April 18, 2011

The Amityville Horror (1979)

"Newlyweds move into a house where a murder was committed, and experience strange manifestations which drive them away."

As I've already mentioned in my review of "The Amityville Horror" remake, I first encountered the story through Jay Anson's novel. I had the reprinted version with the silver cover (not the original one with the Dutch Colonial house on it which I found much later) which I remember buying from a revolving rack outside a souvenir shop on one of Jersey's beaches. No, not that Jersey shore but the Channel Island where I spent many childhood holidays. Even in broad daylight, in the hot Summer sunshine, the book absolutely terrified me. I got really into it, bought the matching silver covered sequels and the harder to read Hans Holzer spinoffs, and completely believed that everything about the haunting was real.

When I found out that there was a movie version of course I wanted to see it straight away but I was too young. I had to wait a few more years for "The Amityville Horror" to appear on TV. I can't remember which station it was on though I'm sure it was the BBC. Whatever the case, it wasn't censored or edited in any way. Unfortunately, I'd only just seen Margot Kidder reprising her role as Lois Lane and couldn't quite get my head around her appearing in a horror movie. Obviously I had no knowledge of Bob Clark's "Black Christmas" back then.

Seeing "The Amityville Horror" as a child wasn't a good experience. I didn't think anybody in the film looked like how I imagined them, I didn't like the actors, and, basically, I was thoroughly disappointed. Things had moved on and the story was being disproved plus I had bigger things on my mind such as "Salem's Lot" and puberty. "The Amityville Horror" was just another ghost story to me and, now that everyone was saying that it was just a hoax anyway, I lost all interest in it.

But things changed once I became an adult. I obviously bought the VHS version of "The Amityville Horror" and watched it during the 1980s along with all the sequels no matter how ridiculous they became. Although I was mostly bored by "Amityville III", I loved "Amityville 4" with the lamp and then hated "Amityville: Dollhouse". After that I gave up. The '90s weren't a good time for horror movies.

Having moved to America just over three years ago, seeing all the Dutch Colonial style houses where I live made me want to watch the original Amityville film again. Off I went to FYE and got a used copy of the flipper version with both widescreen and fullscreen versions of the movie on it. Having just moved, widescreen TVs were only beginning to catch on in America so I thought it best to have the fullscreen version too.

A couple of years ago, now that I was fully armed with a massive widescreen LCD telly, I found out that there was also a newer "high definition transfer" of "The Amityville Horror" available with a documentary called "For God's Sake, Get Out!" featuring James Brolin and Margot Kidder which I wanted to see. I bought it for $3 from Big Lots along with all the sequels and so now I have both versions. The newer one, which also includes a commentary by Hans Holzer of all people, is the on the right in the picture below.

But you haven't come here to read all this nostalgia. What you must want to know is how the original version of "The Amityville Horror" holds up today. Well, it's better than I remembered.

Now that I've outgrown the "Superman" movies, Margot Kidder is no longer just Lois Lane to me. Though I've never thought of her as ever being an outstanding actress either, she's really good in "The Amityville Horror". Hell, she's better than good, she's pretty damned sexy! I never even noticed that quality about her before until rewatching "The Amityville Horror" and wonder how I missed it previously. Maybe because, in spite of being eight years younger than James Brolin, she looks a lot older than 31 in "The Amityville Horror". Now that I've got to the age where I can appreciate MILFs (for lack of a better description!), Margot Kidder had me perking up with renewed interest and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

The relationship between James Brolin and Margot Kidder, as George and Kathy Lutz, is given a lot more attention in this version of "The Amityville Horror" than in the remake. You get to see a lot more interaction between them as they are buying the house and, because things don't immediately start going wrong, you get to know them as a couple you could care about. Well, almost. The characterisation still isn't perfect but it's better than I once thought. Also, although they have to interact with them, you don't find out anything much about their kids which is always a relief. I think far too much time was spent on the kids in the remake. This is very much a movie for adults and the focus is nearly always on the adults. I liked that.

Another thing which I really liked was that, as a story set in the mid-1970s, it was also filmed before the end of the decade came and everything looked right. The attention to detail and set dressing was immaculate. Half-unpacked cardboard boxes are everywhere and you are never allowed to forget that the Lutz family have only just moved in. At nearly two-hours long, "The Amityville Horror" could fool you into thinking that they've been in the house for years but it doesn't. Of course, the occasional onscreen caption about which day it is helps to keep track of time but, if you ever forget, you only have to look at how they are living.

I also have to mention the various outfits that George and Kathy wear. Plaid shirts and bellbottoms abound but only Margot Kidder's wedding outfit is particularly awful. She's really very neatly dressed and doesn't wear any of the "granny clothes" that poor Melissa George had to. You never get the impression that George and Kathy are poor and can't afford to pay their bills from how they dress. Appearances however can be deceptive.

Much speculation about the hauntings being a hoax has centred on the Lutzes financial situation. Yes, the film makes it clear that they are struggling, cheques bounce and George has been neglecting his business, and it probably adds a lot of fuel to the fire. I looked it up though and it seems that the Lutzes were never in any trouble with their mortgage and continued paying it for many months after they left the house. I always thought that they must have needed money pretty desperately too but I was mistaken. It's funny what films can make you believe.

Now the big thing is does the movie make you believe that the house is haunted? Well, as someone who watched the film on my own with the lights off, I can tell you that I even believed that my own house was haunted after watching "The Amityville Horror"! The atmosphere was pretty intense at times. It's not like there's any suspense or build-up to what happens, it just happens, randomly and without warning. One bit where you see a jacket lying on the sofa move slightly while everyone is getting ready for a wedding really got me. It's subtle but it's a lot better than most of the predictable jump scares in other movies. Having said that, "The Amityville Horror" has it's own fair share of unpredictable jump scares too.

The special effects may be horribly dated now but they were used sparingly. There's no over-the-top gore or real unpleasantlness other than the occasional "accident". Apart from a little sex scene, there's not a lot to prevent kids from watching it. I don't have any, I have cats instead, but I didn't have to shield their eyes from it so my opinion still counts.

One major thing that I really need to mention before I wrap up this increasingly epic review is that "The Amityville Horror" spends a lot of time on Father Delaney (played by Rod Steiger) and the Catholic Church. Since this is very much a tale about a supernatural evil presence, slight possession and hauntings, with a Catholic family at the centre of it, you know that the Church is going to be involved in it somewhere. They really don't get presented in a good light though and poor old Father Delaney really suffers after his failed attempt to bless the house. It's pretty obvious that the evil that inhabits the house is far older and stronger than the Catholics and, apparently, this is one of the few films other than "The Exorcist" where evil wins. I find all this Catholic hokum and their internal politics absolutely fascinating at times but not in a good way. I bet they hate "The Amityville Horror".

Other than that, the plot is more or less the same as the remake. George Lutz's "coming apart" is convincingly portrayed by James Brolin, and Margot Kidder is equally as defenceless against the evil that inhabits their home. There are some genuinely eerie scenes and only one unintentionally funny moment, i.e. the babysitter's dental braces, and, even though it's a long film, the pacing is pretty much perfect.

It may not be all blood and guts, quick cuts, and inappropriately loud music but "The Amityville Horror" will certainly hold its own in a battle with modern day horror movies. Having said that, supernatural horror movies may not be for everyone and, as tastes change, I can see this once hugely successful film going further down people's "top ten" lists. If you don't already know "The Amityville Horror" story then I still highly recommend that you watch this film.

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