‘My Amityville Horror’ and ‘Room 237’
Hey, here I am! Back with another couple of reviews. I wanted to try something a little different this time around and toss a couple of documentaries into the mix. These movies kept popping up as Netflix suggestions so I broke down and gave them a look. The two of them together also provide a bit of an unintended, but still very cool, skeptical theme for this post.
My Amityville Horror (2012) — Written and Directed by Eric Walter. Starring Daniel Lutz, Susan Bartell, Laura DiDio, Marvin Scott, Lorraine Warren, Elizabeth Loftus.
Any short list of famous horror films from the 1970s is likely to include 1979’s The Amityville Horror, which is based upon the 1977 book of the same name written by Jay Anson. Both the film and the book describe the supposedly true paranormal activity experienced by the Lutz family during their brief residence of a large home in Amityville, New York, forcing them to flee after twenty-eight days. They claimed to encounter, among other things, swarms of flies, visions of demons, green slime oozing from the walls, a pig with red glowing eyes outside the window of upper floors, and invisible forces slamming shut windows and doors. It has been some time since I’ve seen the original film and though it might have had a couple of creepy moments I don’t recall being particularly impressed by it. The Amityville Horror is more likely famous for the sensation surrounding the “true events” of the story rather than for its quality.
My Amityville Horror is directed by Eric Walter, self-appointed online historian of the Amityville haunting. His website amityvillefiles.com claims to be the “largest web-based archive of Amityville-related research on the web.” After perusing the site for a couple of minutes, I can accept that claim. My Amityville Horror is a documentary not about the house itself but about the oldest of the three Lutz children, Daniel, who was ten years old during their short stay in Amityville. Now in his late 40s he is a stocky, formidable guy who looks like his grip would crush your hand in a handshake. The gaze from his intense blue eyes seems suspicious as though he’s trying to figure out what you’re up to, though that may simply be his reaction to being placed under the scrutiny of a feature length documentary based on an aspect of his life he’s reluctant to discuss.
Seeing his reluctance I’m not sure how he was persuaded to take part in this film but his aspect of the Amityville Horror tale is fascinating. He explains the circumstances surrounding his family and his mother’s marriage to his stepfather, George Lutz, who sounds like a major asshole. George forced Daniel and his siblings to take his last name as though placing a stamp of ownership on the children. He had a military background which apparently informed his parenting style by turning him into his step children’s drill sergeant. “He had no parent skills,” Daniel tells us. We are told there was violence in the home, both before and after Amityville but we are given little detail, though Daniel does mention that he tried to kill George several times. Thinking of George’s death (he died of heart disease in 2006) is one of the few times we get to see Daniel smile.
If you were hoping to hear Daniel reveal that the famous tale of Amityville is a hoax, you’ll be disappointed. He has a multitude of stories about paranormal events in the home. Daniel describes encountering the swarm of flies in the home, killing several of them only to have the bodies disappear. He explains how his and his brother’s beds levitated and violently slammed into the ceiling. He details a window he was trying to open falling and smashing onto his hands, his fingers on both hands crushed with “skin on skin”. Then a spirit passed by him and his hand, though still damaged, appeared to be normal again, except for the pinky, which is still misshapen.
Daniel blames the hauntings and paranormal activity on his stepfather, who he claims was practicing the occult “full swing” when he entered their lives. He describes George’s bookcase as being filled with books on the occult and “mind control”, among other related subjects. He describes seeing George Lutz practicing telekinesis in the garage, moving a wrench only with his mind. Watching him recall these fantastic stories I get the sense that he’s not making them up and he fully believes they happened to him. Whatever took place in the Amityville house his experiences there have gone a long way to shaping who he is, as much as he seems to want to leave it behind.
Late in the film we hear from psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus, an expert on human memory. She explains the fallibility of memory and the mind’s tendency to alter the stories we create about our experiences. Though some might think so, memory is not like a video tape recorder. Our minds are susceptible to many different types of suggestion that cause us to create memories of events that might never have happened. Loftus explains that Daniel may have enhanced the story to make it more interesting or unconsciously incorporated details from other sources, from the film for instance, turning them into an actual memory of his experiences. Despite Daniel’s apparent honesty and genuine belief that paranormal events took place in the home I find Loftus’s explanation to be much more plausible than spirits, demons, and telekinetic powers. Skeptic that I am, it will take more than personal anecdotes to make me a believer in the paranormal. But understandably enough, I don’t think Daniel will be convinced that he could be fabricating many of these events.
His story about the window smashing his hands to “skin on skin” reminds me of the time my left hand was caught in a car door, though I did not suffer the extent of the injuries he describes. When I first looked at my fingers it looked like something out of a cartoon, with a big crease and my fingers appearing to be bent upward at a wild angle. I quickly and tightly flexed my fingers, making a fist with my hand and then opening it up. My fingers looked normal again. My wife even commented on how bizarre my hand had looked.
At one point during the film Daniel visits paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren who famously investigated the case in 1976 with her husband, Ed, not long after the Lutzes fled the home. They, of course, declared the place to be a “magnet for demonic spirits”. We get a glimpse of the Warrens’ trophy room, including a quick peek of the infamous Raggedy Ann doll locked up in its case with a warning never to open it. As Danny speaks with Lorraine he receives some validation from her that George’s occult activities may have been the lightning rod that attracted evil spirits to the home. Danny is visibly moved as the conversation continues and Lorraine brings out a cross that she claims contains a piece of wood from the cross on which Jesus was crucified. “Wow,” Danny mouths to the camera, entirely buying it.
