Tuesday, October 31, 2017

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR 1979

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 Aliena 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).

Unspooling under a cloak of a collective goodwill that began to dissipate around the film’s 60-minute mark—when animated squeals of delight and nervous giggles began to take on the hollow timbre of blatantly derisive laughter—The Amityville Horror trod largely familiar haunted house/demonic possession ground. Early on it became clear that the film was going to lean heavily on claims of “This really happened!” as a means of mitigating the fact that the episodic screenplay was less a cohesive story and more of a laundry list of “Things that make you go hmmm…” events taking place in a creepy old house.
This House Pays For Itself
Kathy's brother (Marc Vahanian) preps for his wedding as the house preps for a little self-help
A more polished and technically tricked out film than I’d come to expect from the traditionally low-rent American International Pictures, for all its sound and fury (a disproportionate amount coming from grievously miscalculated performances by Rod Steiger and Helen Shaver) it was clear that The Amityville Horror was not going to pose any real threat to the legacies of The Exorcist or The Omen. The audience I was with seemed to enjoy the film’s low-wattage fright delivery system (regular as clockwork. 3:15 to be exact) and the best that I can come up with—as I’d returned the following week to see it again with a friend—is that I found The Amityville Horror to be more of a “fun” scary movie (escapist and diverting) than a legitimately frightening film.
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
At this point the horror gauntlet has been thrown down and the Lutzes find themselves in a race against time, the forces of evil, and their own thick-headedness. And if the objectives of these forces are conveyed in the vaguest terms possible (Revenge? Demonic possession? The endless reenactment of a violent past?), rest assured that the scope and severity of these paranormal assaults (Gates of hell? Native-American burial ground? Devil-worship? Bad juju?) are mind-bogglingly elastic, inconsistent, and convenient to plot contrivance.

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.

PERFORMANCES
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. 
Mr. Groovy Guy
Full beards and big, pouffy hair was all the rage in the '70s.
Here's Brolin with his gay porn star doppelganger George Payne  

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
In what I can only hope was a Karen Black-like bid on Rod Steiger's part to invest The Amityville Horror with a little emotional gravitas (Black approached her role in the nonsensical Airport ’75 with intense solemnity because she felt no one else in the film was taking it seriously), Steiger—never a particularly subtle actor—in trying to convey spiritual anguish and fear, only succeeds in going full-tilt Neely O’Hara/Mommie Dearest on us.

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.
Helen Shaver and Michael Sacks (Slaughterhouse Five) as family friends Carolyn and Jeff.
Playing a New-Age type, I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Shaver pitch her performance so high on the weird-o-meter, but her big scene in the Lutz's basement is listed in the dictionary under "overkill" 

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.
Sweating profusely, nauseous, covered in flies, and witness to a door opening all by itself, Father Delaney hears a creepy voice demand that he "Get out!" Given that those words inspired the tile of Jordan Peel's 2017 horror classic, maybe those laughs this scene was greeted with in 1979 were of the nervous kind.
Those tacky-looking glowing red eyes
Margot Kidder and Lalo Schifrin's Oscar-nominated score work like Trojans trying to convince us that Kathy Lutz has seen something unspeakably terrifying outside of her daughter's second-story bedroom window. Regrettably, a cut to Kathy's POV reveals "glowing red eyes" that look like for all the world like outdoor Christmas lights
Amity meets Amityville
Actor Murray Hamilton, who played the doubting Thomas mayor of Amity in Jaws, this time out plays a doubting Thomas priest. His brief scene in the film is memorable for the manner in which he commands a (still) frothing at the mouth Rod Steiger to the sit down. It's like he's giving a command to an overgrown Bullmastiff 

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.  
Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. What a fun way to kick-start Halloween! I recall this book being EVERYWHERE as a teen and the image of the house petrified me. TV ads always showed Steiger and those horrible flies! (Which, in retrospect seem oddly tied with Olivia de Havilland and her bees from "The Swarm!" LOL) I didn't even consider going to the movie (I was twelve when it came out.) I first saw it maybe a decade ago finally. I thoroughly enjoyed your description of the glowing eyes and all the (bad) acting throughout. I seem to recall the nun strenuously overacting as well? I also loved the side-by-side comparison of Brolin and Payne, though I think the delectable Bill Cable could also give them both a run for their money! https://i.pinimg.com/originals/3a/49/89/3a498917b2690ab92c521a9e60e21644.jpg Happy Halloween and thanks!

