When I was a kid, 1979's 'The Amityville Horror' was my cinematic forbidden fruit. I was eight years-old at the time. My mother forbade me from seeing it. The kids in the schoolyard couldn't stop talking about it. And the relentless ad campaign promised nothing less than sheer, unadulterated terror. So over the next couple of decades or so, the film built up an almost unimaginable mystique in my mind. Not helping were friends' memories of watching the film as kids, and being absolutely scared out of their pajamas by it. Then, finally, after twenty-odd years of anxiety and anticipation, I finally sat down to experience 'The Amityville Horror.' "Whoa!" I thought, "this is gonna be a good one!"
Then I watched the movie.
'The Amityville Horror' is absolutely hilarious. A flick so phony, so obviously constructed out of horror movie cliches, so flatly shot and acted, that it plays like high camp. By now, we've all heard the real-life story of the Lutzes, a family who moved into the now-infamous Amityville house and, over a subsequent 28 days, would be so terrified by the spectral goings-on that they would flee for their lives, leaving everything they had owned and worked so hard for behind. 'The Amityville Horror' has since become an American cautionary tale for making bad realty decisions, a tale of a family who bought the ultimate dream home (complete with a "High Hopes" sign on the front lawn) only to be driven out by the devil himself. Too bad the movie is so utterly stupid it couldn't even scare away the family dog.
I don't claim to know the reality of what happened to the Lutzes. I've read enough of the debate on websites, and watched various TV documentaries, to know that the facts, as they were, are highly disputed. And that Jay Anson's original runaway best-seller took a great deal of liberties with the Lutzes own recollections, which the 1978 movie version (not to mention the endless sequels and the subsequent 2005 remake) stretched even more. At this point, anything bearing the words 'The Amityville Horror' on it probably bares little, if any, relation to what actually happened in that house for those legendary 28 days.
Truth or fiction, as far as the the movie version of 'The Amityville Horror' goes all one can judge is the finished product. And it feels so prefabricated and obvious it could be any old generic haunted house movie, only with a juicy tabloid-ready backstory to exploit. As the film begins, we meet George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin and Margot Kidder). They are your average lower-middle-class American couple, newlyweds hoping to start a new life after previous failed relationships, and with a mixed brood including three children. As directed by Stuart Rosenberg, 'The Amityville Horror' feels like a TV movie from frame one. It's certainly not subtle in spelling out the tensions in the family -- George is a hothead who the kids don't like, while Kathy seems to resent George's lack of financial security, which caused them to buy a house that they really couldn't afford. That the home also has a cursed past -- the brutal DeFeo family slayings occurred there just a year or two prior (the only fact-based element in the film that remains undisputed) -- merely adds a dark, menacing inevitably to the eventual familial breakdown that will come.
This material could have provided grist for a compelling family drama and a taut ghost story. 'The Amityville Horror,' however, is pure cheese. While Brolin and Kidder are fairly likable, they are also about the only halfway-believable element in the movie. Rosenberg piles on the haunted house cliches and 'Exorcist' riffs as thick as molasses. 'The Amityville Horror' is filled with classic camp moments. The puking nun ("Bleeechhhh!!!!"). Rod Steiger's insanely over-the-top church soliloquy. And the now-immortal, booming voice from hell, "For God's sake, get out!" Then the flick tops it off with a silly climax of Brolin, apparently possessed by the spirit of Ronald DeFeo, running around the house with an axe. 'The Amityville Horror' ends as a second-rate 'The Shining,' only without Jack Nicholson's classic performance and the meticulous craftsmanship of Stanley Kubrick.
'The Amityville Horror' is also wonderfully chintzy in doling out its scares and effects. The film's big shock moment -- one that, I'm exasperated to learn, scared the bejesuses out of millions of moviegoers back in 1979 -- literally is just a key grip standing outside of a window, flashing a couple of red laser lights. (Kidder's reaction shot here to "Jodie the Flying Demon Pig" is priceless.) We get no creature effects, no levitating Linda Blair, no gory latex illusions in 'The Amityville Horror.' Just bad dialogue, utterly bland cinematography, and insipid characters who are constantly staying in the house when they should be running right out the front door. At least in other haunted house movies like 'Poltergeist,' the screenwriters gave their protagonists a reason to stay (to save their little girl). No such luck in Amityville, which hardly engenders our sympathies. These aren't the Lutzes, they're the Ditzes.
I can't say that I wasn't entertained by 'The Amityville Horror.' It sure is funny, and though a little long at nearly two hours, never boring. The film also boasts a terrific, now-classic score by Lalo Schifrin that is the best thing in the movie. And if you're looking for a great drinking game, just take a swig every time Steiger screams out a line with drool spitting out of his mouth (you'll be drunk within about ten minutes). It's just hard to fathom anyone being scared by a movie as utterly preposterous and silly as this. That such exploitative hokum has attained any amount of credibility in pop culture -- for thirty years no less! -- is certainly the scariest thing about 'The Amityville Horror.'
'The Amityville Horror' makes its long-delayed Blu-ray debut with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1). The film looks pretty good for its age, but it's a bland-looking movie and hardly the best stuff to show off your home theater.
The source is in pretty good shape. There are no major blemishes, but there is some dirt and speckles. Grain is present if consistent. Black levels hold firm, though daylight exteriors can look flat and fuzzy. Sharpness is typical of a 1979 film, with little appreciable detail to the picture. There's also rarely depth, and contrast is about as dull as dishwater. The color palette is likewise muted if stable, with the few true vivid hues somewhat splotchy. The encode is at least clean, with no obvious artifacts. Certainly, 'The Amityville Horror' never looked great to begin with (at least judging by past video versions) so this Blu-ray is the best fans are gonna get. Just keep your expectations in check.
Fox/MGM provide a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) for 'The Amityville Horror.' It hardly matters -- this sounds like a stereo mix with a few wimpy discrete effects thrown in for good measure.
The film's dynamic range remains weak and tinny. The higher range in particular feels cheap (much of the dialogue has that dubbed sound, like a kung fun movie only in English) and low bass is anemic. The shrillness is matched only by the weak surround effects, which are very sporadic and obviously processed. ('The Amityville Horror' was originally presented theatrically in mono, an option which is provided on this Blu-ray as well.) Atmosphere is, predictably, minimal. At least the source is in good shape with no major defects, dropouts or the like. But this is about as generic a 1979 mix as you can get.
How cheap! Fox/MGM have included none -- not a one -- of the bonus features found on the previous DVD special edition. Which is a shame, since that version boasted a very nice retrospective documentary on the making of the film, as well as an informative TV special about the real-life Lutz tale.
I'm sorry, but I find 'The Amityville Horror' about as scary as an episode of "Extreme Makeover Home Edition." It's not a badly-acted flick (well, aside from Rod Steiger), but it's shot like a made-for-TV movie and there are few scares other than those of the camp variety. This Blu-ray is basic -- the video and audio are fine, but MGM hasn't bothered to provide a single supplement. Woefully overpriced at an MSRP of $39.98, even diehard fans of all things Amityville are likely to be disappointed with this Blu-ray.