The Amityville Horror, 1979.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, Meeno Peluce, John Larch, and Val Avery.
The Lutz family move into a house that was the scene of a grisly mass murder, only to flee for their lives 28 days later.
While approximately three people in the world wait with baited breath for Amityville: The Awakening, the much-delayed 157th sequel to 1979’s The Amityville Horror, the wizards at Second Sight have decided to go back to that original movie and issue it in a rather splendid limited edition steelbook, which is only apt for its debut UK Blu-ray release.
Apt because The Amityville Horror is one of those horror movies that many of us of a certain age have a fond nostalgic glow for and other 1970s big hitters like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Exorcist and Halloween have all had HD special editions so it is only fair that this iconic haunted house movie is given similar treatment. Also, in this era of James Wan and his associates harking back to the ‘70s with his Insidious and The Conjuring movies – movies that feature dramatised versions of real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who have a close association with the Amityville case – then this is a good opportunity to appeal to the younger audiences flocking to cinemas to see those movies to check out where Wan’s inspiration came from and also to dig into the history of the story a bit.
Of course, a quick Google search will bring up hundreds of different pages relating to the real life events that took place between 1974 and 1976 at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York and whether what happened to the De Feo family – where eldest son Ronald shot and killed his parents and siblings before being arrested and claiming voices in the house told him to do it – and the Lutz family that moved in afterwards was some sort of paranormal activity on the part of the house and where it was built or whether the Lutz family was in financial ruin and, using the De Feo incident as a backdrop, fabricated their part of the story to get out of debt. The facts are that Ronald De Feo did murder his family in that house – a story touched upon during the opening scenes of The Amityville Horror but fictionalised to silly (but superbly entertaining) heights in Amityville II: The Possession (itself ripe for a UK Blu-ray release surely?) – and that George and Kathy Lutz moved into the house in late 1975 with their three children, where they stayed for 28 days before fleeing without taking any of their possessions. The rest of George and Kathy Lutz’s lives were made up of constant press interviews and accusations of making the whole thing up to escape their mortgage payments but, whatever the truth of the matter, the actual subject of the Amityville house and what allegedly happened there has always been intriguing and produced countless books, documentaries and movies on the subject, the most famous being the 1979 film.
The film opens with a quickly edited version of the De Feo murders to give you a bit of context before we meet George (James Brolin – The Car) and Kathy (Margot Kidder – Superman/Black Christmas) Lutz, a young married couple with three children from Kathy’s first marriage and looking to buy a big house to live in, and this one comes pretty cheap considering how big it is, although that could be something to do with what happened in it the previous year. Nevertheless, the Lutz’s move in and begin their new life but over time things begin to change, at first in the house as objects move around at will and cold spots seem to appear at random despite George constantly stoking the furnace. There are also a lot of flies that seem to populate one particular room, something that local priest Father Delaney (Rod Steiger – In the Heat of the Night) discovers to his terror when demonic voices order him to leave the property, and George begins to experience a change in his personality, becoming dismissive and angry towards his family and waking up every night at around 3 a.m., the same time that Ronald De Feo killed his family.
Kathy takes to the local library to see if she can dig up some information on the house and, after reading about the De Feo’s and the history of her new home, which was apparently built on an ancient Indian burial ground (that’s where the horror movie cliché comes from), she tries to warn George but the forces in the house seem to be taking him over so, on a dark and stormy night, the Lutz family decide to make a run for it but is the house going to let them escape?
Of course it is, otherwise they wouldn’t have appeared in TV interviews throughout the following decades, although this being Hollywood there was a chance they could have totally changed the ending for effect but where would the sensationalism be in that as the real family were still alive and telling their story. No, this film sticks fairly closely to the incidents that the Lutz’s went on record as stating happened to them and if you ever want to read a thrilling and exciting account of those events then Jay Anson’s novel The Amityville Horror is well worth a look – even big sceptic James Brolin concedes to this in the special features – but unfortunately director Stuart Rosenberg’s take on the story doesn’t quite live up to the excitement that the real life media frenzies have generated.
