[9 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Over the last few weeks, my fellow films critics and I have been having an interesting debate. No, it’s not who will win Best Picture or why certain studios fail to screen specific titles for us. Instead, we’ve been arguing over the documentary Room 237 - you know the one, Rodney Ascher’s film about the various secret interpretations and intentions within Stanley Kubrick’s “horror masterpiece” The Shining. In said movie, the filmmaker follows a group of individuals and pseudo scholars as they argue that one of the greatest cinematic auteurs in the history of the artform turned Stephen King’s novel about a haunted hotel into an apology for the Native American genocide, an explanation of the Holocaust, a mea culpa for Kubrick faking the moon landing, and at least two other equally obtuse deconstructions. For some in my brother (and sister)-hood, the project is akin to mental masturbation. It’s geek obsessives fetishizing a film that, for the most part, seems pretty straight forward.
On the other hand, it definitely thought provoking and it got us thinking - are there any movies that I/we/you love that fall into this category - to wit, are their famous films that you have a differing interpretation of than the vast majority of the moviegoing masses? For me, that’s a loaded question. I always enjoy finding hidden meaning in things, from in-jokes and referential names to obvious homages and outright steals. But when arguing over a film and questioning the intent of the filmmaker, the answer are usually pretty obvious. To me, The Shining was always a weird amalgamation of Kubrick’s studied cinematic style and an attempt at making a purely post modern horror film. Jack Nicholson is not scary so much as absolutely nuts and a lot of the things King used to creep a reader out were purposefully left out by Kubrick. I’m a fan, but decidedly not a convert. So for me, Room 237 seemed excessive. It’s not fun like listening to Quentin Tarantino deconstruct “Like a Virgin” in Reservoir Dogs or Top Gun in Sleep With Me.
Still, I do have my own Room 237, so to speak - movies which have me thinking on a whole other level besides the basic ones the writer(s) and director intended, and the recent peer-based discussion had me feeling secure. So…why not? Why not air out my own oddball takes on at least two of the films in my own private Rodney Ascher document? Best of all, they’re horror films, offerings within a genre that, like The Shining, seem ripe for reinterpretation. You may think my takes are obvious, or completely out of line, but that’s quite all right. As one of my friends said during our online chat, the great thing about Room 237 is not the film itself, but the fact that it has us looking at movies in different ways. Exactly.
My Own Private Room 237 #1 - The Exorcist is a Metaphor for the Generation Gap
When it was released in 1973, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist caused the kind of cultural shitstorm we don’t see much from film nowadays. Priests and other religious figures condemned it while theater owners protested the constant stink of vomit emanating from their careful cleaned theaters (this was 40 years ago, remember). Viewers would get physically sick during the film, stirred to such levels of nausea by Dick Smith’s still amazing special effects. As the media amped up the hype, showcasing the rare instances where ambulances had to be called and inferring that Friedkin had somehow unleashed his own brand of Revelations on unsuspecting moviegoers, the legacy grew. Soon, stories on the real life basis behind the narrative were everywhere, with Catholic officials confirming that, indeed, exorcism was an old ritual “rarely used” in the modern world.
So, how did a sophisticated horror film about a young girl presumably possessed by a demon and one mother’s fight to save her soul become such a social phenomenon? Easy - the film really isn’t about the Devil and his influence on our contemporary existence. Instead, it’s a veiled metaphor for the growing post-‘60s generation gap. For those of us who lived in the era, one thing was abundantly clear - the cultural changes brought on by the anti-War movement, Beatlemania (and the accompanying British invasion), the hippie uprising, and the entire free love thing, threw the Establishment for a major, menacing loop. They didn’t know what to do. Heck, just flashing a peace sign in school could get you sent to the Principal’s Office in my middle school. Anyway, psychiatrists and their publicity minded mentor, Dr. Joyce Brothers, hit every chat show they could to comment on the growing divide between parents and their kids. It was eventually labeled “The Generation Gap.”
Sure, it still exists today. It’s even become a cliche. You hear it all the time, the “things were better in my day” rants that have become as frequent as “the kids these days” denouncements - and The Exorcist is a primer on such platitudes. We have a well off single mother whose moved her disconnected daughter from one film set to the next, each time causing chaos in her life. Little Regan is becoming a woman, hitting the age where her body is going through some crazy, complex changes. Her absentee father is barely in the picture and Mom likes to shack up with a sleazy director who enjoys his drink. So, naturally, she rebels, and it’s this “rebellion” that makes up the majority of the movie. At first, we have the standard outbursts, the public embarrassments, and the typical run to a suite of doctors to try and figure out what is wrong. As things grow worse, Regan abusing herself sexually, denouncing God, and acting out in more vile and violent ways, Mom seeks solace in the traditional. It’s the Church who comes to the rescue, acting like a moral arbitrator between parent and child. In the end, religion “sacrifices” itself so that Regan can “repent” and be “reborn.” She is healed, and so is the Mother/Daughter dynamic.
Back in the ‘70s, this was every parent’s nightmare…and dream resolution. Nothing physically or psychologically wrong with your increasingly unfathomable kid. Just a sickness of the soul that’s easily cured with a bit of Holy Water and a heaping helping of the Good Book - oh, and a melancholy priest eager to throw himself down a flight of stairs for you.
My Own Private Room 237 #2 - Hellraiser is Every Married Man’s Worst Nightmare
Clive Barker was an unknown British author when none other than Stephen King blurbed his Books of Blood, calling him “The Future of Horror.” As a result, his sales skyrocketed and he was given a chance to make a movie. He decided to turn his tale “The Hellbound Heart” into a film, with the results being the brilliant Hellraiser. Gory and gripping, with just enough esoteric twaddle to keep us fright fans intrigued and arguing, the production presented Barker to a wider audience and propelled his career ever forward. It’s a modern macabre classic, working on several levels at once.
The basic storyline sees a newly married widower returning to his familial home in England, slightly disgruntled UK wife and stand-offish adolescent daughter in tow. Our hero soon learns that his no good brother has been squatting in the place, but has since vanished. The new Missus is intrigued by this development because, unbeknownst to her hubby, she had an affair with his sibling before the marriage. She adores him. She’s devoted to him. She’ll do ANYTHING for him. We also discover that Bro had been experimenting with something called The Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that, when solved, calls a group of demonic emissaries who provide a typically deadly combination of pleasure and pain.
So “Frank” found this out and was killed. Later, when his brother cuts himself, spilling blood on the floor, a creepy corpse like monster rises from the floor. It’s Frank, and wouldn’t you know it, but the minute Mrs. Newlywed sees her bloody former beau, she’s all hot to trot. The rest of the film finds this woman seducing and murdering men, all so that her former fling can regain his body parts and reestablish his place in her bed. So while her husband is working, trying to set up a new life with a new wife,. she is heading to bars, coming on to strangers, and then bringing them to Frank so he can drain their essence. Like I said - she’ll do ANYTHING for him.
Talk about a marital deal breaker! This is every husband’s worst nightmare: the realization that your spouse will reduce themselves to baser, carnal instincts, including going on a killing spree and having sex with a reanimated corpse, just to screw up your wedding vows. She will even keep the regenerating body of her lover in the room upstairs just to make sure that he’s available when she needs him. Now men (and women, for that matter) are always convinced that their significant other will cheat on them, and do it in a manner that’s sneaky and surreptitious. But in this case, all the horror can be tossed aside for what is, in essence, a kitchen sink drama with demons and dead bodies. All the anti-religion psychobabble can rot. Frank is a force to be reckoned with in this marriage - alive AND dead.