Girl Meets Context: This October is going to be dedicated to classic haunted house movies. We start the month with one of the most infamous American hauntings, supposedly based on the “real” experiences of the Lutz family (who have since been discredited as charlatans). The Amityville Horror phenomenon started as a “true crime” book chronicling the story of the “real” haunting the Lutzes claimed to have experienced at 112 Ocean Avenue. The book was a bestseller and was inevitably adapted into a feature film by Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg, starring Margot Kidder and James Brolin as Kathy and George Lutz. The movie was critically derided but was a gigantic box office success in its day, spawning nine sequels (most of which are direct-to-DVD garbage) and a high profile 2005 remake by genre opportunists Platinum Dunes. Many of the original Amityville Horror‘s setpieces have become key tropes of the horror genre: the bleeding walls, the windows covered in flies, the deranged axe-wielding husband, the toilets bubbling over with black ooze, etc. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie and try to figure out why on Earth it was such a big commercial hit. If you haven’t seen The Amityville Horror, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: I did not know this, but this week saw the unveiling of the big “Amityville Trilogy” BluRay boxed set and it is getting written up everywhere. I was like, ‘weird.’ It is a total coincidence that I picked this movie right when it was being re-released.
Kristine: It IS weird. But then again, coming up on Halloweiner time…
Sean: Right, but of all the underwhelming ’70s horror movies to get a BluRay rollout this week….
Kristine: You, sir, have shown your hand!
Sean: Zut alors.
Kristine: I want to start with ratings, because this movie, more so than any other movie we have watched during this whole horror movie tour warrants the question: This is a horror classic because…why exactly? Plus 10,000 more question marks.
Kristine: I was actually very disappointed and a little pissed. This is another movie, like The Stepford Wives, that I have heard about all my life and I was stoked to see it. And it was… pretty dreadful, really. The last third was intolerable to me. The first two thirds were entertaining enough, plus I was being a good sport.
Sean: I know I just called it underwhelming, but I actually think it is pretty fun to watch. This is the kind of bad movie that is so unintentionally melodramatic that it cracks me up and delights me… The three big melodramatic setpieces that delighted me to no end were: 1) Father Delany’s big speech where he is literally rudely screaming at God and is like, “Hear the prayers that we offer for our relatives and friends. Give them health of mind and body that they may do your will with perfect love. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son. Oh Lord, I beg thee!” in a feminine, screeching voice, and then is – entirely appropriately – struck blind.
Kristine: Maybe if I went into this movie just looking for a fun melodramatic time, I would feel differently, but I truly thought there would be chills and haunts!
Sean: But who needs chills where we get… #2) The “I’m coming apart!” scene, starring Hammy James Brolin (a.k.a. Mr. Barbra Streisand)?
Kristine: Oh God! Sean, basically this movie is just James Brolin man-struating for a month.
Sean: Man-struating = amazing and is exactly what this movie is about. And Setpiece #3 is Carolyn’s campy diva realness, all culminating with her talking in a froggy “demon” voice and saying, “There is a well, it is the way to hell! Cover it!” which was completely fucking awesome.
Kristine: Is that the girlfriend of George’s ugly business partner?
Sean: Yes. Carolyn is the “sensitive.”
Kristine: What about when she starts sledgehammering the wall?
Sean: Hahaha! I live for her, for reals.
Kristine: I was shocked that this movie came out before The Shining, because Brolin’s performance was just a poor man’s Jack Nicholson.
Sean: I know, right!? This movie is The Shining Lite and Decaffeinated.
Kristine: It is very weird. I mean, axing down the door and everything? Of course, the major difference being that I live for Danny Torrance and I couldn’t care less about Margot Kidder‘s three dirty urchins.
Sean: Agreed. I hated them, actually.
Kristine: Speaking of Margot…
Sean: Oh my god. How infantilized is she in this movie??????!!!! The pig tails? The babygirl ballerina music box? Her Catholic schoolgirl uniform with the eggshell satin faux-necktie? The pink ribbons in her hair?
