Retro Review: “The Amityville Horror” (1979)

After our recent viewing of the absolutely brilliant documentary My Amityville Horror, my lady friend–not nearly as big a horror fan as the Scholar–was surprisingly eager to see the famous film based on the famous novel based on the Lutzes’ infamous story. The controversy surrounding the Amityville story notwithstanding, the original Amityville is fascinating as a horror film in its own right, and having revisited it after god knows how long, I find myself revising my earlier (largely negative) opinion.

The Amityville Horror begins, somewhat disorientingly, in medias res. The opening scene has George and Kathy Lutz touring the grounds of the infamous Long Island house. They already know about the mass-murder of the Defeo family, but are hardly bothered by it–only in one scene, sometime later, does Kathy quip that she wished “all those people hadn’t died,” or something to that effect. In no time at all the Lutzes are moving into their new house, bought on the cheap (as stigmatized properties often are), together with Kathy’s three kids.

The house is a beauty, and although its iconic gambrel roof and two little glowing window-eyes have become synonymous with supernatural evil shenanigans, I would move into that baby in a hot second.  I suspect the filmmakers were fans of, or at least familiar with, the Gothic attention to place, because the cinematography positively luxuriates in the house’s colonial contours and Long Island’s gorgeous autumn scenery. In fact, like so many Gothic stories–and I’m going to go ahead and say that that’s what this is–much of what we see is downright idyllic, inviting, and warm (this, as always, despite the aforementioned supernatural shenanigans). I would invest in some real estate up thataway, if investing in real estate was something you could do with no capital but Irish charm and a twinkle in your eye.

So the Lutzes move in, and guess. What. Happens.

If you said “Scary stuff!”, you would be correct. This is a classic, seminal haunted house story, so the classic, seminal haunted house stuff starts happening fairly quick. Perhaps the most iconic scene comes, in fact, while the family is still in the process of unpacking. Father Delaney, a local Catholic priest and friend of Kathy’s, comes to bless the house, but misses the Lutzes, who are at that moment down by the boathouse. Fr. Delaney, trusting soul that he is, lets himself in to the Lutzes’ house and walks straight into a demonic swarm of flies. Rod Steiger, who plays the tormented priest, pretty much steals the show, giving a brilliant performance as a devout man struggling to convince others of his order, who should likewise be believers, that the demonic activity in the Lutzes’ house is real. Here’s the iconic scene where he confronts the house (tons of stuff about Amityville, actually, is iconic):

After his initial foray into the Lutzes’ place, poor Fr. Delaney is never able to return. The demonic being inhabiting their house prevents him every time, and stalks him even into his church, where it finally causes him to lose his sight. The poor father is shut away by the priesthood, who think he’s just a crazy old coot, and you really feel for the guy. His scenes, far away from the Lutzes and their possessed house, are full (perhaps a skosh too full) of pathos and bear comparison, almost, to Jason Miller’s phenomenal performance as Damian Karras in The Exorcist. I say almost because Steiger teeters on the brink of overacting, by contemporary standards, but thankfully never quite falls over.

Back at their swinging pad, the Lutzes are struggling with this demonic entity doing the usual demonic entity things (slamming windows on kids’ hands, glowing eyes in the middle of the night, possessing Dad, etc.). James Brolin’s performance as George Lutz is solid and suitably creepy, if a bit understated, and stands in stark contrast to Jack Nicholson’s performance of a virtually identical character as Jack Torrance in The Shining (you can read my review of that film here, if you promise not to tar and feather me). In fact, since I’m not in the habit of making friends and influencing people, let’s linger on this point for a moment. I don’t know to what extent Stephen King was influenced by the Amityville story, if at all. In fact, The Shining and Jay Anson’s novelization of the Lutzes’ story came out in the same year, 1977, so perhaps there was no direct cross-pollination at all. Regardless, the similarities between the narratives are pretty considerable. In both, a deeply flawed father is possessed by an evil supernatural force that causes him to try to kill his family. The biggest difference between the two stories is the setting, which in this instance is actually relatively minor in terms of narrative trajectory. The films (I haven’t read either novel yet) are both tasked with presenting this basic narrative in a visually compelling and (presumably) frightening way; but while The Shining veers into fever dream territory and seldom attempts to elicit a feeling of dread, opting instead for a general sense of weirdness, Amityville oozes with old-school haunting imagery and a lingering sense of supernatural enmity.

A major cause for my feeling this way, I think, has to do with the source of the threat that both films present. In Shining, the only real threat is Jack’s axe and terrifying widow’s peaks. The ghosts haunting the Overlook don’t directly threaten Jack’s family, preferring to make him do it. But in Amityville the Lutzes are not only threatened by dear old Dad: they’re also attacked directly by the demonic spirits in their house. Beyond this narrative difference, I just don’t find the style of filmmaking Kubrick employed in Shining to be anything but goofy. And again, Shelley Duvall did nothing to alleviate this feeling. Amityville likewise suffers from some dated effects and a few silly 70’s film techniques, but these seem anomalous, errant bad decisions rather than part of the filmmaker’s overall plan, and so can be passed by without losing the generally creepy, tense atmosphere that pervades the film. Nowhere is this difference more clearly illustrated than in the scenes in both films where the possessed dad breaks through a door with an axe to terrorize his cowering family members. I couldn’t find a clip of the Amityville scene, alas, but if you revisit the film, compare Brolin’s hulking, dark menace with Nicholson’s leering, “Here’s Jonny!” comedy routine.

