The Amityville Horror (1979)

One Sheet Poster

One Sheet Poster

Note: Not that it has anything to do with the rest of this blog entry, but the poster pictured directly above was the first authentic movie poster that I ever owned.  My first job was in a record store, and when the soundtrack album for the movie came out, our distributor shipped us a movie poster to help promote it.  We hung it in the store window for a week or two, and then I took it home.  I’ve still got it safely tucked away.

A family buys a house in which the former residents were shot to death because, you know, they can get it cheaply.  After a full month of weird stuff happening to them in the house, they leave one night, too terrified to return even long enough to retrieve their belongings.  And then they have a best-selling novel written about their experience and make gobs of cash.  The end.

I’m truly amazed that America won’t let go of its fascination with the Amityville Horror.  I’m especially intrigued by this because, after investigations showed that George and Kathy Lutz’s accounts were inaccurate at best and outright fabrications at worst, their lawyer/literary agent admitted that he and the couple had cooked the entire story up while drinking wine.  Nonetheless, thirty-seven years and about a dozen films later, the events that took place in a house on Long Island are still very much a part of America’s collective memory.

Like most everybody else that I knew, I read the book that this film was based on when it came out in paperback and, I’ll admit, it scared me pretty thoroughly.  There was a part near the end (in which a white-robed figure was standing at the foot of the house’s stairs) that caused me to sleep with the light on in my bedroom on the night that I read it.  The very last page of the book promised that a movie version was in the works.  I knew that if the movie version was faithful to the book, it would be one of the scariest films ever made.

Finally, the film came out, and I ended up being incredibly disappointed by it.  Yeah, it was sort of creepy in spots, but the white-robed figure was nowhere to be seen.  Apparently my feelings toward the film were in the minority, however, as the film went on to become the highest-grossing film ever released by American International Pictures.

When I was rewatching the film for this blog entry, I was struck by how dead-on Stephen King’s assessment of the film was (in Danse Macabre, his overview of mid-century horror in the media).  He devotes seven pages of Danse Macabre to The Amityville Horror, which he describes as “the horror movie as economic nightmare.”  Indeed, even if the house hadn’t turned out to be haunted, it would have wrecked the Lutzes’ finances.  King points out a scene in the middle of the film where $1,500 in cash earmarked to pay the caterer at Kathy Lutz’s brother’s wedding suddenly disappears.  George Lutz writes a check to cover it, but the check bounces, as he knew that it would when he was writing it.  Throughout the film, George complains that he can’t get warm enough, that the house is impossible to heat and that the utility bills will be astronomical.  George’s business partner comes to get him to sign payroll checks that they don’t have enough cash in the bank to cover.  When one of the Lutzes’ kids gets his fingers caught beneath a slamming window, there’s an expensive trip to the emergency room that has to be made.  The Amityville Horror may be the only horror film where the supernatural events of the narrative have a clear and immediate impact on the characters’ finances.  When seen through this lens, the film is effective…but when viewed through almost every other lens, the film is laughable.

If you look at The Amityville Horror objectively, almost nothing really scary happens.  Sure, the film opens with the shooting deaths of six people, but that’s shocking, not creepy.  Black goop bubbles out of the toilets, which is icky, perhaps, but not creepy.  Vomiting nun?  Ditto.  Babysitter locked in a closet?  Not even close to scary.  Margot Kidder in pigtails?  Well, that’s actually pretty unsettling, as are James Brolin’s hair and beard, which make him look like the original model for the Geico caveman.

The aspect of the film that has the most potential to be really creepy was botched in a huge way.  The Lutzes’ daughter makes friends with “Jody,” who may be the ghost of one of the people who were shot to death in the house, or who may be some sort of pig-demon, or who may just be an imaginary friend.  The film wants the audience to lean toward the “pig-demon” explanation, but the two instances where Jody is shown are both so ineptly handled that it’s hard to figure out what we’re supposed to be seeing, much less to be frightened by the images.  In the first instance, Kathy looks outside a second story window and sees two glowing eyes and hears a squealing/oinking sound.  This could have been frightening, but the “eyes” are merely two small penlights with nothing behind them.  The second instance occurs when George is walking back to the house from the boathouse on the grounds.  He looks up and sees a very poorly-matted-in image of a ridiculously large pig with glowing red eyes in an upstairs window.  This one’s so bad that I had to take a screen shot of it (click on the image to enlarge it):

cropped amityville pig Yowza.

As if that weren’t inane enough (ooh! ooh! The Inanityville Horror!), there’s also a clichéd cat-based jump scare that happens about a half-hour in, and there’s the complete and utter failure of the costume department to give Don Stroud as Father Bolen even one piece of clothing that looks like it wasn’t fashionable sometime during the Middle Ages.  There also seem to be a whole lot of green grass and flowers on display for a film set in late November and December in the Northeast.  But rising above all else is the performance of Rod Steiger, who takes histrionics to new heights with his interpretation of the Lutzes’ parish priest, Father Delaney.  While he starts things off with his hammy tendencies relatively in check, by the end of the film Steiger is in full-throttle scenery-chewing mode, delivering one of the most unashamedly over-the-top performances ever.  EVER.  His speech about “needing the church” is probably his most out-of-control moment in the film, but this scene is a pretty close runner-up:

Again, I say “yowza.”

So, to wrap things up, I guess that I should probably answer this question:  Is The Amityville Horror worth seeing?   My answer is yes.  Probably about 20% of viewers will actually find it scary, and about 2-3 times that many will find it hilarious.  Whether you end up liking the movie or not, pretty much everyone I know agrees that it has an awesomely spooky theme song.  At the very least, you’ve got that.

Here’s the trailer (in HD if you so desire!):

The Amityville Horror is an American International Pictures (AIP) release.

Number of AIP films reviewed so far: 5

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