Technically, I guess I'm both fan and detractor. As for the tale of the Lutz family's boggarting of a King Sized slice of the American Dream, only to run screaming from it 28 Days Later being a real and true story? Well... as the Eskimo said to the Ice Salesman, "I'm not buying it!!!" Yeah I've read (more than once) and reviewed the novel, yeah, I've watched the documentaries, yeah I've been all through the legends. No, I wasn't there. Let's leave it at that.
As for the movie itself... well, it's the Summer of Horror, kids! Hey I've reviewed three other Amityville properties so it's high time for the 1979 Haunt-o-rama-a-go-go! How was it? It's not so good, Al. In fact, recalling the tummy kneadings I've experienced with this flick pretty well caused me to watch it drunk.
Of course that means I have to review it hung over. After the first half I was loving it, but the first half polished off the first bottle, and I was still rarin' to go like Ronnie DeFeo with a new scope. This means that I had to re-watch the last half hung-over.
Yeah, it's better when you're drunk. In many ways the movie sucks like an Electrolux. It's an easy win to say that the main fright of this flick is that "it really happened". Strip that away and you've got a grainy, poorly lit indie, the most redeeming quality of which is that you get to see Margot Kidder's breasts! I get why Clark was obsessed now.
Director Stuart Rosenberg (director of such widely diverse subject matter as My Heroes have Always Been Cowboys and The Pope of Greenwich Village) is actually credited here as himself, not the Alan Smithee pseudonym he later used. He and writer Sandor Stern (writer of both Mysterious Island of Beautiful Women and [drumroll] Amityville IV: The Evil Escapes) offer up a sensationalized (yet somehow still rather dull) adaptation of Anson's novel, stripping away the documentary feel for a more The Exorcist-oriented fright fest. While this certainly cashes in on the zeitgeist that made the novel a hit, it also removes at least one layer of believability from the mix. Sort of like the addition of Petey Graves to an episode of Cold Case.
The story begins with (a completely unnamed) Ronnie DeFeo giving his family "lead poisoning" as a (caption assisted) foretaste and promise of what's to come in the new Lutz household. George Lutz (James Brolin, looking like a cross between Grizzly Adams, Marshall Tucker and Waylon Jennings) and his hot wife Kathy (Margot Kidder) are remarkably unperturbed that their charming new abode was all-too-recently the stage of a mini-Khmer Rouge reenactment and jump at the half-off Blue Light Special the Realtrix is hocking.
Perhaps it's not enough of a hint that the house was LOOKING AT THEM, but almost immediately strange things begin to happen. The strange things are divergent, in some ways, from those taking place in the novel. This includes George's constant complaints of the house being cold, strange noises and doors ripped from hinges as if something escaped from the hellish basement and out onto the front lawn. And then there's "Jodie". Jodie befriends the youngest of the Lutz family and begins to exert her influence. Things start to get really creepy when Sweet Kathy realizes that her little girl's imaginary friend is really a ghostly pig with glowing eyes and the approximate demeanor of Dick Cheney after losing his Blockbuster card.
An intriguing part of this film is Rod Steiger's turn as the Priest and Family Friend Father Delaney. Here Delaney is given more of a "Father Dyer" (from The Exorcist) treatment and the part of his friend Father Bolen (Don Stroud) is beefed up something powerful to give Delaney's Batman a Robin to bounce his ideas off of (instead of just making corn-dog asides to the camera). Steiger is fine in his role, and offers up some of the most terrified moments of the entire flick. While Delaney is consistently only one step behind the Mystery (and painfully unable to contact the suffering Lutz family), the real Mystery is how the hell they got Rod Steiger to be in this flick.
We know from the first thirty seconds of the film how it's going to end (the opening captions tell us, even if the story is new), so it's the duty of the film makers to create interesting ramp ups to the inevitable finale. At times, I'll admit, they succeed. Other times we plod along through mundane exposition until a seemingly arbitrary final act. Occasionally there are some legitimate frights. I have to hand it to the production for rarely resorting to silly startles instead of true psychological terror. Unfortunately, this also doesn't serve the film well when it comes to the boredom factor. Some of the time the budget catches up with the production and we see that the effects aren't much... but then again, sometimes the film is so poorly lit we don't really know what we're looking at!
