James BrolinAmityvilleRod SteigerMargot Kidder
The Amityville Horror
Medium: film
Year: 1979
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writer: Jay Anson, Sandor Stern
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, horror, haunted house, Christian
Country: USA
Actor: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger
Format: 117 minutes
Series: Amityville >>
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078767/
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 14 October 2002
The Amityville Horror achieves the dubious feat of feeling like a poor sequel to its own sequel. Amityville II: The Possession had an obviously lower budget, but also a nasty, grimy intensity and some serious character-based trauma. The Amityville Horror is merely a truckload of weird nonsense tipped out on to the screen. What's more, Amityville II was actually a prequel. This film starts with a recap of that one's nastiest bits and then plays out like a sequel to them. Having Amityville II's horrors fresh in my mind gave this film a lot more weight, though this turned out to be a mixed blessing. The Lutzes' nightmares don't begin to compare to the twisted shit that took the Montellis and having the comparison at the back of your mind might bring unfulfilled expectations.
Mind you, there's one unintended shiver to be found if you watch the two back-to-back. Much is made in The Amityville Horror of how George Lutz (played by James Brolin) looks just like the late and unlamented Sonny Montelli (to be played by Jack Magner in Amityville II). We even see newspaper photographs of Sonny, which obviously show James Brolin's face instead of Jack Magner... and the two actors don't look at all alike! Without having seen Amityville II this would have seemed like just a spooky coincidence, but putting the two movies together might convince you that evidence and eyewitnesses' memories are being altered by the evil at work in the house. Personally I find that far more sinister than a coincidental facial resemblance. If you want corroborative evidence, Father Delaney refers to "the twenty-year-old boy who killed his family", but our bearded James Brolin is nearly forty.
There's quite a lot I like here. On those rare occasions when the film experiments with subtlety, it achieves some spine-tingling effects. At the end, when James Brolin is heading for the house with an axe, we glimpse something monstrous through a window. It's only for a couple of seconds, but that's a "WHAT THE HELL IS THAT????" moment. I like the caption: "THE LAST NIGHT". I like the children's chant which keeps cropping up as incidental music.
I like the snippets of family life. Children being sent to bed: "We're not tired!" Margot Kidder: "You're tired because I say you're tired." Finally the shock moments, despite being sometimes corny and obvious, worked for me even when they really shouldn't have. At one point glowing eyes look back through a window at Margot Kidder. I jumped!
It's not a classic, despite what American International Pictures would have you believe, but mostly it's fine. The problem is the lame ending. A cool resolution could have improved things twentyfold, but instead things sorta fizzle out and you go away asking, "Was that it?" The Amityville Horror is trying to be a cut-price The Shining, but it never really lets James Brolin off the leash and that plot thread eventually crawls away and dies. There's an axe (lovingly foreshadowed) but there's also a chandelier (similarly foreshadowed) and no one gets hideously squished under that.
Some restraint might have helped. When George starts acting like Sonny Montelli and turning all survivalist with his beard and wild eyes, we get the message. We don't need the locals to drop their drinks and tell him he's the spitting image of Psycho Boy. Similarly we'd have to be morons not to see what's happening with the axe. Why undermine all that subtlety with a dream spelling it out for the hard-of-thinking? What happens with "Jodie" is pretty daft, too. Admittedly it's a good shlock shock, but surely something more chilling could have been made of such a great concept? Oh, and Rod Steiger's subplot has bugger all to do with the main film. That's, um, a brave performance. You couldn't accuse him of underplaying Father Delaney.
However Margot Kidder holds it all together. Leaving aside her unclad calisthenics (photogenic though they are) she gives us a straightforward, likeable wife and mother. The film's air of dread is because you care about Kidder. The kids are nothing special, the dog's a dog and James Brolin can look after himself, but Margot Kidder is vulnerable and charming. You want to whisk her to safety and cuddle her. Despite its problems, for most of its running time this movie works... and its biggest audience hook is Kidder.
There's one interesting change from Jay Anson's breathless book, which unlike the film claims to depict real events. This is a huge issue raising all kinds of questions which I'm going to completely ignore, since the film feels about as much like a documentary as it does a Miyazaki anime. The thing it changes is that Anson's Kathy Lutz had dreams of illicit lovemaking. This movie is a surprisingly faithful adaptation in many ways, but I think the film-makers were wise to drop those bits. They'd have pleased the dirty old man brigade, but at the cost of making Kidder less straightforwardly sympathetic and thus really hurting the film.
Stephen King has noted the strong financial subtext. It's made clear from the beginning that the Lutzes can't really afford this house, and everything that happens thereafter only makes the situation worse. One shot appears to show money being tossed on a fire, until it pulls back and we see that it was just a deceptive camera angle. It's still significant, though. This side of things is regularly emphasised in dialogue... "Eighty thousand? It might as well be eight hundred thousand." Or: "we'll probably discover it's a collect call from Japan or something when the next bill comes." It's easy to see how this resonated with a world in the middle of grave economic uncertainty. We aren't suffering the traumas of 1979 any more, but even if it's not so topical all this still packs a punch. We can all understand the pain of a bleeding wallet.
If it only had a decent ending, I'd be singing the praises of The Amityville Horror. However as it is, it's all build-up and almost no pay-off. Claiming to be based on a real story, it can't blithely kill off the cast. It's shamelessly kitchen-sinkish in its cheerful appropriation of any and all spooky phenomena, but I quite liked the effect of that. The house talks! Walls bleed! A doll appears on a mysteriously rocking chair! Random weird stuff happens, then is dropped in favour of new creepiness and never returns for the rest of the film. Cool! The religious stuff could easily have been chopped out, but I quite enjoyed it.
This film was wildly successful in its day. It's no classic, but it contains plenty of good stuff. It's not a patch on Amityville II, though.