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    1. Hi Poseidon!
      Yes! Getting Halloween off to a nice, histrionic start! This book really was so popular, the only thing I can guess about not being all that familiar with it is that I was in college at the time and making plans to move to LA. It must have slipped past my radar.
      Like that billowing curtain for THE EXORCIST, those flies were a major marketing motif for AMITYVILLE.
      My partner and I got such a kick out of laughing at this film lately, I am kinda bummed that I don't remember if I ever took it seriously, or if it was more impressive on the big screen. All I seem to remember clearly are the reactions of the audience.
      You're right in noting that the nun's overacting drew a few giggles, the biggest laugh reserved for this really loud and cartoonish retching sound that they dubbed in when she hurls by the side of the road later. Little by little you could hear the film losing the audience; not in disinterest, but an inability to treat much of what was going on seriously.
      too bad you DIDN'T see it when you were 12, I suspect a kid would of that age would have found it perfectly terrifying. Bad acting and all.
      Your bringing up THE SWARM reminds me that that is one film I regret not having seen when it opened. I'm sure I would have howled throughout.
      Thanks for the pic and reminder of that other bearded, pouffy haired model of the 70s. I remember him well and it confirms that this almost demonic look was quite prevalent. Thanks dropping by and for the fun comments. Happy Halloween to you!

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    2. And let’s not forget the resemblance to Al Parker (finally a topic I know something about). Aside from Marcus Welby MD, I’d say that this is James’ “claim to fame”, and he does those tighty whities proud. It is his best work. I saw a TV true crime story about the actual case, it was horrific.

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    3. Awww, you didn't like Brolin as Clark Gable in "Gable & Lombard"? No, that's one I haven't even seen myself. I agree with you 100%...I too think this is Brolin's best work. Whatever that implies.
      I remember the diminutive, bearded Al Parker, but I don't think his hair ever achieved that full-tilt blow-out status of Brolin and Payne. Their hair is a bit like Mary Tyler Moore's in "Ordinary People"

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  2. Do you think Jim has ever sat down with a bowl of popcorn to watch this with Barbra? Why do I doubt it, even though I just KNOW he has watched Funny Girl and Yentl with her umpteen times?!

    Serously, thugh, Ken, I thought this was a very very scary movie as a kid, but just watched it recently and it holds up well. A bit campy, yes (the nun especially as noted--she was on my favorite soap opera Another World!), and you are right...Brolin is pure pornstar hotness with his briefs and his shaggy hair!

    The remake with Ryan Reynolds wasn't bad, but this is the real deal! A perfect Halloween treat!!

    Happy Halloween to you and all your readers, Ken!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      Ha! I like the way you think. I would be curious to know which of Brolin's films Barbra has seen (if any) and what might be her favorite. And then, of course, vice versa.
      Among the reasons for why this film has endured is I think in large part to it being a VERY scary movie for those who saw it at a young age. Secondly, the remakes and spinoffs have all been so consistantly lousy, this one actually doesn't look so bad by comparison. That's an experience I had with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE...it rose in esteem in direct proportion with how lousy the remake was.
      But I do think AMITYVILLE is one of those rare horror films that's as fun for those who take it seriously as it is for those who like to watch it for laughs. It's fast-paced, just silly enough, and nothing really disturbing happens. As you say, a perfect Halloween treat.
      Happy Halloween to you, Chris, and thanks!

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  3. Hi Ken! I was on of those teens who saw this opening night in 1979 (at the now-defunct Hylan Cinema on Staten Island). An audience full of people roughly my age or older, shrieking at every "scary" moment. I think I was genuinely spooked at that time, but now I see it as campy (GET OOUUUTTT!!!! ..... FIND THE WELL....IT IS THE GATEWAY TO HELL!!!!) )

    I big draw for me was seeing Margot Kidder. I was very drawn to her after SUPERMAN a few months previously (one of my super-favorites) and I was interested in seeing her in a different role.

    I did drive by the house one night, it's about an hour away from me on Long Island. It's been renovated so as to get rid of the distinctive windows, and it looks like any other house.

    I loved your analysis! Thanks again for another great article!
    Mike

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    1. Hi Michael
      How terrific that you saw this when it opened and recall the film's then-effective frights and scares. I know a lot of people still find it a good scary movie, but, like you, the camp elements have become the entertainment.
      Always kill me that after they uncover the red room, see George's doppelganger AND "psychic" girlfriend gets monetarily possessed and declared that room the gateway to HELL (!!!!) - the family has no qualms about spending another night in that creepshow house, the little kids off in their rooms alone.
      I don't know that any of that any of that even caught my attention of first viewing, being all caught up in the events and all, but rewatching it just brings to light one laughable plot point after another.
      Margot Kidder probably was a huge selling point for the movie at the time. She was so appealing in SUPERMAN, I was eager to see her in anything.
      I love that you have seen the infamous house! I've seen photos of it, and indeed, without those windows seem from those spooky low-angle shots, the house is quite ordinary-looking. Still, even without believing in ghosts or possession or any of that stuff, I'd be hard pressed to live in a home that was the site of such a horrific tragedy. Yikes!
      So good to hear from you, Michael. And thanks for sharing your Long Islander's memories of seeing THE AMITYVILLE HORROR!

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  4. I read the book when I was a teen. I'll always remember the obsession with the demonic red pig eyes and flies. So utterly ridiculous. I didn't find much of it scary as I found it all so bizarre that they anyone would think an intellignet person would accept any of it as "paranormal activity." A lawyer the Lutz family met claimed the whole thing was made up during a meeting in a bar and yet the Lutzes continue to claim that the story is mostly true. Quite a mess.

