Despite not watching the horror franchises of the eighties while growing up in the eighties, I was familiar enough with them to know most franchises—so long as they started with an A list cast—had a generally well-received first installment before going to heck. And I knew The Amityville Horror was an exception; no one thought the first one was any good. And I was assuming it’d be bad. But I didn’t realize how low into the great Long Island undiscovered oil reserve this Horror would go.
There is nothing redeeming about Amityville Horror. Certain aspects could be even worse, but nothing is approaching good. Stuart Rosenberg can’t direct a horror or suspense sequence, which is fine because screenwriter Sandor Stern couldn’t script one. Maybe cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp could shoot one, but only also maybe not because Koenekamp’s only decent photography is the exteriors (sans the silly thunderstorm shots) and none of the horror takes place outside. Even if Koenekamp could, Robert Brown wouldn’t know how to cut them. And then there’s Lalo Schifrin’s sadly silly score. It’s like the entire crew of the film is incapable of making this movie scary. Or interesting.
The actors don’t help things. They’re all in a race for worst performance. Rod Steiger wins if only because he’s energetic and terrible. Margot Kidder’s… better than “lead” James Brolin, but she shouldn’t be so much better. Brolin gets really bad. Like, in the big finale the dog seems embarrassed to be acting opposite him (in addition to being embarrassed with the whole production; the dog’s the hero, but it’s not worth it for the two hours). Sure, the script is terrible and Brolin’s character arc is incompetently executed, but it’s still mostly Brolin’s fault. Because if he’s actually trying instead of just phoning it, it’s worse. Steiger’s already won because he’s obviously trying and failing; Kidder’s resigned; Brolin’s… Brolin.
Supporting cast is all bad too. Worst is either Val Avery as a cigar-chomping stalker detective, Don Stroud as priest Steiger’s protege, or Natasha Ryan as the daughter. Stroud and Avery are bad in a way Amityville seems like a spoof of itself. Ryan’s just a terrible kid actor. Some of the problem is clearly Rosenberg either not being able to direct his cast or just not doing it. Incompetence or negligence seem to be the only two Amityville options, with the obvious caveat its running downstream from on high; i.e., no blaming Kidder for her negligence because what the hell else could you do.
Now, the story involves Native American burial grounds, exiled New England witches, tar pits, guys who kill their families, along with a lot of things to say about Catholicism.
Horror doesn’t have real subplots, but occasionally there are minor exposition dumps, and they’re often very weird. Kidder’s either a divorcée or widow with three kids. Brolin marries her, converting to Catholicism, which is a big enough deal his business partner, Michael Sacks, gives him crap about it. Maybe Sacks is just a piece of shit. Whatever. But Kidder starts the movie wearing around modified Catholic school girl outfits because part of being married to her is Brolin gets like impromptu nookie unless one of the kids needs something or there’s a ghost or whatever. Seems all good to start—including a really pointless, leaden sex scene—but Brolin’s soon very sick of playing papa bear to other cubs.
But it’s like it takes very long. Brolin’s sick of the kids before the end of the first act, so then it’s all about him chopping wood to show his displeasure with Kidder and the life she’s got him locked into thanks to her Catholic school girl outfits. Meanwhile there’s a whole subplot about the Church not supporting Steiger’s clinical psychology based determination it’s a Hell House because he’s got a secular master’s degree and what kind of loser believes in ghosts. Murray Hamilton’s the head Church official, hopefully getting a solid, easy paycheck. He’s really highly billed for three and a half minutes tops. But even if the Church is negligent in protecting Kidder and company, the house is able to mess with Steiger through the whole movie from afar, when Steiger’s in the church, so clearly the Church has no power?
Meanwhile, Ryan starts seeing an imaginary friend—actually a demonic little girl who appears in the form of a warthog—and messing around in the house, kind of old school gaslighting Brolin and her brothers by messing with objects, closing doors, sneaking up. She’s a little psychopath who locks her babysitter in the closet or whatever. The first act of Horror kind of shows the “rational” explanations for the horror events, but stops and goes all in on supernatural because Rosenberg isn’t incapable of doing things like implying. The whole film is seemingly allergic to subtext. Stern’s script rushes into the main story, filling in details as it goes, but never naturally, always in giant expository dumps the actors, director, and Stern’s script can’t successfully realize.
But with Ryan, it’s almost entertaining because the rational explanation for her hijinks are obvious. It’s not entertaining though, because Ryan’s terrible, the directing of those scenes is terrible, and so on and so on. Amityville never (from the AIP logo to be honest) suggests it might be good, but it also never even gets vaguely interesting. It’s always dull. Every shot, every scene, every minute… dull.
The Amityville Horror is The Amityville Horror.
That dog’s a good boy though; shame he didn’t get a credit.