ON BLU-RAY STEELBOOK NOW: from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Amityville, Long Island, New York, November 13th, 1974: a young man shoots his parents and four siblings in the middle of the night. One year later, recently married George and Kathy Lutze move into the same house with Kathy’s three children Amy, Matthew and Gregory. George appears not to be strong of faith, but Kathy is a Catholic in name at least. Her friend Father Delaney arrives to bless the home, but encounters a swarm of flies and he flees. George begins to be more sullen and angry, Matthew suffers a crushed hand when a window falls on it, Amy starts to have an imaginary friend Jody, and the family dog obsesses over a secret room in the basement….
Considering the popularity of the Conjuring films it’s obviously a good time for the film based on the most famous of the cases investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren to get a Blu-ray release here in the UK. I’d only actually seen the film that spawned sixteen follow-ups and a middling remake twice before I got to view Second Sight’s new disc, primarily because I didn’t think much of it aside from it setting up some ideas that would soon be re-used and built on by the likes of Poltergeist and The Shining. But then this supposed horror fan hasn’t seen any of the other films in the series besides the second one and the remake. In any case, genre fans seem to be quite divided as to the quality of The Amityville Horror so I was curious to see it again with a more critical eye presented in the best possible way for home viewing. It certainly turned out to be far more entertaining fare this time, with no shortage of incident and some fine performances and cinematography to appreciate, but there’s still no getting away from the fact that the film still has some major problems. For a start the script is a total mess, half-heartedly trying to go in several different directions but rarely becoming satisfactory and often consisting little more of random happenings which have little or no follow-through. Also, the film just isn’t scary enough. I’m one of those people who can sometimes get himself to “that place” if he wants to be frightened [though of course some films like The Innocents don’t require such effort], but The Amityville Horror only occasionally chilled – though I will say that two jump scares most certainly did the business so it most certainly wasn’t all bad in that respect!
The supposed “facts” that inspired the film have long been debated, but three are undisputed. Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr. definitely shot and killed his parents and all of his siblings in the middle of a cold November night, a couple named George and Kathy Lutze bought their house in December 1975 for a bargain price due to its notoriety, and the same couple called a priest called Father Ralph J. Pecoraro to do an exorcism. The first major write-up of their alleged supernatural encounters was in Good Housekeeping magazine, followed by Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror book which differed on some points. There were several investigations, leading to some photographs, though the Lutze’s eventually admitted that they invented some things, and none of the people who lived in the house since 1976 experienced anything odd. The movie was originally going to be a CBS TV production until Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Picture [AIP] bought the rights after reading Anson’s book in one sitting, though he rejected Anson’s screenplay and got a new one from Sandor Stern. James Brolin initially turned down the film because the script, wasn’t ready, but stayed up reading the book one night. He’d hung up a pair of his pants in the room earlier and during an especially tense passage, the pants fell to the floor, Brolin jumped from his chair in fright, and decided to do the film. The original idea was to film at the actual 112 Ocean Avenue address, but the Amityville authorities didn’t allow it, so the movie was shot in and around a house in Tom’s River, New Jersey. Perhaps partly because the studio concocted tales of scary events happening on set to create publicity, the film was AIP’s biggest hit.
The house with its evil pumpkin-like appearance, created by two quarter round windows on the third floor attic level and an outside fence which looks like teeth, immediately creates a great impression as we witness a non-graphic recreation of the shooting which sets everything up, though one odd thing is that the actual names are never referred to. One year later and George and Kathy are being shown about the house by an estate agent, and freeze frames and shots from the opening are pointlessly cut in to remind us of what once happened. Brolin and Margot Kidder are good together though, and was Kidder ever sexier than when she welcomes Brolin into their bedroom with her bed gown partly open? There’s an obvious subtext of George feeling inadequate in his new life in a new home with a new wife with three new kids who aren’t his, and I wish that this had been explored a bit further. Father Delaney turns up to bless the house, and it’s a wonder that the whole building doesn’t quickly disappear into Rod Steiger’s mouth what with his scenery chewing in this film, though he’s always fun to watch mind you. In one of several convenient contrivances in the script, the whole family is out playing by the lake so that Delaney can enter the house unseen and be attacked by lots of flies, something which leads to him having a near breakdown and worse, his part of the story becoming quite compelling but bringing the pace of the film down whenever we revisit him.
A rocking chair rocks by itself, Amy talks to a ghost which locks a babysitter in a closet [good scene this, well acted and intense], things disappear, gloopy black stuff emits from the toilet, red eyes suddenly loom outside the window [this bit actually works better than a similar moment in Suspiria] – there’s always stuff happening and some of it’s undeniably well done, yet one sometimes wonders at the point of much of it because what occurs often has virtually no bearing on the scene that follows. Secondary characters appear and disappear without having any impact on the plot and without really doing anything, notably a cop who is first seen at the beginning after the massacre in the house. He begins to keep an eye on the place and follow George around but that’s all he does, so why on earth was he put in the film in the first place? One can’t really say that the lack of explanation for many things that take place is understandable considering that this is a possible relating of true events as we know them, because so much has been changed from the book anyway, while the randomness of much of the proceedings seem less like an attempt to be all dream-like and surreal than simply sloppy writing, though it’s possible that someone like Lucio Fulci could have really made something of it. And the film didn’t do a good enough job of convincing me why the family continue to live in this house, even though I knew that they did.