    I recall nothing about the movie, but I know I've seen it. Thanks for your usual entertaining dissection of an unintentional camp fest. I may have to find a copy for a re-viewing.

    P.S. Your passing mention of PROPHECY brings back vivid memories of seeing that preposterous movie in our local theater back in my highs school days. For months afterwards my brother and I made fun of that poor attempt at a horror movie. The first of many in a long line of 1970s eco-disaster/"Beware of pollution"/deformity-horrors-in- the-works monster movies.

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    1. I think most of my life I've entertained much of the same sense of "How could anyone fall for that?" kind of skepticism when it came to these kind of public hoaxes.
      This election year has proven to me that a large segment of the American public (too large) is more likely to believe in demonic pigs with red eyes than scientific fact. I used to think a silly con was difficult to pull off, now I'm certain it takes nothing more than persistent repetition and hype.
      Many years after all the hubbub, I got a look at the Lutzes, always in and out of court with lawsuits and trying to make sure they could milk every cent out of their "story," they struck me as the worst sort of opportunists. Never credible for a second.
      I think this cynical reality makes the film much more enjoyable, because everybody involved in making it seems to be treating it with such solemn respect...like a profound religious battle is being waged against this rather bland family.
      And PROPHECY! I had such high hopes with John Frankenheimer at the helm, and (unaccountably, but I guess I was a fan) Taliah Shire's participation. It felt like a Roger Corman movie. Not much better than EMPIRE OF THE ANTS or FOOD OF THE GODS.
      Thanks for reading my post, JF, and good to hear from you. You may be the only one to have actually read the book!

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  5. Ken,

    Thanks for posting about this. I had the DVD tucked away and your review inspired me to dig it out. I know I saw the movie when it first came out but after watching it again I realized that what I recalled as the scariest parts actually came from other movies, most notably Burnt Offerings and Poltergeist. What struck me about The Amityville Horror is that not much spooky stuff actually happens in the film. Those oddly shaped windows with the red back-lighting and Lalo Schifrin's very creepy score sure do a lot heavy lifting in this film. That effective combination creates a real sense of dread that the rest of the movie fritters away. I think the real problem with the movie is that the really horrible things happen to Rod Steiger's Father Delaney and those mostly happen out of the house. That seems to be the real story and the Lutz family are just supporting players in that tale. Why is the evil pursuing him so relentlessly? It was more interesting than what the Lutz family was getting up to.

    Weirdly, thinking back to 1979 when the movie came out, I can remember the ad campaign much better than the movie itself. The paperback with the flies on the cover and the devil tail was everywhere that summer. I'd forgotten how many places you could by paperbacks back then, but they were in spinner racks in drugstores, supermarkets, bookstores and newsstands so I would see that book pretty much every time I went out. There were also radio spots with the "Get Out!" voice that were in regular rotation. That was also around the time In Search Of.... with Leonard Nimoy was on TV and books like Chariots of the Gods were selling well so I was primed, along with the rest of the world, for a true story about a haunting. What we got was the Amityville Horror, a film where it looks like more creativity was put into promoting it than making it. Oh, well.

    Still, the movie does have its pleasures, even if they weren't the scares the filmmakers intended. Rod Steiger stumbling around with fake flies glued to his face was more risible than terrifying but a lot of fun to see. And the scariest thing about the ooze spewing toilets was the thought of how much it was going to cost to get a plumber out to fix them at that hour. I'm glad that I watched it again so thanks for the idea.

    Michael

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    1. Hi Michael
      Sorry to take so long in responding to your wonderful comments. Your thoughts revisiting the film are in line with what I imagine most adults would be. Seems like AMITYVILLE is a good film to have seen when you were very young, for the frights are low-level enough to be pretty terrifying to a kid.
      To an adult, I think you nail it: Everythign seems to happen to the hammy priest! And why single him out when "they" could just as well have one after the nun or the Vietnam Vet priest. (Always amuses me how, when people in movies like this have somethign VERY important to tell someone on the phone, they waste perfectly good time prefacing it with the superfluous lead-in: "I want you to listen very closely...I've got something very important to tell you," and of course shit hits the fan before they can blurt it out!
      You also jogged my memory as to the kind of mania the public had at the time for all those "believe it or not" TV shows, books, and movies. Small wonder there was such a willingness to buy into the con of the Amityville story.
      I saw the AMITYVILLE remake and not a single frame stays with me (not true, I do remember Ryan Renolds in his pajama bottoms) but that it it.
      This film, for all its flaws and laughable moments, does indeed have its pleasures. Most of them in the realm of inadvertent humor.
      Thanks for reading this and for reminding me of how this book was everywhere at the time, and somewhat explaining the zeitgeist allowing for us all to be so wanting to belive in a haunted house/possession.

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