It’s strange to me how I can think back as far as my adolescence and recall with relative clarity how I responded to certain movies at the time, yet memories of films seen in my adult years often leave me stumped. I was 21 when The Amityville Horror came out (not exactly yesterday, were talking 39 years ago, folks); but I can’t seem to recall exactly what I thought of it at the time. I mean, did I find it even remotely scary? Did I buy into any of that “Based on a True Story” hype? Did I find it then, as I do now, to be an entertaining parade of haunted house clichés and hoary horror film tropes?
Is there something paranormally suspicious about my inability to remember? Hmmm….
|James Brolin as George Lutz|
|Margot Kidder as Kathleen Lutz|
|Rod Steiger as Father Delaney|
|Don Stroud as Father Bolen|
I have only the haziest memory of The Amityville Horror as a bestselling 1977 novel prompted as a fictionization of the purported-to-be real-life tale of a family beset by a series of paranormal events in their Long Island home that was once the site of a mass murder. I had no interest in the book, nor do I even recall having paid much attention to news stories about the real-life DeFeo Murders that gave that distinctive-looking house it’s horror reputation (on November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed his parents and four three siblings in the home they shared in Amityville, Long Island).
What I do remember is that the film version of The Amityville Horror opened in the summer of 1979: two months after Ridley Scott’s mind-blowing Alien; one month after the hotly anticipated (by me), but wholly disappointing John Frankenheimer monster movie Prophecy; and two weeks after the bloodless Dracula re-up with Frank Langella.
My rapturous fondness for Alien—a film which reminded me that scary, innovative, intelligent, and well-acted can peaceably coexist—had placed me in a horror frame of mind that summer. Unfortunately, the diminishing returns proffered by the genre films released in Alien’s wake left me anticipating the opening of The Amityville Horror with an enthusiasm drastically disproportionate to my actual interest in the movie.
|The Amityville house lays out the unwelcome mat for Kathy's Aunt Helena (Irene Dailey)|
Chiefly propelled by a hope for a repeat of the jumped-out-of-my-seat thrills of Alien, plus a desire to see what actress Margot Kidder had chosen for her follow-up vehicle to her star-making turn as Lois Lane in the blockbuster Christmas 1978 release Superman: The Movie (still playing in second run theaters at the time); I stood in a long line on Hollywood Blvd on Friday, July 27th, to catch The Amityville Horror on opening night. The house was packed and the theater was abuzz with the kind of amped-up excitement only an R-rating, “Based on a True Story”-hype, and saturation marketing can produce (“For God’s Sake, Get Out!” screamed posters from billboards and bus shelters all over town).
|This House Pays For Itself|
Kathy's brother (Marc Vahanian) preps for his wedding as the house preps for a little self-help
The Amityville Horror goes for the semi-documentary approach in chronicling the strange occurrences that befall cash-strapped newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz (Brolin & Kidder) and their three kids (Kathy’s from a previous marriage) when they move into the spacious, obscenely affordable house that had just the year before been the site of a brutal mass killing. Charted with titles highlighting dates and times, I believe The Amityville Horror was a big hit with audiences at the time simply because it dispensed with a great deal of character and plot and dove headlong into trying to justify the presumptuous use of the word horror in its title.
Wasting no time, the film begins with graphic depictions of the shotgun murders of the DeFeo family (never named in the film), following this up whenever possible with closeups of characters “feeling uneasy” in the presence of odd camera angles and an imposing musical score. The house, distinctive and camera-ready from the start with its numerous jack-o-lantern closeups, is filmed so often and so flatteringly it becomes the Barbra Streisand of haunted houses, isolated (so much so that it appears to exist on another planet entirely) and always dead-center of the action.
Since the Lutz family only lived in the house for a month, it’s imperative that weird things start to happen to them right off the bat. Events unfold at such breakneck speed that only after the film is over does it dawn that those nondescript Lutz kids never go to school, or that George’s surveyor business suffers setbacks disproportionate to the brevity of his time away.
|While George obsessively continues to chop logs for the fire,|
Kathy laments the sudden wood shortage in their bedroom
...if you get my cruder meaning.
Because a haunted house/possession story is nothing without religious subtext, Kathy is Catholic. Or, more precisely, Hollywood Catholic. Which means she doesn’t actually go to church or display any discernible traits of devoutness, but she does paint Virgin Mary figurines, hang ginormous crucifixes all over the house, has an actual nun in her immediate family, and is given to grocery shopping in a fetish Catholic School Girl uniform.
