Twelve years after directing Cool Hand Luke, director Stuart Rosenberg teamed up with Jay Anson and Sander Stern to create one of the quintessential american ghost stories. The Amityville Horror was one of the original ghost stories to leverage the “based on a true story” trope. Based on a real murder and the events that happened thereafter, the movie demanded America’s attention and created one of the most iconic horror landmarks in the world. If you would like to know our spoiler-filled takes on this classic, keep reading after the break.
Reviewed by: Mark
The movie opens showing the outcome of the gruesome DeFeo murders. On November 13th, 1974 Ronald DeFeo murdered the other six members of his family and later claimed to be the victim of some type of supernatural possessions.
Flash forward to one year later, George and Kathy Lutz buy the home that the DeFeo murders occurred in. Upon discovering the lurid history of her home Kathy asks her old priest to come and bless the house. Just, you know, to get the bad juju out. Well, when he arrives the bad juju hits him full force and nearly kills him before politely asking him to leave. Crazy shit continues to happen around the house in the form of imaginary friends, peculiar window injuries, ghastly apparitions, and other unexplained nuisances.
The Lutz family finds out that their home is built on land that was previously owned by some warlock who hated society, and determine that his insidious presence has both metaphorically and literally poisoned the well of the house. Three weeks after moving into the house things come to a head when the wife of one of George’s coworkers (who is also pseudo-psychic) finds a secret hidden room in the basement containing the evil essence that haunts the house. The family scrambles to react but before they are able to move out, George becomes possessed and attempts to kill his family. Kathy tackles some sense back into him and the whole gang escape the house just in time to drive into the night. The movie ends with superimposed text telling us the family moved to another state and never went back to Long Island. Smart move. Oh, and there was about 30 minutes of useless clergy drama scattered throughout as well. You can probably just pretend that didn’t happen.
What the Movie Does Right
The layup for this movie comes from the idea that this concept so perfectly encompassed a fear that is deep seated in us that it spawned a franchise of over 20 movies. Granted, the vast majority of them (maybe just all of them) are bad, but it’s still worth pointing to the fact that bad ideas don’t generate that much riffing. The fear of moving into a new house that you can’t afford and the inherent risk of that process going awry is something that is profoundly unnerving in a way that it’s hard to describe without having experienced it myself. Sprinkling some supernatural drama on top of that stress is a great recipe for horror.
The performances of the two leads, James Brolin as George and Margot Kidder as Kathy, turn in complex and well informed performances. Sure, there are moments where the strain of the moment leads to either one of them having to go off the deep end, but the majority of their interactions are smart and small. One of the best quips in the movie is as the duo are touring the house at the beginning and are quietly talking to themselves about retaining their poker faces in front of the real estate agent. As we’ll discuss momentarily the story is pretty hard to swallow, but the human element of the movie is quite identifiable.
What the Movie Does Wrong
First and foremost, this movie is a disorganized pile of nonsense narrative. There was clearly a laundry list of happenings they wanted to include but couldn’t quite navigate the script between them. The biggest example of this complaint is the whole clergy subplot. After the priest leaves the house there is no reason whatsoever for him or any of his accessory characters to be in the movie. There is a scene where he defiantly yells a sermon in the church to defy satan or whatever while the statues crumble around him and I’m still trying to figure out how it relates to the happenings of the house. This movie is long, shaggy, and boring and its doubly as painful because it’s easy to see where they could have cut the fat.
Secondarily, although the movie mostly contains in-frame practical effects there are two examples of rotoscoped visual effects that happen at key moments that are awful looking and make an otherwise intense scene seem silly. They decided to interject a pig-demon in the windows of the house that caused me to chortle wildly, and that is not the appropriate response I should be having at the climax of a classic horror movie. I mean just look at this shit...
Story: 5.5 - I should start this category by noting that something is profoundly resonant in this plot. There’s some inkling to this plot that was good enough for people to continue making iterations on this plot for decades to come. Maybe it’s the early use of “based on true story.” Maybe it’s the near-universally identifiable feeling of spending too much money on your first house as a recently married couple. Who knows. The other side of the coin is that the actual narrative is a fucking hot mess. The clergy subplot does not need to be in the movie. The interconnectedness of any two events is tenuous at best. The movie is way too disjointed to go any higher than average here.
World-Building / Immersion: 5 - This movie suffers severely from the sound recording techniques of the 1970s. Much of the dialogue is pretty difficult to understand. Couple that pervasive complaint with the general disconnectedness of the world and you get a below average immersion score. Frankly I might be a bit high, but I found some of the scenes to be interesting as standalone vignettes.
Scare-Factor: 6 - This is scarier than your average run of the mill horror fare, but not by much. If I’m being honest this is a slight historical adjustment upward, but I think this movie still has some legs even today.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6.5 - The majority of this movie is driven by practical effects and various swarms of flies. Overall it looks good but they don’t really gamble on much. The cardinal sin here are the superimposed pig demon images that are unnecessary and also show up at the climax of the movie just in time to take you out of the mood.
Overall: 5.5 - This is a classic that you should see if you haven’t. Outside of that it’s a bit too boring and slapdash to be recommended as a revisit unless it’s been quite a while for you.