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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