Kristine: Can we address the erotic ballet exercise scene? With one leg warmer, a limp hair ribbon, and an open blouse with boobies hanging out? I was dumbfounded.
Sean: I am dying laughing right now.
Kristine: It was the only moment in the whole movie that shocked me.
Sean: It was legitimately shocking.
Kristine: It was crazy!
Sean: Can you believe how underwritten her part was? She was the definition of “phoning it in.”
Kristine: I mean, I wasn’t expecting much. I will say this: She and Brolin were very attractive. That’s it! That’s all I have to say.
Sean: Right, agreed. To me, the only way this movie is interesting is to think about it as a cultural artifact of its time. It was a gigantic smash hit when it came out. America was like, riveted by it.
Kristine: You know, I am always aghast when you tell me things like this about terrible horror movies of days past, but I don’t know why. It’s not like horrible movies aren’t doing great box office right now. But I am always still surprised. Okay, what are your theories for why people loved it? It’s soooooooooo dumb, Sean!
Sean: It is so dumb. Well, you know it’s based on a “true story,” right? I definitely think that was part of the appeal/hysteria surrounding the movie.
Kristine: I do know that, but I don’t “know” it. Give me the background.
Sean: Basically the house really was the site of a terrible mass killing by the eldest son in the family (the DeFeos) and then the Lutz family really did movie in and then flee the house about a month later. But according to the debunkers, DeFeo, the murdering son, and the Lutz family conspired with DeFeo’s lawyer to create the lie/story about the haunting.
Kristine: This is reminding me of Kathy sitting upright in bed and bellowing out, “She was shot in the head!”
Kristine: To what end? I mean I could see to what end for the Lutz family, I guess, but why would DeFeo go along with it?
Sean: I think it was like, for the infamy? I don’t know all the dirty details. Some stories allege that the Lutzes made it up because they had bought a house they couldn’t afford and wanted out, but if they conspired with DeFeo they must have had other motives.
Kristine: It’s so weird thinking of people, like, hatching these conspiracies.
Sean: I know! But to me, I have to wonder what the appeal of the movie was to audiences in 1979. Like, what was it that “got them” where they live? I have two theories: 1) the class issues in the movie and 2) the domestic abuse stuff.
Kristine: I guess, but there are like 10,000 better examples. Remember how I hated on The Stepford Wives? Well, compared to this, The Stepford Wives is a nuanced look at gender/power issues in the 1970s. I mean, George Lutz’s failed mucho macho bullshit isn’t even critiqued by the movie. It’s more like, things are bad when Daddy isn’t in control and then Daddy takes control again and saves the day. Fuck that.
Sean: Oh, I agree, but that’s part of what made it so popular, don’t you think? The idea that like, in the end Daddy’s not a “bad man.” That he will stop himself before he goes too far in the end.
Kristine: I prefer to not think that, but you’re probably right.
Sean: I mean the big finale is such an anti-climax! George goes from axe-wielding psychopath to concerned, loving husband in a matter of seconds because…. Why? Because Kathy cried?
Kristine: Because the movie is totally dumb and makes no sense.
Sean: I mean, what about how the last ten minutes of the movie are dedicated to him going back for the dog? And the movie tries to play that like an incredibly high stakes situation. All the shots of the Lutz children trapped in the car, weeping, looking out into the dark, stormy night between lightening crashes? It was ridiculous!
Kristine: That was so…. I’m telling you, I was pulling my hair out for the last twenty minutes. It was just grueling.
Sean: So that overlong dog rescue is all about letting George be the hero, right? He is redeemed from being a child-abusing wife-slapper who chases his family with an axe because he went back for the dog?
Kristine: Oh, I know. “Those kids of yours need some discipline!” I just laughed thinking about Brolin spin-chucking his ax into a tree, then looking at his business partner all, “Whose your daddy?” and Brolin slamming down … what were they? Plans or drawings or whatever from the library? Slamming papers down on his Yamaha and zooming away. Ridic!
