James Brolin - George Lutz
Margot Kidder - Kathy Lutz
Rod Steiger - Father Delaney
Don Stroud - Father Bolen
Natasha Ryan - Amy Lutz
K.C. Martel - Greg
Meeno Peluce - Matt
Michael Sachs - Jeff
Val Avery - Sergeant Gionfriddo
Helen Shaver - Carolyn
Murray Hamilton - Father Ryan
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Ghosts/Demons/Haunted House
Running Time - 117 Minutes
A few years ago, I reviewed the 2005 remake of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR that stars Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George. I remarked that it was one of the better modern remakes of the '00s [still stand by that] because it took what the original film had done and slightly improved on its flaws. Many scoffed at me because I preferred the remake over the original, since a lot of people cherish the 1979 Stuart Rosenberg adaptation of the 1977 best-selling novel of the same name. For the life of me, I still don't understand why the original film is so damn loved. And as I noticed, some of those naysayers are now on the same boat as me. Why is THE AMITYVILLE HORROR held in such high regard as a classic?
I guess it may have to do with it being "Based on a True Story". The Long Island, New York house that's the inspiration for this horror story has become iconic due to claims by George and Kathy Lutz that the house was haunted with evil spirits. The story about the previous owner, Butch "Ronnie" DeFeo, is believed to be true, as he murdered his entire family in 1974 with a shotgun while they slept. Apparently DeFeo claimed that demonic voices and forces inside the house were telling him to kill. Whether the guy is suffering from schizophrenia or supernatural forces really made him kill is still yet unknown.
What has been disputed is the Lutz's story. Did their 28 days of hell in Amityville really happen? Or did they just want fame and fortune? Whether it's true or not, their story has created one of the most popular horror franchises in the horror genre for better or worse. And during a period with supernatural horror was at its peak with films like ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and THE OMEN really sucking in audiences, a film adaptation of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR was, without a doubt, going to grab a huge audience as well. And it did, becoming a massive success and creating a ton of sequels and the earlier mentioned remake.
The problem is that, unlike the other supernatural films I mentioned, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR doesn't really hold up that well and doesn't effect me in the way it was probably intended. To be honest, I felt the same way about the film when I was kid. I see some of the charms that so many love about this film, but I personally feel this film is overrated as hell and not all that good. Let's see why I won't be chopping wood anytime soon.
At exactly 3:15 AM on November 13, 1974, a young man named Ronald DeFeo murdered his entire family with a shot in Amityville, New York. He claimed that demonic voices within the house had taken control over his mind and ordered him to kill his family, and plead insanity. While doctors believed he was schizophrenic, many in the neighborhood believed the house to be haunted.
A year later, the house is back on the market for a very cheap price. Newlyweds George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) Lutz buy the house and move in with Kathy's three young children and a family dog. As the family settles in, they unknowingly receive a visit from the local priest, Father Delaney (Rod Steiger). Delaney enters the home ready to bless the house, but is attacked by a swarm of flies and starts feeling nauseous and physically ill by whatever is inside the home. When he tries to warn the Lutz family about his suspicions, the reception goes bad each time.
Soon enough, George begins to feel sick himself, complaining of the house being cold even though the thermostat is above room temperature. He constantly chops wood for the fireplace, growing more distant and deranged each passing day. The family thinks George is coming down with a bad case of the flu, not realizing that random objects are moving around inside the house and demonic voices exclaiming, "Get out!" are echoing throughout the home.
Kathy slowly catches on, as her daughter Amy (Natasha Ryan) suddenly has an imaginary friend named "Jodie", who does bad things and forces Amy not to do anything. Friends are also creeped out by the house, random strangers pop up, and the history of the previous owner is learned by a local cop (Val Avery) who witnessed the terror that occurred a year prior. As George descends deeper into madness and begins looking like Ronnie DeFeo more and more each day he stays inside the house, the family begins to realize they need to escape this haunted house before history repeats itself.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is consider to be one of the best "haunted house" films to ever be made. Unfortunately, I disagree but that's only my opinion. I find THE AMITYVILLE HORROR to be overlong, boring, and not at all scary. I felt this way when I was eight-years-old when I watched it for the first time, and I feel the same way 23 years later.
The strengths and weaknesses of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR stem from the culture surrounding its release and how it has changed today. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR did big business because the 1970s were a time of conservative religion and fear that weak-minded folks were going to fall into the hands of Satan and his evil. Any project [film, television, books, etc.] involving the Devil or evil spirits was going to make a lot of money due to the culture's fascination with the subject. While ROSEMARY'S BABY pretty much started the craze, it was THE EXORCIST that really gave it its power. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR just jumped on the bandwagon and did well for itself because of it. I've read and heard that to truly review THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, you need to judge it by when it was released instead of modern times where the world view and pop culture compliment the film less. That's a fine opinion, but I still believe I would have felt the same way about the film in 1979 that I do in 2012. The film, no matter the reasons behind its creation, isn't all that great.
