Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
1979. Rated R, 119 minutes.
Rod Steiger
Don Stroud
Murray Hamilton
Natasha Ryan
K.C. Martel
Meeno Peluce
Helen Shaver
Amy Wright
Irene Dailey

The Lutz family is shopping for a house. Even though George (Brolin) and Kathy (Kidder) are on a strict budget, they need a place big enough for them, Kathy’s three kids from a previous marriage and their dog. Fortunately, a house sitting right on the lake with more than enough property is available. It would normally go for an exorbitant price, but the real estate agent is desperate to get this one off the market. That has something to do with what happened a year ago. One of the prior residents lost it and killed his whole family. Yes, our prospective buyers are aware of this fact. But hey, the agent assures the Lutzes that their low-ball offer will be accepted so they make the deal and move in. This shouldn't be a problem because, as George says, “Houses don’t have memories.” Or, do they? Things go haywire promptly at 3:15 AM every night and anyone wearing any type of religious garb is rudely welcomed.

It isn't long before hell starts breaking loose which helps create tension early on, keeping us engaged. We’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen next, but we eagerly anticipate what that might be. Even better, the house seems to be working a divide and conquer scheme, mostly concentrating on George. More and more as the movie progresses he gets that far away look in his eyes, separates himself from the family and we’re just waiting for him to completely snap.

An interesting subplot is that of Father Delaney (Steiger) who shows up early to bless the house at the Lutz's request. How this story plays out runs perfectly alongside the main plot. It doesn't quite fit the haunted house motif, but it works by bolstering our understanding of the house’s power. It becomes a character with more than one dimension, proactive in what it’s doing to the family, reactive and defensive with those who may have the ability to stop it.

Thirty plus years since its release, The Amityville Horror is a movie that has to contend with history. First and foremost, it has to deal with the countless haunted house flicks that have come out since 1979. Many, if not all of them, are heavily influenced by this movie. Though not nearly as impactful on the viewer as it once might have been, it stands above most of the crowd. Helping it to do so is how the family is handled and the performances of the leads. Many of the genre’s entries trudge along way too slowly, showing the family’s mundane life in a feigned attempt at character development. Here, we get to to know them as the rest of the story unfolds. This doesn't make the Lutz family the most memorable lot, but it’s an effective way of telling the story.

That story and its history also loom large over the film. When it came out it was billed as a tale based mostly in fact. Over the years, how true that is has been debated heavily. Books have been written and interviews conducted, including with the real Lutz family. Their stories have changed several times and their credibility has become highly questionable. Conventional wisdom now says that the true story angle is a crock. Truthfully, this is neither here nor there with regards to the quality of the movie, just an interesting tidbit I thought I’d share.

As for the movie, it is still a very solid haunted house flick. It may come off as dated. Some of this is due to the look of the film and the fashions on display. The bigger problem, however, is that so many of the things this movie introduced have become old hat. Viewers without perspective may struggle to see what the big deal is. I’ll address them directly in case I somehow haven’t made it clear: all of the haunted house movies you love stole from this one.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

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