Recommended Viewing Situation:
Contemplating my black heart by the dwindling fire.
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ marked my baptism into the horror genre. My years were far too tender but watching Westerns at an even younger age possibly prepared me somewhat. (Neither genre upset me as acutely as Lassie films; I have vivid memories of fleeing to the stairs and through tears of anger – at the film industry, for allowing Lassie to suffer – announcing my intention to stay there until receiving assurances that the nation’s canine sweetheart was going to make it.) ‘Omen’ was the next horror to draw me in and then ‘Carrie’, which was the first one to scare me. Along came the ‘80s and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and although I was still too young to watch the initial burst of movies from this franchise, I was a seasoned horror fan by then and managed to terrify myself by watching all of them. Wes Craven is responsible for much progression within the genre but on a personal level, he is responsible for blighting my teen years with torturous nightmares and sleepless nights, when I almost suffocated under my duvet while my wall bulged above my head (of course it did) and a man in a stripy jumper resided under my bed, waiting to liquidise me while I slept. I owe him so much.
My intense relationship with this genre was not something I undertook alone; thankfully, I had company as one of my best friends joined me in the white-knuckle ride of despair through these fearsome flicks. According to psychologists, a love of horror movies is a typical feature of adolescence. My teen movie buddy and I have not moved on, however, as we still enjoy lurching from terror from terror, although his viewing now takes place (to quote him) ‘through my fingers’.
My tastes have matured though and I have become more discerning. Horror movies can be a dreadful experience for the wrong reasons and whereas I am open-minded about innovative ways to scare an audience, I have expectations regarding the conventions of horrors. If a director deviates too much from these conventions, the fear factor can be lost. And like humour, fear changes over time. What scares an audience in one decade, might not scare them in the next. So, a horror that continues to terrify people more than three decades after its release, must be a masterpiece … and that surely describes Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. Like Overlook Hotel itself, it presides over all others of its kind at the pinnacle of my own personalised hierarchy. I am so in awe of every facet of it, that I don’t feel worthy of reviewing it. So I won’t, but that was never the purpose of this feature anyway.
The opening of ‘The Amityville Horror’ (2005) is a montage of images acting as a prologue: it tells the story of a man murdering his family. An effective way of giving us the backstory, if a little unnecessary and a lot GCSE Media. Then the story begins … director Andrew Douglas chose the ‘happy families’ beginning and we are introduced to George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds), his wife Kathy (Melissa George) and Kathy’s young children. We learn that George is their stepfather and their real dad has died. Life is good … our yummy couple are still in the throes of the honeymoon period and the two youngest children, Chelsea (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Michael (Jimmy Bennett) are saccharine sweet. The eldest child, Billy (Jesse James) assumes the role of thoughtful, reflective adolescent struggling to come to terms with a new step-dad or, put simply, grumpy teenager. Mum and step-dad go to view a house and on the way there are some bird’s eye view shots of their car, as seen in The Shining. A popular camera angle for a horror, to give us a sense of someone or something watching. They arrive at the house and it is a bright autumnal day, reminiscent of the Torrances’ arrival day at the hotel. Very different from the shot of the same house at the start of the movie, standing firm against wind and rain. Good use of pathetic fallacy and again, not unusual in a horror. A fleeting shot of a shadow in the hallway, noticed by the realtor but not the couple, provides us with a soupcon of dramatic irony, a feature of many movies, but especially horrors.
Twenty minutes in and Chelsea makes friends with Jodie, whose hole in her forehead gives away her status as dead. Almost identical timing to The Shining’s introduction to (to quote Joey from ‘Friends’) the ‘little girl ghosts’ that Danny (Danny Lloyd) sees with increasing regularity. But whereas Danny is suitably shocked by the arrival of the ‘come play with us Danny forever’ twins, Chelsea seems very jolly about her playmate with the draughty head.
We are thrown the occasional crumb of information about Overlook Hotel’s grim past, unlike the heaving platter of information that we are fed about the past of the Lutzs’ new home. Both involve massacres by men, inflicted on their families. Increasing tension between current fathers and their families is characteristic of both movies.
The enigmatic ‘redrum’ message relayed by Danny and eventually explained by way of a mirror in The Shining, is emulated in The Amityville Horror, with the magnetic fridge letters which magically shuffle round to display the words ‘katch ‘em and kill ‘em.’ Returning to mirrors, they are a useful tool in The Amityville Horror too; the dead use them to materialise, but this is not unusual in horror movies. They are used more intellectually in The Shining, not just to reveal the true message of ‘redrum’, but to symbolise the confusion surrounding the question of what is real.
