Sunday 7 August 2011

The Amityville Horror (1979)


In the 1970s, there was something of an appetite for horror films with a supernatural charge, with demonic possession or acknowledgement of the occult as the major basis for the attempted scares. If it was based on a true story, and that productions were themselves haunted, even better. In 1973, The Exorcist was released, which really kicked everything off. The next big one was three years later, with 1976’s The Omen. Three years later, there came another. Based on a book recounting the “true” experiences of the Lutz family, who claimed to be terrorised by a demonic presence in their new home, which was itself the site of a multiple homicide, The Amityville Horror was released.

George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin and Margot Kidder), a newly married couple with three children, move into their beautiful new house in Amityville, knowing full well that it was the site of a mass murder only a year before. After moving in, they begin to be tormented by an evil force within the house, trying to drive them away.

As a movie villain, haunted houses are rather tricky. Since there’s no actual monster or direct physical threat to centre the terror on, it relies on the careful construction of a malevolent atmosphere within the structure itself, a faceless sense of foreboding that should make the audience uneasy without really knowing why, a gradual building of unbearable tension. It takes a steady hand to work this angle. The Amityville Horror has none of these things.

First off, the script by Sandor Stern is devoid of any legitimate structure. The whole narrative unfolds as if it were a 9-year-old trying to tell a scary story. ‘These people moved into this house and the house was haunted… and one day, there was a lot of flies in a room, but they weren’t there anymore… and then, when everyone was sleeping, there was a noise downstairs, but there wasn’t anyone there… and then the man lost some money and he couldn’t find it anywhere… and then there was a cross on the wall that went upside down… and then the door burst open, but no one did it… and then…’ This is unbelievably juvenile storytelling. Characters are treated with roughly the same amount of respect, given next to no actual motivation or depth, existing only for bad stuff to happen to them. Once the bad thing has happened, they are simply forgotten. The kids may as well be named Boy #1, Boy#2 and Girl for all the character they possess. Father Delaney is given a line about being a psychotherapist, but it’s treated with such tokenism that it’s just insulting. And Sergeant Gionfriddo does nothing. It is a truly woeful piece of writing.

Stuart Rosenberg’s direction is abysmal. It’s all over the place. It’s so clumsy and uneven that it’s amazing to consider that this is the same man who gave us Cool Hand Luke. The horror genre is just clearly not his forte, being that he seems utterly incapable of capitalising on any kind of opportunity for tension. He’s simply stuck on using stock tricks that are just cheap and inept (a jump scare with a cat), stealing ideas from better movies (spot the constant Psycho rip-offs) and constantly looking at things that are a bit weird (like an ugly porcelain dragon by the fireplace or the infamous “evil eyes” of the house). Everything about it shows Rosenberg’s complete lack of control in such a genre. There’s a story that, in order to get a frightened reaction from Margot Kidder when she sees two lights/eyes/whatever outside the house, Rosenberg held up an orange velour pig with glass eyes… what? Never mind why he thought that would scare someone, where did he get something like that? Rosenberg’s use of religious iconography is also incredibly weak. The editing is atrocious as well. An early scene where the couple are being shown around the house by the realtor is punctuated with shots from the previous scene of the murders being committed. It has literally been only a couple of minutes since we saw them, and we haven’t left the house, but they feel the need to remind us of what happened in these rooms. The fact that the murder scene could have been worked in to better effect later on and the realtor scene cut out altogether is yet another problem with the film. And the sound design… in this world, tension is signified by the sound of a live cable left unplugged, so a less than subtle hummmmm rests under, or rather over, moments when you’re meant to be scared. This just feels like rank amateurism.

I have no idea what the cast are doing. Every one of them seems to be working on a different film, or at least at different stages of this one. James Brolin becomes the angry guy so quickly, he’s barely registered on screen before he develops bags under his eyes and his carefully constructed hair loses its body. Margot Kidder must have the shortest memory ever, since her character will completely dismiss something she thought strange only seconds before. ‘What’s that smell? There’s some kind of… ah well, must be nothing.’ Rod Steiger (here looking weirdly like Piper Laurie) is so over-dramatic that he stands out purely because he’s yelling all the time. Honestly, I think that a lot of the problems with the performances stem more from Rosenberg’s awkward direction than the actors themselves, but they still turn in poor work.

Perhaps the reason for the sheer underwhelming nature of the film stems from the possibility that no one working on the film actually believed that the story was true. After the film was released, both Brolin and Kidder were fairly open about the fact that they did not believe any of it. Kidder would later admit that she hated the film. In fact, when you consider some of the scenes of supposed terror, you can actually see how the filmmakers don’t believe it and are perhaps offering very subtle alternate theories as to what really happened. When the money goes missing, the babysitter was there, so maybe she did it. When the babysitter gets stuck in the closet, maybe the little girl really did do it and not some ghost. The house itself could quite easily be riddled with carpentry problems or electrical issues, which could account for some things.

Of course, all of this is moot anyway. The whole story was debunked years ago, thanks to a multitude of investigators and a lawsuit surrounding the authenticity of the events recounted in the original book. Besides, if the purpose of the film was to offer a critique of the legitimacy of the hauntings, then it should have been made clearer. However, it’s not. It was an actual attempt to make a horror film based on true events in an effort to scare people, and it failed miserably at its task.

The Amityville Horror is an incredibly poor film, lacking any kind of atmosphere or tension. The performances are over-the-top and inconsistent, the script unfolds in a manner akin to a child telling a ghost story, and, judging by the constantly ham-fisted attempts to frighten, it’s clear that Rosenberg has no idea as to what is actually scary. The fact that it has a cult appeal based on how laughable it is really should be enough of an indicator.

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