Film Review – The Amityville Horror (1979)

The haunting of 112 Ocean Avenue will remain wedged in the American conscious until the end of time. The murder that happened there in 1974 paired with the haunting in ’75, became a countrywide phenomenon, the Lutz family who was supposedly terrorised there became celebrities. The American public was branded with Amityville’s macabre history, the media circus around the so-called haunting, and the controversy that dogged all ends of the story for years after. Even with all this, it was the film that sealed the deal on Amityville’s legacy of terror.

Made in 1979, just two years after the release of Jay Anson‘s book, Stuart Rosenberg‘s The Amityville Horror, was a huge prospect. Far from just ending up a shameless cash-in (it turned an $80 million profit from a $4.7 million budget) though, the film is an exquisite example of solid horror and gripping drama. Rosenberg understands the inherent terror of the story, so doesn’t overdo things. He’s genre-wary, careful not to step into the deep dark miasma the rest of the genre seemed to be slipping into with body horror and graphic slashers. But he knows how to scare us shitless using every trick in the book, so much so that The Amityville Horror is the perfect 70’s haunted house film.

Like Don’t Look Now in 1974, Amityville keeps its core husband/wife relationship at the forefront, with slowly soaring melodrama. Like Roeg’s classic thriller, The Amityville Horror is more about the collapse of a domestic environment rather than the origins of evil. The remake made the mistake of swapping tight character work into an endless stream of dodgy scares and misplaced intrigue over the causes of the haunting. As with any great mystery, the reasons don’t really matter.

Margot Kidder and James Brolin are absolutely perfect together. Kidder’s airy optimism riffs nicely with Brolin’s craggy Man’s Man, building the cuteness until the house’s oppressive nature starts taking its toll. Kathy Lutz slowly gets more and more anxious, George gets sicker, more enraged. Brolin could have gone silly with it, but for the most part, gives a pretty solid portrayal in rage. Oddly, possessed papas would get their most iconic outing in Kubrick’s The Shining released the following year. Brolin, gaunt, sweating, deranged, lurking around the desolate house, is a fair companion killer to Nicholson’s Torrance.

As for the scares, Amityville’s are surprisingly well-conceived and mostly well-aged. Most of the truly bizarre effects are rendered weirder by how unexpected they are. A purple dragon edited into an upstairs window should be daft but is oddly shocking. Nothing` beats the tangibility of a room full of flies though, and the film often pulls out perfectly executed frights. Many of the lamer scares are sold by superb editing, eerie scoring, and the reactions of the actors. This film is Kidder’s movie (just as The Shining is, in many respects, Shelley Duvall‘s) since the horror is felt so sincerely through her. Same can be said of Rod Steiger. The Oscar winner’s absolute dedication to desperation-giving-way-to-hysteria is one of the finer points of the film.

The Amityville Horror is one of the most chilling movies of the 70’s, perhaps even the haunted house film, because it knew what to feed off. The collapse of the nuclear family, corruption of institutions like the church, and the total inability of law and order to help. Shock and dread lurk in every hallway and Rosenberg are as adept at those classic camp scares as he is with the brutal viscera of a potential axe murder.

[rating=4]|Scott Clark

Horror | USA, 1979 | 15 | Out Now | Second Sight Films | Dir. Stuart Rosenberg | James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton | Buy:The Amityville Horror Limited (Blu Ray) [Blu-ray]