The Amityville Horror (1979) -**
I suppose it’s rather fitting that American International’s last horror film should have been every bit as bad as the ones the studio got its start with back in 1955. Oh sure, The Amityville Horror was a stunning success at the box office (although not quite stunning enough to save the company from being gobbled up by Orion Pictures), and it managed to make such a strong name for itself that direct-to-video dipshits were still cranking out movies like Amityville Dollhouse as late as 1996 (to say nothing of the new Michael Bay-produced remake), but the movie’s perennial popularity really demonstrates one thing and one thing only— it proves once again that the masses are asses. Despite its reputation as one of the classic horror movies of the 1970’s, The Amityville Horror is immensely stupid, clumsily made, and frequently outright boring. What’s more, its release marked what might plausibly be considered the climax of one of the more ignominious fleecings the public has received during my lifetime, the scam-artist pig-pile that began early in 1976, about a month after the Lutz family moved into the house where Ronald DeFeo Jr. had slaughtered his entire family with a rifle the year before. It was one of those rare cases when the producers of a horror movie played the “based on a true story” card and managed to get the public to swallow it.
Of course, the public had already swallowed plenty over the preceding four years. The DeFeo murders (and if I may be allowed an unusually tasteless aside, even for me, I confess that I have to stifle a chuckle every time I hear that name— it’s the approximate Latinate equivalent to “McUgly”) occurred on the night of November 17th, 1974. DeFeo pled insanity, claiming that he had been acting under the control of some sort of malevolent outside force when he shot up his family, but the jury wouldn’t have it, and chances are Ron Jr. will never see the outside of a prison stockade again. The case was big news on and around Long Island, but didn’t see much publicity anywhere else. Thus it would seem that Maine natives George and Kathy Lutz probably didn’t know a whole lot about the nasty recent history of their new house until after they moved in during December of 1975. What happened next has been much disputed, but the two central facts are that the Lutzes pulled up the stakes after only four weeks in Amityville, and that in 1977, a reporter named Jay Anson published a tabloid-minded book called The Amityville Horror, which purported to tell the story of the supernatural nightmare endured by the Lutzes during their 28-day tenure in the former DeFeo place. According to George Lutz, the house on Ocean Avenue was haunted by everything from the standard hooded ghosts and cranky poltergeists to a spectral marching band and a demonic pig named Jodie, and early in ’76, he got in touch with both Anson and a few self-proclaimed experts on the paranormal; the ghost hunters would get to the bottom of the frightening manifestations and Anson would tell the world all about it. Anson’s journalistic integrity is open to question to say the least. Even if we credit George Lutz’s bizarre story (and there’s little reason to do so, especially in light of the claims made later by Ronald DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, that he and George Lutz concocted the whole business in an effort to win DeFeo a retrial while getting the Lutz family out from under their oppressive new mortgage), The Amityville Horror was a grand confection of embroidery, exaggeration, and occasionally unadulterated bullshit. Indeed, Anson was caught in so many lies by so many people that subsequent editions of his book had to be changed substantially from the 1977 text. Parapsychologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, meanwhile, could most charitably be described as a couple of kooks, and many observers haven’t even been that generous in their assessments. Certainly, you’ve got to wonder how the Warrrens’ preferred explanation— that the DeFeo house was built on ground where the local Indians had once left the crippled and the gravely ill to die of exposure, and that the wrathful spirits of all those dead invalids were hell-bent on sharing their pain with as many of the living as possible— might be reconciled with the combination of specifically Western spookery and Christian-style demonic manifestations which the Lutzes reported. We might also ask why the family that moved in after the Lutzes split never had any problems with Satanic swine or drum majors from beyond the grave.
None of that made shit worth of difference, however. The Amityville Horror climbed steadily up the best-seller charts, drawing strength from the constant melee of “psychics,” “mediums,” “ghost hunters,” and debunkers of same, until it became such a big deal that the sale of movie rights was almost inevitable. A person who believed in the supernatural might be excused for taking it as a sign of the spirit world at work when those movie rights fell into the hands of AIP’s Sam Arkoff, who, after all, was huckstering with the best of them long before Jay Anson had ever heard of Amityville, George Lutz, or Ronald DeFeo. And besides, after the Abby debacle, I’d be amazed if Arkoff wasn’t more determined than ever to have an Exorcist of his own.
