Bloody October: The Amityville Horror (1979)

The Amityville Horror (1979)

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Every October I try to load my Netflix queue with horror films both old and new, focusing as much as possible on the horror classics I have not seen. While there are a few necessary staples of this holiday season (Young Frankenstein, Sleepy Hollow, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Hocus Pocus), I am always on the lookout for those movies that have somehow slipped through my horror-loving finger. One of these films is the original The Amityville Horror, a haunted house movie from 1979 that spawned a host of sequels and remakes, one of which (according to Wikipedia) will be coming in 2015.

Based on a supposedly true story, The Amityville Horror focuses on the Lutz family, who move into a sinister house where a disturbing mass murder was committed the year before. The price is right, though (isn’t it always?), and so the Lutzes ignore the house’s history and set about unpacking their boxes. Things begin to get very weird, very quickly, which is what we can expect from a house with eye-like windows. When the parish priest Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) arrives to bless the house, he’s swarmed with flies and hears a disembodied voice demanding that he depart. Escaping from the house, he’s later unable to call Kathy Lutz (Margo Kidder) to warn her of the horrors. Not that she should really need any warning: her husband George (James Brolin) is compulsively chopping wood and sharpening his axe, her daughter Amy (Natasha Ryan) has discovered an “imaginary friend” named Jody who never wants them to leave, and anyone of a Catholic or spiritual bent gets violently ill just from approaching the house. But as with most haunted house movies, it takes a long time for the inhabitants to realize just how evil their habitation has become.

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The Amityville Horror boasts of strong production values and scares that depend more on a slow building of tension and practical effects than on blood and gore. There’s very little violence; just bumps, screeches, and a sense of sickness and foreboding that seems just out of reach. When violent things do happen, they are the terrors of a household accident: a window falling on a boy’s hand, a tumble down the stairs, a lightbulb shorting out, and doors banging, or being blown off their hinges.

The Amityville Horror falls short of true greatness, however, largely due to its lack of exposition. The reasons behind the haunting (if haunting it is) remain obscure, with a throwaway scene providing the only explanation for what has hitherto been inexplicable. I would not object to the lack of exposition if the rules of the house were clearer. Whatever evil dwells there seems to have a long reach, able to effect people who come in contact with it from a distance. But the added presences of “Jody” – either a ghost, a spirit, or a manifestation of the house? – along with the apparently random behavior of the house in slamming doors and windows, and possessing people, makes it difficult to establish just what we’re supposed to expect or be frightened of. While individual scenes have punch, the film as a whole lacks direction and, as a result, tension. I am willing to accept that the house is just evil, but even evil (in film at least) has to have some rules to maintain a strong narrative through-line.

The lack of exposition might have been mitigated by a stronger development of character. The psychology of the Lutzes remains largely obscure – the two sons vanish for large sections of the film, while the daughter and her friendship with Jody remain unresolved. George and Kathy, whom the house affects the most, are not drawn out as characters. While there are shades of The Shining in George’s slow descent into madness, his awareness of the house’s evil seems to shift on a scene by scene basis. Following several harrowing events, it strains credulity to believe that this family would stay on in the house.

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While The Amityville Horror has its faults, it is still an effective B-grade horror film. You can see its influence in later films like The Shining, Poltergeist, and Paranormal Activity – and while those films were arguably better executions of the same concept, the origins can be found in Amityville. That in itself makes this one worth watching.

The Avengers: The Wringer

The Wringer (Episode 03-17, January 1964).

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The Wringer is arguably one of the best dramatic episodes of The Avengers; it’s certainly the most serious. Steed is sent in pursuit of fellow agent and old friend Hal Anderson (Peter Sallis), one of seven agents who went missing after being detailed to the Corinthian Pipeline, an agent escape route in Austria. The others are all dead or captured, but Anderson remains at large and has not checked back in with his Ministry superiors. As is usual, Steed goes off on his own and eventually locates Anderson in a lookout post in the Highlands. But something is wrong: Anderson has forgotten the last two months of his life. Then he remembers, or appears to, and accuses Steed of being a traitor, the man responsible for selling out details on the Pipeline and causing the deaths of the other agents. Found guilty, Steed is sent to “The Unit” for interrogation and eventual disposal.

The Wringer achieves a complexity that not many episodes of The Avengers can boast about. The plot is complex without feeling weighted or overcomplicated. While some elements are introduced within the last ten or fifteen minutes, the whole moves along at a good pace, never rushed. The tension – and there’s a lot of it – is underscored by the relative calm surrounding the events. Steed does not yell, fight, or bluster when he’s accused of treachery, which makes moments of violence (as when he smashes a lunch tray) all the more powerful. We are watching our hero come apart at the seams, but he does it gradually, a testament to the strength of the character and to Macnee’s acting.

