“I went into that house, and what I saw there was real, and what I felt there was real, and what I heard there – was – real!”
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Starring: Margot Kidder, James Brolin, Rod Steiger, Natasha Ryan, K.C. Martel, Meeno Peluce, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, Michael Sacks, Helen Shaver, Val Avery, Irene Dailey
Screenplay: Sandor Stern, based upon the book by Jay Anson
Synopsis: At 3.15 a.m., 13th November, 1974, in Amityville, Long Island, a young man murders his parents and four siblings… One year later, a newly married couple, George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder), inspects the house where the murders were committed. Although troubled by their knowledge of what happened, the two agree that they would never be able to afford such a house otherwise and decide to buy it. They move in shortly afterwards, along with Kathy’s three children from her previous marriage, Greg (K. C. Martel), Matt (Meeno Peluce) and Amy (Natasha Ryan). At Kathy’s request, Father Frank Delaney (Rod Steiger) comes to the house to bless it. Although he cannot find the Lutzes, the priest thinks he hears voices and goes upstairs to investigate. Through the window of a second floor room, Father Delaney can see the family out by the river. He begins the blessing where he is, but stops when the room begins to fill with flies and the door swings shut behind him. Suddenly, Father Delaney is overcome by violent nausea. As the door swings open again, a harsh, disembodied voice orders him to get out. He flees the house, being violently sick before driving away. Later that day, the priest telephones Kathy, but the line becomes distorted before he can tell her what happened, while the hand with which he was holding the phone develops stigmata-like burns. Meanwhile, George Lutz finds himself unable to get warm, despite the fact that the central heating is on high. Kathy suggests that cold air from the basement might be responsible. George goes to investigate, and is disturbed to detect an icy draught in the seemingly enclosed room. Later that night, George wakes for no reason at 3.15 a.m. He gets up to determine what may have woken him, and discovers the windows in Amy’s room wide open, and her doll sitting in a chair, instead of in bed with the sleeping child, where he left it earlier. George also finds himself drawn for no apparent reason to the boathouse… The next day, Kathy returns from shopping to find George obsessively chopping wood, even though they have plenty. As Kathy puts the groceries away, Amy tells her about her new imaginary friend, Jodie. Kathy phones Father Delaney to find out why he did not come to bless the house, and learns from Father Bolen (Don Stroud) that he has been taken very ill. She also learns, to her confusion, that Delaney did set out to perform the blessing. Kathy’s Aunt Helena (Irene Dailey), a nun, comes to see the house. Before she arrives, the house’s toilets fill and overflow with a vile black substance. When Helena enters the house, she immediately becomes physically sick and, to Kathy’s mortification, runs away. Kathy begins to suffer nightmares about the murders committed in the house. Although still very ill, Father Delaney asks Father Bolen to drive him to the Lutz house, but the two men are almost killed when their car goes inexplicably out of control. Delaney then goes to the church authorities, to try and convince them that the Lutzes are in mortal danger from a supernatural presence in their house…
Comments: I am one of those people – ushers hate me – who always watches right to the end of the credits when I see a movie. And if you watch the credits of The Amityville Horror right to the end, you will find the following statement, delivered in what I am afraid I can only call “the fine print”:
Based upon the book The Amityville Horror. Some characters and events have been changed to heighten dramatic effect.
After an interval of thirty years, during which a news report became an investigative series, and then a best-selling book, and then a movie, which in turn spawned a prequel, a stream of increasingly ludicrous sequels, and finally, inescapably, a re-make, all of this supporting a veritable cottage industry of duelling documentaries and battling books, there seems little necessity for any further statement on what may or may not have occurred at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, during December and January of 1975-1976. This review of the original version of The Amityville Horror will therefore confine itself principally to considering the movie as a movie – and as an adaptation of the book, from which it occasionally deviates in quite telling ways.
I myself received a copy of Jay Anson’s account of the supposed haunting of a Long Island house for my fourteenth birthday, and at that time the story quite frankly scared the crap out of me.
