The Amityville Horror (1979)

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*. It may be hard to understand, over thirty-five years later, the sensation that this movie caused at the time. From out of nowhere (that is, an American International picture originally projected to be a TV movie) it became one of the most profitable independent films of all time. From there it went on to become a franchise, reset and still alive and kicking in the twenty-first century.
*. I think the idea, really only a marketing ploy, that it was based on a true story, helped. Such a claim was bogus, but it sold tickets.
*. What the story was really based on was the haunted-house genre in general. Its generic nature can be seen in how very much of a piece it is with The Shining: the real horror being a family falling apart and ultimately being threatened by an axe-wielding daddy possessed by spirits, in a house with a sinister “red room” and a thing for bursting at the seams with blood.

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*. It’s a testament to that generic nature of the story that this project and The Shining had independent origins. Jay Anson’s book and King’s novel were both published in 1977. Kubrick’s film didn’t come out until a year after this one, but was obviously much longer in production.
*. As I say, the real horror here is the same as in The Shining, and indeed in a lot of King’s fiction. That is to say, the breakdown of the nuclear family. In his book Danse Macabre, however, King points to another aspect of The Amityville Horror worth noting. It is, he writes, an “economic horror” story.
*. I think King is right on the money, so I’ll quote him at some length. “Everything which The Amityville Horror does well is summed up” in the scene where Kathy’s brother loses the $1,500 he was going to use to pay the caterer. This house is, literally, a money pit: swallowing wads of bills and leaving only a money-band behind as mockery.
*. For King, that scene’s “implications touch on everything about the Bad House’s most obvious effect — and also the only one which seems empirically undeniable: little by little, it is ruining the Lutz family financially. The movie might as well have been subtitled The Horror of the Shrinking Bank Account. It’s the more prosaic fallout of the place where so many haunted-house stories start. . . . At the conclusion, the house seems to literally tear itself apart . . . and I found myself wondering not if the Lutz clan would get out alive but if they had adequate homeowner’s insurance.”
*. Ultimately King finds the movie “pretty pedestrian,” but he likens it to drinking beer, which still does the trick. “The main reason people went to see it, I think, is that The Amityville Horror, beneath its ghost-story exterior, is really a financial demolition derby.” The Lutzes face a fate worse than death not at the hands of ghosts and demons but of contractors.
*. As a final note on this matter, King sees the picture’s subtext of economic unease as tied to its time, with “18 percent inflation, mortgage rates out of sight, [and] gasoline selling at a cool dollar forty a gallon.” It was a movie that “could not have come along at a more opportune moment.” Flash forward to the second great wave of haunted house pictures coming . . . when? In the wake of the great subprime mortgage meltdown. As I said in my notes on Sinister: “The family’s economic situation had me concerned. . . by moving back to their previous home (which looks like a multi-million dollar mansion and is meant to show the heights from which the family has fallen), basically writing off the haunted death-house, haven’t they committed financial suicide?”
*. It’s a house of horrors particular to its time in another sense too. I’m not talking about the “vibes” either. Whoever thought floor-to-ceiling marbled mirrors in a bedroom were a good idea? Or marbled mirrors, period? The horror. The horror! For God’s sake, get out!
*. Now back to the movie.
*. It’s really bad. That’s why I meant its cultural status may come as a surprise to someone seeing it today for the first time.

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*. The acting is crazy bad. Margot Kidder is the only one to escape with any dignity intact. The kids are, as the line has it, so annoying you want to see them die. James Brolin begins the film with what is perhaps the most beautiful man’s coiffure ever seen on film but gets progressively more unkempt. That and his purple eyeshadow make him look more and more like a muppet as things go along. He does get some crazy hammy lines though. Apparently he thought “Oh mother of God, I’m coming apart!” was “a little over the top.” Rod Steiger . . . what to say? Someone should have told him to dial it back to eleven. Not that the part is any good, but still. He out-Herods Herod and then some. Though, to his credit, he did have to put up with having all those flies crawling over his face.

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*. Father Delaney, justifying himself: “I am not some pink-cheeked seminarian who doesn’t know the difference between the supernatural and a bad clam! I am a trained psychotherapist!” Hm. Does he mean he ate a bad clam and it gave him food poisoning? And what on earth difference does it make that he’s a trained psychotherapist? Does he think his secular education gives him a right to question the church?! “Even psychotherapists lose touch with reality sometimes. Your education doesn’t give you immunity.” Take that!
*. The story is pretty basic: a Fulci plot unenlivened by that schlockmaster’s gory highlights. Indeed there are no good effects at all in this film. The swarms of flies are laughable, and apparently that’s supposed to be a pig with red eyes staring out of the window. I couldn’t make it out the first time I saw it. After learning it was a pig I could only say “Huh?”
*. The script is a wretched mixture of clichés (the black cat providing a jump scare by leaping into the window, the rotten step breaking on the basement stairs, the series of jump cuts into a terrified actor’s face), unintentionally hilarious lines (“I don’t like lectures. And I don’t like being hassled in the men’s room. I’m going to write you a check. Either that’s good enough for you or you’re going to eat your own goddamn food!”), and random elements that never cohere (who is that grubby neighbour who shows up at the door with some beer and then disappears? what purpose does the cigar-smoking cop serve? why does the film never make any use of the boathouse? why does Kathy’s face suddenly seem aged in one shot at the end?).