Perhaps this is one of those polarizing conflicts in fandom, with people loving Shining but hating Amityville, or vice versa. What’s your take? Do you like either, or both? Or neither?

While the special effects really don’t hold up and provide a few unintentional laughs, Amityville is a solidly-acted, compelling film that is worth rewatching, particularly in light of the recent rash of old-timey haunted house movies. It has some weird pacing issues and doesn’t really offer any genuine scares, but it deserves its classic status.

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14 thoughts on “Retro Review: “The Amityville Horror” (1979)

  1. Every time I think of this movie I remember what Eddie Murphy said about it. “Get out.” “Too bad we can’t stay, baby.” I myself like haunted house movies more than any other horror subgenre, but if I had that stuff happen in real life I would have left too.

    • Haha, awesome! Yeah, I’d like to say that I’d stay–Renae Rude had a post about this awhile back–because I’m super interested in this stuff, but who knows when one’s inner coward will assert itself.

  2. Woiw. You’re not afraid to go after canon are you? I can’t disagree with anything here, but I’m honor-bound to defend Stephen King. In fact, he didn’t care for Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining.

    Check out this article:

    The Shining novel is superior to its film, and The Amityville Horror movie is better than its book.

    I love both movies for what they are – great ghost stories. (I think the Shining’s ghosts are actually creepier than the Amityville presence. Though, like Weddnesday’s Child, I’d be outta the Amityville house in a heartbeat.)

    • I saw this too! It’s interesting to hear King talk about it–and I agree pretty much to the letter with his assessment of the film, except maybe that “misogynistic” is too strong a word for Shelley Duvall. I didn’t read her role as a statement on all womandom (this isn’t a slasher flick); I just found her casting to be remarkably out of place.

      Like I said, I haven’t read either novel, but I’d like to. I actually just started my first King novel (I know, sacrilege) and so far it’s pretty good. I’ll have a review up here eventually.

      And yeah, if I’m being honest, I’d probably be terrified too. But again, I’m stupid about these things–I might try to interview the ghost or something.

  3. Great post – I haven’t read either book but I love both films and agree on the gothic sense of place that is very effectively exploited in Amityville. Mind you, I loved the Shining precisely for its very hammy over the top acting and gore and I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing Jack had actually managed to plant his axe in Shelley Duval’s skull…

    • Yeah, I think if you go into the Shining expecting a scary film, it’s easy to be disappointed. Actually my lady friend–again, not really a horror fan–seems to agree with you about the silly acting. She really likes the film.

      And I don’t know, I mean, Shelley D. is definitely a pitiable character. I felt bad for her from her first second on screen, for everything from her wardrobe to her unfortunate possession of a SHMCC, a term I just invented that stands for Standard Horror Movie Creepy Child. Nobody wants one of those.

      But you’re right, there are a few points when you definitely root for the bad guy.

  4. I loved James Brolin’s understated acting in this (and other films) because it seems to have a realism to it (of course this was before reality TV where every one makes a big deal over everything, and screams and fuses when even minor things happen, like breaking a fingernail). Most people, especially men, when they get frightened, kind of hush up and get wide eyed as they try to assess the situation and plan the right course of action. And I love that he went back for Harry, the dog 🙂

    I do love The Shining (movie) and think the actors played great parts for the medium the story was being told in. I always look at a book and a film as 2 separate things and different tools are needed to tell the story best within their seprate palletes. A great example of this is The DaVinci Code – trying to squeeze everything from Dan Brown’s book into the movie made for a terrible film.

    • I’ve really got to read the novels, I think. I definitely agree–the book and the movie are separate beasts and should be judged as such.

      And yeah, you’re totally right about overacting. The ghost hunter shows are full of people getting terrified by every door-creak and dust-mote they encounter. Bleh.

      I didn’t see OR read Da Vinci Code, but I definitely understand your general meaning. There’s an art in translating a book to film, I suppose, and some people manage where others don’t. I actually vastly preferred the film version of “The Exorcist”–the novel was lackluster.

      • I also read another haunted house book by Jay Anson, called 666. Both books were excellent if you’re into reading horror novels 🙂

        There was a TV mini-series where King had the Shining filmed more like his book, but it was lackluster. You really couldn’t start with Jack as a good guy and see the transformation into Jack the killer, even in the context of several nights on TV. You need to hear his inside thoughts to know the Hotel was infecting and damaging him – that can only be done best in a book 🙂

  5. I clicked your My Amityville Horror link hoping I’d missed a review of yours. Bamboozled, I say!

    In answering your question, I’ve always preferred this to The Shining. Not much outdoes a menacing haunted house flick, and The Shining just doesn’t work as well in that regard. Maybe its setting is too big. With the Amityville house, it’s more confined; there’s only so much room for the evil to permeate before shit starts getting intense.

    • Haha, sorry. Yeah, I should have reviewed MAH–don’t really know why I didn’t. Maybe I’ll do it eventually.

      I think you hit it on the head in terms of the house/hotel thing. Confined spaces are definitely key. And in AH the house itself is literally evil. In Shining it’s a group of dead Prohibition-era rich folk.

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