Dateline: Amityville, New York; November 17, 1974. At 3:15 AM, Ronald DeFeo Jr. awakens, dresses, and guns down his parents and all four of his siblings. (Incidentally, this is the one scene in the whole movie that fully lives up to its potential.) The detective sergeant in charge of the investigation (Val Avery, from The Legend of Hillbilly John and Black Caesar) can only shake his head in disgusted wonderment. A year later, George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin, from Westworld and The Car, and Margot Kidder, of Black Christmas and Sisters) come with their real estate agent to see the house where the DeFeo family lived and died. The Lutzes are newlyweds; Kathy already has three children by a previous husband, and it’s been something of an uphill battle on George’s part to get the kids to accept him. Beyond that, marrying Kathy meant converting to Catholicism, and one gets the impression that that aspect of the coupling didn’t sit well with George’s old social circle. Consequently, George is under a good deal of stress as it is, and it might be worth asking whether he’s really up to the task of buying a new house, let alone one that the business he runs with his friend, Jeff (Michael Sacks), will just barely allow him to afford. On the other hand, Kathy, spawned from countless generations of renters, is ecstatic over the possibility of owning something, and the house on Ocean Avenue is being offered for barely ¾ of its likely market value. After some deep pondering, George agrees to bite the bullet and sign on for the $80,000 mortgage. (Jesus… 80 grand for a huge Dutch colonial with a guest cottage and a boathouse, on easily half a dozen acres of Long Island waterfront! There are cars that wouldn’t set you back too much less than that today.)
Moving day comes. While George, Kathy, and the kids— Matt (Don’t Go Near the Park’s Meeno Peluce), Greg (Bloody Birthday’s K. C. Martel), and Amy (Natasha Ryan, from Kingdom of the Spiders and The Entity, who has an unfortunate habit of looking directly into the camera when she delivers her more significant lines)— unpack, they also await the arrival of Kathy’s priest, Father Delaney (Rod Steiger, of The Illustrated Man and Mars Attacks!), who is supposed to be coming over to bless the house. As it happens, Delaney doesn’t show up until after the Lutzes have given up for the day, and gone outside to zip around offshore in George’s motorboat. They therefore don’t notice the priest’s arrival, nor do they witness what happens to him in the house. While Delaney prepares himself for administering the benediction, the second-floor room in which he stands steadily fills up with both houseflies and an appalling stench. Just before Delaney would have been overcome, the flies and the smell both vanish, and a rasping, disembodied voice bellows, “Get out!!!!” Father Delaney gets out on the double-quick, heaves up his lunch the moment he’s over the threshold, and spends the next couple of weeks laid up with flu-like symptoms. The house never does get blessed.
Kathy’s Aunt Helena (Irene Dailey) has a similarly extreme reaction upon exposure to the house. She’s a nun, you see, and no sooner does she come over to see her niece’s new home than she is stricken with an ill-defined sense of horror and a wave of intense nausea. Now I’m sure this is all supposed to be utterly terrifying, but at this point in the film, I personally am thinking, “Man, I wish I had a house that church people couldn’t set foot in without puking up their guts! Maybe then my Jesus-junkie maternal grandmother would leave me alone to go to Hell in peace.” Mind you, I could do without the black slop that overflows the two upstairs toilets while Helena is receiving her visit from the patron devil of projectile vomiting, but I suppose everything has its price.
The next major incident comes on the day of Kathy’s brother’s wedding. Indeed, there are a pair of major incidents. Jimmy (Marc Vahanian) spends some time talking to his sister in the Lutzes’ living room before shipping out to the church, and while he’s at it, he obsessively counts and recounts the $1500 in cash with which he is supposed to pay the caterer at the reception. Eventually, he stashes the money in the pocket of his tuxedo jacket, but it isn’t there a moment later when he, George, and Kathy are on their way out the door. A hurried search of the living room turns up no sign of the $1500, but George offers to write a check for the caterer on the assumption that a more relaxed investigation will uncover the cash. It doesn’t, although George does indeed find the band in which the bank teller had wrapped Jimmy’s money. Arguably more distressing still (although nowhere near as damaging for the Lutz family) is what becomes of Jackie the babysitter (Amy Wright) while George and Kathy are at the wedding. When the girl goes to put Amy to bed, she somehow gets locked in a closet that has no lock on its door; she’s still there when the adults come home hours later, and the only explanation Amy offers for why she didn’t let Jackie out in response to her anguished screaming is that her invisible friend Jodie (who we will turn out to be— no, really— a hovering pig [listen for the “oink!”] with glowing, orange eyes when at last we get fleeting and indistinct glimpse of her) didn’t like the babysitter. We may safely assume that the Lutzes are going to have a somewhat harder time finding teenagers to watch their kids in the future.
