|Review||The Amityville Horror (1979)||Director||Stuart Rosenberg|
|Writer||Sandor Stern (Screenplay) based on Jay Anson’s book|
|Cast||James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, Natasha Ryan, K.C. Martel, Meeno Peluce, Michael Sacks, Helen Shaver and Val Avery|
“Houses don’t have memories” – George
George and Kathy Lutz (Brolin and Kidder), along with Kathy’s three children from a previous relationship, move into a big house in Amityville, Long Island. The house has a macabre history as one year before a family was murdered by the eldest son. The family’s priest, Father Delaney (Steiger), comes by to bless the house but after a frightful incident he becomes convinced that the house is haunted.
Soon the Lutz’s experience some strange things in the house. George looks like he’s becoming possessed and Kathy becomes more and more terrified for her and her children’s lives. Father Delany tries to reach the family but to no avail as the house’s evil influence prevent contact. As they gradually discover the house’s horrible past it’s clear that the only way to stay alive is by getting out of there.
Every horror fan knows “The Amityville Horror”. Maybe all of them haven’t seen it but it was such a success that it’s become a classic in the genre despite the fact that practically every critic has panned it; whether when initially released or later. It’s the kind of film that was big with the public but not with the critics. It’s true that the film is far from perfect and has a number of problems but overall this is a very solid horror film that has many things going for it.
The mood is brilliantly set in a magnificent opening act. An act of senseless cruelty is perpetrated when the eldest son in a family goes from room to room and shoots his family while they’re sleeping. Scenes from the massacre are interspersed with potential buyers George and Kathy as they enter each room a year later. It’s very eerie and well done. Soon after Father Delaney arrives while the family is out taking a boat ride and he house reacts badly and literally screams at the priest to get out. Steiger’s acting, the use of sound and editing in that one scene is really terrifying and it left a big impression on me as a youngster. Following these events it’s clear that the house has a strange effect on George. Kathy’s daughter, Amy (Ryan), has an invisible friend called Jody who makes it clear that George is not liked and also terrifies a babysitter in a nicely claustrophobic scene.
Many scenes in “The Amityville Horror” are expertly done and Brolin’s gradual mental breakdown is well played by the underrated actor. The late Margot Kidder (“Black Christmas” – 1974) matches Brolin all the way with a terrific performance as well. The story arc leading up to the finale is handled well with the gruesome history of the house mentioned (in no big detail) to give the final act an added oomph. Nothing is really resolved and the ending is a bit anti-climactic but it’s all on purpose. As most people know the film was based on the supposedly non-fiction bestseller by Jay Anson that novelised the experiences by the Lutz’s. I’m not going to voice an opinion of weather I believe it to be true or not but the book is very scary and well written and the film, mostly, does it justice.
The aspect of “The Amityville Horror” that simply does not work and drags the film down is the whole subplot with Father Delaney. He has a grand entrance and had it just been a cameo the film would have been a whole lot more successful. His experiences do show the house to really possess a great deal of power but they are very out of place and take the goings-on too far outside when they should be isolated to the house. While Steiger was a very good actor he did have the tendency to ham it up considerably and his overacting here severely undermines the quiet and eerie mood the rest of the film is building admirably. In my opinion Steiger’s entire roster of scenes, save from his entrance early on, could be excised entirely and the film would benefit greatly. Then we’d also be rid of Don Stroud who plays Father Bolen and his character is very irritating and, quite frankly, gutless. I should also mention that there is no priest in the book so his part was wholly invented by screenwriter Sandor Stern.
Lalo Schifrin’s music score must be mentioned and it’s a great one. Reportedly this was the score that director William Friedkin rejected vehemently for “The Exorcist” (1973) but it adds immensely to the proceedings here and ratches up the tension.
Not unlike “The Shining” (1980) which was filmed by Stanley Kubrick from a Stephen King book; director Stuart Rosenberg couldn’t possibly hope to put on film some of the scary parts on the pages in realistic fashion. Not in 1979 at least. As a result the house really doesn’t “do” that much and that’s a thing most critics like to focus on as a big negative. The emphasis is on the mood and what the audience doesn’t see and I think it’s well handled but while “The Shining” is considered to be a masterpiece and “The Amityville Horror”…not…I do think it’s been unfairly treated by critics. There are a number of scenes here that are truly effective and while the Father Delaney subplot lessens the overall impact the film has more going for it than against it.
I wholly recommend the “The Amityville Horror”. I would also recommend the book and it makes even more of the prelude to the happenings of the Lutz’s and those sequence of events were quite effectively displayed in the fictional “Amityville II: The Possession” (1982).