The Amityville Horror is never terrible, but it just stays on one level and never feels like it’s going to reach a higher pitch, though one of the biggest problems it faces is that for three quarters of its length it has to present events for which there could just about be logical explanations [in fact a logical explanation is far preferable for one particular incident unless you’re happy to believe that this house is so powerful it can take control of a car which is streets away] in the process creating some intriguing ambiguity, then suddenly go more full-on supernatural towards the end as it shows us things like blood running down the walls which would have to be the work of supernatural forces, though I guess we should still admire the way no ghosts are actually fully shown except for one played by Brolin’s brother as the spirit of Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr. – a nice touch because George is supposed to look more and more like Ronald throughout the film -though really the shot wasn’t at all necessary. At least the subplot of George becoming increasingly affected by the house is well done. Brolin plays it at just the right level and, while some first time viewers may be disappointed that he only spends a minute or so of screen time actually running amuck, when he does explode it certainly has an effect. One of his moments seems to feature Kidder in what looks like old or at least middle aged makeup in one shot, a strange effect.
Rosenberg and his cinematographer Eric J. Koenekamp do a good job finding interesting angles for shots and creating an illusion of depth by clever placement of characters and/or objects. There’s a lot of nice framing and good use of jump cuts of faces during a couple of moments. The interiors of the Amityville house are generally dominated by white and/or very pale yellow and green, largely saving darkness for the night time, but there are also a number of odd tinted shots of the exterior of the house. The two certainly do their best to raise the quality of the movie and provide some style and visual interest, and another person who does this is composer Lalo Schifrin with his often frantic, string heavy [and very much Bernard Herrmann-influenced] score, doing his very best to make the proceedings exciting. As I come to the end of the main part of this review, I can’t quite make up my mind about The Amityville Horror. It has a lot of issues, from not seeming to be trying very hard to Stern just not having a proper angle on the story, and I don’t buy the argument that the film could never be that scary because you know that all the characters survive and nothing really bad happens to them. And yet I cannot help but say that I had quite a good time watching it this time around, which I suppose makes it slightly greater than the sum of its parts. It’s hard to actually dislike
Second Sight’s Blu-ray of The Amityville Horror presents the film in an excellent transfer. Sure, it’s not the brightest of movies, the pale colour schemes hardly jumping out of you, but it’s detailed and as sharp as you’d expect a 70’s film to look like. Second Sight have ported over most of the extras from the Region ‘A’ Scream Factory release and added a few of their own. The audio commentary is from the Region 1 DVD and it’s by parasychologist Dr. Hans Holzer, who also introduces the film if you so wish. It’s absolutely fascinating as he debunks the film and presents his own views of what happened as fact, but be prepared for some very “out there” opinions on ghosts and life after death, spoken with total conviction. Brolin Thunder features Brolin talking about his pre-Amityville career and then the main feature, includong some new info. I especially found it interesting how he didn’t believe the Lutzes and thought the kids were very well schooled in what they were told to say. Child’s Play has Meeno Peluce, Matthew in the film, recounting being in the film as a child. It seems like he had a ball and even did his own stunts during the shoot. The previous two interviews were on the Scream Factory but now we have two new ones. Amityville Scribe features screenwriter Sandor Stern. He only chats a bit about the film and says how it he was disappointed how it turned out. The Devil’s Music has composer Lalo Schifrin talk about his early career, score and the film in-between playing short versions of some of his classic themes on the piano which will delight film score fans.
And then we come to the 2012 documentary My Amityville Horror, also on the Scream Factory, which is for me the pick of the extras and is totally fascinating throughout its 85 minutes. It features Daniel Lutze, one of the children, telling his version of the story sometimes intercut with ‘experts’ discussing his validity and the whole case, plus a very poignant reunion with his mother whom he hasn’t seen in years. Daniel, who left home at 15, has clearly been battling demons his whole life whether you believe what he says or not, and still seems easily angered. He mentions how he was posessed and claims that George’s experimenting with things like telekinesis caused the paranonormal activity – in fact George doesn’t come off well at all and Daniel still clearly hates him. He speaks with conviction, and I often felt like believing him, though his threatening of the interviewer who asked him to take a lie detector test seems rather “off”. Still, it’s an utterly compulsive watch. Finally we finish with For God’s Sake, Get Out, a DVD interview with Brolin, who says some of the same things he does on the newer interview, and Kidder. They talk about different acting techniques and both criticise their performances a bit.
This is overall a terrific release, the film may be just average but the special features are a great and highly insightful mix.
*‘Brolin Thunder’ – A new interview with actor James Brolin
* ‘Child’s Play’ – A new interview with actor Meeno Peluce
* ‘Amityville Scribe’ – A new interview with screenwriter Sandor Stern
* ‘The Devil’s Music’ – A new interview with soundtrack composer Lalo Schifrin
* ‘My Amityville Horror’ – feature-length documentary with Daniel Lutz
* ‘For God’s Sake, Get Out’ – featuring James Brolin and Margot Kidder
* Intro by Dr. Hans Holzer, PhD. in parapsychology (author of ‘Murder in Amityville’)
* Audio commentary by Dr. Hans Holzer
* Original trailer, TV spot, radio spots
* Four reproduction lobby card postcards (SteelBook Exclusive)
* New optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing