Here begins the 2017 Summer of Bl the 2017 Summer of Haunted New York Real Estate

The thing about The Amityville Horror, the 1979 blockbuster film and the bestselling 1977 book it was based upon alike, is that it's been solved, quite as thoroughly as any work of narrative fiction can be said to have been "solved". In 1981, Stephen King published a book of criticism and literary theory titled Danse Macabre, in which he discussed the nature of horror and suspense. Naturally taking a look at what was then such a recent cultural phenomenon, King noted that the secret of The Amityville Horror was not its Satanic haunting, its religious themes, or anything else that slotted it into the post-Exorcist Zeitgeist, but its economic overtones. In short, The Amityville Horror, in King's eyes, was about the visceral, existential terrors of home ownership in a broken economy, and the abject sense that any moment, your entirely life could be destroyed thanks to that most wicked of all demons, Debt. Once you encounter that reading, it's impossible to ever forget it, and it seems quite a frivolous task to try to add anything to it.

Certainly, King's reading was at the forefront of my mind from the moment I started watching The Amityville Horror, finally catching up with one of the most iconic (if by no means best-loved) of all American horror films. And I won't lie, I'm pretty sure it left me more kindly-disposed to the movie than I might have been otherwise, and certainly more kindly-disposed than the movie deserves. Honestly, The Amityville Horror isn't particularly good overall, though it has scattered moments all throughout that acquit themselves damn well as, if not top-shelf horror, then at least second-from-the-top.

The biggest problem with it is probably that it's part of the whole fever swamp that was the Amityville incident. The facts of the matter are these: in November 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo, Jr. murdered his parents and four siblings at the family home at 112 Ocean Ave. in Amityville, New York, a Long island suburb. In December 1975, the newly-married George and Kathy Lutz bought the house for much less than it was worth, and still a bit more than they could comfortably afford. 28 days later, the Lutzes, including Kathy's three children from a previous marriage, abandoned the house. The Lutzes claimed they'd been hounded out by paranormal activities, and were put in touch with author Jay Anson, who wrote the book based on tapes recorded for the purpose by the couple, totaling about 45 hours of testimony. The rest is all media circus, lawsuits, and one of the least-convincing successful hoaxes in the annals of Americana. And eventually, it was made in the very last film ever produced by American International Pictures, a former B-movie powerhouse that had overspent during the 1970s, after two decades as the nation's premier exploitation films joint.

The film refrains from openly declaring itself based on a true story, but a true story it nevertheless is, at least in fits and starts. There's an inherent tackiness to spinning such a wonderful web of bullshit out of a horrific mass murder, though credit where it's due, the first scene of the movie treats this with about as much restraint as it would have ever been possible to expect. The DeFeo murders are depicted with elliptical editing and innuendo, as we remain outside of the house and see the flashes of light as the gun goes off, alternating with the blasts of lightning from an intense storm. If you're going to use a true tragedy as the basis for a fairly nondescript haunted house movie, you've already said good-bye to such a thing as good taste, but this is the best case scenario for an AIP take on the material.

So naturally enough, it's all thrown in the shitter almost immediately. The second scene of the movie finds the Lutzes (played by James Brolin and Margot Kidder) touring the house with a transparently nervous real estate agent (Elsa Raven). As she cheerily walks the couple through the house, every new room is introduced with a jarring cutaway to the night of the murders, completely with blaring sound effects and all. It's tacky, and it's also shrill, terrible filmmaking, pounding the audience over the head with a hammer rather than nimbly sliding a stiletto in between our ribs.

That's basically what happens for the whole movie. Something is done well, then something is done very poorly, then something is done well again. In the aggregate, it works well enough: the arc of the movie is generally strong, letting the mood accumulate over the course of a rather too generous 117-minute running time. It's not exactly that it builds up from nothing at a steady clip, but rather that a fairly steady level of haunted terror just keeps piling up. In this, I think that it's a suitable attempt to dramatize the Lutz's professed story* in which a string of horrible incidents kept plaguing the family, finally resulting in the exhausted terror that finally sent them on their way.

In practical terms, this means two things for the movie, one good and one bad. The good, as I've basically mentioned, is that The Amityville Horror movies slow and steady towards its conclusion; and I concede that "good" is in the eye of the beholder. Reviews from 1979 on down to the present day have used variations on the word "boring" to describe the film's pacing, and it's hard to argue that's obviously not the case. But for myself, I do enjoy the steadiness and build. The bad thing, then, is that Sandor Stern's screenplay is heavily episodic, even modular: the only real sense we have that the story is advancing across the date-stamped 28 days of the Lutz's stay is Kathy's increasingly worn nerve and concern that her husband's crazy hair and red-rimmed eyes are a sign of something more profound than just a flu. Otherwise, it's just this thing, that thing, the other thing, the first thing, and so on, with director Stuart Rosenberg doing absolutely nothing to differentiate or guide us through the material.

