Review: The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)

d. Stuart Rosenberg; w. Sandor Stern; st. James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Natasha Ryan

“The Amityville Horror” was a film borne 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 (an early indication of the decadent 1980s where high-concept cinema and commerciality dominated studio meetings), basing mishaps and accidents on curses plaguing the respective film sets. William Friedkin asked the catholic church to exorcise “The Exorcist” set after 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 tragic real-life mystery.

amityville horror, film, 1979, top10films
What do you want from us? Goddamnit, this is my house!

“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. The film takes its audience on a journey of terror 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 terrible 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. Anson was adamant everything that occurred was real (he wrote the book with the help of the real life Lutz family) and, rather sinisterly, he claimed that anyone who had a copy of the early manuscript met some strange accident. Strangely, Anson died shortly after the book was published. Depending on how you were to look at it, his death 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 horror is never there in the first place.

Top10Films Rating: 7/10

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. CMrok93 Reply

    Now that you watch it, it’s pretty cheesy, but somehow it still works as a film that is used for minor scares, but a little bit of laughter.

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