Meanwhile, Father Delaney has decided that the Lutz house is in fact possessed by Satan himself. (Hey, if Old Scratch will take the time to stalk-and-slash a Canadian cock rock band in person, then I suppose he’s got room in his schedule for house-haunting too.) Delaney’s superiors scoff, however, and his assistant, Father Bolen (Don Stroud, from Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Carnosaur 2), isn’t much help in convincing them. Nor does Delaney have much luck going it alone in his efforts to rescue the Lutzes, because whatever it is that inhabits their house has a way of making the phones go all crackly with static whenever he calls to warn Kathy of what she’s up against, and we already know what will happen if he ever tries to pay a personal visit. But then it hits Delaney: “Hey! I’m a priest! I’ve got that whole ‘power of God’ thing working for me, don’t I?” Thinking he’s on top of the situation at last, Delaney makes a big production of praying for the Lutz family the next time he’s at his church, really embarrassing Father Bolen while he’s at it. It would seem, however, that Satan has slightly bigger balls than the old priest has given him credit for, as right in the middle of his prayer, a bunch of plaster from one of the sculptures up by the ceiling crumbles away, hits Delaney in the face, and miraculously (or rather, whatever the diabolical equivalent of “miraculously” is) strikes him blind. At the same time, that cop from the prologue has begun keeping his eye on the Lutzes in a manner markedly similar to that of a certain boundlessly annoying Lee J. Cobb character, apparently because somebody was afraid this movie wouldn’t be able to harness the last fading dregs of Exorcist-mania without any overt cribbing from the earlier film’s story. And while those two plot threads are playing themselves out, things back at the house are starting to look like a dress rehearsal for The Shining. George grows ever more distracted and irritable, and starts up a veritable love affair with his wood-chopping axe. Jeff complains that his partner is letting the business sink into the toilet, and Jeff’s wife, Carolyn (Helen Shaver, later of The Believers and Tremors II: Aftershocks), is so inexplicably terrified of the Lutz house that she refuses at first even to set foot on its grounds. But luckily for all concerned, Carolyn happens also to be psychic, and once she gets it into her head just how much danger the Lutz family is in from their demonic domicile, she bravely treks down to the basement to channel the evil spirits and see what the fuck their problem is. Evidently it is indeed something about Indians, and something about a portal to hell hidden in the cellar, too. Not that Carolyn’s discovery actually resolves anything, mind you. In fact, an overall lack of resolution is one of The Amityville Horror’s most conspicuous features.
These days, the biggest challenge to somebody attempting to write about The Amityville Horror lies in resisting the temptation to quote wholesale from the analysis given by Stephen King in Danse Macabre. King latched directly onto the one sense in which this movie really works, the way in which it gives a supernatural amplification to all the economic worries that confront a first-time homeowner with a cash-flow problem. But resist that temptation I shall, and advise you instead to read King’s dissection for yourself. That, I’m afraid, leaves me with little to talk about except the ways in which The Amityville Horror fails. Any horror film in which the most honestly frightening thing is a teenage babysitter’s orthodontic headgear has serious problems any way you care to look at it, but what probably undermines this one most severely is that its treatment of the haunting hews fairly close to what was described in Jay Anson’s book. The absurd scattershot quality of the manifestations Lutz and Anson reported is one of the biggest reasons to disbelieve their story even if you do accept the existence of haunted houses, and the film version reproduces that “haunting a la carte” feel to its detriment. The viewer is left wondering just what in the hell a bunch of pissed-off phantom Indians, a sometimes invisible demon-hog, and the Lord of the Flies could possibly find in common that would make them agree to haunt the Lutzes on a time-share basis, and the somnolent pace of the film allows plenty of time in which to mull that question over. It doesn’t help, either, that there is no real progression in the intensity or obviousness of the manifestations. Rather than building steadily from the subtly spooky to the overtly devilish, or from the strange but harmless to the wantonly destructive, the Lutzes’ supernatural housemates carry on their business with all the random inattention of a graveyard-shift gas station cashier desperately searching for ways to pass the hours until quitting time. Tone is a troublesome matter, too, in that the aggressive tackiness of features like the Incredible Puking Clergy sits uneasily beside the movie’s all-too-desperate bids to be taken seriously by a mainstream audience. We’ll watch a potentially effective and conceptually admirable scene like the closet incident or the case of the missing money, only to have the movie turn around just a few minutes later and hit us with something utterly ridiculous like the famous bleeding walls or the not-so-famous exploding front door. And don’t even get me started on the acting, which offers us a choice between Rod Steiger apparently trying to make us appreciate the dignity and decorum of Ricardo Montalban on the one hand, and James Brolin being out-charisma-ed by his own hairdo on the other. When it comes to crassness in a horror film, having one’s cake and eating it too requires vastly more talent than anybody involved in The Amityville Horror’s creation possessed, and everyone would have been much better off if the filmmakers had simply picked a mood and stuck with it.