Early on the morning of November 13, 1974, at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY, Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his family — both parents and four siblings — as they slept in their beds. He shot them all with a lever action rifle. A year later DeFeo went to trial for the crime, and his attorneys chose to use an insanity defense. It didn’t work, DeFeo was convicted, was sentenced to six life sentences, and finally died in prison this past March.
Some strange aspects of the murders entered the cultural zeitgeist of the era. For one, all the victims were found in their beds, and that’s also where they died. DeFeo walked through his house, shot six people, and none of them were awakened or alerted by the shots. Evidence suggests DeFeo drugged his family beforehand, but that didn’t stop people from wondering why his victims appeared so docile.
Also, DeFeo has changed his story about what happened that night multiple times. At first, he tried to get away with the murders by claiming he discovered the bodies, and that a mob hitman had carried out the crime. The mob would have been a natural place from which to spin a tail, as DeFeo’s great uncle was Peter DeFeo, a made man who became a caporegime in the Genovese crime family.
DeFeo has, at various times, said his sister and mother participated in the murders, and DeFeo decided to take all the blame. He has also said there was at least one other witness to the crime who could verify that the only person DeFeo killed was his oldest sister, and that by accident. There’s not much reason to believe any of this.
What did occur in that house was horrifying enough, and mysterious enough, that it set the stage for perhaps the greatest supernatural hoax in American history. Not because it fooled so many people, but because it has spawned multiple horror media franchises that show no sign of disappearing anytime soon.
A little over a year after the murders, George and Kathleen Lutz, and their three children, moved into the house. They claimed that paranormal activity in the house was so prevalent that they had to flee the home after only 28 days. While they were there, they invited multiple paranormal investigators to the home. It looks as if they moved to the home fully aware of the murders, and hoping to make a little cash on the side by claiming that it was haunted. They even managed to get paranormal hucksters Ed and Lorraine Warren involved. Eventually, they were able to find a partner in author Jay Anson, who wrote the book The Amityville Horror, embellishing the Lutz’s paranormal claims for mass consumption.
The first Amityville Horror film, from 1979, is a classic in the haunted house subgenre of horror. This, despite walking a fine line between being a very good movie, and a very cheesy movie. It contains some of the most iconic moments in horror film history, but then much of it has the quality of a Lifetime flick.
Written by Sandor Stern, adapting Jay Anson’s book, and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, The Amityville Horror follows the trials and tribulations of the ill-fated Lutz family. George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder), newlyweds looking to build a new life together, find the steal of the century in the DeFeo murder house in Amityville, Long Island. They, and Kathy’s three kids from a previous marriage, move into their dream home, happier about the money they saved buying a murder house than concerned that there might be something wrong with the house itself. Of course, there wouldn’t be a movie if everything was fine.
As is common in haunted house flicks, disturbances start small, and grow in intensity as the film goes on. That’s always been something of a gripe of mine in films with ghosts. Why do ghosts need to spin up their shenanigans? If they really want interlopers to leave the property, why not bring out the big guns on the first night? Sure, the house in this movie wasted no time making a priest’s life miserable (Rod Steiger, in the first iconic scene of the movie), but the house let the Lutz family live there for 28 days before making the walls bleed (the final iconic scene of the movie).
This is balanced by Rosenberg’s storytelling. The film’s ghost stuff mostly revolves around George. The house is messing with his mind, the implication being that it is trying to turn him into a familicidal maniac, just like Ronald DeFeo Jr. This film adds the twist that George is a dead ringer for Ronald, but I think that’s a bridge too far. It would be a coincidence of massive proportions that a doppelganger would move into the same house. And if this is the result of whatever supernatural force is occupying the house, are viewers supposed to believe it reached out into the world and made George Lutz’s real estate agent show him the house? The film didn’t need that further complication to the plot.
The first acts are a slow build, and this is also the best part of the film. We become familiar with the Lutzes, and also see that not all is right with George. As the film progresses, George becomes more unhinged, conveyed to the audience most effectively by an increasingly dire makeup scheme. By the final act of the movie, Brolin looks like he hasn’t slept or bathed for weeks.
There is a fair amount of filler involving aborted efforts by Steiger’s priest to help the family, but all this does is stretch the running time to 119 minutes. All the stuff with the Catholic Church could have been excised from the movie and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
Everything is moving along quite smoothly until the film unravels somewhat about half an hour before the end. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the cast turns the ham up to 11. The biggest offender is Steiger, but even supporting characters got in on the cheese. What had been a tension-filled watch becomes, in the final act, a competition to see who could overact the most.
So, Rosenberg and company couldn’t stick the landing, but that doesn’t ruin the overall experience of the film. The photography, from cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp, is gorgeous at times, despite it not looking like the best filmstock or lenses. The way the camera moves is what stuck with me. There were multiple shots throughout the film where characters would walk through the house and disappear through a doorway, and the camera would continue to pan before picking up the actor again. Viewers would be left with slow shots of the inanimate objects and bric-a-brac of the house. These shots force the viewer to keep an eye out for something amiss. When these shots are at their most effective, they feel like we’re looking at the Lutzes from the perspective of the house.
While not a great horror flick, this film is a classic in the genre for a reason. It’s a thoughtful and methodical film. It’s some of Brolin and Kidder’s best work, even though Kidder, especially, was guilty of ACTING at times. It has a lack of true scares, as if Rosenberg didn’t have the horror gene. When it hits, though, it hits. It’s required viewing for the student of horror. Just don’t believe that any of it, besides the DeFeo murders, actually happened.