Kathy’s Catholic background occasions her inviting priest and friend Father Delaney (Steiger) to come and bless the house. A bad idea for the puffy priest, but a bonanza for lovers of uncured ham and unbridled scenery-chewing. Rod Steiger’s appearance, ostensibly meant to signal the graveness of the Lutz’s situation and escalate the film’s drama, is so over-the-top it merely opens a hell-gate of hilarity.
|Fathers Delaney and Bowen, badly in need of a St. Christopher medal|
In the end, the scariest thing about The Amityville Horror is that this family of five occupying a three-story colonial doesn’t own a television set. The rest is an comfortably conventional, enjoyably cheesy, surprisingly by-the-numbers haunted house tale with its share of jump-cut shocks (hissing cats, loud noises, the old “I wake up screaming” trope, flashes of gore); and few genuine creep outs (the shotgun murders, the locked closet door, that weird little girl who looks like Robert Blake with a wig); and more than a few unintentional laughs (Brolin’s eye-popping mood swings, the cut-rate haunting special effects, the cartoonish reactions of visitors to the house).
|While Kathy & George stare aghast at the front door that's been mysteriously blown off its hinges,|
viewers get to stare at James Brolin's cobblers
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I have a hunch that both my infatuation with Margot Kidder and my initial ignorance of the story behind The Amityville Horror made that 1979 opening night screening an enjoyable one. But I’m just as certain that subsequent viewings of the film have been rooted in how enjoyably routine a movie it is. That’s certainly the case today. When I look at the film now, it plays like an end of the decade “best of” medley of all the supernatural horror films of the 1970s.
You could make a drinking game of the clichés.
The malevolent demon, ineffectual cop, the invisible friend: The Exorcist
The too-inexpensive-to-be-true, parasitic house: Burnt Offerings
Religious mumbo-jumbo: The Omen
House built over the gates of hell: The Sentinel
Serial killer possession: The Possession of Joel Delaney
Going back for the pet: Alien
And for good measure, you have an axe-wielding dad that predates The Shining by one year, plus a hyperactive house built above a burial ground that predates Poltergeist by two.
|Creepy Amy (Natasha Ryan) consults with Jody, her invisible friend|
The overall effect is of The Amityville Horror being something of a goulash horror creation. Everything but the kitchen sink (or bile-spilling toilet) seems to have been thrown into this mechanical mix of sure-fire horror standbys. Nothing wrong with that, but the film is so overcrowded with disparate ideas that it ends up with a ton of loose threads and setups introduced that fail to pay off. Happily, the whole undertaking manages to be repetitious without ever really being boring, so the film ends up as being inoffensively watchable as one of those Creature Features horror programmers aired on TV when I was a kid.
No matter the relative quality of the end results, no one associated with The Amityville Horror can be accused of phoning in their performance. A fact that proves to be both a blessing and curse.
Screenwriter Sandor Stern and director Stuart Rosenberg both come from television, which may account for every dramatic scene seeming to be structured to end in a fade out and commercial. As though to compensate for the film’s episodic pacing and structure, the entire cast performs at near-operatic pitch.
Although easy on the eyes, I can’t say James Brolin (he’ll always be Mr. Barbra Streisand to me) has ever made much of an impression on me. Here however, as the possessed George Lutz, Brolin has so many scenes where he gets to bellow, shout, and bug his eyes out, he quickly became my favorite character in the film. He's so consistently bitchy and surly, it's like watching a bearded Joan Crawford.
Margot Kidder, something of an early scream queen with her roles in Sisters, Black Christmas, and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, is the film’s bright spot, but is saddled with a role that has her doing what bad writers always have women do in horror movies: screaming and going around asking everybody if they’re OK. I love watching her though, and she remains a natural and relaxed presence even in the film’s most absurd moments.
|Rod Steiger, praying for an Oscar nomination|
As the concerned priest who becomes the target of the malevolent forces inhabiting the house, Steiger invests every moment onscreen with such ferocious overacting, I seriously thought in one scene his head was going to explode like that dude’s in Scanners. Steiger is taking risks and obviously committed to the role, but he mostly just succeeds in delivering an awe-inspiring, athletically awful performance that begs to seen at least once.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The Amityville Horror is guilty of not being very scary, which is a bit of a crime given that “horror” is part of the title; but, as someone once said about life that is also true of motion pictures: “The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.”
What The Amityville Horror skimps on in thrills, logic, and coherence, it more than makes up for in unintentional laughs.
Back in 1979 when the film had its best chance of being taken seriously, the public was obviously caught up enough in the film to make it one of the highest grossers of the year, but that didn’t stop the opening night audience I saw it with from still appreciating the occasional laugh at the film’s expense.
Over the years, The Amityville Horror has spawned something like 15 Amityville-related sequels, remakes, and spinoffs. I don't know if this qualifies the original as some kind of minor classic or a mere franchise fluke; but for whatever reasons, The Amityville Horror (even with its always dubious claims to reality since debunked) has proved to be a movie that endures.