Spoilers for Ready Player One below.
Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One is full of references to ‘80s pop culture: video games, board games, music, movies – and that includes horror. So we were eager to see how many horror references director Steven Spielberg could scatter throughout his adaptation of Cline’s book (read my SXSW review here).
The answer is: plenty! Inside The Oasis, the virtual reality world of the future created by an ‘80s pop culture-obsessed billionaire genius, we see lightning-fast glimpses of or references to some iconic horror characters, like Freddy Krueger and Stephen King’s Christine (both of which made their way into the trailer and/or San Diego Comic-Con footage), Beetlejuice (he counts, right?), Michael Jackson in Thriller, the chestburster from Alien, Madballs, The Fly and Chucky. (Of all of these, Chucky was the biggest crowd-pleaser.) And if you counts kaijus and mechas, we’ve also got King Kong, the Iron Giant, Mecha Godzilla and Gundam.
None of these, save King Kong and Iron Giant, are onscreen for more than a few seconds; they’re each just a blip in a long series of blips. Ready Player One is stuffed to the gills with references, and most of them are just shoved onscreen for a hot minute in one of the many crowded action sequences. As Spielberg himself said in his intro, the “side windows” are the references and the “windshield” is the story. In other words, you could spend the entire movie watching the outer frames of the screen for allusions to the dozens of other pop culture properties that are nodded to in Ready Player One, and in doing so most likely miss a big chunk of the main action.
But there’s one horror movie that gets much more than a nod. And it just so happens to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
For the second of three quests our protagonist Parzival (Tye Sheridan) must accomplish to win control of The Oasis and keep it out of the hands of the evil corporation IOI, he’s given a clue that mentions “the creator who hates his creation.” Coupled with a few other hints, this clue leads Parzival to The Shining, because author Stephen King notoriously despised Kubrick’s adaptation. (As a lifelong King stan, please allow me to say that he’s wrong.)
Parzival, along with his friends Aech (Lena Waithe) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), make their way to the virtual Overlook Theatre, with an old-fashioned marquee trumpeting The Shining. As they walk inside, they find the lobby of the Overlook hotel, the rustic southwest design we all know so well. They wander into Jack’s office off of the lobby, and there they find his trusty typewriter, with pages upon pages of “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” of course, only this time the words form the shape of keys on the page, in honor of Ready Player One’s key quests.
The kids get separated, because that’s what happens in horror movies. Aech follows a ball that bounces through the lobby and takes him to the second floor, at which point the audience started giggling in nervous anticipation. He walks past a framed photo of Overlook guests of the past, then sees the twins in their blue dresses in front of the red elevator. The elevator does what that elevator does, which is to say it opens and floods the hallway with an ocean of blood that sweeps Aech off his feet and to – you guessed it!- room 237.
He meets the young/old naked woman from the bathtub, before an axe – Jack’s axe, presumably, although we never see the wielder – breaks through the door, and suddenly Aech is running through a tiny model of the icy labyrinth while a giant axe chops after him. The scene culminates with a ghostly ballroom scene that looks like nothing so much as the ball in Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, before everything dissolves into a zombie fight, because Ready Player One can never be just one thing.
It’s a really fun scene, and it’s pretty insane watching Spielberg riff on Kubrick by way of Cline. AND it turns out that the black and white photo of previous Overlook guests isn’t just a visual high-five to Kubrick’s film, but also another crucial clue in Parzival’s quest. But if you’re wondering if any of the main characters of The Shining show up, I’ve got bad news for you: Danny’s not here, Mrs. Torrance.