The 16th annual Indie Memphis Film Festival begins this year on Halloween.
Appropriately, then, the organization is getting a jump on the holiday with a horror-themed double feature Tuesday night that brings two much-anticipated movies to the Malco Studio on the Square for their Memphis debuts.
A flashpoint for passionate film-fan debate since its debut at the 2012 Sundance festival, director Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237” is “an inquiry into ‘The Shining’ in 9 parts,” according to its subtitle.
Beautifully constructed and enormously entertaining, this film essay investigates several of the cults of interpretation and obsession that have attached themselves to Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic in the more than 30 years since its release, from the notion that “The Shining” is a commentary on American Indian genocide to the more fanciful claim that the movie is the director’s confession that he faked the Apollo 11 moon landing footage for NASA.
Like “The Shining” itself, “Room 237” becomes something of a push into madness, as the initially clever critical deconstructions become as twisted as the corridors of the Overlook Hotel and as convoluted as the hedge maze in which the ax-wielding Jack Nicholson stalked his psychic screen son, played by Danny Lloyd.
The second movie, “Antiviral,” is the debut feature from Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg. The elder Cronenberg has been labeled “the king of venereal horror” for such gruesome movies as “Rabid” and “The Brood,” and “Antiviral” demonstrates that the diseased tumor doesn’t fall far from the infected corpse, so to speak: It’s a movie of smart, satirical science-fiction concepts and disturbing bloody images.
Named for a forbidden room that has a strange attraction for deranged writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson), “Room 237” is extensively illustrated with clips from “The Shining,” other Kubrick films and related movies. (Lamberto Bava’s “Demons” is an appropriate key source: Set inside a movie theater, the 1985 shocker follows a group of people who are transformed into monsters while watching a horror film.) The clips help illustrate the theories of Ascher’s interview subjects, who never are shown on camera, so we react to their arguments, not their faces.
These “Shining” obsessives range from credible scholars to far-out conspiracy theorists. Geoffrey Cocks, a professor of history at Albion College, thinks the movie contains “a deeply laid subtext that takes on the Holocaust.” (A key piece of evidence is that Nicholson uses an Adler typewriter, and “Adler” is the German word for eagle — and an eagle was a symbol of the Nazis.) “I kept watching the film again and again,” says Cocks, who could be speaking for all the interviewees. “I began to see patterns and details.”
For the most part, these people seem to believe that the continuity errors that plague film productions were unknown to the “genius” Kubrick. “Most anything in his films can’t be regarded as arbitrary,” Cocks says. Perfectly normal tree branches, barely visible through a window, are described by one fan as “tendrilly sinister.”
Another says that in “The Shining,” Kubrick “found a way to dig into all the patterns of our civilization, our times, our culture.” Yet another makes the astonishing claim that in “The Shining,” Kubrick “is thinking about the implications of everything that exists.” Wow.
I’m the guy who compared the conclusion of “The Incredible Melting Man” (1977) to that of Samuel Beckett’s novel “Murphy,” so I can relate to extreme critical interpretation. What’s fascinating about “Room 237,” however, is that it’s not just about the impact of certain movies on certain audiences; it’s also an essay about the human need to reject the notion of a random universe and find order and meaning and pattern in existence. These people are developing their own creation myths, with Stanley Kubrick the mastermind responsible for this particular world’s Intelligent Design.
Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, the second feature, “Antiviral,” lacks the momentum and intensity of the best of papa David Cronenberg’s work, but its premise is clever enough to have been conceived by the older director or by his favorite writers, J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs.
“Antiviral” imagines a very near future in which the “cultural disease” of celebrity obsession has reached, as one character says, a literally “unhealthy level”: For the ultimate connection with the object of their adoration, fans may pay to have themselves infected with viruses — the common cold, for example, or even herpes — cultivated from the famous and beautiful.
Best known as Banshee in “X-Men: First Class,” Caleb Landry Jones — a pale, freckled epicene redhead, who suggests a somewhat more masculine Tilda Swinton or one of the young Rolling Stones — stars as Syd March, an employee at a clinic that sells the harvested bugs. He’s also a corporate pirate, injecting himself with celebrity viruses that he sells to black market entrepreneurs. (At one point, Henrietta Lacks, the African-American cancer patient made famous by formerly Memphis-based author Rebecca Skloot in her nonfiction best-seller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is name-dropped; Lacks died in 1951, but the cancer cells cultivated from her body for research live on.)
Needless to say, Syd soon becomes involved in “something sinister,” to quote a physician portrayed by Malcolm McDowell, whose Kubrick connection via “A Clockwork Orange” links this film to “Room 237” while also revealing one of Brandon Cronenberg’s key influences: The clean white antiseptic design of “Antiviral” seems inspired by “Clockwork” and by the Pop Art, advertising and fashion magazine images of the late 1960s and early 1970s that influenced Kubrick.
Eventually, the blood does splatter, but the movie is provocative more for its ideas than its grotesqueries. “Antiviral” is imperfect, but — like one of the story’s “celebrity cell steaks” — it’s a promising beginning for a career that should grow into something much more chewy and meaty.