“For God's Sake, get out!”
Eddie Murphy once mocked this classic piece of advice regarding dim-witted folks hanging about in obviously haunted houses in that great stand-up routine he delivered in Delirious. When a disembodied voice snarls at you from out of the ether and orders you to “Get out!” then that is exactly what you should you do. Sadly, for the characters beset by all manner of bone-chilling phenomena in the Long Island house of 112 Ocean Avenue, this advice falls on deaf ears. And if this command was often directed to the audience by the damning critics at the time of The Amityville Horror's release almost thirty years ago, it, too, went unheeded for the film attracted many fans and went on to became a fondly thought-of highpoint of spooky shenanigans before horror films went decidedly nasty during the eighties.
The sub-genre of demonic properties is a potent and still prevalent one in movies. Within its spectral coils, you can have individual possession - Burnt Offerings, The Shining - ghosts of the past - The Innocents, The Evil Dead - supernatural kidnapping - Poltergeist - gateways to Hell, itself - The Sentinel, The Beyond - and even futuristic interpretations of the old dark house theme - Alien. But one of the most popular and successful haunted houses to have its power enhanced by cinematic invention can be found in Stuart Rosenberg's 1979 version of The Amityville Horror. Based on Jay Anson's bestselling account of the Lutz Family's supposedly “true” experiences in the house that saw the previous tenants wiped out by their own deranged son (whose story is pseudo-told in prosthetics-rife Amityville II: The Possession), the film did well enough to spawn a slew of follow-ons, one in 3-D, a spin-off TV show and a remake. Controversy still surrounds the tale, but it was inevitable that Hollywood would choose to sensationalise it further with a mainstream fantasy of it own.
Squarely derided by critics, yet cited by many genre fans as one of the spookiest little shockers dealing with “bad places”, Amityville is a jolting exercise in knee-jerk manipulation that manages to go beyond its own limited conventions by utilising a terrific set of central performances. Playing the optimistic George and Kathy Lutz (freshly married, but hauling Kathy's three kids from a previous relationship in tow), who move into the luxuriously spacious waterfront property that was once the scene of a terrible (and definitely true) mass murder only the year before, we have the great, but often unsung James Brolin (The Car, Capricorn One, the terrific, though rarely-seen The Night Of The Juggler) and Margot (Lois Lane) Kidder, whose anguished-yet-petulant and perky turns in proto-slasher flicks Black Christmas and Sisters certainly helped pave the way for her portrayal of a terrified innocent caught up in things beyond her control here. Rosenberg, himself, directs flatly and without much apparent love for the subject, typified by the many nightmarish moments that he conjures up either failing to hit the right emotional buttons or misfiring completely. This is such a shame as the man behind Cool Hand Luke may have been infinitely capable of finding deep resonance out of the slow-burn, choke-hold of a sweaty road-gang, but singularly missed the mark when it came to what could have been the slow-burn, choke-hold of such a terrifying set-up as this. The film is structured to mirror the day-by-day escalation of supernatural events during the family's albeit brief stay in the house before eventually fleeing, but this smacks of an intended documentary approach that will, inevitably, become derailed by several bouts of unconvincing histrionics that cannot fail to remind you that this is just an overblown thrill-ride that is carefully and calculatingly playing by the haunted house rulebook.
Wedding parties that end in threats, money going missing, days slipping by unnoticed, irate business partners and a mortgage beyond their means are nothing compared to the plumbing disgorging horrific black gloop, swarms of flies, a soul-numbing cold, windows that crash down on unsuspecting fingers, imaginary friends that stop being merely imaginary and blood seeping from the walls. Moving into a new house is always stressful, but for the Lutz Family, it is going to be hell. Yet this is their idyll and they are determined to make it work. George's no-nonsense pragmatism is etched early on when Kathy asks him if moving into a house of death concerns him at all. “Houses don't have memories,” he informs her with the kind of gruff, dependable air that any woman would be happy to cling to. However, he couldn't be more wrong and proves to be the easiest member of the new clan to fall under its ghastly spell, his masculinity becoming the very weapon that the demons of the house can't resist exploiting. Starting with small annoyances and mundane irks, George's patience begins to wear gossamer thin ... and with his inherited family irritating him all the more as the days go on, that axe outside on the chopping block begins to look hugely appealing. Before you can say Jack Torrance, our Georgie is sharpening its business end and honing his skills by hurling it into defenceless trees twenty yards away. Quite obviously, innocent wives and kids - and the obligatory door - will be no safer, as the events of the past seem like they are repeating themselves.
