MGM // 1979 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 20th, 2008
For God's sake, get out!
"Find a well...it's the passage to hell!"
George (James Brolin, Capricorn One) and Kathy (Margot Kidder, Superman: The Movie) Lutz have just bought a new home. It is a beautiful home. Yes, a very beautiful home. George and Kathy Lutz were surprised to find this beautiful home in their price range. Yet, for some reason, the home was in their price range. The reason is this: someone killed someone in this home before the Lutz family decided to purchase it. Actually, there's a little more to it than that. A man murdered his wife and young children in the home. There was seemingly no motive for this horrific crime. "That's a little creepy," Kathy says. "Yes, it is," George concurs. They both agree that the home should still be bought. Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Lutz...what have you done? What have you done?
Here is the ultimate litmus test for a horror movie. It is a good flick if the film itself manages to be more interesting than the Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" spoof of the film. I can assume that you all accept these terms, yes? Very well. Employing this universally accepted horror movie standard to judge The Amityville Horror, I hereby declare that this movie is a failure. Yes, the film is regarded by some as a horror classic. The key cast members (James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger) are very capable actors. The movie is "based on a true story," which automatically makes it more frightening for certain audience members (you know who you are). Despite this, I must say that I think The Amityville Horror is only terrifying in the sheer volume of its banality. What a boring movie this is.
First of all, we have no real villain, no genuinely menacing threat. We have an evil house. It is not impossible to make a fantastic haunted house movie. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is, in my humble estimation, one of the finest horror films ever made. Or take a look at the recent 1408 (more of a "haunted hotel room" movie, honestly), which uses the genre to present a psychological examination of an interesting man. Unfortunately, when a haunted house film follows the usual conventions of the genre without deviation, I frequently find the results to be incredibly dull. That is most assuredly the case with The Amityville Horror.
The film moves along at such an agonizingly predictable gait. A happy couple buys a new home. At first, slightly odd things start to happen. They seem a little unusual, but they could have been triggered by perfectly natural circumstances. Then some slightly creepier things start happening. A black cat jumps out of nowhere and starts hissing. One of the kids falls down the stairs. Kathy has an exceptionally bad dream. Then things start escalating even further. Then a little more, a little more and a little more, until everybody is either stomping around screaming their heads off or threatening bloody murder. Yawn.
Meanwhile, we are also handed a subplot involving a priest (this is where Rod Steiger comes in). The priest fully intends to go bless the house the day the Lutz's move in. Unfortunately, when he goes there, he is attacked by physical ailments and a load of flies. The priest is forced to leave, and begs church leaders to let him go back and help this family through what is obviously a spiritual crisis. This is the sort of film in which doubters and level-headed individuals are automatically cast as snotty villains who are just trying to cover up some evil conspiracy, so of course the church leaders mock the priest and say no. This leads to much shouting and hand-wringing.
Frankly, the truth of the situation is just a little too generic to be genuinely frightening. It's just some inexplicable force of evil that causes everything. We're not really dealing with ghosts, demons, or anything along those lines. It's just...oh, well, something. The aforementioned 1408 was at least honest enough to address this situation: "It's just an evil f -- -ing room." The film is intended to work as slow-boiling horror, carefully increasing the measure of dread as the film goes along. Due to the lack of originality and the tiredness of the concept, the movie is simply slow. We have a full ninety minutes or so about a house that makes people cranky and irritable. Say, that sounds like the premise of another potential "Treehouse of Horror" bit...but I digress. When the movie actually gets to the violent conclusion, it's presented in a rather schlocky and unintentionally goofy manner that I found terribly unconvincing. Do not suggest that I should check out the more "realistic" remake starring Ryan Reynolds. I have seen it, and found it even less watchable than this version.
The hi-def transfer is just a little better than I expected for a film nearly 30 years old. The expected level of grain is here, but there's very little in the way of scratches of flecks. Blacks are pretty deep, and the slightly dark color palette is well-balanced. The level of detail here is respectable. The sound is clear, though a bit on the obnoxious side. Some of the "Boo!" noises are annoyingly loud in contrast to the rest of the film. I felt sorry for my poor speakers, having to deliver some of the screeching noises tossed out at random here. As for extras, we are only given the original theatrical trailer. Too bad.
There are small pleasures to be had here. For instance, there is Lalo Schifrin's fine score, which sets the tone for things with an ominous lullaby (a technique that would be employed even more effectively by Jerry Goldsmith a couple years later in Poltergeist). Despite the weakness of the writing, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger manage to be genuinely likable screen presences. And then, of course, there's...uh...ah, crap. That's all I've got.
A final note: Why is it that animals always seem to be able to detect foul supernatural beings before humans do? In this movie, the dog goes around barking at invisible things. A word of advice to all new owners of potentially haunted houses: Get a pet. Pay attention to your pet. If your pet starts acting funny, get another damned house (well, actually, the fact that your house was damned was the problem in the first place, so scratch that part). With the housing market the way it is at the moment, you should be able to find a reasonable deal on an evil-free abode. Then nobody will make another movie like The Amityville Horror about you, and cinema audiences will be spared. Thus endeth the lesson.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer