Amityville Horror, The: Special Edition
The seventies seemed to be all about conflicts and clashes. The generation gap fueled many a conflict between young and old, just as conservatives and liberals battled it out in regards to their stance on war. The same kind of polar juxtaposition can be applied to the pervading filmmaking preoccupations of the time too. While the thirties can be seen as a uniform time when almost all horror films were classical Universal monster pictures, the seventies was much more polar and diverse when it comes to horror. There seemed to be two radically different styles of filmmaking constantly battling out at the box office. First, there came the low-budget, indie revolution that was started by George A. Romero with Night of the Living Dead, and continued on in the seventies with classics like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These films used their low budgets to create gritty, controversial films in the guise of realism.
While these films did great at the box office, there was also another major horror movement in place at the same time, and that was the classy Hollywood supernatural picture. The same year as Texas Chainsaw was playing out to sold out drive-ins, The Exorcist was busy scaring the wits out of the sophisticated in big movie houses. So like the clash between young and old, there was a similar clash going on in the filmmaking industry, this time between young and old mentalities. It was classical Hollywood versus the indie youth, and surprisingly both were able to coexist throughout the decade. Along with The Exorcist, The Omen and The Amityville Horror would become some of the biggest “high class” box office hits of the decade.
Time hasn’t been as kind to Amityville as it has Texas Chainsaw, but regardless, both were esteemed enough to warrant glossy remakes on this side of the millennium. A following for the original Amityville still very much exists, and MGM has catered to this devout group with their recent “The Amityville Horror Collection” DVD box set. Three films and four discs long, this set packages all the theatrical ventures of the Amityville franchise into one tidy package. With the remake in theaters this weekend, what better than to examine the original that started it all? Let’s unpack the contents of this house.
The true story on which the film is based has become legend. At precisely 3:15 AM on November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed his entire family in that gothic Amityville house. He pleaded insanity, claiming he heard voices, but many suspected that it was the voices from the house, and not his mind. The film follows the second, and more subjective, story in the Amityville house, which takes place a year later. After languishing on the market for a full year, the Amityville house was finally bought for a steal by the newly married Lutz’s, George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder). After only 28 days, the Lutz’s would flee the house, claiming horrific stories of the supernatural. Unlike the DeFeo’s, they still had their lives, and were able to tell the tale.
In the film, the Lutz’s begin as the perfect happy couple, complete with three cute children and the requisite family dog. Their ideal move in is quickly shot when Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) is attacked by a swarm of bees when attempting to bless the house. Could a house really be demonic? It certainly seems so, as many other strange things begin to happen. The temperature is always hellishly cold, chairs windows move unsuspectingly, and the whispers of the wind often sound as if the house is shrieking. “Get out!” it screams, but the Lutz’s fail to capitalize on the house’s fair warning.
Although the daughter starts seeing an imaginary presence named "Jodie", and Kathy gets some bizarre phone calls (Margot Kidder is used to it though, she certainly got her share in Black Christmas), George Lutz seems to be affected worst by the house. Gradually, he descends into madness, looking more and more like Ronald DeFeo with each passing day. He starts chopping wood to release steam, but quickly amounts a woodpile that could heat all of Amityville. It is more than just cabin fever though, as the house seems to have an increasing power over Mr. Lutz. Facing financial constraints, George refuses to take heed to his wife’s wishes to move, but if he stays there much longer he may never live to pay off that mortgage.
The Amityville Horror, much like The Blair Witch Project, was a film that broke out of the horror niche and became a cross-over box office smash based on its true story pretensions. Both films were eventually dispelled as fiction (Blair Witch always was, but the mainstream was unaware of that, while court hearings and confessions would reveal Amityville to be hyperbole at best), and further attempts to capitalize on the series name led to box office losses. The Blair Witch Project, initially mainstream fodder, has since been embraced by horror circles (where it belongs!) and is oft regarded as one of the greatest horror films of its time. Amityville’s fate has not been so kind. The story may still get mention, but few cite the film itself as a genre steeple. The Amityville Horror remains a film of its time, one that struck a cultural nerve for a brief, fleeting moment. Therefore, critical analysis of the film should consider the film only in the context of its time, since it doesn’t hold up as much else.
As free and liberal-minded as most big, independent seventies films are, there was still very much a conservative stranglehold on the genre, mainly by the big studios. Most representative of this is the supernatural possession genre, which from its inception with Rosemary’s Baby in 1969 to its last hurrah with The Amityville Horror, managed to be the most popular of all seventies horror genres. Why is this? The underlying reason seems to be the power of Catholic guilt. The genre began at the high point of the sexual revolution, when youths from all over were practicing pre-marital sex in breakout numbers, with religiously dismissed contraceptives leading the way. Not only were the youth going against the words of the Bible, but their focus was on more immediate, secular concerns like war, student protest, feminism, civil rights. Such a move away from religion would do nothing but compound the guilt felt by the nation’s movie literate youth, to the point where highly religious films like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror would serve cathartic functions for the guilty Catholics looking to repent. Film became the youth’s medium in the seventies, and religious horror films were like that generation’s The Passion of the Christ.