The actors here all seem to treat this story as believable and with respect. However, none of them (even Steiger) can avoid the melodrama of the script and the directing. Sometimes it's so campy I looked for a tent, sometimes it's so cheesy, I opened a box of crackers, sometimes its so corny, I added oil and popped up some fresh kernels. Oh, the intrepid cast works hard at this, but there's only so much a James Brolin can do with a line like "I'm coming apart! I'm coming apart!" Maybe they should've just gone for broke and made a spoof out of this one. It worked for 1967's Casino Royale! Oh, wait... no it didn't!
I fully expected to give this one a Dog, so I was surprised to find myself watching with interest through a few parts of this. Perhaps this is part of enjoying the mythology that has now become a part of Pop Culture. Perhaps, but occasionally Rosenberg gets it right and leads to some interesting moments. If nothing else, Brolin and Kidder put forth an earnest effort, making us want to see these characters survive, even if we never quite believe they're in danger in the first gosh darned place. Then, my friends, there's the brief nudity. For those of us out there who grew up watching Superman and loving that Lois Lane, just a peek of her firm and shapely breasts feels like Christmas.
This film was brought to us by Executive Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, whose credits also include How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Frankenstein Meets the Giant Devil Fish. Well, seeing as how the novel The Amityville Horror comes off as immensely more credible than this thing (bullshit or not), I'd like to tell Samuel to Zark Off for this sensationalistic tripe. The film feels calculated to cash in, and occasionally stands up only as an exploitation film. Worst of all, the "FOR GOD'S SAKE GET OUT!" factor is never successfully explained away. There seems to be no valid reason at any point for these noodles to stay in this big, haunted Colonial house. I admit that after seeing Margot's goodies, it would be hard to get out of bed with her, but kids, when a radioactive pig is threatening your kids, you see ghostly apparitions of your own friggin' head in a basement room you're not supposed to have and when you start to get visions of rusty axes buried in your skull, I think it's pretty much okay to go to a Holiday Fucking Inn. "Hmmm. Well, that's odd!" just ain't gonna cut it, PAL!
Why did this become a hit and spawn no less than Seven Sequels and a Remake? One must understand the horror of the 1970's and the way the zeitgeist grabbed audiences. The Amityville Horror followed such successful Supernatural Fright Films such as The Exorcist and The Omen. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws were adding an air of uncommon realism to horror. The Amityville Horror combined the psychological and religious based horror of the satanic-oriented films and had a solid and published claim to the realism that audiences were beginning to soak up. While there can be little question that quite a lot of this film has been fabricated (as was quite a lot of the novel), all one had to do was visit the library's Microfilm machine to prove that Ronnie DeFeo killed his family at 112 Ocean Avenue. The film's main characters were also real, and could be looked up in the phone book. No, it's not a great film. It's not even a terribly good film, but it more than did its job in catering to the desires of both sides of the horror fence.
The changes to the plot and events to more closely resemble The Exorcist sours me on the film in some ways, and the entire claim to this (and the novel) being a "True Story" just doesn't cut the mustard. That said, this is not just a throwaway film, in spite of its flaws. For better or worse, the experiment succeeded and The Amityville Horror is still discussed and enjoyed today. Knowing it's not real removes a lot of the terror, and seeing it after 30 years of changes to the genre shows how dated this flick really is. You take the good, You take the bad, You take them both and there you have Two Stars out of Five, Two Stars out of Five. While The Amityville Horror may never seem to be living up to your dreams, it's most definitely worth seeing, and most definitely worth appreciating for what it is. However, it also might be best seen and appreciated as part of a drinking game. Those of you who don't have any interest in such flicks, or if you only have interest because "it's real", let me advise you... for God's Sake, GET OUT! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get drunk. That is after I investigate the creepy glowing eyes just outside my window. Oh, wait, those aren't eyes... they're headlights. Hi, Margot!
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