The wife and I just finished watching the original 1979 version of The Amityville Horror, partly because I’m reviewing the remake in a couple of weeks.
I had heard that both films claim to be based on true events, but I had no idea the original film was so full of Catholic elements — crucifixes, priests, a nun, the blessing of one’s house, etc.; I’m suddenly more interested in the remake than I expected to be, even if only to see how badly they secularize it, or whatever. (I’m marginally interested in the first sequel to the original film, which also claims to be based on true events, but not in the others.) Alas, we never see actual parishioners attending church in this film — while the Lutzes are identified as a Catholic family, and the wife is seen praying, they are never identified as part of any sort of religious community.
I haven’t researched the allegedly true events behind these films yet — and I’d be very interested in any info anyone can send my way — but strictly in terms of horror films, I was constantly reminded of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which actually came out a year after this film but featured many of the same motifs: a child with an invisible friend, blood coming out of the architecture, a family moving into a building that has been built on an old burial ground, a father driven to murderous rage against his own kin — in both films, the father even chops through a bathroom door with an axe to get through to his family! If I had seen these films in chronological order, back when they were brand new, I might have dismissed Kubrick’s film as derivative, the same way it was very tempting to dismiss Full Metal Jacket (1987) as just one of the many Vietnam movies that came out after Platoon (1986). But a quarter-century later, the artistry of The Shining — a film I actually don’t care for much, as per my blurb here, but I can at least see that there’s a lot in there worth talking about — so towers over The Amityville Horror that I can’t say it matters much to me which came first.
I have to admit, I’m not sure what to make of Amityville‘s portrayal of priests and nuns as being especially vulnerable to the evil of the house. Does it feed into a stereotype that identifiably religious figures are weak? Does it feed into what Steve Lawhead identified as a stereotype to the effect that evil is more powerful, and good — if it succeeds — is only lucky? A part of me wants to see people full of faith striding into situations like this and fighting back — or at least to see something that counterbalances the moments of weakness. And yet, for better or worse, I like the fact that the religious figures are portrayed as spiritually sensitive in a way that some of the regular people are not.
The film also harks back to The Exorcist (1973) in the way it shows a priest who has been trained in psychotherapy coming into contact with a definite supernatural phenomenon — and in Amityville‘s case, the church hierarchy dismisses his claims. Alas, where The Exorcist was content to express the conflict between sterile modernity and potent pre-modernity suggestively, through sounds and images and character arcs, Amityville tends to spell things out — people actually use words like “modernist” and “rationalist” in conversation. But it is ironic, and doubly so, to see the Church hierarchy portrayed as skeptics who dismiss the priest’s claims about the supernatural because they think his “secular” education has made him arrogant enough to challenge them. In fact, of course, it is the priest who is taking the least secularized position of all, there.
So, more interesting than I expected. But also pretty hokey, especially when we learn that James Brolin’s face looks just like the face of the previous killer. Puh-leeze.
ADDENDUM: Two other points occur to me since posting this note.
One is that I like the way certain people, such as Brolin’s friend, assume that his conversion to Catholicism — along with his marrying a Catholic woman and assuming responsibility for her three children, etc. — is at fault for his apparently going insane. In fact, these things that his “rationalist” friend finds suspicious just may be the only things holding him back from going completely pyscho.
Two is the way the film hints at the fact that it came out at a time when divorce, remarriage and mixed families were still making their way into the mainstream; note how the real estate agent looks at the couple a little funny when she hears that they are newlyweds and then hears that they already have three children. I don’t think the film ever explains exactly why Margot Kidder has three children by a prior relationship — was she married? if so, is she now divorced? widowed? was her marriage annulled? — but watching this film, I was reminded of the fact that it came out the same year as Kramer Vs. Kramer. (And of course, spooky doings as a metaphor for the tensions within a broken home had been done a few years before, in The Exorcist — but in that film, there was no re-marriage, yet.)