Sean: Hahaha! I was dying at the Yamaha. Is that supposed to mark him as some kind of blue collar man’s man?
Kristine: When I first saw the Yamaha, I was like, “Of course.”
Sean: I think the fact this is a blended family (like The Brady Bunch, but trashy and unhappy) is part of what grabbed America’s imagination.
Kristine: Right. And Kathy has less power both because of her lady-parts and because she comes from a lower socio-economic background than George, don’t you think? When she says that her whole family has “always been renters,” and have never owned a home? Also I felt like we were supposed to gather she had previously been in a abusive relationship… When Kathy is talking about how Father Delany had gotten her through “a lot” of bad times. So, she is used to this dynamic. Like when the little girl is chastising her dolls and telling them “Now don’t be a smartass!,” that’s their history of abuse poking its head out right there.
Sean: Exactly! Can we just pause briefly to appreciate the puking nun?
Kristine: At least you found something pleasurable or entertaining in this movie. I sure as hell didn’t.
Sean: I was pretty fascinated by the class issues in the movie, actually. The Lutzes couldn’t afford the house if the DeFeo murders hadn’t happened there, so the murders allow the Lutzes upward mobility. Only people “desperate” enough would buy the Amityville house, because that event has tainted the house for anyone who could actually afford it, who has the purchasing power to pick and choose. You need a family just on the periphery of the American Dream of middle-class utopia to buy such a house. So the class striving of the Lutzes opens them up to the evil…
Kristine: Yes, you’re right. And remember how the real estate agent totally threw shade when she realized that the kids were from a previous union? By the way, my boyfriend and I were talking about how you don’t see truly ugly people in movies anymore like you used to. My two examples from The Amityville Horror are the real estate agent and the detective. Speaking of, that detective role was so tacked on and made no sense.
Sean: The most hilarious instance of class rage in the movie is when the haunted house steals the $1500 that Kathy’s poor brother had saved up to pay the caterer at his trashy Long Island wedding,
Kristine: OMG, the caterer and the $1500!!!!! Tragic.
Sean: I mean, why would Hell want that $1500?
Kristine: Hell was pretty petty throughout, don’t you think? Trapping that bitchy babysitter in the closet? I wanted the babysitter to be locked in so that the brat could do some real evil shit while she was unsupervised, but nope, she just sat there on the bed.
Sean: The babysitter’s headgear?
Kristine: Ha ha! I have a question. What was more ridiculous – the flying upside-down crucifix in this movie, or the Ouija board bursting into flames in Paranormal Activity?
Sean: The Ouija board was way dumber. Especially because The Amityville Horror at least has centuries of repressed Catholicism to justify that obvious crucifix metaphor. What about when the cop on stakeout outside the house sees the silhouette of George holding the crucifix and is like, “Um… freaks!” It is hilarious. But I am claiming that The Amityville Horror’s thesis statement is found in the following line, spoken by Old Queen Father Delaney to Young Vietnam Vet Father Bolen, “Who do you think you are? Do you think your secular education gives you a right to question the church?” I want to add that the first time someone said Bolen’s name, I thought they said “Father Boner” and I spit out my drink. I am not lying.
Kristine: I agree. That’s the movie’s thesis. The secondary thesis is: You can tell that Satan is present when mucho macho Daddy can’t get it up in bed.
Sean: Kristine, when George’s penis won’t work he says, “Well, I guess people have had to deal with this ever since Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden. We’ll just have to learn to live with it.” Also, when Kathy pinches his ass, he is like “Don’t ever do that to a man with an axe in his hand!”
Kristine: I don’t understand the connection between the two, other than his man-period was extra cwampy that day.
Sean: PENISES. The axe is his peen.
Kristine: Oh. Yeah. Ugh.
Sean: See, this movie is interesting to me just because the “haunted house movie” is usually about women, because the house is often seen as this metaphor for the womb/motherhood (á la The Others, Poltergeist, The Entity, The Orphanage, The Innocents, House, The Haunting). But this movie is All About Daddy, and it made me realize that there’s a minor tradition of exploring ideas about fatherhood and masculinity through the haunted house picture (obvs The Shining, but also House, Session 9, Insidious, The Woman in Black, Stir of Echoes).
