The Amityville Horror is sadly one of those films that somehow have managed to make it into the popular consciousness of North America despite nothing being remotely remarkable or interesting in the film. At its best, The Amityville Horror is a TV movie that somehow found its way to the big screen (upon researching its history, a made for television film was originally what the production was intended to be), with dull production values, acting ranging from bad to decent, and direction that is a poor imitation of William Friedkin and Richard Donner’s work from The Exorcist and The Omen respectively. Its worst sin however is that it is totally devoid of anything remotely worth discussing.
The film is the story of the Lutz family, headed by George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder). Recently married, George has become the stepfather to Kathy’s children, and the family has moved to a new home in Amityville, where a year earlier, an entire family was killed in a homicide. Slowly but surely, odd events start happening to the Lutz, taking its mental toll on George as he drifts into cruelty. Is the house haunted, or is it...ah hell. It’s haunted. Let’s just leave it at that.
The film is based on a book Jay Anson about the supposedly real haunting of the real Lutz family, a story that is often debated as to whether it is a hoax or not. It is this debate that was highly publicized upon the film’s original release, and was resurrected when the film was recently remade. While I cannot comment on this debate, I can say that whatever real life fascination with the story that the public had/has does not manage to save the film in any way.
The first major problem is that similar stories have been told elsewhere, and told better. Stephen King’s original novel version of The Shining mines similar territory, as the supernatural becomes a way in which the very real, very unsettling domestic horrors are able to come to the surface. Whereas King’s novel focuses on exploring the roots of such familial tensions and its relationship with American culture as a whole (Kubrick would take such a different view of the material in his adaptation that it requires a whole different discussion), The Amityville Horror honestly has little to say about the topic. Yes, George’s own unresolved anxieties about his new family surface due to the haunted house, but the film doesn’t seem to have any real point to make about the topic, or question to ask concerning this issue. Is the picture a portrait of the stress of the modern family on one man? Or is it a narrative about the failing of the modern husband and father? The film never manages to settle this issue and results in a muddled mess.
It would have helped if any of the characters were interesting. Unfortunately, the Lutz parents are complete nonentities. James Brolin’s performance as George is as wooden as any other James Brolin performance, making George a completely uninteresting. Brolin is totally incapable of drawing any sympathy to the character, and only manages to come alive when he is in full on sadistic mode. Margot Kidder as Kathy, while at least brining some energy to the performance, is so underwritten that she has little to do other than look concerned and be the target of George’s abuse. We are offered no keys to her psychology, or understanding as to what drives her as a character at all.
The only saving grace in the cast is Rod Steiger, playing a Catholic priest who early on in the film has his own encounter with the demonic house which eventually spirals into a crisis of faith and battle of church politics. While the character is underwritten, Steiger manages to give an excellent performance that is more than the film deserves. The whole subplot, in truth, has little to do with the events of the Lutz family, and seems to go off in its own direction. What is fascinating about this subplot is that it is a flip on The Exorcist: the crisis of faith in this film is the result of the church‘s actions, and not the result of the supernatural force itself. An entire film following this priest and this story would have been far more interesting that the end result.
Honestly, I think that I have exhausted anything I could really say about the film. I’ll be back soon with a review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.