The Amityville Horror (1979)

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Screenplay: Sandor Stern (based on the book by Jay Anson)
Stars: James Brolin (George Lutz), Margot Kidder (Kathy Lutz), Rod Steiger (Father Delaney), Don Stroud (Father Bolen), Murray Hamilton (Father Ryan), John Larch (Father Nuncio), Natasha Ryan (Amy), K.C. Martel (Greg), Meeno Peluce (Matt), Michael Sacks (Jeff), Helen Shaver (Carolyn)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1979
Country: U.S.
The Amityville Horror
The Amityville Horror

Like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), the film it is most obviously trying to emulate, The Amityville Horror is based on a supposedly true story. Of course, The Exorcist was taken from a fictional book by William Peter Blatty that was inspired by news reports he had read while in college of a preteen boy possessed by a demon; The Amityville Horror, on the other hand, was adapted from a supposedly nonfictional account of a haunting by documentary scriptwriter Jay Anson. Anson’s book, which turned out to be a major bestseller in the late 1970s, chronicles one family’s terrifying 28 days in a haunted house on Long Island. As Anson writes in the afterword to his book, “To the extent that I can verify them, all the events in this book are true.”

Of course, many have called into question the validity of Anson’s account. It is, after all, a fairly sensationalistic story, and stories like it tend to draw a strict dividing line between those who believe in them and those who don’t. There is rarely any room for those who might believe that some of it might be true and some of it might be exaggeration. (A 1995 book titled The Amityville Horror Conspiracy by Stephen Kaplan and Roxanne Salch Kaplan, both members of the Parapsychology Institute of America, attempts to prove that the whole thing was, in fact, a hoax.)

The 1979 film version, directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), takes the account quite seriously, sticking fairly close to Anson’s book (although it omits some subplots and details and exaggerates others). In December 1975, newly married couple George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) Lutz and their three children from Kathy’s previous marriage buy a big, three-story colonial-style house at 112 Ocean Drive on Long Island. Although the house looks normal from the front and the rear, the sides of the house are adorned at the top with two slanted, triangular attic windows on either side of a chimney that have the unmistakable menace of glaring, demonic eyes (whoever was the architect of this house must have known that some day it would be haunted). George and Kathy are able to buy the house far under its actual value because, one year earlier, a young man named Ronald DeFeo had shot and killed his entire family there, including his mother, father, and four younger siblings.

The narrative chronicles the strange, supposed paranormal events that eventually cause the Lutz family to desert the house, leaving behind all their possessions and never returning. These include a mysterious swarm of flies that attack a Catholic priest (Oscar winner Rod Steiger in an incredibly bad performance) when he comes to bless the house, black slime gurgling up through the toilets, doors and windows mysteriously closing and locking, and a harsh chill felt through the house. Soon, the youngest daughter is speaking with an invisible friend named Jodie who “tells her things,” and in the overwrought climax, blood runs from the walls and something very large attempts to break its way through the basement floor.

On its surface, The Amityville Horror is a strictly by-the-numbers, formally competent haunted house thriller. It has the somewhat slow pace of a made-for-TV movie (no surprise that screenwriter Sandor Stern has written numerous TV movie scripts) that is interrupted now and again by some genuinely scary moments, most of which happen at exactly 3:15 a.m., the time at which the DeFeo mass murder occurred. The performances by James Brolin and Margot Kidder are assured and convincing, which helps us believe in their strained relationship—which includes his marrying into a family and having to change his religion to Catholicism—and how it is exacerbated by the paranormal occurrences.

In looking back at reviews written during the film’s theatrical release, I was surprised to note that many critics missed (or simply ignored) the obvious and disturbing link the film makes between paranormal horror and domestic violence. In fact, it seems to me that the film, much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), is really more about the deep-seated, primal fear of family members inflicting violence on each other than it is about ghosts and demonic spirits. Consider that the film opens with the most intense form of domestic violence: a son murdering his entire family in cold blood. The film then carries this theme forward by suggesting that the house is somehow possessing George Lutz and causing him to become angry and violent toward Kathy and the children (once again, much like The Shining). The most chilling scene in the film is a nightmare Kathy has in which she dreams that she walks into her daughter’s room and finds George standing over her bloody body with an upraised axe.

The axe becomes a recurring symbol of violence throughout the film, as there are numerous shots of George hacking away at firewood outside, even though he has enough chopped to last them through the winter. One gets the feeling that he is simply trying to excise his violent tendencies on the wood, rather than the people with whom he lives, although these sequences build the uneasy suggestions that, sooner or later, the wood will no longer suffice.

However, it is not particularly surprising that any social subtexts the film has to offer would be lost in the cavalcade of controversy surrounding the authenticity of the narrative. The controversy helped the movie become a major success, earning over $86 million at the box office in the spring of 1979 (the equivalent of $298 million today) and unleashing a seemingly endless parade of increasingly bad sequels, which at present number 18. The controversy continues to rage, with Ronald DeFeo being turned down for parole and new documentaries, TV episodes, and articles about the events arriving on a regular basis. There will probably never be a final, definitive answer as to what happened at 112 Ocean Drive during the 28 days the Lutz family lived there, but that won’t stop the curious from seeking.

The Amityville Horror Blu-ray
The Amityville Horror Blu-ray Box Set The Amityville Horror is available as part of the “Amityville Horror Trilogy” boxset, which also includes Amityville II: The Possession (1982) and Amityville 3-D (1983).

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by parapsychology expert Dr. Hans Holzer
  • Video interviews with actors James Brolin and Margot Kidder
  • Video interview with composer Lalo Schifrin
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • TV spot
  • Radio spots
  • Stills gallery
  • DistributorShout! Factory
    SRP$69.99 (box set)
    Release DateOctober 1, 2013

    COMMENTS
    The image and audio on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray of The Amityville Horror appears to be the same as what appeared on MGM’s 2008 Blu-ray. What we have is a generally solid visual presentation of a film that isn’t always that visually interesting. The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer maintains the film’s look, which resembles that of a late ’70s made-for-TV movie. The image is just a bit soft, which is in keeping with trends in cinematography and film stock in that era, but there is still plenty of detail to absorb. Colors look good, and black levels and shadow detail are much improved from the DVD days. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack is a solid remix of the original monaural, placing plenty of atmosphere in the surround channels, conjuring up some decent directional effects, and giving Lalo Schifrin’s memorable music score a sense of weight. In terms of supplements, we get the same audio commentary by parapsychologist and author Dr. Hans Holzer that appeared on the MGM disc. Having researched the Amityville case and written a book on the DeFeo murders (on which Amityville II was loosely based), he has an intriguing background that adds to his discussion of the film and its fidelity to what is known and unknown. There are some long pauses throughout the commentary, but what he has to say is definitely worth listening to. We also get the same 22-minute video interview with James Brolin and Margot Kidder that appeared on the MGM disc, a new 10-minute video interview with composer Lalo Schifrin, the original theatrical trailer, a TV commercial, seven radio spots, and a stills gallery.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © MGM / Shout! Factory

    Overall Rating: (2.5)



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