The Amityville Horror (1979) Review
The Amityville Horror was a film born out of public fascination. That fascination was fuelled by post-Exorcist hysteria, that demanded haunted house flicks anchored by American history and the collapse of the American dream, with all the trappings of religious folklore and the dark side of the Catholic church. No longer would garlic and silver bullets keep the demons away. Now the evil was one’s home itself, and audience’s were loving it. Studio’s were being quite savvy with their promotion of such films, basing mishaps and accidents, on curses plaguing the respective film sets. William Friedkin asked the Catholic church to exorcise the Exorcist set, and strange occurrences led to a total of nine deaths during the production of the film. Three deaths, including that of its young star Heather O’Rourke, also shrouded The Poltergeist trilogy in dark, real-life mystery. The Amityville Horror had no such strange phenomena according to stars Margot Kidder and James Brolin, but the film is based on the supposedly true story of the Lutz family who moved into the Amityville house and were apparently driven out less than a month later by a supernatural evil. It would seem that such a film's ability to frighten its audience came about not by explicitly showing death and carnage taking place (ie. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House On The Left, Friday The 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street) but, underpinned by the Catholic faith, implicitly implying the reasons why such things occur.
George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) move their family into a ‘beautiful’ new home, in the quiet, white-picket fence community of Amityville. Knowing what occurred in the house a few months before they moved – that of a twenty year old son killing his entire family while they slept in their beds – doesn’t seem to deter them, and everything seems fine at first. When Father Delaney (Rod Steiger), a friend of Kathy’s, comes to bless the house he seems to be attacked by flies in one of the bedroom’s and he hears a voice that tells him to ‘get out’. Fleeing before having a chance to tell the Lutz’s, Father Delaney attempts to phone them and explain the strange occurrence but the phone lines seem not to be working. Even when Kathy tries to phone him, the line is full of static. When Father Delaney tries to get the church involved, they shun his beliefs that the house is full of evil and decide not to help him. Meanwhile, George Lutz is becoming increasingly distant – he’s obsessed with cutting fire wood and is always cold, and his work associate’s begin to see that something is wrong. After entering a bar, the barman spills his beer when he looks at him, claiming he is the spitting image of the twenty year old son who killed his family. Kathy and George can’t understand why they keep waking up at 3.15am exactly, and it seems their youngest daughter has started playing with a sinister imaginary friend. Things begin to spiral out of control and without the church’s assistance they try to exorcise the house themselves, but that only seems to make things worse.
Based on Jay Anson’s novel, The Amityville Horror is a competent and stylish supernatural thriller that captures the essence of the book. Going by Anson’s beliefs (he wrote the book with the help of the real life Lutz family), everything that occurred was real and he claims that anyone who had a copy of the early novel manuscript met some strange accident. Depending on how you were to look at it, his death shortly after the book was published, could be seen as a terribly unnerving mystery or just a well-timed, but highly unfortunate, coincidence. In any case, the film largely works on how much it can get its audience to invest in the dark religious undertones. It works best when implying the sinister goings-on of the house, especially the little daughter’s imaginary friend and one of the better scenes occurs when Kathy enters the bedroom and her daughter tells her she scared her friend away. Kathy tells her there’s no-one there, so her daughter says she went out the window. A curious Kathy goes to close the open window but as she gets there, she can see a pair of red eyes looking back at her. The elaborate sounds of a marching band and the bleeding walls are perhaps a little over the top, but at least offer some idea of how the mind can play tricks on you.
However, The Amityville Horror is no Exorcist and perhaps the comparisons are too evident to really appreciate Stuart Rosenberg’s film. It isn’t about the possession of a little girl, but the idea of an unseen evil invading the home and destroying the family is very much a direct link with William Friedkin’s masterpiece. But one of the great things the film does is to leave the ending open to interpretation. Unlike the final girl killing the killer in any number of ‘slasher’ films, saving herself and everyone else left alive from this evil person’s wrath, the Lutz’s leave the house as it is – the evil effectively still apparent, unsolved and unbeaten. It just goes back to that idea of how much the viewer invests in the film’s folklore, because to some, the ‘evil’ would be seen as never being there in the first place.
The image is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphic enhanced. The Amityville Horror actually looks really good here, with colours strong and the black level was excellent. Sharpness and detail are also strong but there was some presence of edge-enhancement throughout, however the print is in notably good condition.
I was very impressed with the remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that offered plenty of surround sound entertainment especially across the front channels which added to the enjoyment of the film. The rear speakers kicked in now and again, but I was very impressed with the separation. Dialogue was clear and natural, and sound effects were well-used across the soundstage. The original mono soundtrack is also included.
Audio commentary by Dr. Hans Holzer, PH.D. in Parapsychology - The commentary is actually one of the more interesting I’ve heard, and at the very least MGM can be complemented for at least trying something a little different. Holzer is a calm speaker and his voice appears more accustomed to telling children bed time stories, so here it’s almost like he’s telling the viewer a scary ghost story just before they go to sleep. Largely your enjoyment of it lies on how much you invest in his beliefs, but regardless he’s a good story teller and he has plenty of interesting things to say.
‘For God’s Sake, Get Out’ Documentary - This approximately twenty minute documentary features James Brolin and Margot Kidder in newly recorded interviews, as they discuss their early careers and how they got the parts for The Amityville Horror. This is interesting as they discuss the making of the film, but the lack of other contributors centres this featurette on the specifics of the two actors.
Original Theatrical Trailer - A nice trailer that starts off by setting up the film as a story about two lovers who move into their dream house, with melodramatic music and soothing voice-over. Then all hell breaks loose.
Radio Spots - Seven radio spots are present on the disc and I can imagine they were very effective when the film was first released.
MGM Trailers - Promotion for MGM and their films.
The region 2 release of the first film has these features plus a second disc that includes everything off the region 1 box set’s bonus disc, which makes that a good purchase. The region 1 box set is very good at the price MGM have set, and for all intents and purposes this disc alone is excellent. Sound and picture are great given the age of the film, and the Holzer commentary is worth listening to.
NOTE: The DVD is available both separately or as part of MGM’s Amityville Collection box set.