Generally, I can think back to my adolescence and recall with relative clarity what it is I felt about most of the movies I saw at the time. What's perplexing is how often I fail to be blessed with the same level of recall when it comes to movies I've seen during my adult years. I was 21 when The Amityville Horror came out (not exactly yesterday, we're talking 39 years ago, folks); but thinking back on it, I can’t seem to remember exactly what I thought of then. 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?
Worse, is there something metaphysically 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 the bestselling 1977 novel heavily promoted as being a fictionalization of the purported-to-be real-life story of a family beset by a series of paranormal events in their Long Island home which was at one time the site of a bloody 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 which gave that distinctive-looking house its 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 that reminded me of how much fun it is to be scared at the movies—had put me into a horror film frame of mind that summer. Unfortunately, the diminishing scare returns proffered by the above-listed roster films left me looking forward to 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)
Propelled by a hope for a replay of the kind of jump-out-of-my-seat thrills Alien served up so plentifully, 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
Although The Amityville Horror was 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 both coming from the grievously miscalculated performances of Rod Steiger and Helen Shaver) I grew aware of the fact that The Amityville Horror was in no danger of posing any 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...3:15am to be exact) and didn't seem to mind that the film was serving up equal doses of laughs and frights. I was disappointed, but I was also entertained. I just wish I could remember if any aspects of the film actually scared me. What I do recall is that I returned to see The Amityville Horror the following week with a friend, and his conclusion was that the film was more of a “fun” scary movie (escapist and diverting) than a legitimately frightening one.
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 just so happens to have been the site of a brutal mass killing the year before, The Amityville Horror goes for the semi-documentary approach. Events are charted with title cards highlighting dates and times, a device serving both to chronicle the escalating "hauntings" and to further suggest what you're watching has been documented as fact. By doing so, The Amityville Horror is able to dispense with a lot of time otherwise devoted to establishing character and plot, and can simply dive headlong into the horrors its title promises.
Wasting no time, the film opens with graphic depictions of the shotgun murders of the DeFeo family (although they're 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 intrusive musical score. The house, distinctive, camera-ready, and treated to a great many jack-o-lantern closeups, is filmed from so many flattering angles, it becomes the Barbra Streisand of haunted houses: always at the 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 has ended does it dawn that those nondescript Lutz kids never attend school and that George’s surveyor business suffers financial setbacks curiously disproportionate to how brief is his period of neglect.
|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, our Kathy is Catholic. Or, more precisely, Hollywood Catholic. Which means she doesn’t actually go to church or display any discernible traits of spiritual 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-y 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. The somber seriousness accorded Rod Steiger’s appearance is ostensibly meant to signal the graveness of the Lutz’s situation and escalate the film’s drama, but the actor's emoting 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
The horror gauntlet is thrown down via a series of mysterious-to-life-threatening events which place the Lutzes 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 seem to own a television set. The rest is a comfortably conventional, enjoyably cheesy, surprisingly by-the-numbers haunted house tale with its fair share of jump-cut shocks (hissing cats, loud noises, the old “I wake up screaming” trope, flashes of gore); a few genuine creep-outs (the shotgun murders, the locked closet door, that weird little girl who looks like Robert Blake in 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 a movie with 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 a 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 break. As though to compensate for the halting, stop-start pace, the entire cast performs at near-operatic pitch.
|Mr. Groovy Guy
Full beards and big, pouffy hair were all the rage in the '70s.
Here's Brolin with his gay porn doppelganger George Payne
Although easy on the eyes, I can’t say James Brolin (he’ll always be Mr. Barbra Streisand to me) had ever made much of an impression on me during his days as "the young guy" on TVs Marcus Welby, M.D. 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 hirsute Joan Crawford.
Margot Kidder, something of an early scream queen what with her roles in Sisters, Black Christmas, and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, is the film’s bright spot. Unfortunately she's 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 charismatic 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 fellow in Scanners. Perhaps Steiger should be given credit for taking risks and being committed to the role, but it simply feels far too strenuous and undisciplined. His priest is off the rails before we get a chance to know anything about him.
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 (and goes double for motion pictures): “The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” I could call this movie a lot of things, but boring isn't one of them; for what The Amityville Horror skimps on in thrills, logic, and coherence, it more than makes up for in unintentional laughs.
In 1979 when The Amityville Horror had its best chance of being taken seriously, public appetites were still so hungry for the next The Exorcist that the film became 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.
|Nauseous, sweating profusely, covered in flies, and witness to a door opening all by itself,
Father Delaney has second thoughts about priests making house calls
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.