Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Amityville Horror (1979)

USA, 117 minutes
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writers: Sandor Stern, Jay Anson, George Lutz, Kathy Lutz
Photography: Fred J. Koenekamp
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Editor: Robert Brown
Cast: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, Amy Wright, Michael Sacks, Helen Shaver, Val Avery, James Dukas

As it happens, I came to The Amityville Horror very late—actually well after the 2005 remake (which I have not seen). At a garage sale in 2007 I found a box set with the original and first two sequels, plus a couple of documentary episodes from the History Channel on the house in Amityville, George and Kathy Lutz, Jay Anson, and related matters. The woman at the garage sale told me the TV documentaries were more scary and creepy than any of the movies. Because I am slow about everything, it was another couple years before I actually got around to looking at the flagship production, so let's say 30 years after the fact.

The Amityville Horror was about what I expected, except somehow it did get under my skin. On a conscious level, sitting on my couch in the dark of a fall evening, I kept remarking to myself what an extremely annoying movie it was, but when the phone rang and I jumped I realized—the movie had scared me. Director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Village) and crew do it the old-fashioned big-money Exorcist way, which is very much its model: by dynamics. Slow down the action to a crawl. Then speed it up. Show a tender moment. Interrupt it with mortal peril. Make everything very quiet. Then loud. Mix and match with provocative elements: People standing with their backs to dark windows. Blood. Swinging axes. Insects and other vermin. The dog interested in something in the basement. A woo-woo friend trying to be helpful. Children in danger. A kitchen sink. Religious iconography, ceremonies, and belief systems (or fragments thereof) as needed—Roman Catholic, of course.

It thus becomes a straightforward problem of rhythm and pacing, assembling and burnishing the elements, but it's not fair to reduce it to that. It's a straightforward problem, after all, that every movie has to solve, and if The Amityville Horror succeeds on terms it sets for itself I think I'd look a little silly complaining about it. So I don't. But I resent it a little, and don't mind looking silly for that. For some reason, I don't even recall how it came into my possession now, I read the original book by Jay Anson some 20 years ago, which also gave me something of a bad scare, but in a slightly different way.

The intent of the book (which one of the History Channel shows pointedly refers to as "a novel") is obviously to make your eyes pop out and your socks roll up and down your ankles as you read. By masquerading as nonfiction, it slyly finds a wedge in to further anxiety, much as, say, the documentary about The Exorcist is nearly as insidiously disturbing as the very disturbing Exorcist, because the idea that these are things that actually happened is enough to torque events described into some infinitely more unpleasant place psychologically. There's a clip of Anson himself on a TV talk show masterfully using this technique, talking about how people he'd given the manuscript to review were subsequently involved in auto accidents, mysterious fires, etc. Well played, Mr. Anson, etc., except then we learn, oh ha ha, that Anson himself died within the year at the age of 58 of a heart attack. Doesn't really look like a heart attack candidate either.

For the record, no, I don't think powerful demonic forces are at work. I think strange things happen, and the Amityville franchise has been able to profit handsomely from an oddly generous share of them. All the talk of Indian burial grounds and flies thriving in the dead of winter and a priest barked at in an empty room may be pure fiction (the priest story at least may have some substance). But the mysterious mass murder that happened in the house in 1974, little more than a year before the Lutz family acquired it and moved in, is as real as teardrops. Oldest boy in that family gets up in the middle of the night (3:15, to be specific), murders his parents, murders his two brothers, murders his two sisters. Nobody hears the rifle shots. No evidence anyone in the family moved from their beds. All of them lying on their stomachs, face down.

A great backdrop for great evil, of course. No Indian burial grounds need apply. But the movie appears unable to help itself on some level, it is even more ridiculous than the book (and though it scared me the book is very ridiculous), introducing the ever-popular dread portal to hell in the basement idea, for example. It is balls to the walls about hitting the extremes. Put Margot Kidder, as Kathy Lutz, in pigtails so she looks like Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. Make priests the victims of incredible accidents. Raise the sound level high on flies buzzing (incidentally prompting a meditation on how the noun we have made of the lovely verb is actually one of the most repulsive creatures on the planet, no offense, you-who-will-inherit-the-earth). Cold spots in the house. Unexplainable foul moods. Rocking chairs that rock themselves. What now, Father Delaney in a coma? Kathy Lutz wakes up screaming: "She was shot in the head!"

Hey, I'm really not giving much away. This is just from the first half. In addition to the dynamics ploy (which means you can't brace for a lot of it even forewarned), it is also classic throw-everything-you've-got-at-it filmmaking, Hollywood style. Some of these things inevitably are going to stick to your walls. A favorite scene of mine occurs late, has nothing to do with anything, but raises my anxiety sky high. Once again Kathy Lutz is besieged. Her phone is mysteriously not working, again, and she desperately needs to reach someone. A disheveled man we have never seen appears at the back door, scratching. "Hello," he says when Kathy opens the door. "Everybody wanted to come over to welcome you to the neighborhood." Then he shows her he is carrying a six-pack of beer. Something distracts her and when she returns to the door he is gone. We never see him again.

It's the inexplicability of much of this, in scenes like that, that makes The Amityville Horror work. Who was that guy at the door? Why did Jay Anson die? Why didn't the sound of the rifle fire—six shots!—appear to wake anyone? But you see I am talking about elements that belong in the narrative frame, or are associated with the book—background, incidental information. The foreground events in this movie are all too often quite explicable: forces of demonic possession are strong, see? An exorcism is likely called for. But foolish modernists and followers of Vatican II won't hear of it. That is a portal to hell in the basement, man. That kind of thing. Mechanical fantasy points, which drag things down for me. The Amityville Horror is worth seeing once, because somehow it could well find a way to get you. After that, or in the sequels, there is only more of all too explicable Hollywood same.


  1. Im watching Amityville for the first time-- and that guy at the door with the six pack scared the fuck out of me. "everyone wanted" weird. random. creepy.

    well written review-- the pacing is a bit off, but its typical of the films of the era

  2. i mean the pacing of the film. the pacing of your review is good