Horror fans are obsessive by nature. We almost have to be. Horror is a genre that’s practically built on hidden references. For instance, virtually all of the characters in 1986’s Night of the Creeps are named after famous horror directors. And if you don’t know what David Cronenberg looks like, you miss a perfect high-five opportunity when he briefly appears as a gynecologist in 1986’s The Fly. Horror references are looping and perpetual, a hidden language that only die-hard fans are able to speak and understand. A casual fan can enjoy a horror movie on a surface level, but when the references start trickling in, he’s like a child eating dinner at the grown-up table––loving the atmosphere, but missing all the subtle sexual puns.
This is a very roundabout way of saying that I loved the documentary Room 237––so far it’s one of my favorite films of this year’s Sundance festival––but it’s also a difficult movie to recommend. This is a movie for movie obsessives. More specifically, those who are obsessed with 1980‘s The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s scary-as-hell adaptation of Stephen King’s scary-as-hell bestseller. In Room 237 director Rodney Ascher unveils the spoken ideas of 5 different interview subjects who believe they have found hidden meaning in the film. One interviewee believes that The Shining is a metaphor for the holocaust, citing numerous examples, including the repeated appearance of the number 42 (2 x 3 x 7 = 42). Another theory postulates that the movie is Kubrick’s way of admitting he helped fake the 1968 moon landing, noting the Apollo rocket shirt Danny favors. Some see sex, some see Native Americans, but everyone sees something different when watching Kubrick’s cult classic.
Ascher never shows his inverviewees, (at the screening I attended, he said he preferred to have the ideas dominate the picture, not the interview subjects), but their constant chatter makes up the bulk of the running time. As they assert their various theories in background voiceover, the visual is essentially a 100-minute montage. Ascher has assembled clips from past Kubrick films, public domain horror pictures, and of course, The Shining, into a creative, mesmerizing package. Much of the fun of Room 237 lies with trying to recognize the source of the clips (“Oh! Oh! Demons! That’s from Demons!”), which again, leaves a beginner-level horror fan out of the equation.
Many of the ideas presented are preposterous and absurd, but every interview subject has a point or two that’s surprisingly relevant. The film as a whole is insanely thought-provoking. And more importantly, whether it’s discussing subliminal Hitler mustaches or implied erections, Room 237 is consistently entertaining. But this is coming from someone who has seen The Shining more than 20 times. Will a casual fan be as entertained as I was? I’m not so sure.