Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Cast: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Murray Hamilton
Screenplay: Sandor Stern
117 mins. Rated R.
- Academy Award Nominee: Best Music, Original Score
Another year, another set of horror movies. Welcome back to the 31 Days of Horror. Let’s get started with what is considered a classic of the horror film world, the start to what is likely the longest running horror film franchises in history (in terms of actual quantity of releases): The Amityville Horror. The franchise ended up spawning 12 more official installments with numerous other films which utilized the Amityville name for brand recognition, but all of it starts back in 1979 with the first film, directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, Question 7), based on the novel by Jay Anson, which in turn is supposedly based on the true story of the Lutzes. Now, I’m not here to discuss the validity of this “true” story. That’s not my area. I’m here to talk about the film. I’ve said it before, but in the grand scheme of things, nobody cares about the book and nobody cares about the true story when they see a movie (yes, some people do, but we are dealing with the outliers and not the trend here). When people see a movie, they are there for entertainment through story and character. Now, let’s decide if The Amityville Horror is able to provide that.
In 1975, George (James Brolin, Traffic, TV’s Life in Pieces) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder, Superman, Black Christmas) have purchased a home in Amityville, New York. As they settle in with Kathy’s three kids from her previous marriage, strange incidents begin occurring around the new home. Father Delaney (Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night, On the Waterfront), brought in to bless the home, becomes violent ill and experiences an ill will in the house. Kathy notices George’s frequent waking up at 3:15 every morning, and his slow mental deterioration from the man she married. As they learn about the house’s horrible past, it becomes clear that a malevolent force wishes death upon them.
My primary criticism of The Amityville Horror is that I just don’t find it scary, even in the tonal sense. The idea of someone going crazy in their own home, as George finds himself, is gripping, but I don’t get the sense of anything really causing it other than a feeling. I would contrast his character arc with that of Jack Torrance in both the novel, The Shining, and the Stanley Kubrick film. In Stephen King’s novel, Jack is seen as a man struggling with himself and his vices. His slow descent into madness feels believable because we see what is driving him mad and how it ties to his background. In Kubrick’s film (which is very different in its characterization of Jack), we see a man already on the tipping point of insanity who really pushes himself over the edge. Both interesting takes on this type of character arc, but in Amityville, we are presented with George Lutz, a seemingly normal man who goes a little wacko because of…something. Sure, I can understand a feeling, a stress over trying to father three kids who aren’t his by blood, the financial strain of new homeownership, but I never felt like the connection between these elements is made. George just gets a little crazy.
The only characters in the film that gave me a sense of the house’s evil were Father Delaney and Kathy’s aunt, a nun. Both of them related the unusual events in ways that made me feel like this was an evil home. Delaney’s reaction is shown, while the nun’s is merely told to us, and I felt that both worked. In fact, I would say that Delaney’s blessing scene, which occurs very early in the film, is the most frightening sequence. A man of God is trapped within the house’s walls, and he has been caught off guard by a sense of evil he’s never felt before. A similar idea is played with as the nun later relates how sick she became just be being in proximity with the home.
I would have like the film to focus more on the financial instability of the Lutzes through all this. This is not an uncommon critique. In fact, much of the dialogue of the film is connected, in one way or another, to finances, but I don’t think Rosenberg, as a director, marries this with the paranormal activity taking place. Financial strain is a very scary, very real pain that many, including this writer, have experienced. It’s just as scary as a haunted house, and the idea that the mental state that money problems bring being used as a supernatural target is very unnerving. I just never felt like we got there in the narrative.
Beyond all that, the film is simply too long. The climactic finale is quite thrilling, but getting there is kind of a slog. There are great scenes that build the tension, and then there are moments where all of that tension is lost in a bungled narrative that focuses on the wrong elements.
Thankfully, we are treated to Lalo Schifrin’s powerful score which keeps the story somewhat blanketed in an eerie and unhappy layer. Where the story fails, the score succeeds, at times being the only consistently strong element. Without the score, the film could collapse in on itself.
As I mentioned, this is not to say the film doesn’t have merit beyond the score. There are things to like, but there are also a fair amount that doesn’t work. The Amityville Horror lies in the middle of things, never being as great as its reputation, but never being immemorable among the hundreds of spooky house movies littering the past several decades. It’s merely okay, good for an initial viewing but little more than that.
-Kyle A. Goethe