Kristine: True. Damn, Sean, you may have managed to eke something interesting out of this crappy movie.
Sean: The scene that really struck me as resonating with a 1970s male viewer happenend in the first ten minutes, when George is experiencing this anxiety about who he is, what his role is in the family. Is he George? Or Mr. Lutz? Or Daddy?
Kristine: Right. I know this point is “duh” but the obvious flipside to repressing women and keeping them weak is that there is this crazy pressure on men to provide, to protect, to solve all the problems. That’s probably best articulated by Jeff, the ugly business partner, who says to George, “I knew you were taking on too much. You marry a dame with three kids, you buy a big house, you’re in mortgages up to your ass, you change your religion, and you forget about business.” Clearly George was supposed to be Kathy’s knight-in-shining-armor, right? The story of a man who just recently married and all of a sudden has three brats and a slutty ballerina-doll wife to provide for, who then goes and takes on a house he can’t afford/can’t maintain, and thus he loses his shit… I think that could be an interesting story. But they decided to go with the gateway to Hell instead. Oh, well.
Sean: Right! I think that’s brilliant, and the way that all this pressure has corrupted George is magically solved through the haunting, right? Being a new stepfather to three young kids with a trophy wife and not enough capital to really make it all work could, at the end of the day, actually be more terrifying and soul-destroying than a well to Hell. It’s easier to fight the forces of Hell – at least they’re external. This is what makes that “going back for the dog” ending such a hollow lie, such a forced and fake bit of “redemption.” We’re supposed to suddenly see the abuser/mad patriarch as this sympathetic animal lover. But there are these moments where the repressed truth tries to break through, out into the open. It’s like when George says, “I would never hurt you” to Kathy a moment after he’s just tried to kill both herself and her children with an axe and THAT’S THE MOMENT the walls start to bleed, as if the house is calling him out on his lie.
Kristine: This was remade, right?
Sean: Yes, with Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George.
Kristine: Ha ha ha!
Sean: It’s atrocious, not least because it doesn’t even have these 1970s class/sexual politics to animate it. So, it just is a movie with literally no raison d’etre. Like most of the contemporary remakes, the filmmakers didn’t bother to update the concept so that it speaks to the current historical/social/cultural moment.
Kristine: Does The Amityville Horror and all of its incorporated urban mythology remain a thing because it’s a weird piece of Americana?
Sean: Yes, I think so. People still try to find the house. The owners had to remodel the exterior and change the address with the city to keep prurients away.
Kristine: That was one fun thing for me about watching this, is that it made me recognize cultural allusions to the house that I’d previously missed, like in the first season of American Horror Story.
Sean: Yes! That first season really steals the basic premise of this movie. But The Amityville Horror reminds me of The Sentinel because I feel like both movies were asking audiences in the 1970s, ‘What place does religion have in a modern America of liberated women, capitalism and divorce?’
Kristine: Right, and also the gateway to Hell thing. But at least The Sentinel’s hellmouth had some style.
Sean: It’s like George hanging the cross on the wall, the cross that has “no place” in this house. If the house is the embodiment of the capitalist dream, of class striving, then that’s the thing that’s godless right?
Kristine: Right. But I think you are giving the movie credit for having better ideas than it actually has.
Sean: But I’m trying to answer the question of why audiences flocked to the movie… I don’t think the movie intentionally tried to be anything but exploitative and awful.
Kristine: I agree with that last part.
Sean: The movie’s bad taste struck me right away because of how luridly the explicit scenes of the DeFeo murders are intercut with the Lutzes looking around the house. I thought those were really grotesque, reveling in the deaths of all the sleeping children.
Kristine: Oh, I know! It totally reminded me of those horrible “reenactments” on like, America’s Top Alley Gangbang or whatever. Just grossness masquerading as serious commentary. Disgusting.