Cathy never loses faith in Steed, arguing with his superiors until they agree to allow her to see her partner. She represents it as wanting to know if she was wrong about the man she’s worked with for “many months,” but the subterfuge of cold intellectual interest is belied both by her concern and the look on her face the moment she sees him. She’s far from detached, as emotionally invested as Steed.

If The Wringer has any flaws, it is in the lack of humor. Seldom has there been a more somber episode, with even the opening scenes weighted down by Steed’s preoccupation with his assignment. The Ministry officials are both incompetent and unlikable figures, the villains (when we find them) creepy and self-involved. But the stars here are Steed and Cathy, their relationship and their reliance on each other in spite of everything that can be done to sever them. For once we are given insight into the psychological and emotional lives of these characters. While I’m glad that not all Avengers episodes are quite this intense, I’m pleased this one exists.

 

Bloody October: The Cat and The Canary (1927)

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

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I am a sucker for old dark house stories; the older and darker, the better. These stories were clichéd from practically the moment they were created, but like many clichés, they have a sense of fun to them that few more original narratives manage to approximate. One of the earliest such narratives – on film at least – is The Cat and the Canary, a silent film from director Paul Leni, one of the oft-forgotten masters of German Expressionism.

The film opens with the slow madness and then death of millionaire Cyrus West, who inhabits a multi-turreted Gothic mansion somewhere in the bleak and inaccessible countryside. The intertitles inform us that West was slowly driven mad by his grasping, greedy relatives, as they gathered around him like “cats around a canary.” So West decides to pay them back for their avarice, writing a will to remain locked in a safe until the 20th anniversary of his death, when his lawyer Crosby (Tully Marshall) will open it and announce his heir.

Fast forward those twenty years to one dark and stormy night. The relatives gather for the reading of the will at the Gothic mansion, still presided over by Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), a leering and creepy old housekeeper if ever there was one. When Lawyer Crosby arrives to open the safe, he discovers not one but two wills, with instructions to open the second if the first is not fulfilled. He’s more disturbed by the presence of a moth, indicating that someone has opened the safe in the past twenty years. Then the relatives arrive: Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley), Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) and her daughter Cecily (Gertrude Astor), and finally Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). As the family gather round for the midnight reading of the will, the clock strikes for the first time in twenty years and thunder shakes the house.

The heir, of course, turns out to be Annabelle West, the only member of the family who still bears the West surname. Her relatives are predictably disappointed, but things get interesting when Crosby raises a caveat to the will. The heir must be proved to be of sound mind by a doctor arriving that night; if she’s insane, then the fortune passes to the person mentioned in the second will. So with the set-up for potential murder and madness in place, everyone heads off to dinner.

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The Cat and the Canary is a surprising film for a number of reasons. Its highly Expressionist opening and rather clichéd structure make it appear like a quintessential early horror film. When a guard from an asylum turns up to warn the house’s inhabitants of a lunatic in the neighborhood – one who “tears his victims apart, like a cat with a canary” – we are solidly in the archetypal realm. Even the characters are less characters and more types: the ingenue, the maiden aunt, the dashing hero, the coward, and the creepy housekeeper. But as the film goes on, the types will be gradually played with and subverted, their roles thrown into relief as the night brings out the madness in them all.

The film manages to hit all the buttons that we might expect from an “old dark house”: a possible ghost, a hidden treasure, a fair maiden in danger, secret passages, vanishing corpses, and a dark and stormy night. It then injects a healthy dose of humor into the mix: cousin Paul is a coward of the first order, diving under tables, and at one point secreting himself beneath Cecily’s bed, where he unfortunately witnesses Aunt Susan and Cecily getting undressed (Wikipedia claims that the pair are mother and daughter, however I always thought that Cecily was just another cousin). As the night drags on and creepy things continue to happen, the extreme reactions of some of the family members provide more humor than fear.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some seriously scary moments in The Cat and the Canary. With the disappearance of Crosby, Annabelle’s sanity comes into question – and only the audience has seen the vague, shadowy figure ducking into secret passageways. It’s amazing what can be done with a long-nailed hand coming out of a wall, or a bizarre shape creeping past a window, made all the more bizarre due to lack of ambient sound.cat-and-canary-1927-imagery

While not exactly a film to provide jump scares or raise your heart-rate, The Cat and the Canary is curiously haunting. It will be remade two more times, once in 1939 and then again 1978, but the silent one is really the best, combining humor and horror, strong practical effects and Expressionist sets. The scares are still there, almost a hundred years later. It’s hard not to shiver when that hand comes out of the wall.