At a film festival dominated by subtitled deep-think, you sometimes need a break. You need a meal, or a drink, or a nap. Or, just maybe, you need a movie like Dario Argento’s Dracula. I’ve never been the biggest fan of this schlock-operatic Italian splatter maven, but after such fevered orgies of gore as Suspiria and Unsane, the thought of him going back to the source — going back to Dracula — sounded appealing. Dracula turns out to be ripely entertaining in a kitschy-sincere old-fashioned way. (The kitsch is in how sincere it is.) It’s true, to a far greater degree than I expected, to Bram Stoker’s novel — much truer than Francis Coppola’s version — and the feel is pure Christopher Lee Hammer horror: the fleshy writhing bosoms (though in this case, they’re uncorseted), the blood smeared like tomato sauce across the mouth of Dracula — played, in a very straight 1960s haircut but with a lot of zest, by Thomas Kretschman. In an age of designer vampires, the movie rekindles the grandeur of Dracula. In this movie, he’s the vampire as aristocratic pimp, and when he sinks his fangs into necks, he really acts out the hunger; you can taste how good it tastes to him. Most of the acting is cardboard-hammy-inept (Asia Argento, who of course strips down for her dad, is better than usual — but then, she always sounds like she’s from Transylvania), and the director, who’s now 71, stages his gruesome effects in a way that’s so primitive that they’ve acquired a novel tactility. You can’t skewer eyeballs, lop off heads, and uncork geysers of blood with this much junky ingenuity unless you believe, in your showman’s heart, in the deep sensuality of violence.
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I’m a card-carrying member of the cult of Stanley Kubrick — I can, and do, watch his movies over and over and over again — but I have never found The Shining to be a remotely scary movie. Fascinating, yes, but not scary. Where I think my experience mirrors that of a lot of other people is that the more, over the years, that I watched The Shining, the more its lack of true terror seemed not to matter. The movie didn’t work, at least to me, as the shivery primal horror film that Kubrick thought he was making. But it worked as something else — as metaphysical puzzle, as text, as a pop-up maze of projected psychosis you could get lost in.
Room 237, a documentary that consists entirely of super-fans of The Shining talking about the movie’s secret themes, hidden clues, and resonant eccentricities — a veritable Kubrickian Da Vinci code of underlying networks of meaning — is an amazing experience, because it lures you into seeing The Shining as a kind of feature-length studio-made 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 (a character’s pants changing from shot to shot; a disappearing chair behind Jack Nicholson). But a lot of Room 237 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 of Internet-geek-holed-up-with-an-old-VHS-player-in-the-basement obsessiveness). What we do see are clips and images from The Shining, carefully layered and arranged and interpolated, often stretched out to super-slow motion, so that each theory is illustrated as another dazzling concrete clue in the big mystery of What This Movie Really Is. One theory focuses on the giant cans of Calumet baking powder (with the Indian-chief logo) sitting in the kitchen store room as proof that the movie is referencing the genocide of Native Americans. That’s silly not so much because it’s wrong but because it’s actually explicit in the movie: The fact that the Overlook is built on an old Indian burial ground is an essential part of the story’s ghostly, return-of-the-repressed logic.
Yet Kubrick, long fascinated by advertising, became deeply interested in how television commercials employed 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. What was unique about how Kubrick did this is that he wanted the effect on the audience to be unconscious. I was intrigued, for instance, and convinced to a degree by one fellow’s conviction that Kubrick interlaced The Shining with World War II imagery — Jack Torrance’s German typewriter, the repeated use of the number 42 (the year the Nazis decided to go all in with the Final Solution). Where the theory goes a bit overboard is that it’s perfectly possible for a movie to reference that kind of imagery for its dark associations without implying that the entire movie is “about” the Holocaust. In Blue Velvet, for instance, it’s no accident that Isabella Rossellini’s dark lady lives on Lincoln Street and that the evil Frank’s last name is Booth. David Lynch buried those names in the movie as a kind of invisible nightmare-historical joke. It doesn’t mean that Blue Velvet is really, deep down, a movie about the assassination of President Lincoln.
Yet Room 237, which has been put together with great cunning and love of cinema by its director and editor, Rodney Ascher, sucks 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 movie makes the past into the present. Or even — and this is where I really knew that it had hooked me — when it makes the case that Kubrick not only faked the moon landing but recast The Shining as an allegory of his hiding of that secret. For about 10 minutes, I sat there going, “Yes, I see that! That is what he meant in that scene! And the moon-landing footage really does look like outtakes from 2001!” That’s what great conspiracy theory does: It sucks 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.)
The mystery that Room 237 finally solved, at least for me, is why The Shining exerts such fascination as an experience even though it doesn’t fully work as a movie. Kubrick was so preoccupied with his signs and symbols (the Dopey decal on the door!), and with the preposterously looming and gargantuan multi-chambered architecture of his set, that for him they really did become more important than the domestic-meltdown story of Stephen King’s novel. (King was writing about male rage at the new feminist world.) Kubrick made a horror movie in which the Jungian subtext was etched, like a series of advertising winks at the audience, into the seemingly objective details of every frame. That’s ingenious…and maybe also a form of creative madness. Yet because the movie actually falls flat as horror (look, it’s Jack with an ax! Oh, run and hide from him! Run around that maze!), that flatness, along with the fantastically overdetermined, overbright wigginess of the movie’s rhythm and texture (those candy-apple-red bathroom walls! that so-portentous-it’s-sitcom-Pinter job-interview scene! those suburban-acid-trip hallway rugs! and what’s up with Lloyd the bartender?), coerces us into focusing all the more on its skeleton key of “meaning.” So watch Room 237 and delight in the fact that The Shining is really about genocide, World War II, the moon landing, and the minotaur at the center of the maze (hint: just check out the poster of the skiier). And 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.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes:
Cannes: ‘On the Road,’ starring Garrett Hedlunt and Kristen Stewart, is a reverent, if not overly faithful ramble Cannes: ‘The Paperboy,’ starring Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman, proves that ‘Precious’ director Lee Daniels needs common sense to go with his talent