More or less, the supernatural possession genre dealt with young people being punished and ultimately saved by, religion. In Rosemary’s Baby, the young couple sell their baby’s soul for monetary gain, and are punished for such selfishness. The Exorcist has little Linda Blair possessed and raped by a crucifix, no doubt documenting the troublesome generation gap of the seventies. The Omen takes the generation gap allegory a step further by making the child an actual spawn of satan. Most like Rosemary’s Baby, though, The Amityville Horror also focuses on a newly wed couple who, upon moving into a new home, find the forces of faith and the supernatural working stronger than ever. Like the shallow yuppies in Baby, the couple in Amityville also represent a movement away from the teachings as the Bible, as they have children outside of wedlock, with the wife having been divorced once before. They place a crucifix on the house’s wall out of tradition, but it will take a much more devote religious following for the Lutz’s to be fully cleansed by the house.
The house in The Amityville Horror does take great lengths to teach the Lutz’s a lesson, going so far as to entice the Lutz’s daughter to sing “Jesus loves me” alone at her beside. Rod Steiger’s character goes appropriately blind, since all the young flower child vice around him makes it impossible for him to see the word of God. A statue of the Virgin Mary even crumbles before him, perhaps to signal both the fall in importance of the church and the decreasing numbers of the sexually abstinent. The Amityville Horror is one big right-wing warning to its youthful audiences. “Watch this young couple suffer the slings of a sacrilegious lifestyle, and hope that it will not be you who suffers next” seems to be the pervading message of the film. And in 1979, that message worked all the way to the bank. It doesn’t work so well now though, with attempts to rekindle the franchises, like Exorcist: The Beginning and the new Amityville remake, taking in considerably less than their predecessors did in the seventies. Today the religious right reaches a more broad audience with movies like The Passion, but in the seventies, it was the youth, and it was done through horror films.
The Amityville Horror, even though technically an independent film (released by American International), is constructed much more in the old fashioned Hollywood vein. It has big stars (Kidder, fresh from Superman, and Oscar-winner, Steiger), big effects, and classical scare tactics. The “cat scare” was cliché even then, and Steiger’s scenery chewing was something seemingly left behind after the likes of Brando and De Niro. At a time when gore was just exploding into the mainstream, Amityville looks comparatively tame, relying more on psychological scares like the old ghost stories like The Haunting. Even on that front the film fails though, seeming more like a gimmicky television movie than an actual horror picture. Even the ending, with its “save the family pet!” earnestness is embarrassingly old fashioned. Even the big supernatural Hollywood films like The Exorcist and The Omen still had the sense to end on much more ambiguous points. While it may have had plenty to offer guilt-ridden audiences of the seventies, today it seems nothing but tame and slow moving.
At two hours, The Amityville Horror still offers considerably less in both story and scares than what one would get from a 90 minute movie these days. Yet, despite this and all of the film’s other flaws, it still has its naïve little charms. Hearing a house yell “Get out!” is good fun, and seeing James Brolin descend into Nicholson territory with his portrayal of George Lutz is good for some campy grins. The Amityville Horror takes itself so gravely and seriously that it is impossible not to at least appreciate the work behind it. Like a children’s drawing, it may be poorly colored and kind of dull, but you nonetheless appreciate it because of the seriousness the creators put into it. If nothing else, it is a nice window into the religious preoccupations of the seventies.
This disc is wallpapered with a nice, new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Different than the previous movie-only disc from 2000, which was soft and non-anamorphic, this new disc looks exceptional considering the age of the film. The film gets a little grainy and muddy in some of the darker scenes, but for the most part it is impeccably clear. The sharpness of the print is evident when the camera gets close on Steiger, whose every pore and wrinkle comes out in this transfer. Colors look completely seventies, but the colors are deep and accurate, visible in the scenes of the deep red blood oozing out of the walls. Blacks are solid, never grey and never crushed, which is tough to come by with these older films. Blemishes are few and far between as well, combining for a great transfer for MGM. Considering it will be one of their last DVDs before they becomes swallowed by Sony, it’s a nice hurrah.
