

A sequel to the novel The Shining will be published this September. It’s called Doctor Sleep and features an adult Dan Torrance coping with his telepathic abilities by helping elderly patients transition to the afterlife. Stephen King has described the book as a return to balls-to-the-wall horror. Since we can’t get Kubrick back, this is probably the next best thing.