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THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979): Retro Review…Too Bad We Can’t Stay

The Amityville Horror – 1979

Based on a true story“.

I often wonder how many times those words make people either shy away from a movie or form a preconception that it’s just going to suck…and this phenomena isn’t without good reason.  I won’t argue for a minute that a lot of the “inspired by true events” flicks out there insult our collective intelligence; still, I’m of the opinion that culturally we tend to place too much emphasis on that little phrase usually shown around the opening credits.  From my perspective as a horror fan, I don’t give a rat’s ass if a “true” movie is an absolutely spot-on recreation of actual happenings or not; if I’m interested in the actual historical record, I’ll seek out a documentary.  If I’m watching a movie, I’m going into it knowing  it’s a movie, and I’m gauging it by its value as entertainment; as such, I refuse to even address the accuracy of any film I review that is allegedly “true”.  When you boil it down, all  movies are fiction (were there cameras rolling when Oskar Schindler made his famous list? Of course not, but we know it happened; Spielberg’s film simply dramatizes the event), and what’s important to me  is simply “was it a good movie, or not?”

The Amityville Horror  is one such film that I can’t help but think is at least partially maligned for its purported “truth”; this is quite a pickle, with all the debunkers over the years and the reports of fraud from prominent folks associated with the tale.  Still, I think the film has its share of merit, and dismissing it because of its dubious accuracy is missing the point of its strength as a horror movie.

On a rainy night, a young man brutally murders his entire family in a large, Dutch-colonial home in Amityville, Long Island.  When arrested, he claims “voices told him to do it”.  Not too very long afterward, a young couple, George and Kathy Lutz buy the house for what amounts to a song; after all, the murders were well-publicized, and the property isn’t exactly sought after.  Still, being pragmatic and grounded, the young couple and their children move into what they consider their dream home; after all, “houses don’t have memories”, right?

Rod Steiger, having a bad day as Father Delaney

It doesn’t take long for the answer to that to become painfully apparent; the family priest, coming to bless the new home, is assaulted by legions of flies, hearing a booming voice commanding him to leave the home (the famous GET OUT!! ); after this, he’s plagued by terrible sickness and an unshakable fear. The couple themselves begin to notice changes in their personalities; George becomes withdrawn and angry, always feeling a bone-chilling cold even though the house is warm. The youngest daughter has an “imaginary friend” that becomes less imaginary and more threatening as the days drag on. Strange accidents and discoveries coupled with strong feelings of mistrust and fear amongst the family culminates in a night of fierce paranormal assault that drives them to flee the house after just four weeks, leaving their belongings behind.

Pretty simple tale; of course, I didn’t go into a lot of detail, as not to spoil the fun. I will say that the film was well directed, interesting camera angles and lighting turning what should be a lovely home into a dark place of hidden secrets and a dark, terrible anger.  The acting was solid, with performances by Rod Steiger, James Brolin and Margot Kidder filling out the script with some craft; I do have to admit that sometimes, each of these three branch out pretty over-the-top in their roles, but within the context of the film, I didn’t find it too out of the realm of believability (a little scenery-chewing often works in the right situation).  I found the story gripping, and although a bit of an initial slow-burn, the pacing worked well in developing suspense and an overall atmosphere of the sinister and outright fear.  There’s not an overabundance of special effects (well, except maybe in the last twenty minutes or so), but what there are serve the story well, and don’t cross over into the realm of the ridiculous.

A little “family bonding”…

The main thing about this film that I found appealing was that the “horror” per se was something we can all relate to.  Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre, talks about this film as the ultimate economic nightmare; the Lutz’s have invested everything  into this home, and it’s all just going to hell.  I have to agree with the Master on this one; it’s easy to relate to George Lutz.  I imagine if any of us  were to have our toilets spouting black, stinky goop, our furnace to be on the fritz, our generational family business swirling in the bowl, and our wives and kids suddenly reacting to us as if we were aliens, well by golly, we  just might go a little nuts too.  We ourselves just might stop working…or bathing…or talking.  Sometimes, it would be easier if we could blame our problems on a demonic entity, wouldn’t it?

This one is a particular film that, through conversations and debates over the years, I’ve found that a great many people discount simply because they don’t believe the story.  I often want to ask those people if they enjoyed Alien  or A Nightmare On Elm Street, and if they say yes I want to ask if they believe those stories… but in the end, I don’t blame them; neither of those films claim to be true.  However, the principle is the same; if you didn’t like it regardless of it’s “truth”, then that’s fine; but if you like  the damned movie, then who cares?

Well folks, I’m one o’ those that likes  this one; it does what a scary flick is supposed to do.  Yes, it has its faults, but in my opinion it’s still one of the very best “haunted house” movies out there.  I watch it a couple times a year, and one o’ those times is always  around Halloween; it’s just hard to beat for that buildup of suspense and feeling of things just sliding outta control.  A lot of you may not agree with me, and hey, I think that’s awesome; we wouldn’t be horror fans if we all liked the same things.

James Brolin and Margot Kidder

Any of you out there that may not  have seen it, I would say that if you can keep an open mind and look past that little “true story” blurb, I think you’ll find a pretty taut little demonic/ghost story, done very well for its time.

Still, I can almost hear you guys: “But Mouse, do you believe it’s true?

Seriously; I enjoy the film, so what does it matter?


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Andrew Thompson

Editor-In-Chief at LeglessCorpse
The Mouse...VP/co-owner of LC Films, Editor-In-Chief of your average guy with what is most likely an unhealthy affinity for horror movies, sci-fi, superheroes, bacon, old cartoons and horror movies. Oh, I almost forgot, I really dig horror movies; new ones, old ones, it matters not; I love 'em. Husband, father, veteran and scribbler. I like bacon as well. The Mouse abides 😉