The narrative is pretty basic, to the point where you're just sitting while waiting for things to happen. The story does have memorable moments obviously. After all, many future films have parodied the walls bleeding blood, scary eyes outside of a window, and demonic voices telling people to get out. While cliche, these moments work for a reason because we expect things like this in a horror film. But between these moments, you're stuck watching a family drama unfold that isn't all that captivating. And that's the issue with THE AMITYVILLE HORROR - it wants to be a scary film, but also wants to portray conventional family values in the form of a soap opera. Can these two things work? Absolutely, but only when the people behind the storytelling understand how to merge the two together to create a single entity. Since the script wants to follow the book as close as possible, while exaggerating things for a movie going audience, it never maintains the balance it needs to not be boring.
As many characters that are in this film for two straight hours, we barely know any of them on any deep level. Sure, George and Kathy Lutz are likeable enough. But I honestly know nothing about their true relationship outside this incident. They seem to be a loving couple at the start, but I always got the impression that George was sort of distant with Kathy, who was more affectionate and willing to let things go just to maintain a sense of happiness in her life. She keeps saying that she really wants her marriage with George to work, as if it's implied that maybe this couple isn't as happy as the film would like us to believe. Why would she say this in almost a doubtful way if they were a solid couple? Also, Kathy's children don't seem to have a bond to George in any way. Daughter Amy claims that Jodie doesn't like George, and never defends him to Kathy or Jodie. I'm not expecting George's stepfather relationship with Kathy's children to be perfect. But usually it's on good standing if the mother marries the guy. It would have been nice to see what their relationship was like prior to moving into 112 Ocean Avenue, especially when I'm watching these two people for 95 percent of a two-hour film. That's why I'm never invested in George's slow descent into madness because you barely know the guy before the change. Hell, he could have been a serial killer before marrying Kathy. He doesn't look like the most friendly guy on the planet, as he's a bit standoffish. And the fact that Kathy just lets things happen without doing anything to change them until it's almost too late makes her weak in my eyes. But unlike the other characters, at least they do stuff that at least keep you somewhat interested. They're just not that interesting as single characters, working only when they play off each other.
The children, besides Amy, don't get enough to do [unless you count Greg getting a window slammed down on his hand, which doesn't break any of his bones for some reason that's never explained]. Amy's only real purpose is to introduce Jodie, her so-called "imaginary friend" who likes to sit in a rocking chair and trap babysitters in Amy's closet. Oh, and Jodie is a flying demon pig for some reason. I guess she was tired of Miss Piggy taking the spotlight, so she turned evil or something. I don't know why a pig would be one of the lead spirits inside of this home. Maybe Jodie was a Wonder Twin in a past life. I have no clue. It's a funny image though, which does raise the entertainment value of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. I honestly thought the Jodie from the remake [who is human in that version] was integrated better into the story than this demon pig was. Maybe if the demon pig deal was given more time, it could have really been something pretty cool and terrifying. But we barely see it and it just comes across as silly. There had to be a reason why Jodie was a pig. But the story never tells you [I believe the novel does give the pig issue a lot more detail than the film does].
The Church stuff that's added to the film also left a lot to be desired. I understood why Father Delaney was in the story and I'm more than fine with his role in the narrative. If you're going to have an evil house, you need a force of good [usually a very religious person who has power in his faith] to balance it out. And I liked that he was effected by the evil of the house the moment he tried to bless it. It made him nauseous and gave him flu-like symptoms. It also attacked him with flies. It showed that his religion and the faith he had in it was a big threat to the evil living there. However, I didn't understand why it continued to effect him after he left the house. He got sicker. It tried to crash his car while he was in it. He even went blind because he spoke against the evil inside of a church. How did this evil leave the house and do this? It's never established how powerful this home is. Kathy's sister, who is a nun, was effected by the house as well. But all she got was nauseous. The Lutz family got affected in different ways, but once they left the house, the evil stopped hurting them apparently. So why was this priest such a threat that the evil wanted to destroy him? It doesn't make any sense and seems like the reason this even happens is to give Father Delaney something to do once he's introduced.