On his website director Eric Walter states “This is a portrait of a man who has been literally indoctrinated into these events – and how he copes with that indoctrination”. That’s pretty much spot on. My Amityville Horror makes a considerable effort to remain objective about the events surrounding the home instead letting Daniel tell his side of the story. Whether or not his perception of the events is correct, and I highly doubt that they are, it makes for a sad yet fascinating look at a man haunted by the trauma he suffered during his youth.
Room 237 (2012) Directed by Rodney Ascher. Starring Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner.
Stanley Kubrick’s films are so layered and full of fascinating imagery, and just so damned good, that repeat viewings of his movies are almost necessary. The Shining is perhaps the… ahem… “shining” example of this. Kubrick’s film, released in 1980, is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King and stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance and Shelley Duvall as Torrance’s wife, Wendy. The couple travel with their son Danny, played by Danny Lloyd, up the mountains to the Overlook Hotel where Jack will be the winter caretaker during the off season. He plans to use the isolation of the location to focus on finishing his novel. But strange, frightening things start happening to the new residents of the Overlook Hotel. Either the Hotel is haunted or the Torrance family is collectively going insane or both. The Shining is a riveting, tense, and confusing experience that leaves its viewers with many questions.
Room 237 does not directly explore the ambiguities of Kubrick’s film but instead introduces us to a handful of people obsessed with The Shining. These are not film scholars but fans of the film who watch it over and over again, pausing, rewinding, looking for clues and patterns that might reveal Kubrick’s hidden message. To be fair these aren’t all Internet Anybodies; one is an award winning journalist and another is a history professor from Michigan. But to listen to them drone on and on about The Shining you’d think you’re in a chat room of poor souls who suffer from some kind of cinematic OCD.
Their theories on the hidden meaning behind The Shining range from vaguely plausible to utterly ridiculous. Your forehead will sting and turn crimson from all the facepalming. We start things off with Bill Blakemore, the award winning journalist who believes Kubrick is saying something about the genocide of the Native Americans during the westward expansion of North America. He points to cans of Calumet baking powder and Indian decorative elements in the Hotel as evidence. History professor Geoffrey Cocks believes Kubrick is commenting upon the Holocaust. He places a great deal of significance on the German typewriter Jack uses, an Adler, which is German for “eagle”. Playwright and novelist Juli Kearns makes a big deal of the nearly impossible layout of the hotel. This combined with a poster of a skier that looks, to her, like a minotaur, leads her to believe The Shining is a retelling of the Greek myth of Theseus.
But the theory that will make you spit out your cereal is the notion put forth by Jay Weidner that The Shining is Kubrick’s confession that he filmed the moon landing. Go ahead and take a few moments to laugh. Bits of evidence he points to are the design and layout on the carpet that is supposed to look like Cape Canaveral and the image of the Apollo 11 rocket on one of Danny’s sweaters. Weidner also believes that 2001 was Kubrick’s practice run for the event. He has, of course, put together his own films about this subject. I sure do envy the amount of free time some people have.
Kubrick was, of course, a fantastic, visionary director who put a great deal of thought into his films, perhaps more than most other filmmakers. But as cryptic as he could sometimes be I doubt he intended his audience to work as hard as these people do. There are far more reasonable explanations for the presence of cans of Calumet baking powder or why Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater. The interviewees go on about how Kubrick was known to obsess over the details in his film, which he probably did but not to the extent these people do. They see mistakes as significant clues instead of the simple goofs they are. Apparently Kubrick was such a master of cinema that he would never allow an error in his finished product.
Room 237 meshes well with the Michael Shermer book I am currently reading, The Believing Brain. In it Shermer describes what he calls “patternicity” or “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”. Room 237 is such a perfect set of examples of “patternicity” that the DVD for the movie should accompany this book. Our brains have evolved this way because it is safer to react to a rustling in the bushes as though it is a predator even if it is simply the wind blowing through the leaves. Thinking that rustle is just the wind when there may be a lion in the brush is potentially lethal. This may give us a clue as to why people believe in things like ghosts or aliens or the idea that The Shining was meant to be viewed forwards and backwards simultaneously and superimposed.
As fascinating as all of these bizarre ideas about The Shining are, unfortunately Room 237 itself is a bit of a mess so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. By the end it seems haphazardly slapped together as though the director, Rodney Ascher, ran out of time or simply lost patience and declared it to be good enough when it really needed more work. Midway through the film I lost track of who was speaking about what oddball theory but perhaps it really didn’t matter. Ascher avoids showing us the interviewees, instead letting us listen to them speak over clips from The Shining and other films, many of them Kubrick’s. Because of this structure and style Room 237 feels very much like a film grounded in today’s Internet culture where not only can anybody receive a significant amount of online attention for whatever bizarre ideas they have but can quickly edit something together on their laptop. I think this may be what Ascher was going for but unfortunately it doesn’t translate well. I think I would have rather seen a documentary focused on these interviewees stuck in a room together, debating their pet theories with a Hunger Games-style battle to the death as the capper.