(I actually had it in my mind that the book was a thirteenth birthday present, but as I look at it today – and yes, I do still have the same copy – I realise that it is the movie tie-in edition, which dates it later. My thirteenth must have been when I got Carrie...)
Considering the book today, I can recognise it for what it is: a manipulative piece of pseudo-journalism, with bad writing masquerading as verisimilitude; as crude as a ghost story told around the campfire – and just as effective. Despite – because of? – its literary shortcomings, the book was an enormous success; transference of the story to the screen was inevitable, and finally happened in 1979.
The Amityville Horror proved to be the final production of the legendary American International Pictures, which by the late seventies had gotten itself into major financial difficulties by (forgetting, apparently, the philosophy on which the company had been founded in the first place) overspending in an attempt to keep up with the majors. The huge financial success of The Amityville Horror was not enough to stave off disaster. Even before the film was made, AIP had, figuratively speaking, sold its soul to the devil, entering into a doomed partnership with Filmways. When the crash came, the pair were taken over by Orion, which was itself in turn swallowed up by MGM – to which, unbelievably, in time just past, we have also had to bid a kind of farewell. Requiescat in pace – all of you…
The Amityville Horror is a film fatally divided against itself. On one hand, it desperately wants to be a big, important film; an event, like The Exorcist. (The book was widely advertised as “More hideously frightening than The Exorcist – because it actually happened.”) It wants both box office success and critical approval; it wants, in a word, respectability. The film is unmistakably pitched at a mainstream audience, at people who generally wouldn’t be caught dead going to a mere horror film; to the people, in short, who read and believed in the book.
To this end, the screenplay by Sandor Stern is careful not to stray too far from its source – not always to the benefit of the film. Almost all of the incidents depicted in The Amityville Horror are taken directly from the Anson-Lutz account of things, although curiously their order has been shuffled – perhaps to, uh, heighten dramatic effect. Similarly, the film maintains the book’s episodic nature, rather than trying to structure an actual story. Consequently, things happen, and then they stop happening. People sit around and talk. Things happen again. People argue. People go to bed. More things happen. This might be how things were – or not – but as drama, it is disastrous; and the problem is further exacerbated by the film’s overgenerous running-time.
Trying, presumably, to win itself a place in the trickiest sub-genre of them all, that of the stately horror film, The Amityville Horror takes way too much time to get where it’s going – which, when we get right down to it, is nowhere very much. This problem of pacing finally climaxes, or anticlimaxes, in a horribly misjudged sequence in which, after the family finally has fled the house, George Lutz goes back to rescue the dog.
(This, by the way, is not in the book, and seems to be yet another example of that trope so beloved of bad screenwriters, the “step-father wins over reluctant step-children” scene. I found more entertainment value than usual in it this time around, however, because on DVD clarity inspection, I could swear that the prop head used to represent Harry the dog at certain points in this sequence is the same one that starred as Zoltan, Hound Of Dracula the year before.)
At almost two hours, The Amityville Horror is easily fifteen minutes too long. Its individual incidents are effective, but spread too thinly. The film’s intervening longuers both try the patience of the experienced horror watcher, and give everyone else far too long to think about what is happening – and possibly to put another interpretation upon the story as a whole…
On the other hand—When all is said and done, The Amityville Horror is, at heart, very much an AIP film, a Sam Arkoff production; all the way through, you can feel the sleaze trying to ooze its way out from behind the veneer of respectability. Ultimately, one feels that the film might have been better off if the sleaze had been allowed to have a little more of its own way. As it is, we are left with an essentially staid and ponderous film studded with brief eruptions of crassness.
The Amityville Horror opens with a recreation of the shocking DeFeo murders, the real-life tragedy that underlies the entire Amityville mythology. Not content with this, it then proceeds to re-recreate them, as the Lutzes are being shown around the house by their real estate agent. Still – at least the murders are treated seriously. This is more than can be said of the film’s other lapses in tone, such as the out-of-nowhere shot of Kathy Lutz doing balletic exercises in knickers and an open shirt (leading to the film’s one genuinely enduring mystery: why on earth just one white leg-warmer…?); and, most notoriously, the puking priest and the nauseated nun.
