The Amityville Horror (1979)
“The best-selling novel about a haunted house… has become real!”
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Cast: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger
Synopsis: Newlyweds move into a house where a murder was committed, and experience strange manifestations which drive them away.
The story of the supposedly true Amityville haunting was something of a cause celebre back in the 1970s, so it was only natural that Hollywood would make a movie out of it. The only surprise is that it wasn’t one of the majors who snapped up the rights to the best-selling book, but AIP, the independently-owned purveyors of all manner of cheap rubbish. To be fair to that production company, the film does at least have reasonable production values and a decent cast, but it lacks any sense of terror and, fatally for a horror movie, any scary moments.
Margot Kidder and James Brolin play George and Kathy Lutz, a couple with three young children from Kathy’s previous relationship, who move into a house in Amityville which they snap up for a bargain price because of its tragic history. Almost immediately, they begin to regret their move when an escalating series of eerie incidents culminate in George coming dangerously close to murderously losing his grip on reality.
The Lutz’s, who have now generally been discredited as hoaxers, are portrayed here as the perfect all-American family (and dog) that is slowly torn apart by supernatural forces beyond their control. It was a relatively new idea for its time, but director Stuart Rosenberg and writer Sandor Stern seem to have no idea as to how to transform a compelling book (factual or otherwise) into something as equally gripping on-screen. All we get are a sequence of vaguely creepy moments that do gradually grow more serious, but which never seem to have any purpose other than to scare the bejesus out of its occupants.
There are similarities to The Shining in the plot – although I believe Stephen King’s novel might have been published before Jay Anson’s. Brolin’s George Lutz is a brooding man’s man, almost Neanderthal-like as he sits alone, transfixed by the flames in the hearth of his home. Kidder’s Kathy Lutz is the opposite: an image of innocence emphasised by her habit of wearing ribbons or flowers in her hair – or even wearing her hair in pigtails. It’s presumably all designed to suggest the American family unit in peril, but for the most part it fails to involve the audience on anything more than an artificial, popcorn level. It’s been followed by better films that have also been more graphic. And although that graphic content isn’t necessarily what makes them better films, it certainly makes them more gripping – and none of them have Rod Steiger over-acting criminally.
(Reviewed 26th March 2012)