Jay Anson's book "The Amityville Horror: A True Story" was first published in September 1977 and went on to become something of a pop culture phenomenon in the ensuing years. The bestseller went on to sell over 10 million copies and sparked a seemingly never-ending debate over the validity of the claims being made by George and Kathleen Lutz, who insisted they were terrorized by malicious supernatural forces after moving into a newly-purchased Dutch Colonial-style home in Amityville, Long Island, New York, where 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr. had murdered six family members 13 months prior. The Lutz's stay in the haunted home was a brief one; less than a month, but they ended up reaping great rewards for their supposed troubles. Not only did they profit from book and movies rights until their deaths (Kathleen in 2004; George in 2006), the couple also enjoyed worldwide celebrity and media exposure for decades (often backtracking or contradicting their original story along the way) and also attempted to sue whoever they could to further cash in. In 1979, they filed a 4.5 million dollar lawsuit against DeFeo defense lawyer William Weber (who went on record stating the whole story was a "hoax" that he and the Lutz's concocted together over a bottle of wine) and a host of others that was thrown out of court when the judge ruled that all available evidence proved the book to be mostly a work of fiction. Later on, George attempted to sue the makers of the 2005 remake for "defamation of character" and that was also tossed out of court. Interestingly, a number of other people who felt misrepresented in the book won out-of-court settlements against "Amityville" publisher Prentice-Hall, while Weber himself won an out-of-court settlement himself because he was able to prove that he helped to concoct the story but was never paid for doing so.
The new tenants.
The best-selling novel.
The film adaptation.
Research into other claims made by the book revealed that much of it was clearly falsified, including the home being built on an Indian burial ground, a snowfall that never occurred, a hospital visit that never happened, police involvement that also never happened, contradictory court testimony given by the priest supposedly involved with the Lutz's and numerous other things. And yet a huge number of people out there still believe this to be a true story. That makes me wonder what one could possibly gain by defending the Lutz's all these years later, especially in light of all of the available evidence that has accumulated over the years. My only guess is that some people out there simply want to believe it. There's a whole subculture that eats this stuff up. Just flipping through basic cable channels on any given day you're likely to stumble across something like "Ghost Hunters," "Paranormal Files," "Most Haunted" or the insultingly stupid "Ghost Adventures." There has to be a sizable and receptive audience of people out there who want to believe in this kind of stuff so strongly, evidence be damned, or else none of this would even exist. Ed and Lorraine Warren (whose various lies have also been well-documented over the years) made a name for themselves in the paranormal community with their "investigation" of the Amityville home and would later be turned into courageous, devoutly religious, ghost-fighting heroes with the recent blockbuster The Conjuring (2013); which also reaped the rewards of being "based on the true case files of the Warrens." Going by the logic of that tagline, I guess all if takes for something to be "true" is for someone to simply write it down.
Of course none of the above has any bearing on the film itself (a good or bad film can be made from pretty much any source material); it simply helps to explains the massive and enduring popularity of the movie and the "Amityville" brand name. Because of the book's notoriety, all of the press and the public's fascination with this "true story," the film ended up grossing over 86 million dollars in the U.S. alone (the equivalent of over 280 million now), making it the #2 box office draw of its year. Despite a mostly negative critical reception, it even managed to make more money than Apocalypse Now, ALIEN, Rocky II and Star Trek: The Motion Picture and did so on just a fraction of the budget. The film quickly became one of the most successful independent productions of all time and also was Sam Arkoff and American International Pictures' most profitable film ever. But just how well has this film held up over the years? Is it worthy of the attention it's garnered or it's reputation as a classic of the genre?