It is in the depiction of these characters that the film’s warring production philosophies are perhaps most evident. In the book, Kathy Lutz’s aunt is a former nun, who at the time of Kathy’s marriage is herself married with children. She visits the house as promised, becomes disturbed by the vibes she picks up from the boys’ playroom and the sewing-room, and chooses to cut her visit short. In the film she shows up in full conventual regalia, and has barely set foot in the house before, in a cold sweat, she turns and runs, pausing only briefly to edify the audience by throwing up in the road.
And this, of course, comes hard on the heels of our introduction to Father Frank Delaney, who in one of the film’s most famous sequences is driven from the house by a swarm of flies, a demonic voice and, yes, a fit of nausea. He makes it only so far as the Lutzes’ driveway before succumbing – which does rather beg the obvious question: didn’t any of the Lutzes notice the mess…?
One of the major deviations of the film from the book lies in its handling of the Church. Six years earlier, The Exorcist had demonstrated with a vengeance that Catholic ritual could translate into major box office. Desiring public endorsement, that film had been careful to depict its church officials as thoughtful, courageous and open-minded.
The Amityville Horror, in contrast, chose to ignore the book’s largely sympathetic presentation of Father Delaney’s superiors, and to depict instead a cold, uncaring church hierarchy, sneeringly dismissive of the notion of supernatural phenomena. (The casting of Murray Hamilton in a small but crucial role here is a dead give-away.) This alteration was not, I feel, merely an example of the “bad priest” card that became so common in horror films during the increasingly cynical post-Exorcist era, but rather was made in order to provide a better, or at least bigger, showcase for the film’s Name Guest Star.
As Father Delaney, Rod Steiger is hilariously awful, simultaneously the worst and one of the most memorable things about the entire production. His performance, particularly when Delaney is begging for church help, reaches such a level of unabashed hysteria that it becomes embarrassing. You really don’t blame the other priests one bit for not believing a word he says.
(Murray Hamilton’s Father Ryan, entirely against the film-makers’ intentions, wins the audience to his side by demanding bluntly of the self-righteous Delaney, “Who the hell do you think you are!?”)
And while Delaney suffers the same “punishment” for trying to help the Lutzes as his print equivalent – permanent severe flu, stigmata-like blistering of his hands – the film-makers weren’t content to leave it at that. Instead, they gave Steiger one more opportunity to devour the scenery, cooking up an insanely melodramatic sequence in which Delaney is stricken blind while in the midst of saying a mass (“Ohhhhhhhhh, LORRRRRRRRD!!!!”). The last we see of him, he is both sightless and (mercifully) silent, sitting by a lake wearing a monk’s robes (!?) and, presumably unintentionally, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ralph Richardson in Tales From The Crypt.
One wonders if the reason that Rod Steiger allowed his performance to go so far over the threshold of pain was because he felt threatened by the film’s other major star – and by that I mean neither James Brolin nor Margot Kidder, although they are solid and believable as George and Kathy. (Kidder’s combination of schoolgirl outfits and baby-doll hairdos is, however, incredibly distracting.) Nor am I referring to the three children. Neither K.C. Martel nor Meeno Peluce has much to do in the film, but Natasha Ryan is quite good as Amy, leaving us, in her general demeanour and her interactions with her “imaginary friend”, disturbingly uncertain as to which side she is actually on: “Jodie doesn’t like George,” she announces at one point, ominously.
The film is technically proficient – although these days it looks almost old-fashioned. Still, those of us with an anti-CGI bias – or at least, an anti-overused-CGI bias – may find ourselves thinking more, not less, affectionately of it for that. The slow, gliding cinematography by Fred Koenekamp does help to suggest a presence; I particularly like the moments when something seems to peer down over the railings at the beleaguered Lutzes. Lalo Schifrin’s score is also effectively creepy, but undercut somewhat by being so terribly derivative. With its ever-increasing use of ominous “dah-dahhs”, it even steals cues from Jaws!
