The Amityville Horror (1979)
Directed by: Stuart Rosenberg
Starring: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, John Larch, Natasha Ryan, K.C. Martel, Meeno Peluce, Michael Sacks, Helen Shaver, Amy Wright, Val Avery, Irene Dailey, Marc Vahanian
(out of 4)
The countless number of films in the Amityville Horror series all started with this 1979 haunted house flick starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder (fresh off of Superman), which was supposedly based on a true story as depicted in Jay Anson’s 1977 book. In 1975, George and Kathleen Lutz and their three kids moved into the Dutch Colonial home located at 112 Ocean Ave in Amityville, Long Island. After about a month of excessive “paranormal activity” they left in a hurry, leaving all their possessions behind. There has been a lot of controversy concerning the truth of the claims of the Lutz family, although George Lutz insisted that “most” of the story was true and held that position until his death a few years ago. The dispute over the physical damage to the house due to supernatural causes and the accounts of Father Pecoraro (named Father Delaney in the film) is beyond the scope of my review, but I encourage you to Google it to your heart’s content. What is certain is that a year before the Lutzes moved into the Amityville house, previous resident Ronald (“Butch”) DeFeo, Jr brutally shot to death his parents, brothers, and sisters there.
The murders are depicted at the beginning of the film, happening during a terrible lightning storm, natch. (The story behind the DeFeo murders will later be explored in the prequel Amityville II: The Possession). When we meet the Lutzes – George (Brolin) and Kathy (Kidder), they are already aware of the murders but can’t pass up a chance at the good old American dream. Having just married, with Kathy bringing two boys and a girl into the family, the couple seem happy enough, even if George seems a bit stolid (could be that beard/mountain man look he wears). Not too long after they arrive, Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) shows up to bless the house, but he becomes gravely ill, attacked by flies, and told in a threatening, disembodied voice to “Get Out.” With the Lutz family playing behind the house, they don’t even see him, which is the beginning of a running joke concerning broken lines of communication (everytime Kathy tries to call him, the phone line gives static and Father Delaney suffers physical harm). The severing of the life line between Kathy and Delaney, as well as Delaney (the true believer) and the Church, is a noticeable metaphor here, and I detected some hostility towards the Catholic Church in general – on more than one occasion, Delaney’s superiors refuse to believe his story of Satanic intervention, and even after our poor Father loses his sight, his assistant Father Bolen (Don Stroud) repeatedly blocks Kathy’s attempts to contact him. Not much faith is placed in Christianity – any person of the Church is immediately sickened upon crossing the threshold and crosses, as usual, only serve to piss the house off.
The religious drama is probably the most interesting thing about the film, as the rest of the running time is filled with mostly minor incidents, like the babysitter being locked in the closet despite there being no locks on the doors, a window closing on a boy’s hand, nightmares, and the strange behavior of little Amy (Natasha Ryan) talking to “Jody”, her invisible friend. With black goo bubbling up from the toilet, George becoming a bit too attached to a trusty axe, the front door being ripped from the hinges by an unseen presence, and a psychic friend being temporarily possessed, we in the audience start thinking that Amy’s invisible friend might not be a figment of her imagination and that it would be prudent for everyone to just get the hell out. George and Kathy, of course, are oblivious to the idea that they might be living in a haunted house, so they are going to stick around, being one of the dumbest couples I have ever seen in these kind of movies. It takes bleeding walls to convince them to leave; Eddie Murphy said it best: “Y’all stay in the house too fuckin’ long If there’s a ghost in the house, get the fuck out !”
The performances of the leads are pretty good – Kidder does beautiful and vulnerable very well. Steiger does his best to ham it up, but still keeps things interesting. The weaknesses of The Amityville Horror manifest themselves in the laughter-inducing effects, which break the momentum because they are too goofy to be believable (a cheesy effect of a Satanic pig with red eyes is the funniest). The muddled, anticlimactic ending doesn’t help – despite our main character falling into a pit of black goo, I never really got the sense he was in too much danger. Other plot points are introduced but they go nowhere – the detective (Val Avery) who doesn’t detect anything, the beer-holding neighbor who disappears, the lack of closure to the priest storyline, the plot point of George’s strange resemblance to Butch DeFeo never being explored. If the creators of the movie intended the script to be as true to the Lutz story as possible, then kudos to them, but it doesn’t make for a particularly exciting conclusion – the material is probably best suited for a book or documentary. I must, however, give credit to The Amityville Horror for doing the possessed-father-with-an-axe bit before Kubrick adopted it for The Shining (and in a haunted house, no less!) Thinking about the similarities with that film made me wish that Amityville had used the possession angle to exploit the conflict between the children and their new stepfather, something that was hinted at slightly in the beginning. Alas, just another avenue the film chooses not to explore.
- Bill Gordon