For a film with the word ‘Horror’ in the title, The Amityville Horror is not a very frightening film. Although the 1979 film is effective in building atmosphere, it is let down by the lack of frights.
George and Kathy Lutz and their three young children move into a house in Amityville, New York. The scene of a multiple murder, the couple begins to experience strange occurrences in their new home. After their family priest attempts a failed exorcism, things seem to get worse, especially for George…
Adapted from a book by Jay Anson, which is apparently based on true events, The Amityville Horror offers plenty of stock horror conventions. Influence from films such as The Haunting and The Exorcist are clear, in both theme and on-screen devices. Young Amy’s apparent connection with a spirit evokes William Friedkin’s 1973 film, while the moving chandelier can be compared to Robert Wise’s 1963 haunted-house classic. Nevertheless, The Amityville Horror perhaps has also influenced later films in the genre itself. The scene where George attempts to break through the bathroom door with an axe instantly recalls 1980’s The Shining, although Stephen King’s novel was published two years before in 1977.
The Amityville Horror is not usually remembered with such fondness as other horror pictures of the era. There appears to be two main reasons for this. Firstly, despite the supernatural context, there are very few actual scares in the film, and those that do appear are mild rather than shocking. Secondly, the pacing of Stuart Rosenberg’s film is awry. The film builds very slowly, and in comparison the ending feels rushed. The slow momentum of isolated incidents each day suggests a major pay-off, but sadly this never occurs.
Where the film excels is in generating a pervading atmosphere. George’s slow decline enhances the sense of unease, coupled with the gentle release of information about the house’s past. By far the most effective tool in building tension is Lalo Schifrin’s fantastic score. Given Amityville Horror‘s low budget, the filmmakers are wise to keep special effects to a minimum; the ones that are featured have not aged well.
James Brolin and Margot Kidder both do well as the unlucky couple, despite the material they have to work with. Rod Steiger brings passion and urgency as Father Delaney, while Helen Shaver is jarringly over the top as friend Carolyn. Natasha Ryan is well cast as the young Amy, providing both innocence and an air of menace in the role.
Although The Amityville Horror was a big box office success on its release, the film has not really stood the test of time. Sadly, there are plenty of other haunted-house movies that are far more affecting.
The Amityville Horror was screened at Union Chapel by the Jameson Cult Film Club, as part of their Chills in the Chapel Halloween event.