But none of this ultimately matters. The Amityville Horror’s human stars and creators may do their best, but even in combination their contribution pales beside that of the film’s one great legacy, not just to the horror film, but to pop culture in general. I refer, of course, to The House. Never mind that the structure is merely the work of a shrewd and gifted designer, and bears only a general resemblance to its real-life counterpart: the iconic power of the thing is extraordinary; perhaps even to the extent of being, in and of itself, sufficient to account for the tenacity of the Amityville mythos.
As far as The Amityville Horror works, it does so purely because The House looks like the kind of place where such things could and would happen. As for what does happen… It is pointless saying “This film is scary” or “This film is not scary”. Reaction to a horror film is too individual a thing. For myself— Okay, I admit it. Even after so many years and repeated viewings, bits of The Amityville Horror still get at me. The plain fact is, I am peculiarly susceptible to this kind of story; and I react to it in a most Pavlovian manner, quite independently of the quality of the film.
Perversely, however, the scenes here that tend to leave me the most unnerved have nothing overtly supernatural about them. The first is the sudden appearance on the Lutzes’ doorstep of a dishevelled stranger, who announces that he has come to “welcome them to the neighbourhood” – and who vanishes the moment Kathy’s back is turned, never to be seen or referenced again. The other – and I know I’m not alone in this one – is the scene in which Amy’s babysitter gets trapped in the darkened closet. Nothing happens to her, not really; and yet…and yet…
(Never mind the otherworldly implications: heaven help you through this scene if you are to any degree claustrophobic...)
Most of the so-called demonic manifestations that we witness are fairly innocuous, not to say gigglesome. (In the book, the house exudes a green-black slime; the translation of this to the infamous “bleeding walls” just makes it look as though they’re being attacked by the Blob.) The repeated flicking over of the clock to 3.15 a.m. has a certain power about it, however, as does George’s increasingly threatening relationship with his axe. The one thing that does work for me—
Well, they say that confession is good for the soul. As long as I’m embarrassing myself, I might as well do it thoroughly. The one thing that does work for me is – those red eyes at the window… Even to this day I can remember reading that passage in the book for the first time, all alone in my room, too scared even to glance towards the window, just in case. These days— I’ve seen this film over and over, I’ve seen that sequence over and over, I know exactly what’s coming – and yet it gets me every single damn time.
(Prefacing the moment with a chorus of ‘Jesus Loves Me’ – not in the book – was a brilliant touch.)
Otherwise, the one thing that gave me a pleasant little frisson this time around was the scene in which George, his partner, and the partner’s mediumistic girlfriend discover the proverbial portal to hell down in the basement. Says the girlfriend – another moment not in the book – “It comes and goes through here.” And perhaps this explains what really never makes sense to me in stories such as these, even with my extensive powers of suspension of disbelief: if you’ve got hell’s back door under your house, why is so little actual damage done? Is it, perhaps, because the people in the house are rarely the real targets? Perhaps the house itself is just a conduit, hell’s highway, the way by which Evil goes out into the world at large; and the manifestations merely what occurs as it…brushes by you in the dark.
The horror film is all about text and subtext; the overt nightmares, and the unspoken, unpalatable truths lurking behind them. I cannot help wondering whether the initial success of The Amityville Horror, and perhaps even the lingering and largely unearned affection in which many people seem to hold it today, are due to factors entirely other than the lure of the supernatural.
Being of an age to have succumbed to the story behind The Amityville Horror in print, I am also of an age to have adopted Stephen King’s Danse Macabre as an early genre bible. This wide-ranging, comfortably rambling volume contains a brief but discerning analysis of The Amityville Horror, in which King reports his observation that the film seemed to appeal to an older than average audience (for a horror film, that is); and also, most astutely, I think, tags the project as an economic horror story. The House is not just a place where Evil dwells; it is what a great many people today would consider an even greater horror: a Money Pit.