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*. It’s hard to imagine a bigger mess, and this is without mentioning all the glaring continuity errors (the disappearing carpet on the stairs, Father Bolen saying he can’t move the locked steering wheel when he’s clearly spinning it easily, the attic window that explodes and is then whole again in the next shot, etc.). This is wretched even by AIP standards.
*. Though perhaps the window exploding isn’t a continuity error. The old Dutch Colonial at 112 Ocean Avenue seems to have awesome mutant powers of regeneration, or else the violence it suffers is only in the minds of its inmates. I mean, at the end of Amityville II the whole place blows up in a spectacular fireball, but then in the next shot seems none the worse for wear.
*. In my notes on Paranormal Activity and Insidious I remarked on how ineffective the priests are in helping the haunted families. You can see this movie as a signpost on the way toward where things were headed, as Father Delaney is run out of the house at the beginning and is pretty useless throughout the rest of the film. I mean, the devil/demon/whatever just kicks his ass, even at long distance.
*. The ad line was “For God’s sake, get out!” Does anyone actually say “For God’s sake, get out!” in the movie? I don’t think so.

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*. A window covered in flies is no big deal. You get that all the time in older houses in the spring. You just vacuum them up. Now to be fair, the events described in the book were supposedly taking place in December-January, which means flies shouldn’t be so active. But it doesn’t look like winter here, and with all the wood George is burning perhaps he’s warming things up too much.
*. The DVD has a very funny commentary by Dr. Hans Holzer, a Ph.D. in parapsychology. I guess that’s better than being a trained psychotherapist. Apparently the doctorate was bestowed by the London College of Applied Science. I don’t know if this a real degree, or a real university. That’s the sort of para-world we’re inhabiting here.
*. In any event, Holzer is rather critical of the film (“it is a true story, but what the film version did to it is another matter”). That may be because he went on to write the book that Amityville II: The Possession was based on and had an axe to grind. Leaving that aside, he has a lot of great lines about things like how priests are generally useless at performing exorcisms (since ghosts have “nothing to do with religion”), on the connection between the paranormal and particle physics, and how the Amityville house may eventually spontaneous combust at any time since that Indian ghost isn’t going anywhere.
*. As an aside, I find it interesting how often DVDs of films from this same genre include commentaries or bonus features that treat the stories as true phenomena. In addition to the commentary on this one (and more material included in the Amityville boxed set), I’m thinking of the bonus materials included with The Entity and the original Poltergeist. Why is this? Do people who like haunted-house stories actually take them seriously?

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*. According to Holzer the ghosts in the story were those of an Indian chief who had been buried on the land. This isn’t clear from the film, where the idea seems to be that it’s the devil (or perhaps a pig demon), coming through a walled-up gate to hell. Does it matter? Roger Ebert thought it did, and his review has a point: ” In order to be a horror movie, a horror movie needs a real Horror. The creature in Alien was truly gruesome. The case of possession in The Exorcist was profoundly frightening. The problem with The Amityville Horror is that, in a very real sense, there’s nothing there. We watch two hours of people being frightened and dismayed, and we ask ourselves . . . what for?” This is yet another failure of the script.
*. Holzer’s gobbledygook actually gets some play in the film. Here’s the sensitive wife of George’s business partner as she enters the basement: “Demons are smart. They’re not just monsters, they think just like you and I do. Just in reverse. It’s a closed system.” Uh-huh. And you know all this . . . how?

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*. That iconic home with its quarter-round attic windows glaring like angry eyeballs should be the monster, but it isn’t. Holzer is adamant that it isn’t the house that is haunted but rather the land it was built on, which remains haunted to this day (the Indians “take their burial land very seriously”). To be honest, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then at the end everyone just runs away and that’s it. Not exactly closure, and I don’t think this is because they were planning on a raft of sequels.
*. In Danse Macabre King does a great job of explaining why even a bad horror film can have something profoundly popular about it and thus be a ringing commercial success, but I think his analysis can only go so far. I don’t think the financial-horror angle or the true-story pitch explain everything. Nor does the film’s continuing reputation as a camp (not cult) classic. Yes, the late ’70s seem horrifying enough to us today, with that wallpaper and those braces the babysitter has to wear. But why did audiences in the summer of 1979 respond so overwhelmingly to such a piece of garbage? This seems to me to be the abiding Amityville mystery, and horror.

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