What I did find interesting within the narrative is how religion is treated in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. In THE EXORCIST, it stands up against the forces of evil. While evil isn't truly dead by the end of the film, at least it wins the battle for the most part. In this film, religion tends to be treated as something worse than the evil inside the Amityville House. When Father Delaney tells his fellow priests about his suspicions about that house and how it made him ill, the other priests think that Delaney may be losing his mind and don't want to pay any more mind to the issue. For a man as respected in his parish and in the community as Delaney, wouldn't the other priests at least go along with the story? Even when the man goes blind, it's almost treated as an afterthought - like that sort of thing happens all the time. For men of faith, they sure seem more political than anything. They would rather turn a blind [no pun intended] eye to the matter rather than investigate. While I think the narrative is hurt by casting both the evil and the religious sect as villains, at least it's interesting to see the point of view the filmmakers had on religion here. Instead of trying to help a family deal with a spiritual crisis, they would rather cover it up and let it continue. Honestly, besides the house itself, the priests in the film have more personality than the people we're supposed to care about. I didn't really feel much for the Lutz unit, but I was disgusted by how the Church acted here. Shouldn't it be the other way around?
Speaking of the house itself, it's honestly the only character in the film that has any sort of personality. It can make its walls bleed. It can clog up its toilets with black gunk. It can move objects at will. It can produce images, like demon pigs and a face hologram of George Lutz. It can make psychics go orgasmic through the vibes it projects. And it can even speak to people so they can get scared off and leave. The house is the most interesting element of this film and it's the reason why the franchise keeps going back to it. This is a creepy ass house - one I wouldn't want to go near.
Also, this film is full of open-ended subplots. What was the deal with that detective? He spies on the Lutz home and then follows one of the priests to see what happened to Father Delaney. Then he disappears and is never mentioned again. Why is he even in this story? To tell the family what happened there previously? I'm sure this could have been done a different way, even if this is exactly how the Lutz family claimed it happened. Also, what was the deal with Delaney and Kathy? They seemed pretty close and concerned for each other. But whenever he felt there was trouble, he would barely try and warn her about it. So he made a few phone calls, but they never went anywhere. He could at least risked his life to warn her. Nada! Also, nobody wanted to be inside this house. Wouldn't the Lutz family have asked about the reasoning more than once? And when strange things did happen, why didn't the family start to think that maybe it was time to move out? Things like that tend to bug me, even if it's close to the "true story".
While the narrative is pretty predictable in terms of its beats and certain moments that need to happen in order for the story to be told, at least it has moments you'll remember once the film is over. While most of these classic images were cliche before THE AMITYVILLE HORROR was even released, at least they're used well and pick up the film's pace to grab your attention before you start falling asleep. Generic, but memorable.
In terms of terror, there's not much here. Sure, the house gives off a creepy vibe [as well as a creepy look - when the windows are on, it looks like an evil face staring back at you], but you won't have nightmares over this movie. Still, the scenes where DeFeo murders his family are pretty messed up, especially when he shoots the children in their sleep. And I like how they're edited in as the Lutz enter the home for the very first time. It's a striking contrast and also a possible foreshadowing of what will happen to the Lutz family. The red eyes outside of the window are pretty creepy too. But nothing is really that scary at all.
The direction by Stuart Rosenberg was hindered by a lame screenplay, but I did enjoy his visual presentation. It looks like a TV movie at times, but it's still competently shot. There was definitely mood and atmosphere sprinkled throughout the film when there needed to be. The editing was tight and I liked how certain shots were framed and composed. Some shots were done with the use of filters, which worked for me. And I thought the final act had some nice tension, even if it was fairly predictable. Rosenberg, who directed the much better COOL HAND LUKE, isn't to blame for the film's mediocrity. He made the most of visualizing a script that really doesn't accomplish much. He took the job seriously and I respect that.
The acting is mostly good. James Brolin is good as George Lutz, giving a subtle performance throughout the film. His beard during the 1970s was truly epic and just awesome on its own. But Brolin does a good job with the material. I like his presence. Margot Kidder was also good as Kathy. She hit the emotional notes nicely and looks good with an open shirt and no bra. No wonder Superman wanted her all those years ago. Natasha Ryan was also quite good as Amy, the daughter. She had a creepy quiet vibe about her that I felt the film needed more of. All the other supporting actors were fine in their roles as well.
However, Rod Steiger really takes the cake as Father Delaney. Talk about Overacting 101...and probably 102 as well. The dude was way too much in his role. I thought Al Pacino and William Shatner were hams. Steiger, an Academy Award winner, has them both beat. The guy overacts and yells every line in the film. That scene inside the church had too much volume going for it. I thought everytime he started to go off, the man was going to have a stroke or something. A pretty bad performance by Steiger, but an entertainingly bad one. He should have drank decaf before each take.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is probably one of the most overrated horror films ever. While the direction is good, the acting mostly solid, and the horror cliches used as well as they could be, the "true story" is just a bore for the most part besides when things start turning supernatural and horrific. The film is way too long and not much happens that keeps you captivated. But the memorable moments the film does have keep the film alive in the hearts of many and they have a certain charm to them. And while I think the film is mediocre, I never wanted to turn it off. Let's just agree that THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is average at best and move on. And if my house begins to bleed because of that, I'll just have to deal with buying tampons and plugging that bitch up.