But instead of being a simple, streamlined engine of moody terror, Amityville gets bogged-down with sidelines and dead-ends. The efforts of the clergy to intervene in all this take up valuable time and go absolutely nowhere. The fact that George is an apparent dead-ringer for the killer is so underused as to be almost subliminal. But it is worth mentioning that super-shock Italian director Lucio Fulci caught on to it, and nicked the idea for his gothic gorefest, The House By The Cemetary - though, even here, it is a notion that merely peters-out. The discovery of the hidden room - the Red Room - down in the basement is a typical development yet, adhering to the abstract phenomena that Anson and the Lutzes chronicle, its potential is never satisfyingly explored and the half-hearted explanation of the house residing over an Indian burial ground can't help but feel ludicrously tacked-on. The book it is based on, however glamorised and unreal its events may be, was like a diary of the family's experiences and worked supremely well in its rambling, but unstoppable fashion. But the film needs an impetus, a momentum that Rosenberg is unable to provide it with.
Margot Kidder knows what she is doing, all right. Just look at that scene when she is flirtatiously performing some ballet in front of the bedroom mirror - a white blouse provocatively undone, hair in pigtails and one pink legging on. That's just plain naughty, that is. Sadly, Rosenberg makes a complete hash of the subsequent love scene that ensues, producing one of the clumsiest and most embarrassing in the days before Stallone tussled horribly with Sharon Stone in The Specialist. But the point that works here is that George and Kathy still have a believable enough relationship to make its gradual disintegration all the more effective. Even when the manifestations fumble around in the prop-box of a school-play, the anchor that the film has is with the two leads who do, at the very least, play along with it all with sincerity and, in Brolin's case, considerable gusto.
But the naff bits really do stick out like all those objects thrust our way in the knowingly hokey Amityville 3-D. And most of these can be levelled at one person in particular. Rod Steiger's frightened and rather irrelevant Father Delaney is attacked by flies, made vomitously ill and suffers stigmata after just one visit. But this is just the start of his patently ridiculous dilemmas in a parallel plotline that charts his forever-thwarted attempts to rescue the family from damnation. Our concerns for him, however, are thrown to the wind because of Steiger's terrible over-acting. With a career that has seen some incredible highs (his Napoleon in the epic Waterloo and his Gillespie in the classic In The Heat Of The Night) and some ludicrous lows (The Kindred, End Of Days - both sadly in the same devilish genre as Amityville), the Oscar-winning actor certainly seems to have lost his grip here. Even his little expressions of unease in the “evil room” as he begins to bless a place that clearly has issues with the ritual seem overplayed, but his tirade against the system that refuses to believe that something demonic is holding sway over the Lutz household is staggeringly bad. Or should that be Steigeringly bad? Nice to see Murray Hamilton again, though - here playing a doubting bureaucratic priest after his career-defining role as a doubting bureaucratic mayor in Jaws. Coupled with Don Stroud and John Larch suiting-up with dog collars in the same sequence and Rosenberg's film suddenly descends into cheap TV movie territory, however. His style of directing seems to favour this milder approach too, with an often bland visual aesthetic. Only one or two shots seem to stand out and deliver anything remotely cinematic. Odd angles of the house - which looks impressive, with those two attic windows gleaming like demonic eyes, any which way you film it - and images of Brolin's increasingly agitated and possessed face are the most startling. Though you could argue that the sorry sequence in which Brolin is forced to wander around the house in his underpants is pushing the dishevelled look at little bit too far - and it is definitely not doing the macho actor any favours at all.