Sean: Yes, pummeling us with the sound of the shotgun blasts. So lurid and repulsive. Total tv reenactment dramz, like something right out of a George Saunders story.
Kristine: Well, you haven’t shared your rating yet.
Sean: Oh… same as yours. But also, Worth watching for the campy dramz. And how about This film IS America.
Kristine: And I also want to talk about the utter weirdness of that BluRay set. Can you imagine being like, ‘Oh, I want to own the Amityville movies so I can watch them over and over. They’re so intelligent and interesting! I learn something new with every screening!’ But I don’t know. Are the sequels better?
Sean: Uh…. No, not “better.”
Sean: Parts 2 and 3 are fun insane batshit craziness.
Kristine: Does the premise stay the same?
Sean: Part 2 is a “prequel” dealing with the DeFeo family.
Sean: And it is all about the DeFeo kid and his teen sister having an incestuous affair and then… demons.
Kristine: Oh, Christ.
Sean: Part 3 is ridic and has a young Meg Ryan as a girl at a séance. It was “3D.”
Kristine: Hate her.
Sean: Well, there are two things about the “origin story” for the house within the movie that jumped out at me. First, how it is all traced back to a male witch who was run out of Salem? I liked how that connected with the movie’s real message, which is: ‘Men are monsters and are gonna slap you.’
Kristine: I missed that, but it fits our thesis. Except major take-backsies at the end.
Sean: Major take-backsies.
Kristine: This movie, at the end, is saying that “Daddies are the besties!” “POPPA POWER!!!!”
Sean: Ugh! Stop it, decade of the 1970s! But back to the house’s back story, then there’s the classic “Indian burial ground” shit.
Kristine: Oy vey. Over it.
Sean: Carolyn goes on about how the Shinnecock tribe used the land as… What, they’d abandon crazy people on the land?
Kristine: I don’t see how Carolyn knows that. It was hilarious how she got down in the basement and instantly became this gypsy-like seer.
Sean: Ha! Well, she is flipping through a demonism book at the bar and then she says, “Of course! It’s right here, it’s history! John Ketchum. They ran him out of Salem for being a witch and he built his house exactly where you’re living. You’re living on some sort of special ground: devil worship, death, sacrifice… George, there’s one simple rule: energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change forms.” I thought the idea that “It’s history!” was compelling, and maybe went a long way towards explaining why this would be such a real-life folk myth/urban legend. That there’s some collective guilt/trauma over how our country was founded, and our own national history… This also connects to the very beginning of the movie, when Kathy expresses some trepidation about the DeFeo murders and George says to her, “Houses don’t have memories.” This whole movie is about the failure of repression, about the return of the repressed memories. This movie is about our sick fascination with our collective dark past.
Kristine: I still am shaking my head over the “reveal” of the Hell room. Umm, it’s red? And George’s face is in it? That’s it?
Sean: I actually kind of got scared in that scene!
Kristine: SEAN. NOT SCARY.
Sean: When I was a little boy, guess what scene in this movie haunted me for weeks and I would think about when I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep?
Kristine: Let me think. Death by fruit fly? Kathy’s brother’s Ogilvy home perm?
Sean: Not real guesses.
Kristine: Death by fruit fly is a real guess. I honestly can’t think of anything scary, Sean!
Sean: It was the scene where the window crushes the little boy’s hand. I was obsessed with it.
Kristine: Yeah, it was good how they couldn’t free his hand for a looooooong time. I was scared they were going to yank it out and rip his fingers off.
Sean: Oh I know. Also, Jody’s red eyes outside the window scared me a lot.
Kristine: I thought the red eyes were dumb, but if I saw it when I was a kid, I’m certain it would have terrified me.
Sean: Just fyi, in the book Jody is a demonic pig creature.
