The Amityville Horror (1979)

I read Jay Anson’s book about 12 years or so ago, followed by his similarly themed book 666, and had a stack (all of them given to me) of the other “Amityville” books. I don’t think I ever got around to reading any of the rest of them.I also never got around to watching the famous film based on it, not even when it came to a remake in 2005. I almost did, once, then changed my mind just as the film was starting and did something else instead. Later, I purchased it, then realized there was a bonus disc in the box set and returned it, then finally got the box set for a decent price. Now, I’ve seen it.

George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) have moved into 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY with Kathy’s three children Amy (Natasha Ryan), Matt (Meeno Peluce) and Greg (K.C. Martel). They are aware of the house’s history, the sextuple-homicide of the De Feo family by Ronald De Feo, Jr., but decide the price is too good to pass up and move in anyway. Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) comes to bless the house but is confronted by an aggressive voice, an inexplicable swarm of flies and a sudden feeling of illness. Father Bolen (Don Stroud) respects Delaney and supports him, but is not far off from the skeptical condemnation of Fathers Nuncio (John Larch) and Ryan (Murray Hamilton). Delaney suffers burns from attempted phone calls to warn the Lutzes, most of these calls ruined by static, while the unknowing family continues to attempt life in the house. Babysitter Jackie (Amy Wright) finds herself trapped in a closet while the Lutzes attend a wedding, Amy befriends the invisible “Jodie,” and George loses sleep and, slowly, his mind.

In my life, it used to be very easy for films to scare me. As a child, I’d have nightmares at the barest hint of horrific events. Later I’d find myself with the irresistible urge to turn off movies when watching them by myself, spooked by the proximity of woods (and the non-proximity of other homes) where I grew up, the endless darkness and long trip up to my bed–as well as a darkened hallway very near the television–fertile ground for an overactive imagination and scalp-prickling nichtophobia. I failed to finish many movies in those days, until I finally learned to steel myself for expected jumps, startles, and creeps. Now it’s very, very difficult for a film to get under my skin. I have to relax my now natural reflexes, open my mind a bit and balance it with the recognition that I’ve never really enjoyed looking out a darkened window in the silence and feeling mortal fear (and thus not open myself up too much). Even so, it’s not easy because so many movies operate purely on startles and jumps. A Stir of Echoes prodded my natural concerns about the supernatural some years ago, but after that it was not until I saw The Changeling that that kind of fear ever snuck back into my mind. The Amityville Horror managed to get as much under my skin as any film really can anymore (though not so much as The Changeling, which hit that prickling scalp feeling of mortal, body-freezing terror and shot of adrenaline for just a moment).

What I think works so well about this movie is the way it treats its supernatural. It is not too overt, nor especially obvious about it. It does not make a fuss over any of it, or rub the viewer’s face in it. The unreal things are portrayed with the same straight face as the normal ones, and this approach, which really isn’t a juxtaposition in some sense (being as they are a natural flow from event to event as far as the film is concerned, the separation between “supernatural” and “natural” being so vague as to not exist) can make them pretty intensely creepy. I thankfully knew of none of them wandering into the movie, and I won’t be the source for the opposite being true of anyone else–so if you want to know, see it or go ruin it for yourself, I’m not doing it. But this style overall was fascinating. It was all very static and calm, even when characters screamed or yelled or ranted or raved at each other, when George got progressively more crazy looking, when Father Delaney began to fight back against his perceived enemy. It also allows for a strange set of characters, somewhat out of keeping with the usual cardboard cutout stylings of many lazily written or formed horror films. It’s not a deep psychological drama, of course, but it doesn’t feel the need to run screaming from that idea either. Kathy is not simply a whimpering victim (though no one is all that strong in the face of this house), and George is not simply a brawny hero or pseudo-villain. George wanders further and further into the realms of a raging abuser, bringing himself closer and closer in resemblance to De Feo than his already similar physical appearance. Amy has a disturbing interest in the unknown Jodie, not being fooled into thinking this being is a benevolent friend, but not being an “evil child” either, just one that doesn’t have the judgment to wonder about her new friend, nor the attention or belief from parents to discourage her.

It amuses me to no end when people insist they’ve noticed monstrous overacting in a movie, as most of the time they mistake volume for overacting. Steiger’s performance is certainly intense, and often loud, but he performs with a magnetic sort of intensity, utterly convincing and as a character with strong convictions. Delaney is terrified by the house, but attempts to hold his faith up against it. His shouting match with his superiors from the Church is probably the most emotional event in the film, and it’s a very interesting one, that manages to avoid the lazy writing that is so often used in these films. Delaney simply reaffirms his insistent belief that what he saw was not right or good, but without the ham fisted sort of “obviously he’s right!” mentality in the film, the performance or the way Stuart Rosenberg filmed the scene. Brolin is the most hilarious example of overacting claims, with an excellent physical performance marred only by an underacted verbal and auditory one. Until he begins to lose his mind, Brolin is certainly audible, but often so drawn into himself and shrunken (in space rather than volume) in voice that he is inscrutable. How anyone could call this overacting is beyond me–though likely these claims intend to relate only to his eventual manic performance as the seemingly possessed George, where he yells and strikes, with haggard, sleepless face and widened eyes. It’s a contrast though–from quiet and withdrawn to loud and assertive beyond reason. Kidder, too, does not overact, turning in a good performance of a woman who sees the man she’s trying to share a life with begin to twist into a strange form, mentally.

The one qualm I have with the film is the one that so many films like this have–religion comes into it. It’s a bit frustrating when one doesn’t share the beliefs being espoused as the cause or reason for the events in a film to take them seriously–it becomes a major disconnect to try and relate to ideas one does not have reciprocal belief in, and can throw one completely out of a scene. Of course, as someone with some bits of knowledge, especially as relates to the “devil” and “Satanist” side of things, I’m even more separated, knowing an upside-down cross is not a blasphemy, because it’s a sign of Saint Peter. Discussion of witches run out of Salem makes me think not of the horror of real-life witches, but of the real-life horror of that ancient history of Salem, of innocents tortured, murdered and even just assassinated in character over nonsense. This furthers my firm belief that explaining things like this often ruins them. Explanations can work and resolve things (often the case with strict ghost stories) and even then work on repeated viewing–but inevitably the creepiness and fear will be eliminated. Here the film itself trips up, kicking those things around before it has even finished the first time by trying to make silly connections. All I can say, though, is let them roll on and go past–the ride actually is worth it, because Rosenberg’s direction makes this film quite serious, treating us to languorous cross fades and fade-ins, a slow or static eye that enhances the creepiness, rather than detracting as the modern fast cuts tend to do.

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