The Amityville Horror (1979)

The Amityville HorrorSynopsis: For God’s sake, get out!

There’s no place like home…for bloodcurdling horror! James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Academy Award® winner Rod Steiger fall prey to the powers of darkness in this spine-tingling tale of a house possessed by unspeakable evil. One of the most talked-about haunted-house stories of all time, The Amityville Horror will hit you where you live.

For George and Kathy Lutz, the colonial home on the river’s edge seemed ideal: quaint, spacious and amazingly affordable. Of course, six brutal murders had taken place there just a year before, but houses don’t have memories…or do they? Soon the Lutz dream house becomes a hellish nightmare, as walls begin to drip blood and satanic forces threaten to destroy them. Now the Lutzes must try to escape or forfeit their lives – and their souls!

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The Amityville Horror (1979) 7.0

eyelights: James Brolin. Margot Kidder. the way it weaves countless fake scares into the mix.
eyesores: its predictability. its slight hoakiness. some of the poor foley work.

“Peace to this house and all who enter in it.”

‘The Amityville Horror’ is a 1979 movie based on a book that was published only two years prior, which purported to recount the true story of the Lutz family’s experiences with paranormal forces in a house they newly purchased. The book was a bestseller at the time, and has ever since been extremely controversial, with many claiming that it was wholly fabricated, citing many inconsistencies in it.

In the late 1980s, I was invited to join a pilot project at our high school which consisted of students preparing presentations about subjects they were interested in and going out to talk to grade schoolers about them. I had recently started reading either the original book or a derivative of it and decided that I wanted to discuss the incidents at Amityville with those younglings. Yay, education!

Thus it was that I talked a friend of mine into joining me for this session: we put together our presentation, which consisted of blueprints of the house, pictures and other visual aids. We then decided that it would be a good idea to also watch the movie to get a sense of how this was adapted for the screen. So we got ourselves some snacks and set ourselves for an evening of bone-chilling horror.

Boy, were we disappointed. Where the book stirred the imagination, the film version left us unmoved, indifferent. It probably didn’t help that we had high expectations, that we were watching it on a small TV set at the other end of his living room, or that we watched it with the lights on (people forget how important mood can be to making a horror film scary). I never saw it again, and didn’t feel the need to.

But, some 15 years later, I decided that I wanted to give it another chance. MGM had released a boxed set with the first three films in it along with a bonus disc of extras. It seemed like the perfect way to revisit the film and expand on it, so I decided to grab myself a copy. Naturally, being that I have plenty of other movies on my plate and that most are of higher priority, ‘The Amityville Horror’ stayed on the back-burner.

Until now.

‘The Amityville Horror’ is pretty much a linear exploration of what is said to have taken place at 112 Ocean Avenue, in Amityville, New York. It begins with a series of murders that actually took place a year prior: in 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed his parents and all four of his siblings with a rifle. There are a lot inconsistencies in the actual case but, in the film, a figure is shown shooting each one while they sleep.

Right from the start, this left me skeptical about what would transpire in the picture. Let’s face it, the murders don’t make sense: if the guy is going around the house shooting his whole family, there’s no way that they would all sleep their way through it – in the worst case scenario, a deep sleeper would wake up after three of the shots. And yet no one woke up at all. Even after he’d made the rounds a bit (ha… pun!).

(Of course, this is historically factual: according to the original case, this is exactly what DeFeo, Jr. claimed happened. This has been contested many times over for exactly the same reason I’ve stated and his story has changed through the years. But, at the time of the writing of the book and the making of the movie, this was considered accurate. Not that I knew this when I first watched the picture.)

Then the Lutzes move into the house one year later, knowing full well that the murders took place there, but getting such a great deal on the massive lakeshore property that they decide to take it anyway. Although George isn’t especially religious he agrees to let Kathy call in a priest to bless the house. Big mistake: it’s from that point onward that things go wrong – the house suddenly starts to act up in various ways.