Some of the episodes are superb: a babysitter (Amy Lutz) gets trapped in a closet and pounds so hard that her hands leave bloody marks); George's business partner's wife (Helen Shaver) has a basement freakout that feels like something that might have fit into an above-par Lucio Fulci knockoff (and Fulci's "houses as the gateway to Hell" films hadn't even started yet by this point); littlest Lutz Amy (Natasha Ryan) flatly stating of her not-quite-imaginary friend, "Jody doesn't like George" in a tone that is all the creepier for not being overtly threatening, except for the care with which cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp makes sure to keep Ryan's eyes as jet black pools.

And plenty of the film is just plain hokey bullshit. Chief among this is the campy treatment of the Catholic clergy, whether it's the puking motif - Kathy's nun aunt Helena (Irene Dailey) barfs with the nausea of Satan accompanied by the most unconvincing wretching noises I've ever heard in a movie - or the ridiculousness of Rod Steiger's entire performance as Father Delaney, Kathy's family priest (it's strongly implied that George is a non-believer), and the man who first realizes that demonic things are afoot. Steiger self-evidently didn't take the project seriously, and who can blame him? Instead, he took the project as an excuse to go all-in on melodramatic, stupid, hammy, line readings and poses. In what is, no contest, the film's most hilariously awful scene, Delaney angrily confronts his superiors, who patronisingly refuse to allow the possibility that the Lutz home is possessed, foremost among them a priest played by Murray Hamilton. It's a staggering scene: Hamilton's performance, probably the most convincing in the movie, is all preening condescension in a low-key, natural mode, while Steiger stands opposite him bellowing and emphasising words in just the darnedest way ever. It's a complete disaster of a moment, and giddy as anything.

Nothing else in The Amityville Horror goes that badly, though it has plenty of terrible grace notes. When we finally see Jody, as a neon purple pig crappily superimposed into an upper window, it's one of the most terror-deflating things you could imagine. And the central performances are greatly mismatched: Kidder is quite good, comfortable in her role and well able to thread small bursts of nerves into her performance without jumping the gun on turning into a freaked-out basket case, but Brolin is dead on arrival, a one-note performance, and I'm not even sure what that note is. Tired annoyance, maybe. The makeup department does more of Brolin's acting than Brolin himself, and with George as the de facto lead (though Kathy comes closer to the structural role of the protagonist), having such a damp squib moving us through the house's litany of horrors robs The Amityville Horror of a lot of its impact.

Good or ill, there's not much about this other than the tawdry "true story" angle that would make this particularly memorable or worthy of more attention than any other haunted house movie. The Shining was a mere year in the future; Amityville's low-key, generic grab bag of scares looks embarrassingly quaint in comparison. The key is, and I'm not saying anything that people don't already know, the house itself. It's almost comically perfect to set a ghost story there: seen from the side, the house (a more dramatically imposing design than the actual property) is dominated by its gambrel roof, and two quarter-circle windows that do, indeed, look exactly like glaring eyes, even without the benefit of hellish red light pouring out of them. It's a vision of New England architecture as a hulking monster, squatting on the landscape with a hungry, malicious expression; it is redolent of Lovecraft at his most high strung and neurotic. You want that damn house to be haunted, and the filmmakers oblige. The Amityville Horror is only indifferently scary, and its story would be thoroughly banal if it wasn't aggravatingly tasteless, but that fucking house really is enough, all by itself, to make the whole movie work as an expression of heavy atmospheric gloom. I don't know why this was the defining horror hit of the post-Star Wars era, and I wouldn't have asked for one sequel, let alone the dizzying array of cinematic Amityvillania that's come out in the four decades since the movie was new, but it makes an impact, there's no denying that.

Reviews in this series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)
The Amityville Haunting (Meed, 2011)
My Amityville Horror (Walter, 2012)
The Amityville Asylum (Jones, 2013)
The Amityville Playhouse (Walker, 2015)
Amityville: Vanishing Point (Greenberg, 2016)
The Amityville Terror (Angelo, 2016)
Amityville: No Escape (Couto, 2016)
Amityville Exorcism (Polonia, 2017)
Amityville: The Awakening (Khalfoun, 2017)

Not reviewed at this time
Amityville Death House (Polonia, 2015)
The Amityville Legacy (Ferguson and Johnson, 2016)
Amityville: Evil Never Dies (Ferguson, 2017)

*Since it's perhaps not obvious yet that I view George & Kathy Lutz, Jay Anson, and DeFeo's lawyer William Weber as repugnant fraudsters and con artists, this is as good a place as anywhere to clarify that point.