The Amityville Horror. 1979. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Screenplay by Sandor Stern; based on the book by Jay Anson.
Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, John Larch, Natasha Ryan, K.C. Martel, Meeno Peluce, Michael Sacks, Helen Shaver, and Amy Wright. American International Pictures. Rated 14A. 117 minutes. Drama/Horror.
When it comes to the haunted house movies that go for the possessed angle – the house driving someone crazy or literally possessing them – I still think The Amityville Horror is near the top of my favourites. Different than The Exorcist where that’s a demon, I love this even without all the true story aspects of it, which are likely a hoax as far as I’m concerned. But that’s a discussion for another time.
This movie just creeps me out. I mean, when the priest is in that room with the flies covering his face, then all of a sudden you here it softly first – “Get out” – the priest looks around in awe and it says once more, louder and raspier this time – “GET OUT” – every time I see that part, I know it’s coming, and consistently it freaks me out. Love it! Always enjoy a movie which continually scares me any time I watch it over the years.
Plus, there’s something about the idea of a house’s history affecting the people who live in afterwards that gets to me at my core. Because, although I don’t believe in any life after death, I’m forever sceptical at the same time. I’m always questioning. So, I can’t fully discount that there may be something we don’t know about yet, something that could be proven eventually. For me, watching horror movies is not always about realism. In this type of film, you have to try and remove yourself a little from reality, but at the same time you can still stay slightly grounded. Just imagine, what would you do if a house started driving you crazy? What could you do, really? When I watch horror, I’ll usually try to put myself in the shoes of the characters involved. That’s one reason this movie scares me because if I were in that house with James Brolin going slowly mad, I’d probably have been terrified right to the bone.
The Amityville Horror is based on the, supposedly, true events which transpired in the house of George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) – where years before, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. murdered his family in cold blood as they slept at night. Moving in with their children, the Lutz family find a great new home; spacious, a boathouse out back with a small dock, good land. Once moved into their house, strange things begin to happen. George begins to wake up every morning at 3:15 AM on the dot. The young daughter starts talking about an imaginary little girl named Jodi who actively becomes more and more involved in her life. Even a priest comes to the house trying to bless the place when Kathy sends request, but he is driven from the premises by some evil force, screaming at him, sending him away by any means. Things get worse and worse, and slowly George seems to be sucked into whatever terror lays beyond the veil between the living and the dead.
I think a part of what makes The Amityville Horror work is the family dynamic. When considering the real supposed story, George Lutz (Brolin) is the husband of Kathy (Kidder), but the children are his stepchildren. Apparently he was not exactly the perfect stepfather and he was a bit tough on them. He’s running a business and everything is on him, so while the house exerts its evil influence over George his business begins to suffer. Then Kathy is of course concerned about him, trying to figure out what’s going on. There are so many things at play within the Lutz family. It’s as if the house feeds off any already negative energy or presence within its walls, it uses that to generate more of the negative energy still left over from the past. That’s what makes this movie real interesting for me.
In the early scenes as Brolin and Kidder stroll through the house, there’s some really excellent editing which truly caught me off-guard. I didn’t expect the quick cuts to, what ultimately are, the murders of Butch DeFeo Jr. These are the murders of course that happened in the now haunted house. I love how they’re incorporated here. As I said, some spot-on editing. Great stuff from editor Robert Brown, whose work includes Damien: Omen II, Brubaker, The Pope of Greenwich Village, The Lost Boys, and Flatliners. Kudos to him for the stuff in this film. He has a real touch for the horror genre, as far as I’m concerned.
All the little touches are creepy. Such as George’s waking up at exactly 3:15 AM. This is supposedly the time when Butch DeFeo killed his family in their beds. So even though the supposed hauntings are inspiration for this, and I don’t believe the real story in so far as I’m concerned, I still find the whole thing utterly unsettling. The movie stands well enough on its own for me.
