Haunted House stories have to be some of the oldest examples of scary tales of horror. What’s scarier than the fear that resides right in your own home? Where can you find safety if not your own house? Where do we find much of our own horror but our own homes late at night with the creepy shadows and wind-blown creaky noises?
The Amityville Horror (1979) does a nice job of ratcheting up the spooks for about the first half but falters off towards the end.
Based on the book of the same name, which is supposedly based on true events, the story focuses on the Lutz family who just moved into a lovely old home that takes on some devious supernatural qualities. You see as the story begins we see that the family living in the home before the Lutz family were all brutally murdered in their sleep by one of their own. Even knowing this, the Lutz family buy the house for a bargain and move in because “houses don’t have memories.”
Houses it seems, not only have memories but have rotten dispositions too.
Strange things start to happen pretty immediately when the Lutz’s move in. The boathouse lights turn on and doors open in the middle of the night, the toilets get clogged with blood-looking ooze, and the priest who comes to bless the house (Rod Steiger) gets trapped in a room with a million flies and is told by a creepy voice to get out.
The film moves slowly towards its frights. This isn’t a film with a real live knife-wielding boogeyman ready to jump out and scare the family (and audience) at a moment’s notice. No, this film builds its horror with slow tension. Creepy things happen amongst the more mundane events of the family’s life. Between the scares we see the family unpacking boxes, attending weddings, taking boat rides, and chopping wood. Lots and lots of wood chopping.
Although amongst all of this in-between action, we hardly get to know the family at all. It is late in the film that it is revealed what George Lutz (a very hairy James Brolin) does. There is lots of talk about him needing to go back to work and all of these odd shots of the business van that only reveal that George owns his own business but strangely cut off the occupation. Eventually, it is revealed that he is a surveyor. And that’s how the whole movie is. We see a lot of the family doing things, but get no connection as to who they are as people.
Ultimately the slow build of tension fizzles out before it can really burst. This is the problem with making a haunted house picture. If there isn’t a ghost or phantom coming out of the walls, there is only so much horror a house itself can bring. Droves of flies, windows opening on their own, and chairs moving by themselves can build some tension, but without something bigger causing it all that’s left is a disappointment. In the end, all the filmmakers can muster is lots of heavy thunder and rain followed by a stairwell collapsing into a basement of blood. It’s just a house after all and that can be run away from.
Apparently, they followed the book pretty closely, and I’m not one to often ask for the creature behind the horror, but here it seems like they should have given us a little more. I can’t imagine the devil appearing for a final attack would have made the picture a great one, but it could have at least given a more adventurous ending.