It’s Shocktober! As is our custom, Sandy will be providing a horror review every weekday morning.
The Amityville Horror directed by Stuart Rosenberg
I pass through it every time I take the Long Island Railroad to visit friends in Lindenhurst … the town of Amityville, which lies between the stops for Massapequa Park and Copiague, 66 minutes from Manhattan’s Penn Station. It is a charming little suburban town of some 10,000 people, with beautiful private homes and much greenery. But ever since 1974, the word “Amityville” has also been synonymous with one thing: horror. In November of that year, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo took a rifle and murdered six members of his family. Thirteen months later, the house in which this tragedy occurred was finally resold to George and Kathy Lutz, who moved in with their three kids, fully aware of what had transpired there previously. And then even more horrors began … supposedly. The Lutzes’ story was captured by Jay Anson in his best-selling 1977 novel The Amityville Horror, and then turned into a film two years later. After its release in July ’79, the film adaptation would go on to become a box office sensation, pulling in $86 million after being produced for a mere $5 million; it was the second-highest-earning film of that year, coming in behind Kramer vs. Kramer. Somehow, I managed to miss the film more than 40 years ago, only catching up with it a few nights back. So, does it hold up, after all these years? Well, yes and no.
The film adheres to the purported facts of the case only so far, admitting in its end credits that events have been dramatized for the sake of theatricality. And for the sake of my own sanity, I should hope so! In the film, George Lutz (James Brolin), his wife Kathy (Margot Kidder, who had, the year before, began portraying Lois Lane, the role for which she is perhaps best remembered, in the Superman films), their two sons and daughter move into the charming, three-story, Dutch Colonial house that had been the scene of a multiple tragedy the previous year. “Houses don’t have memories,” George tells his wife when she asks whether the house’s foul history should be a concern, but boy, does that statement ever prove erroneous!
Almost from the first, things begin to go wrong, any one of which might have served as a warning to most. In an upstairs room, a swarm of flies attacks Father Delaney (Rod Steiger, here in full histrionic mode), a local priest and old friend of the religious Kathy, who has come to bless the home. He is later told by a demon voice to “GET OUT,” and is sickened by the experience. A rocking chair begins to move by itself. Black sludge begins to come out of a bathroom toilet. A chandelier starts to sway. Kathy’s visiting aunt, a nun, is also sickened after stepping foot into the Lutz abode. Kathy begins to have terrible dreams. Delaney’s car becomes seemingly possessed, almost killing him in a road accident while he attempts to go back to the house. Kathy’s brother has $1,500 stolen from his jacket, which was lying on a living room sofa, on the very day of his wedding. One of the Lutzes’ sons has his hand smashed in an upstairs window sill, accompanied to the strains of music straight out of Hitchcock’s Psycho.
And then things get even freakier! The house’s front door is blasted off its hinges from within; Kathy sees a pair of red, glowing eyes staring at her from a second-floor window; a secret room behind the basement wall is revealed to be a graveyard of sorts, and even what one of the Lutzes’ sensitive friends calls “the gateway to Hell”; the ornate crucifix on the Lutzes’ living room wall is mysteriously inverted; and the sensation of cold that permeates the house increases. Even worse, perhaps, George starts to change drastically, becoming more and more introverted and violent, to the point that he even slaps his wife around. His obsession with using an ax to chop wood for the fireplace becomes problematic in the extreme when he decides to take that ax and use it on his own family, while Kathy, after a bit of sleuthing, unearths the fact that her husband is the spitting image of the 20-year-old man who had murdered his family in their house 13 months before…
The Amityville Horror is a picture that seems to have the critics divided, and even I am torn on the subject of how good a film it really is. I will say that the film is undeniably scary in parts, passing my “shiver test” any number of times by sending that icy-cold feeling down my spine. Director Stuart Rosenberg, who had previously done such marvelous work on 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, helms his film very tautly, and the events keep coming at us furiously; there is little in the way of flab here. Lalo Schifrin, best known for his theme song for TV’s Mission: Impossible, turns in an ubercreepy, children’s-lullaby theme song here that is both memorable and eerie — it was even Oscar nominated — and the look of the film, featuring beautiful autumnal scenery, is fairly gorgeous to behold. The performances by Brolin and Kidder are both of a very high order, as is the supporting work by Don Stroud (playing another priest), Murray Hamilton and John Larch (as Delaney’s priestly superiors), and Val Avery (as an investigating cop).
And then there is that bit of thesping by Rod Steiger, which is so very over the top that it has been derided for decades now. Indeed, Danny Peary, a critic who I greatly esteem, has gone so far as to call it “incredibly awful,” and “what may be the worst performance in horror-movie history…” I am guessing that Peary has never seen Zandor Vorkov in 1971’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein, or Steve Hawkes in 1972’s Blood Freak, or Herb Robins in 1977’s The Worm Eaters, etc., etc. As for me, I may be in the minority, but I kind of enjoyed Rod’s work here, and found his emoting entirely appropriate for the role and the dire situation that his character finds himself in. The sight of Father Delaney, sitting by a lake in a monk’s cowl toward the end of the film, contemplating in the sunlight while evil walks the land, and recently blinded after a long-distance battle with the Amityville demon, is a thing of real beauty. Cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp, of Papillon and The Towering Inferno fame, captures this scene wonderfully. So yes, the film is genuinely creepy, well-acted, finely directed and beautifully shot. Still, as I say, there are problems.
For one thing, the script by Sandor Stern is a lazy one, as it fails to answer many of the viewer’s inevitable questions. For example, is Kathy a widow or was she divorced when she married George with her three kids? As a religious Catholic, it seems unlikely that divorce figured in the picture. What is the significance of George waking up every night at precisely 3:15? In the superior horror outing The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), it is explained that 3 A.M. is supposedly the Devil’s hour, a mockery of sorts of the Holy Trinity, but in The Amityville Horror, no such explanation is given. What is the significance of that creepy red room behind the basement wall? Is it really the gateway to Hell? The film also goes a bit too far in its efforts to shock the audience. For example, the walls and stairways seeping blood at the film’s conclusion is a little hard to swallow, as is the sight of a piglike demon figure in an upstairs window. Also, was there really any need for George to be the spitting image of the killer who had offed his family in the house one year before? Isn’t it enough that some spirit in the abode causes insanity and violent urges in the men who reside there? The film also borrows shamelessly from previous horror outings, such as the aforementioned music from Psycho, but also in parts from the 1976 smash hit The Omen. To be fair, though, The Amityville Horror did beat Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) to the punch by one year, in showing us a father slowly going insane and being driven to murder his family with a hatchet. Indeed, that infamous scene with Jack Nicholson battering down a door with his ax is almost a blatant rip-off from the Rosenberg film.
So yes, the picture winds up being something of a mixed bag, but still, one that had me quite literally on the edge of my seat, and that’s surely not a bad thing. The Amityville Horror, quite unsurprisingly, wound up spawning a whole passel of sequels … 25 (!) at this writing, although only the first two were released theatrically; most of the others were made for TV or released straight to video. I can’t speak about the 25 others, but this first film in the series is a genuine crowd-pleaser, despite its inherent problems. Before the end credits role, an intertitle tells us that the Lutzes never returned to the Amityville home of their dreams/nightmares, but instead left all their possessions there and moved to another state. Had it been me in that house, I would have wanted to move to another planet!
Hurray, it’s Shocktober!
I will probably never watch this movie, but I’m looking to this whole month and your reviews, Sandy!
Thanks, Marion! I love the month of Shocktober! It’s my personal favorite time of the year!