The Amityville Horror (1979)
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.
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.
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.