Timing is everything. The Amityville Horror was released in 1979, riding on the wave of some highly successful source material. The book had been a huge best seller, its claim to be ‘more hideously frightening than The Exorcist because it actually happened’ cleverly making the most of existing cinematic interest in possession and hauntings. Fabricated stories of strange on-set goings-on had been drip fed to the press for months ensuring that interest in the film was at fever pitch. Consequently it took enough at the box office to be the most successful independent film ever at that point, a position it remained in for nearly a decade. Almost forty years on, it’s hard to see why the film was such a hit.
George and Kathy Lutz bought a fantastic house cheaply because the previous family had all been murdered in it by the eldest son, shot in their beds because he said that demonic voices had told him to do it. After 28 days, the Lutz family fled claiming that they and their children had been tormented and terrified by supernatural forces. The film recounts the gradual build-up of these events - slamming doors, demonic voices, flies - until, literally, all hell breaks loose.
Starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder (fresh from her success as Lois Lane), The Amityville Horror concentrates on the characters rather than special effects and it’s their mental, emotional and, in George’s case, physical breakdown which drives the movie along, their relationship going from happy to almost fatal as history starts to repeat itself. And as the young couple, Brolin and Kidder carry the film, their conviction encouraging you to believe even if you don’t. Alongside, heavyweight actor Rod Steiger chews the scenery like it’s a Curly Wurly bar in his scenes as a priest trying to help the family but being thwarted by the supernatural and his own Church. He never shares an actual scene with Brolin and Kidder, which is a shame.
The problem is that it’s just not scary. The Amityville Horror came half a decade after The Exorcist, three years after The Omen and year after the (underrated) Damien: Omen 2 and, in just three years time, Poltergeist would come along and do this so much better. Sure, you don’t have to show things for them to frighten you - Rosemary’s Baby anyone? Even so, watching it now, you realise that, without the excellent Oscar-nominated score by Lalo Schifrin, The Amityville Horror wouldn’t be scary in the slightest.
The extras on this Blu-ray edition though are pretty good. There are some revealing and funny interviews with Brolin and the late Margot Kidder, some interesting shorts about the writer and Schifrin too, plus a commentary from a genuine parapsychologist who had investigated the mystery / hoax at the time.
But the most interesting thing on the disc is a feature-length documentary about Daniel Lutz, the now grown man who was just a child when all of this happened. Whatever happened (or didn’t) back in the 1970s, it has affected this man’s life forever. Seeing what this all did to him is more upsetting than anything in the film.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: STUART ROSENBERG / SCREENPLAY: SANDOR STERN / STARRING: JAMES BROLIN, MARGOT KIDDER, ROD STEIGER / RELEASE DATE: 15TH OCTOBER