by Steve Habrat
I’ve always been fascinated with The Amityville Horror and the real-life story of the Lutz family. In high school, I even convinced my English teacher to let me write an essay on the story and do some research into what took place in that legendary home. While the story told by the Lutz family may have been fabricated, the DeFeo family murders that took place in 112 Ocean Avenue, Long Island still chilled me to my core. Naturally, while I was writing the paper, I also took a trip to the local video store to rent director Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film The Amityville Horror, which was based on the book of the same name by Jay Anson. While The Amityville Horror 1979 is infinitely better than the 2005 remake, the film is still plagued by a number of plot goofs that are extremely hard to ignore. Also troubling is the lack of a thrilling ending and the fact that the Lutz family, at least the cinematic Lutz family, never seems to be in grave danger as they make their hasty escape from that evil home. Still, The Amityville Horror 1979 does have some pretty snappy performances, especially from James Brolin as the axe wielding George Lutz, who seems to be loosing his sanity each day he remains in the home, and Margot Kidder as Kathy Lutz, George’s loving wife who has to watch her family fall apart at the hands of cranky poltergeists.
Newlyweds George (Played by Brolin) and Kathy (Played by Kidder) Lutz purchase a seemingly peaceful Dutch Colonial home in Amityville, New York. The couple, along with Kathy’s three children, instantly falls in love with the home despite the gruesome murders that took place a year earlier. As the family moves in, Father Delaney (Played by Rod Steiger), a friend of Kathy, comes to bless the home. Shortly after Father Delaney begins his blessing, flies attack him and a booming, disembodied voice commands him to “GET OUT!” Father Delaney flees from the home without explanation and is slowly consumed by madness and plagued by bizarre demonic forces. Meanwhile, the Lutz family begins to have strange experiences in the house, each more terrifying than the last. To make things worse, George suffers a drastic shift in personality. He is testy and has a fascination with the axe that he uses to chop firewood. As the events in the home become increasingly more violent, Kathy begins to take a closer look at the history of the home. She also begins battling for George’s sanity.
Released by an independent studio, The Amityville Horror 1979 surprisingly has plenty of special effects and visual shocks ready and waiting for the viewer as they tour this legendary house of horrors. The opening sequence of the film, with Ronald DeFeo, Jr. marching through the home in the middle of a nasty thunderstorm and gunning down his family is certainly an eerie sequence. It is ripe with splashes of gore and heavy with an unshakeable evil atmosphere that cuts deeper with each crack of thunder and flash of lightning. Director Rosenberg has a difficult time topping his stellar stage setter and struggles to recreate that same atmosphere when the supernatural kicks into high gear. The film then snowballs into a flurry of slamming doors, disembodied voices, oozing ectoplasm, homicidal madness, and even a giant demonic pig with very little pay off. While the events are certainly creepy, the film botches a major plot point involving George Lutz’s striking resemblance to Ronald DeFeo, Jr. Don’t hope for any elaboration on this plot point because the film drops it just as quickly as it brings it up. Ignore the plot holes and just tremble at the black sludge oozing out of the toilets! Someone call a plumber.
Despite an uneven plot, the cast fully commits to the project, especially Kidder and Brolin, who appear to be having a pretty good time. Brolin has a nice time shifting from shaggy family man into perpetually freezing psycho who could snap at any minute and chop his family up with an axe. Kidder, who was coming off the high that was Superman, is a treat as religious housewife Kathy. The duo has chemistry, enough that it can cover for some of the other screw-ups in the script department. Steiger is over-the-top fun as Father Delaney, who falls apart from his memorable ghostly encounter in the home. His crowning moment comes when he is struck blind during a hair-raising church service sequence. Natasha Ryan ups the horror as Kathy’s young daughter, Amy, who has the creepiest imaginary friend on the planet. At times, Rosenberg seems well aware that children can be immensely disturbing so he works Ryan in any time he can and urges her to bring up “Jody,” her spirit chum who has a commanding hold on the young girl. Irene Dailey also shows up as Kathy’s Aunt Helena, a nun who gets physically ill from stepping inside that horrific home.
There is no denying that the build up crated by Rosenberg is actually scarier than the noisy climax. Once again set in the middle of a storm, the Lutz family decides to make a break for it as the ghosts unleash absolute hell on them. Walls ooze blood, doors slam, and the chandelier threatens to fall to the floor as they all speed walk to the family van only to realize that they have forgotten the family pooch. Brave George decides he is going back into the house alone and that he is going to venture down into the basement, where more horrors I will not reveal here have been discovered. The problem with the climax is that you never really fear for George as he makes his way through drippy funhouse. I was actually more afraid for the dog than I was for George. The film does have a creepy score composed by Lalo Schifrin will certainly send a few more chills your way and even aid in the creation of a sinister atmosphere. Considering an independent studio released the film, The Amityville Horror went on to be one of the most successful films of 1979. I’m sure it had plenty to do with the fact that the film was really wearing the “based on a true story” tagline on its sleeve. Overall, The Amityville Horror isn’t nearly as scary as you hope it will be but it does have a handful of jump scares that never cease to get you. The film is well acted, it has a nice build up, and it does have one hell of an introduction. Now if we could just ignore those glaring plot holes and that bunk ending.
The Amityville Horror is available on Blu-ray and DVD.