Consider the scene (one highlighted by King as a moment of genuine drama in a maelstrom of nonsense) in which Kathy Lutz’s brother loses the money he is due to pay to the caterer of his wedding. The anger, the panic, the frustration that swirls around this prosaic but inexplicable event is something that anyone can relate to, regardless of his or her thoughts on the supernatural. After all, if you were to ask people what would upset them more, losing $1500 or having red goop sliding down their walls, what do you think most of them would say?
Behind The Amityville Horror’s horrific overtones lurks a story guaranteed to hit a nerve with anyone who ever bought a fixer-upper that never was entirely fixed; or who felt their relationship starting to crumble under relentless financial pressure; or who committed themselves to a mortgage that they couldn’t really afford – and who afterwards lay awake night after night telling themselves that everything will be okay, really it will, if only the kids don’t get sick, or the car break down, or the company get downsized – or the interest rates go up another quarter of a percent…
Wheels within wheels within wheels. The Amityville Horror is not just a story of the perils of buying a house in general, but the very specific story of what happened to George Lutz when he tried it. The film does go some way towards acknowledging the financial hole in which George found himself, serving up an exasperated business partner who finally loses his temper over George’s ongoing neglect of their mutual enterprise. “I told you this would happen!” he says angrily. “You marry a dame with three kids, and you’re up to your ass in mortgages—” – and George punches him out.
The film treads fairly lightly around this subject, never questioning the essential rightness of George’s choices, and chalking up everything that goes wrong to The Big Bad House. The book, in contrast, is quite staggeringly blunt about just how much trouble George was actually in, not just in terms of the emptied out bank accounts and the bottomless mortgages, but the business’s (his business’s) investigation by the IRS, finally providing a very simple answer to the inevitable question, “So why didn’t they just leave?” – they couldn’t afford to.
Who could ever have imagined that, more than thirty years after that initial news report, I’d be re-visiting the first film version of The Amityville Horror preparatory to seeing the re-make, and all the while debating which of my unfortunate relatives would have the honour of supplying me with The Amityville Horror Collection box set once my birthday rolled around? Not George Lutz, I suspect.
We human beings tend to cling the delusion that we are in charge of the world, but the plain fact is that a great many things, stories included, have a frightening tendency to take on a life of their own, spiralling up and away and out of our control almost as soon as they are born. Read today, with both perspective and hindsight, the description of the Lutzes’ mounting financial woes in Jay Anson’s book, which winds in and out of the account of their alleged haunting, looks very, very much like a pre-fabricated and ready-made apology.
Except, of course, that by the time an apology might have been in order – the whole thing had, to put it mildly, gotten rather out of hand…
Footnote: The mind plays funny tricks sometimes. Even though I have watched this version of The Amityville Horror numerous times, I had somehow managed to forget between the last viewing and this one that unlike the book, the film never specifies just what Amy’s invisible friend, Jodie, actually is – namely, a demonic pig. Alas, this “artistic” choice deprives viewers of a couple of the book’s most fondly remembered passages, such as George Lutz being thoroughly stomped by invisible cloven hooves – and, best of all, the marks of those hooves in the snow…
(Of course, the film version, although supposedly still set in December and January, mysteriously features a number of very beautiful sunlit shots of The House surrounded by a garden in full bloom, so I guess we’d have lost the tracks in the snow in any case.)
It isn’t hard to figure out the reason for the film-makers’ reticence on this point. Jodie the pig might be all very well on the printed page, but it is hard to imagine that a visual representation could inspire anything but giggles. There is one brief shot here of something that sorta-kinda looks like a pig, but only if you tilt your head and squint.
Perhaps the final word on this subject goes to reviewer Anton Bitel of Movie Gazette who – in a crack I sincerely wish I’d made myself – points out in his recent review of the re-make just how appropriate it is that in many people’s minds, the tale of what supposedly went on in Amityville is irrevocably linked to the idea of a flying pig…
Want a second opinion of The Amityville Horror? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.