Things open on a dark and stormy night as we hear gunshots and see flashes of light through the home's famous eye-like upstairs windows as an entire family is killed. Police show up to remove the corpses and haul off the murderer ("DeFeo" is never once uttered nor is the murdered family ever given a name), the place is cleaned up and, a year later, it's already on the market at a discount price. Newlyweds and prospective buyers George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) show up, are given a tour and decide to purchase despite the fact they're fully aware of what went down there. After all, a bargain's a bargain, right? A month later, they're already moved in, along with Kathy's three kids; Amy (Natasha Ryan), Greg (K.C. Martel) and Matt (Meeno Peluce) from a previous marriage. While everyone's out on their boat enjoying the day, local priest Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) decides to just mosey in the front door, go upstairs and bless the house. Instead, he becomes trapped in an upstairs room after the door closes. The heat swells, the sweat drips, he's covered with flies and then warned to "Get out!" by a deep demonic voice. And that he does, but later becomes violently ill and bedridden after lesions appear on his hands.
The family themselves are soon up to their necks in strange supernatural occurrences, but for some reason suffer through 18 days of pure terror before the first thought of leaving enters their minds. The phone doesn't function properly when it needs to, windows open and shut by themselves (including on one of the little boys' hands), doors blow apart and a cold draft that defies the thermostat reading seems to be coming from somewhere downstairs, where pet pooch Harry obsessively claws at the walls until his paws are all bloody. Black, stinky gunk comes up through the toilets. A nun relative is made nauseous as soon as she enters the doors and is forced to run outside and puke. Little Amy suddenly has a new imaginary (or is she?) red-eyed pig buddy named Jody, who decides to terrify a babysitter by locking her in a closet. Kathy wakes up from a nightmare screaming "She was shot in the head!" and suffers from other bad dreams. And as far as George is concerned, well, he slowly starts showing signs of being possessed; loss of appetite, nausea, chills, looking like he hasn't slept in a month, becoming short-tempered with the kids, being unable to get it up for his wife and a sudden fascination with obsessive axe sharpening and firewood chopping.
Father Delaney and Father Bolen (Don Stroud) attempt to get to the home but their efforts are thwarted by both the spirits, who cause them to wreck their car on their way there, and the church hierarchy (led by Murray Hamilton and John Larch), who just don't want to be involved. A red-painted room hidden behind bricks in the basement is discovered by George's co-worker's (Michael Sacks) psychic girlfriend (Helen Shaver), which leads to the revelation there's some hidden well somewhere on premises that also happens to be a gateway to hell. Naturally, the fact the "survivors" lived to tell their tale pretty much renders the big finale utterly predictable, yet it also somehow manages to be both cloying and moronic at the same time.
"Mr. Steiger, I was under the impression this was a horror film, not a comedy."
"Oh, shut up, Stroud!"
There's really no better example of the difference between a "classic" film and a "famous" film than The Amityville Horror. It wasn't a hit because it's a good film, it was a hit because the book tapped into something the public was desperately wanting to see at the time: the supernatural pawned off as the honest-to-goodness truth. The movie itself is poorly-paced, dull, tediously overlong at nearly 2 hours and has terrible performances from Brolin, who plays his possessed hubby like some swaggering zombie Clint Eastwood before getting even worse when the script asks him to become hysterical ("Oh mother of God, I'm falling apart!"), and Steiger, who is hysterically hammy and over-the-top. The scene in a church where Steiger's character shrieks at the top of his lungs, turns beet red and suddenly goes blind while Stroud looks on with a curiously emotionless expression on his face must be seen to be believed. Worst of all, it's never scary or even faintly creepy. The director ineptly telegraphs the scares in advance and then fumbles nearly all of the horror moments contained herein. Dozens of shots of the exterior of the house (I stopped counting at 30), lit in a variety of "sinister" ways and wedged in at every possible opportunity, almost become a running joke after awhile. One of the only redeeming features of the film is the haunting score from Lalo Schifrin, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Too bad it wasn't put to use in a better film.
Because of this film's huge success, a very long series of sequels were made. Amityville II: The Possession (1982) and the 3D release Amityville 3 (1983) both played in theaters, while Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (1989) debuted on network television. Most of the other sequels and offshoots - of which there are many - have been R-rated, lower-budgeted direct-to-video films. There are also a slew of documentaries available, including The Real Amityville Horror (2005) and My Amityville Horror (2012), with Daniel Lutz stepping forward to tell of his experiences in the home. Likely because of the huge success of the aforementioned The Conjuring, there are now numerous other "Amityville" titles in various stages of production as we speak.