The blueprint for modern haunted house movies turns 40, but some of its themes feel just as fresh and contemporary today.
Just in time for the fortieth anniversary of The Amityville Horror, the twenty-third movie in the Amityville franchise was released earlier this year, generating a level of interest so low it couldn’t be scientifically charted. Considering that films with the “Amityville” name attached to them have been released at the rate of two to three per year since 2015, it’s highly probable another one will be out at the end of the year, with the same inevitability as death and taxes.
The Amityville franchise is unique in that, after the first three releases, any pretense of the films being related in any way other than sharing the word “Amityville” was abandoned. This is because Amityville is a real place, and thus cannot be claimed as an intellectual property. Literally anyone can make a film “about” Amityville, and as long as you don’t use the names of any of the real people involved in the original story you’re free of any potential lawsuits. A person could conceivably get away with releasing their holiday home movies under the name Christmas in Amityville if they felt so inclined.
You’d think that, given how often it’s used, attaching the name “Amityville” to a movie is a sure bet at the box office, but not a single one since 2005’s The Amityville Horror, a direct remake of the 1979 original, has made a dime. None of them have even seen theatrical release, save for 2017’s Amityville: the Awakening, which saw a brief run in Ukraine and the Philippines. It’s a valiant but futile attempt at capturing lightning in a bottle, and repeating the surprise success of the original, still among the most profitable independent films in Hollywood history.
The Amityville Horror cashed in on one of the biggest pre-internet hoaxes of all time, and what remains arguably the most famous modern ghost story. In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz, along with their three children, fled their Amityville, New York home after living there for just 28 days, allegedly driven out by malevolent spirits. The site of a mass murder a year earlier, the Lutzes purchased the enormous house for a song, but it wasn’t worth the swarms of flies, the toilets full of black goo, the green slime running down the walls, the mysterious 3 a.m. knocks at the front door, and their youngest child befriending a ghost pig. Basing it on 45 hours of tape recordings, author Jay Anson wrote and sold the Lutzes’ claims as a true story, and it became a bestseller.
The book had barely been released before it became clear that only two things in the story were true: a mass murder had taken place in the house, and the Lutzes had only lived there for less than a month before abruptly moving out and leaving all their possessions behind. Virtually everything else, even whether it had snowed on a specific night, was easily refuted, as was the book’s claim that the house had been built on grounds where a local Native American tribe abandoned its sick and mentally ill members. Perhaps most damning was the fact that not a single other person who lived in or near the house had ever experienced anything of a supernatural origin, though Ronald DeFeo, the perpetrator of the mass murder, would later conveniently get on board with the story, in a failed attempt to appeal his conviction. It was a cash grab concocted by the Lutzes after they realized they were in over their heads with a mortgage and needed a payoff.
By 1979, only George Lutz still insisted everything was true, but that didn’t stop producer Samuel Z. Arkoff from purchasing the film rights to the story and selling it on the premise that it was based on actual events. Thanks largely to the iconic house (the exterior of which was actually filmed in Toms River, New Jersey), it wasn’t only a box office smash, it was the second most successful movie of the year, ahead of Rocky II and Star Trek: the Motion Picture. Despite it being the blueprint upon which nearly every current haunted house movie is built, it’s often left out of serious horror genre conversations, and remembered mostly for the over the top performances of two of its stars.
George Lutz, a blue collar husband and stepfather, is driven mad by lack of sleep, money problems, and the strange happenings in his house, to the point where he has nightmares about murdering his family. As played by James Brolin, who looks like he arrived on set immediately after auditioning to play Charles Manson, George seems as though a loose shingle would be enough to send him over the edge. Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, driving him insane would be a very short trip. Pale, sweaty, and bug-eyed, Brolin teaches a one man masterclass in overdoing it.
You don’t have to like it, but it’s worth acknowledging that, without it, other, better movies in the genre might not exist.
However, Brolin is the definition of subtlety when compared to Rod Steiger as Father Delaney, a priest who finds himself tormented by demonic forces after visiting the Lutzes’ house. Steiger, never the most understated of actors to begin with, comes into The Amityville Horror with phasers set on “kill.” Even in the memorable “get out” scene, in which there’s almost no dialogue, Steiger mugs, swoons, and grimaces like something’s just cut a giant devil fart in his presence.
That’s merely a snack, though — the real meat and potatoes comes later, when an anguished Delaney prays for protection while hallucinating that a church ceiling is crumbling over his head. By the end of the scene, Steiger is literally screaming his dialogue, while co-star Don Stroud looks on in bafflement, evidently unprepared to be in the presence of capital-A Acting.
Here’s the thing: Brolin and Steiger’s histrionics aside, The Amityville Horror isn’t at all a bad movie. If nothing else, it deserves credit for introducing some of the most well-known (and by now thoroughly exhausted) haunted house tropes, including the family pet reacting to something that isn’t there, a score that manages to be both soothing and ominous at the same time, a cute little kid talking to a ghost like it’s no big deal, etc. Even Poltergeist, by all measures a superior film, lifts a fair amount from it. You don’t have to like it, but it’s worth acknowledging that, without it, other, better movies in the genre might not exist.
Unlike the remake, which amps everything up to 11 on the volume dial (including casting Ryan Reynolds as a version of George so hilariously ripped he looks like he moonlights as a Chippendales dancer), it’s the quiet moments that are the most effective. One standout scene is when George loses a substantial amount of money he’s set aside to help pay for his brother-in-law’s wedding. Well, “loses” isn’t exactly the right word, something in the house takes it from him, but whatever the case, George’s rising panic as he looks for the missing cash is both palpable, and the most relatable moment in the entire movie. Very few of us have ever lived in a house that had a gateway to Hell in the basement, but most of us have known the sickening fear of needing money in a hurry and not being able to find it.
Though it’s debatable whether it was intentional at the time, it’s been suggested by no less than Stephen King that, second to the creaking floors, bad smells, and cold spots in the house, the scariest thing the Lutzes encounter in The Amityville Horror is the constant reminder of how broke they are. Even at a drastically reduced cost, they can’t afford the mortgage they’ve just gotten. As soon as they move in, George falls mysteriously ill and is unable to work, meaning no further money is coming in.
They have nothing, and whether they remain in the house or leave, they’ll still have nothing. Insolvency is the only ghost they can’t shake. It’s a special kind of chill up your spine that will keep you up far more than any phantom knocking at your front door. Even when you think you’ve rid yourself of it for good, it’s always there, just behind your shoulder, waiting until you foolishly close your eyes, and go to sleep.