The Bottom Line
A newly married couple and their three children move into a house haunted by the memories of a terrible massacre one year prior. When strange occurrences arise about the house, fear sets in: is the house truly evil? (Note: it may take a sequel or two to be sure.)
The Rest of the Story
Beltane's writeup above gives an excellent summary of the general events that set up Jay Anson's best-selling book The Amityville Horror and the subsequent 1979 horror picture starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as the terrified and haunted Lutzes.
The film itself was shot not on Long Island, the home of Amityville, but rather in Toms River, New Jersey. A house not unlike the actual Amityville home where Ron DeFeo murdered his parents and siblings was built for the movie, and shooting took four weeks.
The movie is a basic faithful adaptation of Anson's book, which itself is primarily a retelling of the Lutzes' own story about the house. Shortly after moving in, George Lutz (Brolin) begins a long decline in his health, exacerbated by his perceived "chill" throughout the house. The Lutz daughter, Amy, claims that spirits are hanging around her, and that they don't like the people there. Soon, all of the members of the house begin experiencing unexplained phenomena - blood in the tap water, doors unexpectedly closing, terrible smells - which eventually results in the abandonment of the house. (I don't know why, this sounds like your average dorm to me.)
What makes the movie so compelling (or, if you prefer, so eye-rolling) is that it is based on personal accounts by the actual family being portrayed, and several of the film's "scary" phenomena are confirmed by eyewitnesses and visitors to the home. Like its more successful relative The Blair Witch Project, The Amityville Horror contends to offer a realistic and accurate documentary-style film over the events that took place in the house. Although dramatic license certainly carries its weight in the film, it never seems particularly hamfisted or extravagant. In fact, the banality and atmosphere of the evil can be more unnerving than your average body count slasher pic.
The major drawback to the film is the acting. Kidder and Brolin are both TV-movie stars trying to play out their fear with bulging eyes and Gloria Swanson-worthy chest clenching. The kids are obviously reading from cue cards for many of their scenes, and even the decent Rod Steiger can't save the schlocky nature of the film, which sucks out a lot of the dread for the next hair-raising scene. After all, what do I care if Margot Kidder is a little panicked at some blood in the sink? The realism of the story is not matched by the actors on screen. Luckily, Lalo Schifrin's haunting score (replete with a children's chorus) keeps your blood at an acceptably chilled level throughout the film.
Still, the movie was scary enough (and successful enough) to warrant a passel of sequels, from Amityville II: The Possession, to a gratuitous 3-D version, Amityville III: The Demon. A 2005 remake is in the works, to be directed by none other than Pearl Harbor taskmaster Michael Bay. We'll see if it can improve on the marginally frightening original.
Rating: 6 out of 10. Watch it late at night with your friends, and then do the Bloody Mary trick. Spooktacular!
Jay Anson (book)
James Brolin .... George Lutz
Margot Kidder .... Kathy Lutz
Rod Steiger .... Father Delaney
Don Stroud .... Father Bolen
Murray Hamilton .... Father Ryan
John Larch .... Father Nuncio
Natasha Ryan .... Amy
K.C. Martel .... Greg
Meeno Peluce .... Matt