The most notorious piece of
real-estate on Long Island.
Watching The Amityville Horror today, some twenty years after it was first released, we have to wonder why this movie was so popular, and even why it was made. We like to call it the Bataan Death March of horror films: an experience so slow and excruciating that whole teams of cinema scientists have been assigned to study just why it spawned seven sequels -- with an eighth rumored to be in production.
Amityville is a haunted house story without, unfortunately, much in the way of a story. The film begins with a bit of the background; in a dark house during a storm, a shadowy figure moves from room to room, killing each of his family members with a shotgun. This figure is Ronald deFeo, the oldest of the family's five children. Later that morning, the appropriate authority figures are seen shaking their heads and clucking their tongues over the tragedy.
Cut to about a year later, when George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin and Margot Kidder), a young couple with a pair of children by Kathy's previous marriage, buy the house. Immediately strange things begin to happen -- like the fact that the family priest, who comes by to bless the house, is forcibly ejected from the premises by voices in his head, accompanied by nausea. (He should have read the side effects warning label on the side of the house.) George and Kathy, oblivious to the vomit on their front porch, never notice that the clergyman was there.
Lois could never have guessed that
Super-flatulence would be so destructive.
There's not much else to tell: the house works its magic slowly, slamming doors and breaking things. Heck, up to this point it could all be explained by a visit from Scott Baio's character in Zapped. But eventually the Lutz home works its way up to petty theft (a wad of cash goes missing -- not exactly scary, but even Ultimate Evil has to pace itself) and brainwashing, as George slowly goes out of his mind under the house's influence. Actually, George and Kathy seem cold to each other from the first time we see them, so the house doesn't have to work very hard to get them on each other's nerves. The priest tries to warn the Lutz family, but evil forces sabotage the telephone (the movie's Ma Bell joke came mere seconds after our own) and wreck the Padre's car. After a wild night of thunder, breaking windows, and murderous looks from George, the family can't take any more and they all run from the house, screaming.
That's it. Really. That is the entire story presented to viewers during these 117 minutes, and it's a sad excuse for a movie. Sure, there's a nosy policeman who marvels over George's resemblance to Ronald deFeo, and there's something weird in the basement that one character speculates is the site of an Indian burial ground, but nothing ever comes of these developments. The movie is just marking time until the Lutzes make their dramatic exit.
"Stupid evil force taking over my hand!
Where's my chainsaw?"
Kidder and Brolin don't add much; although Brolin certainly looks the part of a depraved killer, there's not much to distinguish between his "happy sane" self and his "possessed killer" self. Kidder's character hangs around long after anyone with a drop of common sense would have departed. There are a few moments of tension that work, as when the babysitter is mysteriously locked in a closet (kudos to this teenaged actress for doing what Brolin and Kidder could not) and the effects-driven scene involving walls that bleed. Certainly, though, this is not enough to sell tickets.
The reason The Amityville Horror made any money at all is that it was based on events that "really happened." As you might expect, it was a bunch of hooey. On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo murdered his parents and four siblings with a rifle. Later it was claimed that DeFeo heard voices had told him to do it, but that was not true. A year later the Lutz family (George and Kathy, and three kids) bought the DeFeo's former house on Long Island. A few weeks later, the Lutzes moved out, claiming the house was haunted.
The haunted house story was turned over the Jay Anson, who wrote the bestselling book, The Amityville Horror -- A True Story. According to the book, the Lutzes were plagued by bizarre and disturbing events from day one.
Look! Walls that paint themselves.
Who wouldn't want this house?
By the time the movie came out, the Lutzes had made quite a bit of money. So wouldn't you know it, they got sued. First, they were sued by the people who had bought the house after they left. Apparently, the new family had experienced nothing unusual, and were sick of dealing with curious gawkers. And then they were sued by, of all people, Ronald DeFeo's lawyer William Weber. Weber was claiming that part of the haunted house story was his idea.
Haunted house story? It seems the Lutzes were in financial trouble when they moved into the house and they needed to get out of their mortgages. They thought that creating a haunted house story would do the trick, because that would make the house damaged goods, right? To make the story authentic, they contacted Weber to get information about the murders. Weber agreed to talk to them, and more. He figured that a haunted house story might somehow help his client. The Lutzes and Weber brainstormed a bunch of ideas, and the Lutzes recorded some tapes of bogus testimony. Those tapes were given to Jay Anson (he never actually spoke with the Lutzes), and he wrote the book. He went way beyond what was on the tapes in order to create a more interesting story. The movie follows Anson's book fairly closely.
The real-life Lutzes have since recanted most of the details of their story, though they still claim the house was haunted, based on their bad feelings while living there, and the fact that the house was cold. Of course, the house was cold because the heating system broke down in December, and most reasonable people wouldn't attribute that to supernatural forces. The real supernatural forces here possessed a group of Hollwyood producers and forced them to make this boring, pointless film and all of its sequels. Talk about doing the Devil's work!