Still, the part that has always gotten to me the most is the scene when the babysitter gets locked in the closet. Damn, does it ever work on my nerves. I always feel so bad for her because I don’t like closed spaces, so I think if I’d have been locked in there – by a child or a ghost or whoever – I would lose my mind eventually. Plus, the blood on her knuckles, rapping on the door, beating against it; such a vicious image. Then the light goes out, and to this day, no matter how many times I’ve seen it my spine will chill. From bottom to top and back again. Great, spooky stuff!
The reason my love for this movie endures is the atmosphere. Time and time again I’ve said it: atmosphere and tone, these are things which work for me. If a movie has those and can keep up relatively nicely with a bit of solid dialogue, add in some decent characters and you’ve sold me!
Stuart Rosenberg, as far as I’m concerned, is a classic director. Not everything he did was perfect, but I think he has enough wonderful pictures under his belt we can look back on his career to say it went well. He did some great ones – Brubaker with Robert Redford, Cool Hand Luke including the classic performance of Paul Newman, and The Pope of Greenwich Village featuring Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke in maybe the performances of their careers or at least close to it. So, I’d throw this film on the list. He’s good at crafting tension and suspense, in everything he has done. Most certainly here. There are a ton of moments that have me held close to the screen each time I see the movie. Some of the shots of the Lutz house are downright ominous and foreboding, I absolutely love them. That iconic red filtered shot of the Lutz house from the outside is KILLER! Dig that one, so much.
A particularly favourite shot of mine is at almost the 40 minute mark. George (Brolin) is putting wood in on the fire. The flames are crackling and licking up. You can barely see his features, but the fire casts on his face in a reddish glow; his beard/goatee looks as if it were the devil himself. Then, as he leans back, the glow leaves and he looks like a frightened man, losing his mind. Perfect stuff.
Not only do I love the shot, we get to see a great bit between Kidder and Brolin. The look in Brolin’s eyes is insanely perfect. He is one great actor, man. I’ve always thought that, anyways, aside from this movie. But there is something in his face, a great gift of expression, which works like a charm for the character of George Lutz. While I love a movie like The Shining, I’ve always agreed with Stephen King when he says that Jack Nicholson sort of starts off crazy; I mean, you get that typical Nicholson feel right from the very beginning in the opening car scene. Here, with Brolin’s depiction of George Lutz, it gives the genuine feeling that he is a man who is going crazy. At the beginning he’s definitely a sombre guy – I attribute that mostly to the fact he’s a bit of a serious guy, lots of stuff going on with his business, buying the house, probably how a lot of people might be in the situation. There’s something, however, which changes as time goes on, and as opposed to something like Nicholson’s performance – which I do enjoy – there’s that honest feeling something is going seriously awry in the Lutz house.
Margot Kidder is no slouch either. Ever since seeing Black Christmas and the under-seen/under-appreciated Brian De Palma horror-thriller Sisters I have been in love with this woman! Wonderful, talented actress. She is a true great. Her performance here matches the intensity of Brolin at the right times and we really get the feeling this is a woman who loves her husband, as she tries so hard to help him hold onto reality, but also works to the bone trying to protect her children.
Oh, and Rod Steiger – bad ass. Constant bad ass. I love him in this and I could watch it a hundred times just for his scenes because they’re enough to make you stand up and shout. He’s a classic actor and this is one role that will always, always come up when I think of his name. Solid stuff out of him, as is to be expected. He plays a typical role we’ve seen, a million times since, yet it’s one I would rank up there with Max Von Sydow in The Exorcist. Absolutely.
While I love this horror movie, tons, I’ll only be able to say it’s a 4 out of 5 star film. There are a few points of dialogue I’m not too keen on, mostly when it concerns other characters outside of the Lutz’s themselves. I think at times the script in general could’ve been tighter, mainly to compact things a bit more. Great film, in spite of its dubious “true” roots – still, I tend to find it’s a little longer than it needs to be. I think with Brolin and Kidder, with Steiger thrown in for good measure, this movie didn’t need to be close to 2 hours long. A solid hour and a half would’ve done the job quite proper.
Either way, it is a classic of the genre and will forever be a favourite of mine in the haunted house genre. Near the top. Great performances are what drives the best bits here, as well as good atmosphere and quality editing. Always recommend this to anyone who has to see it.