1998. Back when all the other kids were going nuts about… um… Furbies and the Backstreet Boys(?), I was obsessed with the Amityville murders and subsequent haunting.
I was in middle school and had just seen the movie for the first time, igniting a compulsive interest in the history behind the story. 1998 also happened to be the year when the internet was really taking hold in my family and our computer labs at school had finally been outfitted with net access, so for the first time ever I got to do comprehensive research on something via the World Wide Web, as well as scouring libraries for scant paragraphs of info the old fashioned way.
Sure, later I found out that the entire Amityville Horror was nothing more than a fabricated publicity stunt on the part of the Lutz family as a means to sell a book and feature film rights, but that doesn’t make Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 flick any less awesome.
George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) have just moved into their new house on 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. A year before that, Ronald Defeo brutally murdered his entire family in a supposed act of supernatural possession in that very house. Suddenly, and totally out of the blue, the Lutz family find themselves besieged by paranormal phenomena of the increasingly violent kind. Their daughter, Amy (Natasha Ryan) has befriended a phantom swine named Jody while George, growing increasingly more detached and irritable, has taken to chopping wood day and night among other totally wholesome and not-at-all-psychotic pastimes. Less than a month later, the Lutz family ditches the house (and makes a tidy profit on book sales).
I didn’t read Jay Anson’s book, The Amityville Horror until high school, mostly because finding a library that carried the thing was a total pain in the ass. Still, it provided me with the most enjoyable book report I ever had to write, even if I did come to the conclusion that the film was better.
The book is perfectly fine, even if it stretches the limits of “true story”, though I found that the more conservative and less over-the-top nature of Stuart Rosenberg’s movie sold the “realistic” haunting angle a bit better. The book features some ludicrous scenes, particularly near the end, where Jody the Pig dances a fox trot on George’s chest while he’s in bed or a scene where a hooded figure menaces the family from the top of the staircase (to say nothing of the chapter where the walls ooze green slime that the Lutz’s brilliantly scoop up and dump in the river instead of saving for scientific analysis). The film version of The Amityville Horror may have its moments of extremity, but never to that sort of extent (giant window-pig not-withstanding).
Stuart Rosenberg is perhaps best known for his films Cool Hand Luke and Voyage of the Damned among others, though for a guy not recognized as a “horror movie director”, he sure knocked this thing out of the park. Rosenberg gets the most out of the house’s notorious exterior, focusing heavily on the house’s “angry eyes”. Even though the movie was filmed in a house remodeled to resemble the original location and not the original house-itself (as commonly misconceived), there’s still a certain atmosphere of sincerity present in the film that gives it an extra sense of weight and eeriness. Like all good haunted house pictures, it is important to try and make the house-itself feel like its own character, and when a house comes prebuilt with a friggin’ face on one side, then half the job is already done for you.
But Rosenberg employs a number of effects, some of which predate more notable uses within other horror films. Near the end of the film, as the Lutzes are escaping the house, he utilizes a roaming perspective shot complete with its own unearthly roar not at all dissimilar to Sam Raimi’s use of the technique in The Evil Dead. The beginning of the film when the Lutzes are touring the house seems especially ahead of its time, as Rosenberg resorts to rapid jump cuts between present and past; each time the Lutzes open the door to one of the rooms a murder took place in, we are immediately whisked back to the night Defeo shotgunned his family to death. And though it’s of a much lesser note, the glowing red eyes startling Margot Kidder from beyond the window was totally ganked by Critters.
Perhaps Rosenberg’s best technique in The Amityville Horror is his strategic balance of score and silence, two things that modern day horror films have sadly come to neglect. Lalo Schifrin’s main theme is hauntingly beautiful and one of the best in horror cinema. But Rosenberg is careful not to overuse it and quite often subjects the audience to complete and absolute silence, forgoing even ambient noise. It takes you off guard and helps to make the highlighted noise all the more startling and frightening when it strikes. The infamous “GET OUT!” scene is a classic for a reason.
If there’s any criticism to sling in the film’s direction, I suppose it’s that at two hours, it comes off as a bit overlong; especially so if you factor in the subplot with the police sergeant, which proceeds to go positively nowhere and produces no closure or results. His scenes could have been removed entirely with no ill effect on the film whatsoever. The constant battering of Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) almost comes off as comical after a point, as the poor guy pretty much becomes a punching bag for the spirits of the house.
James Brolin and Margot Kidder are the stars of the show and they carry the film remarkably well. I always found Margot Kidder’s more humor-infused characters, such as Lois Lane in the Superman films or whatsherface from Black Christmas to be annoying, so her portrayal of a distressed housewife seemed to suit her skills much better.
James Brolin is something of a show-stealer and a number of people I’ve talked to found him more frightening than the ghosts. He plays George Lutz as a large, strong and serious stepfather who begins the film as being irritable and ends it with being hostile. While “The Shining” featured a similar possessed father character in Jack Nicholson, I always found ole Jack played the role up too much and too far (though in his own enjoyable way that suited The Shining). James Brolin, as I’ve learned from many a discussion, plays the “scary stepdad” a little too well, often hitting too close to home for some viewers. I’m relieved to say that my dad never came at me with an axe, though I’ll admit that there’s definitely a genuine and realistic aura of menace to George Lutz that speaks to Brolin’s strengths as an actor.
The Amityville Horror went on to spawn a slew of wretched sequels, both theatrical and straight to video, as well as the ultimate insult: A 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds. Regardless, the original remains one of the best haunted house films of all time, with a strong cast, memorable music and a director of class who knew exactly what he was doing.