In The Amityville Horror, George becomes obsessed with the basement, spending increasingly long periods of time down there and the audience becomes confused as to what is real, what is imagined and what could be neither … In the same way, Jack (Jack Nicholson) becomes obsessed with spending more and more time in the Gold Room in Overlook and his interactions with other characters are so vivid that as the audience, you question what phenomenon you are watching. Streams of blood, like tributaries branching off from the river of blood in The Shining, trickle through the basement in The Amityville Horror, serving as a suggestion of a bloody past. George hears a whispered voice, giving the same instruction as the letters on the fridge to ‘katch ‘em and kill ‘em’. Not dissimilar from the ghost of Grady (the previous caretaker of Overlook who murdered his family) telling Jack that he must ‘correct’ his family. Repeated (almost to farcical levels) shots of George’s axe emphasise that this will be his weapon of choice for the foreshadowed ‘katching’ and killing. Jack’s weapon of choice is also an axe, but with no foreshadowing, it comes as a surprise when he uses it to break down the bathroom door. The iconic shot from The Shining, of Jack’s leering face is fleetingly recreated in The Amityville Horror, when we glimpse a shot of George’s face through a hole he has created in a door with his axe. Maybe George watched The Shining …
It is not unusual for directors of scary movies to move the action to the bathroom at some point. Perhaps they want us to never feel safe in the bathroom again. Or perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s accolade of creating the ‘slasher’ genre within the more general thriller genre with ‘Psycho’ (1960) has pervaded into the subconscious of horror/thriller directors, with his famous, murderous bathroom scene of the aforementioned movie. It is a backdrop that particularly raises the audience’s stress levels; characters are vulnerable in the bathroom. They might be sleepy, having woken in the night with a need to visit the smallest room. They might be naked, about to shower or bath or in pyjamas only. If they need to use the loo, they will be even more vulnerable for a time. Water is present; water that can drown people or act as a portal to allow evil in. Mirrors will be on the wall and who knows what you might see staring back at you? Windows tend to be small, making a potential escape difficult. And of course, people tend to visit bathrooms alone. So both The Amityville Horror and The Shining, unsurprisingly, have a scary bath scene. George seeks medical help after his attempted drowning in the bath but Danny had already had medical help before going to Overlook, because of his funny turns.
Each storyline incorporates a male on the periphery who seems omniscient about the whole murky situation. Hallorann in The Shining, who is the only recipient, ultimately, of the axe which shows such promise in earlier scenes and the priest in The Amityville Horror, who tries to help, but disappointingly shuffles off the storyline into fearful oblivion. But the women in each movie defend themselves and their families identically by rendering their men helpless with blows to the head. Kathy is surprisingly confident that if they get George away from the house, then all will be well. Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is not that confident and having unsuccessfully locked Jack in a walk-in refrigerator, ultimately leaves him behind, escaping with Danny in a snow plough with a friendly face, not unlike the face-like front of the house in The Amityville Horror.
And thus ends twenty-eight days of terror in The Amityville Horror. Slightly longer in The Shining and the reason we are so aware of the time frame of each story, is because we are told in similar ways via subtitles, what day it is.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, apparently, but who is imitating whom? ‘The Shining’ was released in 1980 and ‘The Amityville Horror’ in 2005, so it would seem that the latter imitated the former. However, there was another Amityville Horror movie released in 1979. Similar to the 2005 version in the basic story only, it does not possess the striking resemblance to The Shining that its successor does. But, claiming to be a true story, it is based on a book published in 1977, three years before The Shining was released. However, the latter was also based on a book, also published in 1977. So which book came first? The Shining, by Stephen King, came out in the January and The Amityville Horror, by Jay Anson, came out in the September. So The Shining leads the way every time. That said, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is quite different from the book, unlike The Amityville Horror, which is fairly closely allied to the book. However, the book has been subject to scrutiny and controversy since its launch: sceptics claim that it is mostly fabrication and so is liable to alteration in order to please an audience whenever someone sees fit to crowbar the story into a film.
If this situation was reversed and The Shining had been influenced by The Amityville Horror, it would not matter. The Shining is arguably the best horror movie ever made and regardless of inspiration, influence, flattery … Whatever one wishes to call it, Stanley Kubrick created an unsurpassed feast of fear in this movie. But the situation is not reversed and he did all of that without copying someone else’s story (true or not).
From the second we take our first breaths, we are no longer blank slates. It is the human condition to be inspired and affected by our experiences, as that is how we learn, so we have to cut creators some slack when we question originality. Some argue that there is no such thing as true originality, because experience shapes our creations. But there is inspiration and plain imitation and if an artist wishes to indulge in the latter, then it has to be worth the inevitable criticism and therefore, one should take the time to thoroughly peruse the outcome of attempting to imitate an already flawless masterpiece.