As a film The Amityville Horror is very much a slow-burn and there are times when that is effective – such as George Lutz’s mental decline seemingly taking place over a few days – but there are other times when you wish Rosenberg had not relied on the talents of his two leading actors to carry it through and actually used some direction to add a bit of energy. Rod Steiger does his bit by chewing the scenery to almost epic proportions but there is such a contrast between his over-the-top sermonising and James Brolin’s understated moodiness that Rosenberg doesn’t seem to know how to balance it out to make what is happening on the screen – or not happening as the case may be – more engaging. It certainly isn’t the fault of the actors, who all do an excellent job, and there is more than enough material in the story to make a tense and exciting haunted house movie – let’s face it, they managed it with the 2005 remake which has its faults but was a much more satisfying movie – but time has not been kind to The Amityville Horror, whose blood-drenched walls and creepy door-slams may have appeared scary and terrifying back in 1979, in a post-Omen and Exorcist frenzy when supernatural horror movies became mainstream, but nowadays feels very tame and almost boring when looked at through a more knowing and critical eye. Even the cleaned-up picture quality, whilst looking pristine as it no doubt did if you were looking through the camera lens at the time, doesn’t really bring that much like it did when Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were given Blu-ray transfers that made them feel fresh as if you were watching them for the first time.
However, don’t let that put you off as there is more to this package than just the main movie as Second Sight have gathered together a few extras that are worth your time to look at. Carried over from the previous DVD release there is the 20-minute For God’s Sake, Get Out documentary that is essentially a 2005 interview with James Brolin and Margot Kidder where they discuss the film and how they became involved with it. There is an audio commentary by parapsychologist and author of Murder in Amityville, the book that Amityville II: The Possession is based on, Hans Holzer, who also provides an introduction to the film, plus there are brand new interviews with James Brolin, actor Meeno Peluce (who plays one of the Lutz children in the film), screenwriter Sandor Stern and composer Lalo Schifrin. Of most interest, though, is the inclusion of My Amityville Horror, a 2012 documentary that focuses on Daniel Lutz, the eldest of the children, and his interpretation of the events that took place when he was a child. An angry and contradictory figure, Lutz has clearly been emotionally scarred by his childhood and his troubled relationship with his step-father – who doesn’t come out of it looking too good as Daniel accuses the now-dead George Lutz of physical and emotional abuse as well as dabbling in black magic – and whether or not you believe anything of what has been reported over the years it is clear that Daniel Lutz does believe it and it has affected him severely in his adult life. A fascinating and also frustrating documentary, this is almost worth the price of the disc on its own and the fact that it has been included here as a special feature along with the original movie gives the package a proper contextual feel regarding the whole Amityville phenomenon. Also, keep a look out for when Daniel Lutz goes to visit Lorraine Warren in her home and they go down into the basement where the Warren’s kept their collection of paranormal paraphernalia, as you can see the real Annabelle doll in a glass case on the wall.
Whatever the faults of The Amityville Horror when looked at through a contemporary lens the name does still carry weight as one of the top-tier Hollywood horror movies of the ‘70s, and the fact it has been given a lavish special edition treatment is testament to its standing in popular culture. Is it a classic, up there with The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby in satanic cinema? Not quite, but the name alone is still the benchmark for haunted house movies and although it was surpassed by a totally daft but far more entertaining prequel (Blu-ray, please!), a string of ever-more pointless and crap sequels (don’t even bother after the lesser but still fun Amityville 3-D) and a remake that was a lot better than many gave it credit for, The Amityville Horror does have its place in horror history and this lovely looking Blu-ray package will certainly find its place onto the shelves of many collectors looking to add to their collection of older titles getting the Blu-ray treatment. Now, did I mention the possibility of getting Amityville II: The Possession released on Blu-ray in the UK…?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★