The Amityville Horror — the original

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.)

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05089439510877671134 Rae

    Peter, http://www.amityvillehorrortruth.com/ has a very nice collection of research and sources for the original set of events. For some reason the site is no longer available (at least I get a no permissions when I try to enter it), but if you to Google you can find a cached version at http://64.233.161.104/search?q=cache:IKN41Ct59DUJ:www.amityvillehorrortruth.com/+%22the+amityville+horror%22++lutz&hl;=en

    While the images don’t load, the links are still good in the cached version.

    I read the original story long before the movie came out, in some popular magazine. I actually think it might have been Ladies Home Journal but that seems unlikely. But it was a mainstream pop magazine that intrigued me enough to buy the book, which intrigued me enough to watch the movie. Then a bunch of hoax crying came out and I lost interest. Haven’t really gone back and investigated. Rae

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Thanks, Rae — that site was actually working about a week ago, when I got my assignment to review the remake, but it wasn’t working last night, so hopefully that’s just a temporary thing. FWIW, last night I also checked and saw that quite a few of that site’s pages and images are accessible through web.archive.org as well.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    And no sooner do I watch this video than I discover that MGM has re-issued it with bonus features and as part of a boxed set with the two theatrical sequels (only one of which, I believe, was also allegedly based on true events), as well as two History Channel documentaries. And all for less than CDN$30, if one’s in the mood to make a purchase.

  • Thom

    What I found interesting is, in real life, Luts DID look similair to Defao. They both had shaggy dark hair and beards.

    If you go watch the second film-which is a prequel focusing on DeFao’s crime, you find that they pretty much threw all the facts out-including that cheesy bit where Kidder sees the pictuer of her husband in the paper. The kid in the second film looks NOTHING like Brolin, has less shaggy hair and no beard.

    The film throws in a subplot where DeFao seduces his older sister. She talks about it vaguely to the main priest of the film in confession (without admitting it was her brother) and states he does these things to hurt God. It’s really a bizarre film. And not a very good one either. Plus, the end brutally (and poorly) rips off the exorcist.

    The kid actually turns into a demon-his body changed American Werewolf style…but when he’s arrested, he looks nothing like the photo in the paper in the first film…he looks like a clean cut kid. Apparently the Charley Manson look DeFao actually had was too much for the filmmakers.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X