The bulk of the picture takes place over the course of about three weeks. In real life, the Lutzes remained on the property for 28 days, but in the movie I lost count after 17 – after which they decide to escape the house, never to return. During those weeks, they and their guests experienced all sorts of phenomena, including black stuff in the water pipes, creepy voices, swarms of flies, the front door blasting off, …etc.

Although it’s sort of hokey by modern standards, ‘The Amityville Horror’ is filled with tons of startling moments, like a door opening, a kid lying on the ground, someone walking in the dark, a shot of someone walking into a room from the legs down, a black cat, …etc. While these moments are not scary in and of themselves, they are reminiscent of other horror films – enough to disquiet us, to leave us uneasy.

One could say that it’s clichéd, or that the filmmakers lacked inspiration, but I got the impression that they purposely used these conventions as decoys so that their own scares would come out of left field. It also seemed to me a good way to pad what would otherwise be a thin horror film: the Lutzes weren’t there long enough for a bevy of things to happen to them, so this doubles the total amount of scares.

Admittedly, the filmmakers were anything but subtle, which would support the argument that they re-used well-worn ideas merely because they lacked their own. Case-in-point, right after the murders, when the Lutzes visit the house, we are shown the murders again, as though we had already forgotten. And then, afterwards, the couple talk about it as they make the decision of buying the house, hammering the point across.

And you gotta love how the attic windows are made to look like evil eyes when they light up. Too much!

The filmmakers display a lack of subtlety in further instances, like when the priest decides to go see the Lutzes to warn them about the house (every time he calls, the phone doesn’t work), and then he finds himself in the most ridiculous car crash on the way to the house: the driver lost control, but didn’t hit the brakes, cut the gas or use the emergency brake. So we sat there watching them tearing across a quiet street like idiots.

They also eschew logic. A nun visits, feels ill and leaves with no explanations despite Kathy’s extreme insistence that she stay. She later apologizes, but nothing comes of it and we never see her again. Similarly, the Lutzes find a hidden room under the stairs, after which their two friends disappear – we never see them leave. And then there’s the dog, which is not at all skittish for the first 80 minutes no matter what happens.

The best, though, comes when the priest first visits and goes upstairs while the family is out: he starts to feel ill and smells something really awful – but he doesn’t leave the room, even with all the flies gathering. Instead, he waits until the house yells at him to “GET OUT”. Ridiculous. Then he scampers, not waiting for the Lutzes. B-t-w, the foley work is so sloppy that, when he hears kids laughing upstairs, it’s obviously recordings – there’s even a hiss!

I guess the picture works because it’s got a terrific support from its stars, James Brolin and Margot Kidder. Brolin was perfect at portraying George slowly losing his mind. Watching him chop wood obsessively, with an intense look on his face was quite eerie. And Kidder brought a touch of humanity to the film (although she’s miscast in that there’s no way that she’s had 3 kids). They even pull off making love with their shirts on. Oh, the ’70s…

The picture also benefits from a terrific score from legendary composer Lalo Schiffrin, who introduced a combination of strings and children’s singing that made the house both dreamy and otherworldly. There was a persistent rumour that his rejected score for ‘The Exorcist’ had made it into ‘The Amityville Horror’, but this was disproven when these recordings were finally released on the special edition soundtrack to the former.

In the end, ‘The Amityville Horror’ is no great film. But, as far as haunted house stories go, it’s not all bad. The fact that’s it’s rooted in true events helps somewhat, even if those events have been contested. In fact, exploring the true background of the house would have benefited the film some. We get a glimpse at the details (the murders, that it was built on a native burial ground, …etc.), but not enough that it has any real impact.

‘The Amityville Horror’ was a huge hit at the time and it netted star James Brolin a fortune (due to its low budget,  he took a pay cut but 10% of the box office gross). Although it remains a controversial subject, the fact remains that the film itself is considered a horror classic: it has been reissued on home video countless times, has spawned an endless stream of sequels and even a recent remake. It’s certainly worth seeing, if not believing.

Story: 7.0
Acting: 7.0
Production: 6.5

Chills: 7.0
Gore: 3.0
Violence: 4.0

Date of viewing: September 10, 2014

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