The Amityville Horror

Vacant Property
★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
1979
Director: 
Stuart Rosenberg
Starring: 
James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger
The Setup: 
Haunted house steals petty cash and makes crank phone calls while driving family batty.
Discussion: 

I entered one of my strange fits of “movie possession” last weekend, what with the remake of this movie coming out, and was obsessed with watching the original, which I had never seen in its entirety. Now I have. And just as you’ve always heard, it’s lame.

Remember how this movie terrified you when you were 10? And remember how you’re not 10 anymore?

First, a few of the steaming elements in this potent brew:

> The movie begins with flashbacks of the previous occupants being shot in their beds. Then, a few minutes later, as James and Margot are looking through the rooms, we get the same quick flashbacks again, in case you’re just too stupid to realize that these are the very same rooms where the murders took place.

> Yikes! What about those hideously tacky mirrors in the master bedroom! Is THAT the horror the title is talking about?

> The film’s lamentable gesture toward “sensuality” is horribly wrong-footed. First we have Margot Kidder with a fucking DAISY in her hair [okay fine, it’s the 70s] practicing her BALLET moves in front of the aforementioned hideous bedroom mirrors in her panties and thigh-high white stockings. Then James Brolin, looking like the lost Brother Gibb, comes in and they make “sensuous” out-of-focus love as reflected in the hideous mirrors. It doesn’t look like it’s very fun, and the stupid daisy stays in Margot’s hair the whole time.

> This film features not one, but TWO clean vomitings! Where someone pukes behind a car door, and amazingly their face is lickably clean just after!

> You just don’t see too many performances in orthodontic headgear anymore.

> Huh, they sure do have a comprehensive concert lighting system deployed in that attic room! Hey, and did anyone else notice that the lights on in that attic room kind of look like eyes? Kind of like the house is, you know, WATCHING you? That’s one of the subtle and underplayed touches that set this film apart from the rest.

> This evil house steals petty cash!

> Murray Hamilton may have to worry about getting typecast as the patronizing guy who tells you to stop all that nonsense about sharks/ghosts so as not to disrupt the tourists/clergy. Or maybe that’s just in movies that take place in a town with “Amity” in the name.

> Rod Steiger sets the monologue intensity bar at the top, then sails over it again and again!

> The wicked house makes crank phone calls!

> There’s a weird thing I noticed where, in the scene where Brolin is going nuts and swings the axe at Kidder [on the floor], they are both shown in old-age makeup. It only lasts for a second, and when the attack is over, it’s gone. Surely just another masterstroke of the director. That fails.

The main problem with the movie is that its “and then, and then, and then” structure makes it feel like absolutely nothing is happening, even though it sometimes is. I think it was a mistake to structure the movie around the days in the house [Day 1, Day 2, etc.] because it adds to the feeling of tedium, it inspires feelings of “It’s only day 7, Jeez, how long is this shit going to last?,” and finally, it makes it seem like SO MUCH is happening in the house that these people are plumb nuts not to leave. It also results in a bad effect from the sudden jump, about two-thirds of the way through, to “the last night,” with a corresponding leap in the intensity of the ghostly goings-on. It leaves an impression that the days in between were just too boring, or they were too similar to the first days, or that the filmmakers recognize that the audience would just be getting bored. The remake has the sense to limit itself to the beginning, the middle, and the end.

One thing that I think is just flat-out shitty and careless filmmaking is that the panes of the upper “eye-like” windows are shown intact, many times, after those windows have CLEARLY been blown out.

You do know that this story was proven to be a hoax years ago, don’t you? You can do a quick search and find info on that, I don’t have the interest to look it up for you. But when you think of it like that, jeez folks, cut back on the sheer amount and variety of phenomena a little bit, this is getting ridiculous.

So, as for this story they invented, and how it was presented in the movie, I think a curious subtext emerges. The Brolin character, James Lutz, is presented as having converted from Judiasm to Catholicism to marry Margot, and the movie develops a lot of tension from his adjusting to his life with her and her kids. The house is on Long Island, traditionally a very WASP-y community. I’m not sure it’s intended, but the actions of the house can be interpreted as a revulsive reaction to a Jew, and worse than that, a Jew who forswore his religion, attempting to enter the community. I’m sure Brolin’s dunk into the blood at the end has something to do with this, but I’m so down on my religious texts I can’t spell it out.

The only other thing I should mention is that the director also did Cool Hand Luke.

Should you watch it: 

Not really, but you could do worse.

RELATED MOVIES:
THE HAUNTING [Original] is a model of a haunted house movie that works beautifully on many levels with barely a special effect. Watch the Jan DeBont remake only if you thought Van Helsing was really, really good.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR [remake] is essentially the same movie, with the same lamenesses, amped-up for 2005 with a J-horror sensibility tacked on.
AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION tells the supposed story of the first family that lived in the house, and is actually a pretty good movie! ...for its first half.