Movies about haunted houses have had no problem finding audiences throughout the decades. But 1979’s “The Amityville Horror” is often referred to, even today, as a household name of horror—no pun intended. I sat down with the original movie hoping it would live up to all the hype and deliver some satisfying scares. Unfortunately, the only thing that’s haunted me since I finished watching it is a feeling of dismal confusion as I wonder why certain cliches simply won’t be laid to rest, and furthermore, why contemporary directors haven’t found the courage to exorcise them from their own films.
In November 1974, a 23 year old man named Ronald DeFeo murdered his six family members in cold blood. A year later, the Lutz family moved into the same Dutch Colonial house in Amityville, New York. They lasted 28 days before fleeing from what they described as paranormal phenomena. Soon afterwards, author Jay Anson transcribed their story into a bestselling novel in 1977, which in turn was quickly made into a high-grossing film directed by Stuart Rosenberg. While the movie was marketed as an accurate recreation of the Lutz’s experiences, it goes without saying that validity of any supernatural occurrences was met by many with skepticism. Critics generally based their doubts on rationality and scientific reasoning, but I ground my own apprehensions in the mere fact that the story itself is drenched in banality and predictability.
Groan-worthy cliches include religious symbolism and the ensuing questions of faith to the Catholic Church, a little girl with an imaginary friend who turns out to be a ghost, a young father under economic and marital pressures which take a toll on his mental well-being and pushes him into a cozier relationship with his favourite ax, a dog who seems to have a better sense of what’s up than his human counterparts, a dark and creepy cellar, supernatural phenomenon appearing at a set time after 3 AM, crucifixes being turned upside down by hostile spirits, and, amongst a few other things, distraught priests and disembodied voices.
My question here is that if the Lutz’s haunting was unique enough to inspire one of the most well-known horror franchises, why do these “true events” happen to mirror the motifs and themes popularized in previously successful horror novels such as “The Exorcist” (1971)? Isn’t it rather convenient that the details of this story happen to touch on issues that American audiences had already confirmed were likely to spark an interest and touch on a cultural nerve, such as the deterioration of the family unit and the decline of religious devotion? For all I know the Lutz family did suffer through a few terrifying nights of bad smells and noises and nightmares and upset religious iconography, but it’s rather difficult to sympathize with a family whose haunting was a la mode enough to put their kids through college.
I certainly had time to ponder these seemingly innocuous queries as the movie lagged on through its 118 minute time frame. Here and there a mildly unsettling situation took place between all the long-winded exposition. But having been fed a steady diet of horror films that have used and reused the exact same sorts of scares, these old-school attempts obviously failed to resonate. This isn’t entirely the film’s fault, as I’m most likely far too desensitized in my young age by CGI effects and secularism to watch this film the way audiences did during the late seventies. In the same way one can only truly understand the punchline of an inside joke, I probably just had to be there at the time in order to get why so many people considered this film worth watching.
For God’s Sake, Give up the Ghost
I recommend that you give the original “Amityville Horror” a watch only for a better perspective of how the supernatural thrillers of today came to be. It may be a legitimate fact that oftentimes audiences prefer things to be only slightly varied from their comfort zone, but when I remember that the “Amityville” series spawned nine more films, and I see the same cliches of possession, ghostly apparitions, use of symbolism and numerals in theaters nearly 35 years later, I can’t help but long for a casting out of these overworked cinematic demons once and for all.
My Rating: 4/10