Sean: One more thing and then let’s wrap it up. I wrote down this theory during the movie… I think ultimately the movie appealed to audiences because it confirmed that the new suburban America everyone wanted so much meant leaving things like religion behind and that caused a lot of anxiety that the movie exploits. Like because Kathy is a divorcee whose married a second husband… This is a blended family, a sign of social progress and changing times, no? And so, it’s got a lot of symbolic weight that when Father Delany arrives, there is no one there to greet him. “George? Kathy? Anyone home?” he calls out. And of course, the anxiety being, in this remodeled, reshaped social reality, we’re not there to greet the priest at the door, we’re off doing other things…. We’ve grabbed a couple of beers and gone outside to play…
Kristine: I like that a lot.
Sean: I mean, these are people who call up the priest to come bless their house. Who does that? Do people still do that?
Kristine: Umm… (whispers) White trash Catholics?
Sean: But do they really?
Sean: I cannot imagine it, literally.
Kristine: It’s very primal and ritualistic.
Sean: I also want to point out that the recent big hit movie The Conjuring is about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life hucksters/ghost hunters who were connected to the Amityville case. They’re fundamentalist Christians. I think The Conjuring would be an interesting movie to examine with this discussion in mind, because we might be able to “take the temperature” of the current culture by how that movie differs/is similar from this.
Kristine: After the experience of watching this movie, can I just say, ‘Let’s not and say we did’?
Sean: Kristine, do you think that on some Halloween past, Barbra and Mr. Streisand screened this movie for friends and they all laughed and teased Mr. S. while drinking champagne?
Kristine: Okay, no jokes. I have no idea what it would be like living with Barbara and I want to know.
Sean: Doesn’t she have some village in her basement? She said that on Oprah. She was like, “There’s candy stores, a town square, a movie theatre, a whole town!”
Kristine: She is supposed to have this insane sexual energy that makes her irresistible to all men, but then she has the reenactment of the fucking village in her house. Like, stocked with goods. It’s crazy and I want to understand. Do you think that she browbeats James and then he goes down to the village and gloomily chops wood?
Sean: I think the town square has a stockade in it and when he misbehaves he gets put, naked, into the stocks. No Country for Old Men was ruined for me because I kept thinking about Josh Brolin being Barbara’s stepson and I imagined her being like, “Good job, Joshie” about the movie.
Kristine: She totally calls him that! Ha ha ha!
Sean: Wait, she’s supposed to be irresistible to men? Is that a lie?
Kristine: Sean, are you kidding me? Turn in your gay card, ASAP! That is her whole thing! Hello? Look at her list of lovers! She is known for this! She is some kind of seductrix extraordinaire!
Sean: I have never seen a Barbra movie, never heard a Barbra song, and will never do either. I know nothing about her life except what she said on Oprah. Oh and that she charges like $1500 a ticket for her concerts these days, which is enough to pay off the caterer at a cheap Long Island wedding.
Kristine: Well. I don’t know what to say.
Sean: I guess that’s the end.
Kristine: Are you disappointed????? Is that what you say after sex?
Sean: I saw a commercial for Yentl on tv when I was like, 8? And I was like, ‘Mom, what is that? Is that a boy or a girl?’ And my mother was like, “Keep your trap shut!” and changed the channel.
Kristine: What? Why?
Sean: My mother also banned us from saying the word “pussywillow.”
Kristine: HA HA HA HA HA!!! OMG! Serial Mom!
Sean: True story.
Kristine: That is so neurotic, I can’t with that. How am I only now hearing this???
Sean: When my sister and I wanted to make her mad, we were like, “I think I’ll go pick some…. pussywillows.” We also told her the couch cushions smelled like dead crabs and she would get livid. We’d be like, ‘Mom have you smelled between the couch cushions’? And she’d go, “STOP IT!” and slap her thigh.
Kristine: Jesus. What started this?
Sean: They did! They really smelled!
Kristine: That is disgusting.
Sean: It was the well to Hell, right there between the couch cushions.
Kristine: Vom. And good night.
The Girl’s Rating: This is a horror classic because…why exactly?
The Freak’s Rating: This is a horror classic because…why exactly? AND Worth watching for the campy dramz AND This film IS America