Let me begin this post by saying that James Brolin is a significantly lesser actor than his son. And also that, though they’re based off entirely different source material, the similarities between The Amityville Horror and The Shining end at plot points alone. One (I bet you can guess which) is far inferior to the other.
Robert Wise’s 1963 The Haunting is sort of an early gold standard for the haunted house/inhabitants driven mad film and the various iterations that have come since, with a few exceptions, fail to live up to it. Count The Amityville Horror as one of those failures.
George and Kathy Lutz (Brolin and Margot Kidder) move into a new home where a few years earlier an entire family was murdered. As various strange things happen – doors slamming, bees appearing, Catholics running – George Lutz begins to go nuts. Luckily Kathy isn’t as batty. The local priest, Father Delaney isn’t as zany…this could go on forever! Believe it or not, these rhymes are more fun than the film!
There are, as I see it, two major failures in The Amityville Horror. First, screenwriter Sandor Stern (and some credit should go to Jay Anson, author of the novel), rely far too heavily on a creeping dread that has little, if anything, to do with the set-up. In that set-up, we see the family’s slaughter via shotgun blasts. This is a very secular, reality-based type of horror (the fact that there is no motive is the only indication of the supernatural terror to come. Weak.). That which follows and haunts the Lutz’s is far different – it’s a “horror of the mind” and “of religion.” This concoction of domicile-induced madness and anti-Christianity frights, which on the surface level is meant to explain the origins of the original killer’s insanity, ultimately doesn’t explain enough what is meant to be happening to George. Does the house want everyone to leave (it yells for the priest to “get out.” Is that just because he’s a priest?)? Does it want the Lutz’s to stay and go insane (it tries to shut George in at the end)? Does it want to kill George (the last guy was simply arrested)? The idea seems to be: any type of evil, Satan-pleasing acts are this house’s MO. Whatever the consequences of said Satan-pleasing acts, so be it. The odd burial ground aspect that’s introduced too late in the narrative kind of twists this idea into a “treading on sacred ground” story, but by then it’s far too late to complicate the plot in any way that could conceivably be considered good.
The second problem is Stuart Rosenberg in the director’s chair. I recently wrote about Rosenberg’s Brubaker, which has a great first 30 minutes and then falls victim to its own preachiness. Rosenberg is, however, a good director by all accounts. His Cool Hand Luke and The Laughing Policeman are awesome. But Rosenberg seems obviously out of place at the helm of a horror picture. His suspense – when successful in the aforementioned films – is a suspense of morality and stubborn masculinity. There’s a bit of that in here with Brolin’s George, but the real draw of Amityville should be the straight up scares. And Rosenberg just can’t seem to control them well enough to bring the most scenes to a successful climax.
Consider the ending of the film (SPOILERS here):
The Lutz’s are out of the house and about to leave for good when they realize the dog is still insane. Not yet fully insane (or maybe because he is fully insane), George decides to go back in. At this point there is blood dripping from the walls and floors and all sorts of unearthly noises and shakes emanating from the structure.
George re-enters in a wide-shot that’s really great. I wish I could find a good still of it here, but hopefully this description will suffice: the door is behind him and it slams shut. Lightning flashes in both windows. He’s far in the background of the frame and small in comparison to the house that surrounds him. It’s a visual “oh crap” moment – he’s stuck because of the door, but he looks so small and helpless against what – we think – is about to happen.
But things unravel from there. George heads into the basement and almost immediately – and in annoying slow-motion – he falls through the stairs and into a pool of oil/blood that threatens to drown him. Luckily the family dog is there and the animal pulls George to safety. George picks up the dog, breaks a nearby window and runs out. Roll credits.
There are several things wrong with this ending, plotting completely aside. For one, it’s too fast. It literally happens too quickly. Rosenberg completely fails to milk the suspense at the moment when the most is at stake. We’ve already seen what the house can do to George (drive him nuts, remember?), so now that he’s come back to the house, shouldn’t you hold onto the idea, string things out, and imply that he’ll once again be affected?
Secondly, the way he shoots George falling through the stairs is all wrong. This is partially because of the point above, but also because the angle and laughable slow-motion eliminate any real dread. Even the sound design that accompanies the wood collapsing is underplayed. The angle is pretty straight on, in a medium wide-shot. Any number of things would have been better including cutting first to his point-of-view a few times to bring us closer to the scary basement before the climax hits, giving us a nice dramatic low angle to emphasize the fall, giving us a few extreme close-ups, predicting the collapse of the stairs before it happens, or, counter to all of this, shooting it even more suddenly, but at a moment when calm and safety is assured, to take us completely by surprise. None of the above. Rosenberg’s treatment of this sequence is bland, unassuming, and lacking any suspense. It kills the moment and makes the ending too easy so that, by the time George and dog are outside, we don’t really even care anymore because we’ve already seen an underwhelming high narrative point.
A worthy comparative film is Ti West’s 2009 success The House of the Devil. Using almost as few “legitimate scares,” West brewed up a taut, chilling atmosphere for the first hour of the film based almost solely on one actual shock moment, and otherwise a whole lot of well thought out sound design, eerie camera position and movement, and point-of-view.