Sunday, October 1, 2017

There's A Place On Ocean Avenue

Year: 1979
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Cast: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger 
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s October again, which means that Popcorn Culture’s stern turns once more toward a franchise that hasn’t yet been covered on the pages of this here blog. Those are getting harder and harder to come by, but this year I’ve made the phenomenally stupid decision to tackle my horror movie Mount Everest: the outrageously expansive haunted house franchise The Amityville Horror.

It’s incredibly difficult, almost impossible in fact, to decipher what even counts as an “official” Amityville Horror sequel and what it merely a cheap rip-off with Amityville in the title. You could describe essentially every Friday the 13th sequel that very same way, but the difficulty stems from the fact that this franchise is based on a true [sic] story and you can’t copyright the name of an actual real-life town. Nevertheless, it’s time to brush back the cobwebs and take a long DeLorean ride back to that distant era of 1979. We’re knocking on the door of the very first entry in this sprawling cinematic pile: Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror.

Get out while you still can!

So. We’re in Amityville, as you’ve probably guessed. Enter the Lutz family: George (James Brolin), Kathy (Margot Kidder), and their three mostly interchangeable moppets. Their funds are tight, but they find a sweet deal on a lakeside house with creepy windows that resemble a pair of glaring eyes. As it turns out, the house was the site of a brutal murder a year prior, where a young man shot his entire family and then himself. The house also may or may not have been built on a Satanic ritual site or something. The film offers up many possible spooky explanations, but commits to none of them because at this point in time, they were at least pretending to be delivering the facts in this real life story.

Anyway, over the next month, paranormal happenings begin to slowly accumulate into what could only charitably be called a crescendo: spooky eyes appear outside the window, one of the girl children acquires a very opinionated imaginary friend named Jody, and Kathy’s visiting spiritual guardian Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) falls terribly ill after visiting the property. While Delany argues in favor of an exorcism with the obtuse Father Ryan (Murray Hamilton, who apparently made a career out of committing innocent suburbanites to bleak fates after playing the Mayor in Jaws), George Lutz’ sanity slowly begins to break apart, mirroring the murderous impulses of the previous owner.

And skipping all his barbershop appointments.

The Amityville Horror is a household name horror film, the second highest-grossing movie of the year (behind Kramer vs. Kramer, a number one smash that would never happen in today’s cinema climate). So it has to be great, right? Right?!

Truth be told, I have no idea why this film is so renowned, other than the fact that it’s based on an incredibly popular book/true-ish story. But against all odds, it was a zeitgeist tale that captured the public imagination the time. And yet the film is just unspeakably dull.

It has its share of spooky flourishes, but even at the time there wasn’t a single thing original about it, and the good bits are spaced punishingly far apart, considering how uninspired they tend to be (ironically, The Conjuring cribs a huge portion of its set design from this movie, and its sequel even steals an entire scare gag). The Haunting had already cemented in the tropes a good 16 years before, and two great movies reworking a lot of the same ideas would arrive a mere year later to prove just how incompetent Amityville was at its own game: The Shining and The Changeling.

All cliché and no plot makes George a dull boy.

It’s just so damn episodic. The film is shackled by its devotion to the “reality” of the case, refusing to allow itself to depict events in anything but the most rigorously detailed, diary-esque way. Day after day slides by with little consequence, setting up a boil so slow it’s almost imperceptible, barely reaching “lukewarm” before the credits roll.

All this is interspersed with Rod Steiger’s increasingly desperate attempts to save the family. These scenes are everything the Lutz material is not (the only quality they both share is that they’re terrible). Steiger’s scenes ditch the low-key atmosphere in favor of stilted melodrama and a bizarre crib from The Exorcist with no stakes whatsoever that appears to affect the plot not one whit. Steiger almost always ends up shouting at the top of his lungs, his eyes threatening to bulge out of their sockets. 

These scenes fit into the rest of the film like a square peg in a boring screenplay.

Unfortunately (because this must be the reason people still feel compelled to watch it), there is some good to be discovered here. Lalo Schifrin’s score has a haunting quality to its childlike chorus, the house exterior is an incredible feat of mundanely sinister design, and the opening murder scene is restrained and subtle in a way that actually heightens the tension.

And OK fine, there is one unequivocally terrific scene, in which a babysitter gets trapped in the little girl’s closet, forced to beat at the door until her knuckles are bloody. As for everything else, it’s just ephemeral. Nothing of major consequence happens for 70 minutes, nobody seems to be in any real danger even after that, and the story just peters out with an exhausted whimper.

The Amityville Horror is certainly not worthy of the haunted house pantheon it more or less presides over, though that box office pull proves that it was worthy of a dozen f**king sequels, at least in the eyes of Hollywood. I’m already fatigued by this marathon and it’s literally the first day… Wish me luck.

TL;DR: The Amityville Horror is a minted classic for no reason I can discern.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1002
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)
Amityville: The Awakening (Khalfoun, 2017)

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