Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Amityville Horror


(1979) ****

My favorite shot in the film comes about an hour and a half in. Kathy Lutz has just been knocked silly by her husband George. As she cowers, nose bloody, in the corner of the room, he huddles by the fire, busily piling on scraps of extra wood. He is sunken-eyed and shivering. The thermostat is, as it has been throughout the movie at 75 degrees.

The Amityville Horror is based on supposedly true events in a house in southern Long Island. Not too long before the events of the story, 4 people have been shot in their beds by a family member. The house seems to have retained much of that psychic energy. Little accidents occur throughout the house. Doors suddenly shut of their own accord. Empty chairs rock as if someone were sitting in them. A window slams down on a hand. At night there are terrible sounds. The house also seems to ward certain people away. A priest and a nun become ill after separate trips to the house. A woman with hinted-at psychic powers takes one look at the place and refuses to step any closer.

The house never really comes alive like the Poltergeist house does, but it does have a personality and when it expresses itself, its menace is obvious. On his visit to the house, the aforementioned priest (Rod Steiger) hears a seething voice telling him, "Get OUT!"

You can also see the menace play out on the faces of the people living there. They transform and their descent is rapid.

George (James Brolin) arrives at his new home a strong and decent man. He has a warm smile, sneaks in jokes wherever possible, is kind to his stepchildren, and passionately loving to his wife. Within days of moving, his eyes darken and grow bloodshot. He feels a chill everywhere in the house he goes. His temper grows markedly shorter and he begins to lash out, first verbally, then physically towards the people around him. He spends hours furiously chopping wood in the backyard and sharpening his axe. At points in the film, he carries the axe with him wherever he goes.

His 5 year old stepdaughter Amy is undergoing her own transformation. She wears a peculiar smile during these odd episodes around the house. Her eyes have become uncomfortably cool and far too wise for a 5 year old. She makes allusions to a new friend, Jodie, and once we see her singing "Jesus Loves Me" to a vacant but playfully rocking chair.

There's a curious interplay between stepfather and daughter as their own particular haunts begin to take over. We sense that the haunts are aware of each other even if their hosts are not aware of them.

For a film with so little gore and so few active scares, it's a remarkably effective horror movie. It relies not on action or movement, but rather on dread and suspense.

Was the Amityville house really haunted? Probably not, but that really bad things happened there is undeniable fact. In 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed his parents and four siblings. The youngest was only 9 years old. When questioned about the murders, DeFeo replied "Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It went so fast."

The film says that the murders happened because the house sits on a gateway to hell. I look at James Brolin's shadowy face and think, perhaps it's not under the house but rather deep in the recesses of the mind that the door opens up to an interminable blackness underneath; and maybe that dark stare on his face is there simply because every moment he spends in that house, he can feel that endless hole, that liquid blackness over him, and inside him.

5 comments:

I'mnotMarcbutmyboyfriendis said...

you may notice i referenced four people being killed in the amityville house earlier on in the article, but also saying that 6 people were actually killed at 112 Ocean Avenue. that's not a screw-up. the body count was changed for the movie. also, defeo never had a sister named jodie. his real sister's name was dawn.

I'mnotMarcbutmyboyfriendis said...

out of the three movies i've seen so far, this is the second with a soundtrack by lalo schifrin.

JPX said...

Amityville 2 is a prequel and covers those original killings. It's not very good. Are you planning on watching all the Amityville flicks? There's actually a bunch of them including a remake. Nice review.

Johnny Sweatpants said...

Yeah, great one. You creeped me out before I even had my coffee.

Octopunk said...

I've seen the sequel but not the original. I recall it as a fairly blunt instrument.

There's a bit in which a priest waves one of those little priest staffs around to exorcise the place, and the staff shoots out a jet of blood. I saw that and thought "well, case closed! Time to go!" but no...