THE AMITYVILLE HORROR - 1979
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That Ronald DeFeo Jr. was convicted of murdering his parents and siblings on the night of November 13, 1974 is true. To this day Ronald denies it, and used to field questions from the Internet community at large through his official website at thenightexposed.net (now archived).
But what Jay Anson (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR - 1977) and Hans Holzer (MURDER IN AMITYVILLE - 1979) tried to pass off as truth in the 1970s, remains pure hokum.
For the latest DVD of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, there is even a commentary by Hans Holzer. So how does the movie hold up after nearly 30 years?
Let's think about its day back in 1979. It was released by American International Pictures which was, at that time, every bit as big a studio as Lionsgate and with a longer history. Horror movies had been revived thanks to the stunning success of HALLOWEEN in 1978. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR seemed like a sure bet.
It was based upon the book THE AMITYVILLE HORROR: A TRUE STORY, by Jay Ansen; who in turn based his "novel" partly on what was claimed to be a true story by George and Kathy Lutz. The movie is about them and the terror the Lutz family presumably went through while living in the house. Lutz, in turn, claimed to have been haunted by the ghost or spirits that possessed real life Ronald DeFeo, in 1974, to murder his entire family in cold blood. Of this entire story, the fact that Ronald De Feo Jr. (still alive and still imprisoned as of this writing) murdered his family, is true.
Jay Ansen's book, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR became a huge hit and stayed on the New York Times best seller list for over a year. Lutz, Ansen, and Holzer all claimed that the story was true and it was billed as a "True Ghost Story". A famous ghost story based on what was - at that time - a famous murder case. How delightfully sordid! American audiences ate it up. The world audiences soon followed.
So Samuel Z. Arkoff had a movie made, featuring screenwriter Sandor Stern (PIN: A PLASTIC NIGHTMARE, AMITYVILLE HORROR 4: THE EVIL ESCAPES) and director Stuart Rosenberg (Various televised episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and the original THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE DROWNING POOL). For the part of George Lutz, they got actor James Brolin, who was hot off of three unexpected hits: WESTWORLD, THE CAR, and CAPRICORN ONE. At that moment, Brolin was the Keanu Reeves of his day. Nobody thought he was a good actor, or even particularly smart - but he wound up in three throw away movies in a row that became box office hits: As mysterious then as it is now.
The lead actress was also riding a wave. Playing the part of Kathy Lutz was Margot Kidder who was in the smash hit, Superman, just a year before. What's more, after nearly five years in obscurity, a flop she made back in 1974, BLACK CHRISTMAS, was busy making the cable and network circuit and television audiences were discovering the shocker. Margot was hot. A hot novel, hot actors, and a story that the world was nuts about. How could it not become a hit? And a smash it was.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR starts off with the murders of the DeFeo family by their eldest son, who murdered both of his parents and his younger siblings. While Horror movie epilogues have grown tiresome and useless, in 1979 it made sense to the story to start off there and then announce, One Year Later, whereby George and Kathy are checking the house out. And for the size of the house, its location, the property and the ton of ameneities, the house was a steal. So what if people were murdered in it? "Houses don't have memories," George says.
Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!!!
So the family moves in and just loves it. Being a good Catholic family, they invite Father Delaney (Rod Steiger: THE KINDRED, MARS ATTACKS!, END OF DAYS) to come over and
Looking at it today, the scene seems more than mild, it seems kind of silly. But back in 1979 this scene horrified audiences who believed It Actually Happened!
George meanwhile, is feeling grumpy. He married into a family that already existed. The children belong to Kathy and they all remember their deceased Father. While the kids are now calling their Mom's new husband, George, instead of Mr. Lutz, George feels that he has done his part to support his new family and come through for them - so when are they going to start calling him Dad? The role of George was supposed to have James Brolin play George as charming at first, and then slowly more demented and sinister. Problem is, from the start Brolin plays George as sullen and moody and it only gets worse from there. We never feel comfortable with George and we wait for him to crack.
Kidder's role as Kathy isn't much better. From 1975 to about 1980, Hollywood Horror movies had their female leads as ditzy dimbulbs, not noticing the obvious around them until hubby or some varmint grabbed a bat or ax and started swinging (PROPHECY, THE CAR, THE SHINING). The only strong women in Horror movies were those in independent releases like HALLOWEEN and DAWN OF THE DEAD. The woman as a ditz, appears to have been killed off by those two indies I mentioned, plus one studio big budget release of ALIEN.
So Margot's Kathy sees George change and tries to put a good face on it until he finally blows up on her. While George degenerates, in turns from a maniac to a man horrified at what is happening to him, Kathy turns the other cheek and either braves it all stoically or tries to get a damn priest in there to bless the house once and for all.
Because, yeah, that's the problem.
Meanwhile what we get in the way of horror are things like flies and a blue pig with glowing eyes. Again, none of this seems scary today, but back when this was released, people thought it was real. "Yeah, a blue pig with glowing eyes in your bedroom doesn't seem like much, Unless It Really Happened!"
At the height of its popularity, before it even left the theaters, investigators revealed the THE AMITYVILLE HORROR for what it was - a hoax. The family living in the house at that time had no problem with it. And no one has had any problems ever since. The home video market was just dawning but THE AMITYVILLE HORROR was a big budget feature and some audience members felt conned and wanted to sue. Losing money, American International merged with Filmways in 1980 and soon disappeared forever.
Many a sequel has been made about THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and, since the crime is real and so is the town, nobody owns the rights to making an AMITYVILLE Horror movie. Even if the story isn't true, it was worth making into a good movie and in 2005, MGM did just that. But the original THE AMITYVILLE HORROR gets a barely earned Three ShriekGirls.