In 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. killed his family in their home in Long Island, New York. A year later, George and Kathleen Lutz bought their house. Even at the reduced price—it was a murder house—they couldn’t afford it and quickly ran into financial issues. At some point, they met up with DeFeo’s lawyer who just got a book deal. The book needed to be juicy, and he needed something as a defense, since his client brutally murdered his parents and his four younger siblings—the youngest was nine years old. He offered the newlyweds a part of the book deal, money they really needed, and together they made up a story about the house being haunted. America was itching for good ghost stories. The Exorcist (1973) had been a massive hit, and a dramatic real-life tale could be worth gold. In the end, the lawyer and the Lutzes parted ways, there were lawsuits about who owned the story, and if it was true or not. The Warrens, from The Conjuring (2013), were even involved at some point.
Or, you know, the house was really haunted and everything the Lutzes told Jay Anson (the author of the book this movie is based on) was one 100% true, flies and all.
Anyways, the book was a hit and this film a giant one—it was the highest grossing independent film until 1990! It influenced pop-culture and it started a film series that makes you really question what constitutes a “film series.” According to IMDb it has eight sequels, Wikipedia says it has sixteen and TMDB tops it with twenty-two sequels. This discrepancy is because the famous word Amityville is not the house, but the neighborhood, and therefore can’t be copyrighted or trademarked. Anyone can make a ghost film titled Amityville Something and it depends on who you ask if it’s a sequel or not. You could also make a “Escape from Elm Street,” but unlike ghosts, Freddy is copyrighted.
The film itself is something I really enjoy. It stars the original Lois Lane, Margot Kidder, as Kathy Lutz and James Brolin (father of Josh, husband of Streisand) as George. Both actors are immensely likeable and charming, but they both make you feel like that behind a thin veil, something could go off. We don’t need to talk about the reality of that for Kidder, but she is great in this part. She goes from being sexy as heck at the start of it, then slowly her sanity unravels as the evil presence in the house takes hold of George. Brolin is an actor I love, and he shines here. He can go from someone you trust instantly just because of his smile, to a madman, and then back again to a friendly face in a minute.
Most people know the story of The Amityville Horror, if not from watching the film or reading the book, then from cultural osmosis, since it has been parodied and copied so often. A family moves into a new house. Evil lurks there. Rod Steiger tries to bless it but is covered by flies and told to “get out” by the demonic forces. The husband goes insane. Spooky shit happens repeatedly, and in the end, the family escapes, never to return.
It’s a great story that has inspired many a ghost haunting, and it’s also inspired by what came before it but mixes it up. In The Exorcist, the Catholic Church wasn’t against the exorcism taking place, they just thought Father Karras wasn’t experienced enough. Here, the mayor from Jaws makes a cameo as the mayor from Jaws as a senior member of the church who says nothing unusual is happening and the church isn’t going to intervene. It does have the older-young priests dynamic from The Exorcist, and even has a detective hanging around that doesn’t seem to be needed by the plot. Unlike one would think, though, George going mad on his family with an axe is not Amityville copying The Shining (1980). The Shining came out a year later, and Jack didn’t have an axe in the Stephen King novel (he had a croquet mallet).
The Amityville Horror is a well-made and entertaining 1970s ghost film that has some genuinely scary and immensely memorable moments, topped with great acting from its cast. It definitely is in my list of top ten haunted houses flicks, and I’ve seen a lot of haunted house flicks.