The problem with the film is that it just doesn't generate much of a fear factor. Even when I first saw it, as a kid way underage but allowed into our local cinema via a mate's mother who worked there, it refused to affect me with anything other than a brief shiver or two. I'd already read Anson's book and that had really spooked me. The stuff with Jodie the demonic pig - a child's supposedly imaginary playmate - still unnerves me and yet its filmic interpretation is as inept and lacklustre as to be almost laughable. A couple of red lights for eyes floating in the gloom and a monumentally risible optical effect prancing about in the attic window are hardly sphincter-tightening. Most of the major supernatural scares are left wanting, in fact. But the film works well enough when it centres on George's slow ungluing from reality and his aggressive obsession with chopping wood, keeping warm and glowering malevolently at his family. His constant awakening at 3.15 in the morning - the time when the slayings a year before took place - and his conviction that the house is colder than anyone else perceives are quietly rattling oddities. We naturally side with George - he's big and strong and the protector of the household - so when he succumbs to darkness and malicious thoughts we, like kids who have been naughty, can't help but fear Daddy coming home. Brolin with an axe is also a superbly unnerving sight and those blazing, humourless eyes peering out from that veritable werewolf's face are definitely enough to turn the blood cold. I've said it before and I'll say it again - James Brolin is like the cinematic father of Christian Bale. They both possess the same eyes, the same burning and seemingly embittered intensity and the same unpredictably volatile edge that makes their characters vaguely uncomfortable to be around - even when they are the heroes. Brolin's shaggy look here is also reproduced, almost follicle for follicle by Bale as the ashen-wasteland dragon-battler Quinn in Reign Of Fire (see review). Although still making movies, Brolin was to lapse into the TV doldrums for many years after Amityville, which is a terrible shame. In this movie he really gives it his all, plunging deep beneath the likeably rough George and scratching away at the paranoia and self-centred rage that resides within. Indeed, the best and most disturbing theme of the film is that of the father turning against his kids, becoming something alien and dangerous - a monster wearing the face of the one most trusted. Of course this is accentuated by the fact that George is not the father of Kathy's kids, thus we also have that “stepfather” type of mistrust and awkwardness. But, the fact that the kids are such a considerable pain in the ass anyway only leads us to siding with him in the long run - which can't be right, can it?
Then again, Brolin is the only one in the film that is having any fun, so naturally we will gravitate towards him.
Another element besides James Brolin that works exceptionally well is, of course, the Academy Award-nominated score from Lalo (Dirty Harry) Schifrin. Director William Friedkin famously gave his music for The Exorcist the elbow six years before and it easy to believe that we are hearing variations and recollections of that rejected composition here, in Amityville. Icy strings, eerie percussion from crystallophone and waterphone and pulses of urgent tension drive the film. But of all the hellish cacophony that Schifrin daubs impressively around the freakish activities it is the children's choir that is the most memorable and haunting. The composer subverts the sweet bedtime lullaby of innocent harmony, the soft “laaa-la, laaa-la” of the main signature theme playing host to dark, ominous tones that rumble threateningly beneath the deceptively calm surface. Very definitely a crucial component in the film's success, Schifrin's score is the devious heart of the story, sinister, bewitching and undeniably impossible to dislodge afterwards. If only Rosenberg's visuals had matched such intensity.
The Amityville Horror is still ripe entertainment. It is like a starting-out point for young horror fans, an easy-level entry into the genre. It may not have realised just how silly it was being at the time, but the film now seems to wear such dated daftness with pride and, taken as such, remains surprisingly enjoyable. Brolin going ape, Kidder in pig-tails and a pink stocking and a large ectoplasmic oinker - it's only Schifrin's score that reminds you this is a horror film.
Dumb fun, nonetheless.
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