This house has been upgraded with all new sound, courtesy of a crisp new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. For the purists the mono track remains, but MGM has done a great job at making this 5.1 track less a gimmick by keeping it true to the original sound of the film. The rears are used sparingly, as the majority of the film occurs up front, but there are still some nice uses of surround. While midway through the film it appears as though the rears are wood chopping activated only, they do pick up considerably during the finale, when the music, lightning and rain all combine into one enveloping mix. Admittedly, the 5.1 does have some missed opportunities, since a possessed house could lend to sounds from all over. Many opportunities with baby laughs, creaking and other subtle house noises were missed by keeping them up front, but still, they (as well as the rest of the audio) all sound very clear and sharp. The 5.1 mix isn’t demo material, but it opens up the sound stage of the original mono track just enough to make it worth the listen.
This disc is a big improvement in terms of audio and visual quality over the original release, and it not surprisingly improves on the original in terms of supplements as well, since the original was bare bones. First up is an interesting commentary with Dr. Hans Holzer, a doctor specializing in ghosts and the paranormal. The commentary is preceded by a video introduction by Holzer, who explains his expertise and what he plans to do with the commentary. Given that Holzer is not well known, it is a good gesture on MGM’s behalf to introduce us to the speaker. Right from the start, Holzer is quick to describe the back story of the book and film, telling about how the credited writer of the book was a cipher, since the actual writer wished to conceal his name. He goes on to really explain the history of the Amityville legend, and although his credibility may be tested due to the fact he believes so firmly in spirits and ghosts, he nevertheless presents a compelling story. He knows his facts, and tells them in an organized and forthright manner, denoting discrepancies between the truth and how Hollywood interpreted it. There are quite a bit of lengthy silences in the track, but it is definitely worth a listen for those wishing to gather a greater knowledge of the history behind the Amityville story. Those looking for a history of the film need only watch the next supplement
The new “For God’s Sake, Get Out!” documentary, which is a 22-minute back and forth compilation of new interviews with Margot Kidder and James Brolin, is honest, informative and overall great. This is a documentary to which all DVD companies should strive, since it bypasses the usual promotional filler and empty praise by truly getting to the root of the film. Both Brolin and Kidder are exceptionally well spoken, and both hold back little in their assessment of the film, their performances, their chemistry and the events leading up to the film. It is always more interesting to see conflict and criticism rather than blasé congratulations, and Brolin and Kidder fuel the doc with their true feelings. They didn’t get along on set, they don’t believe the truth in the original story, and they both are not all too fond of their performances. Their honesty is a rarity in featurettes these days, and comes much appreciated. Kidder also surprises with some great insights to the horror genre and its fans, saying with all sincerity that horror fans do not get enough credit, and that they are some of the most knowledgeable film connoisseurs in the whole world. Of course we all know that, but it is nice to see Kidder give praise where praise is due! She also gives inspiration to future filmmakers, in suggesting that horror is the prime genre in which to start making your films. It really is a great little featurette, certainly one of the best I’ve seen in a long while.
The disc is rounded off with promotional material. The cheesy original trailer seems more like a real estate ad than an actual trailer, but it does showcase some of the better moments of the film. A repetitive batch of 7 radio spots is also included. It is interesting to note how little American International emphasized the fact that the film was based on a true story (which is something the remake did much more prominently). Perhaps the book was still famous enough that they decided to focus on unique plot points to better involve the viewers. Nonetheless, for a film so firmly grounded in the seventies, seeing the promotional material of the time is much appreciated.
The Amityville Horror may not be all that great of a movie, but it certainly was popular in its time, and it remains interesting to observe as a bookend to the ever famous supernatural possession genre of the seventies. The quality of the disc though, cannot be disputed, it is solid all around. The new anamorphic transfer looks very good, the 5.1 mix a nice improvement, and the supplements more than worth their weight. The featurette is especially good, and the commentary is chock full of Amityville information. Fan or not, this disc is a steal whether bought in the box set or on its own. It is a tent pole film of the seventies, so like it or not, everyone should at least give it a viewing.
Movie - B
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+
Supplements - A-
Great review of a fun film. I hope to see reviews of parts II and III here soon. I also enjoyed Ms. Kidder's shout out to the "horror community" and how we're not a bunch of brain dead idiots (well most of us anyway :D ).
Thanks for the feedback, Coverdale. I'm just about to get to THE POSSESSION as we speak, and 3-D should follow by the week's end as well. I'll also take a look at the bonus disc too, for all the completists out there. Looking forward to it!
"Jodie" not a DeFeo daughter.
You state that Amy Lutz has conversations with the invisible daughter of the DeFeo family. This is incorrect. Amy Lutz has conversations with "Jodie," an invisible pig. This was well documented in all 4 of the AMITYVILLE novels that deal directly with the Lutz family, complete with drawings that Amy herself supposedly made at the time. The only occasion where "Jodie" was believed to be one of the Defeo daughters was in the crappy remake. The DeFeo's in real life never had a daughter named "Jodie".
Great review on the disc though! Looking forward to parts II and III.
Thanks for the correction, Rick. The review has been updated.
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