The 1970s were an influential time for horror films. Many of the subtypes of the genre either got their origin during the decade, or at least received one of their most influential entries. The allegedly-based-on-a-true-story haunted house genre is no exception; the town of Amityville, New York, has been dealing with a supernatural reputation for 35 years now, ever since its story was popularized by Stuart Rosenberg’s film.
The Amityville Horror is based on a novel, itself based on the claims of George and Kathy Lutz of what happened when they moved into a home that had been the scene of a mass murder the year before. Played by James Brolin and Margot Kidder in the movie, the Lutzes are a newlywed couple with three children from Kathy’s previous marriage. They are initially unconcerned about the house’s past; “Houses don’t have memories”, as George says. But they soon find that it’s not just a case of a simple little fixer-upper.
The first indication of trouble comes when their priest, played by Rod Steiger, comes to bless the house. The Lutzes are out boating at the time, and he’s home alone when he feels an overwhelmingly evil presence which drives him out of the house. His experiences are dismissed by the other priests as hysteria, and Steiger’s performance is handled in such a way as to make it somewhat believable that they would perceive it that way. The Lutzes themselves have a more gradual awakening to the horror of their situation. As is common in haunted house movies, both then and now, it starts with little things before gradually building up to a feeling of imminent danger.
The film plays a bit with the expectations of the setup. Initially it plays into the natural suggestion that the house is haunted because of the murders; later, it suggests that the murders happened because the house is haunted. There are a lot of tropes that one can see getting used liberally in subsequent films in the genre, from hidden rooms to old burial grounds, and even the resemblance of George to the murderer (which struck me as a bit hokey when watching it, but is apparently part of the “true” story as well.)
What helps the film along is that it doesn’t rely just on the supernatural alone to build the tension. George is clearly becoming unhinged as time goes on — Brolin goes from looking like a bearded Michael Landon to an undead Beegee — but there are suggestions that this could be entirely due to his own nature. He’s harsh towards his step-children even from the beginning, his business is faltering, he’s stressed over the necessary repairs to the house and other money issues that keep coming up… while the film’s tone suggests that it’s the influence of the house on him, it works largely because there is little direct indication of this. All the overt action is reserved for attacks on the clergy and malice around the children. It allows the film to have its cake and eat it too, in that it has occasional overt supernatural payoffs while still working towards a gradual build-up of suspense in the main threat to the family.
The movie does have occasional missteps though. The emphasis on the resemblance between George and the prior murderous resident, as noted before, struck me as hokey. Even if the resemblance is supposedly real, the film would work just as well without it, and would be better off without Margot Kidder’s scene of looking through microfiche newspaper copies and exclaiming “George!” aloud when she sees the killer. A little too much time is spent on the priest, and George’s friend’s psychic wife comes across as rather silly. (“I don’t want to go into that house… except I really gotta check out the basement where all the creepy vibes are coming from!”) And the direct mention of the final day being the last day — instead of saying “Day 25” or whatever, as previous scenes opened with — does slightly hamper the tension by removing the question of just when it’s all going to come to a head. But these are minor issues in a film that, on the whole, does a solid job of gradually ratcheting up the suspense without going over the top.