Color, 1979, 118 mins. 45 secs.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, Helen Shaver, Meeno Peluce
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/RA 4K/HD), Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Second Sight (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC, UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A media sensation during the late '70s, the "haunted" house of Amityville became a familiar horror icon with its creepy eye-windows symbolizing the public's fascination throughout the decade with the unknown and the occult. News profiles and cash-ins ran all the way into the '80s, with a particularly vivid episode of the "reality" That's Incredible! show even devoted to the craze. The frenzy first began with Jay Anson's undeniably creepy book purportedly delivering the true story of George and Kathy Lutz, a financially strained newlywed couple forced to move from their house after living in it for only 28 days. Naturally a movie followed soon after, and while it wanders so far afield from the original narrative that the "true story" claim was dropped from the posters, it's an undeniably entertaining spook story in its own right. Numerous sequels followed, starting with the theatrical offerings Amityville II: The Possession (many fans' favorite of the series) and Amityville 3-D, before it went the direct-to-video route and continues to do so to this day.
On a dark and stormy night at 3:15 a.m., a young man named Ronald DeFeo Jr. takes a shotgun and kills his entire family as they sleep. After a long period on the market, the family home is finally snapped up for a song by the Lutzes, George (Brolin) and Kathy (Kidder), whose recent union brings along three of Kathy's children from a prior marriage. Kathy's priest, Father Delaney (Steiger), shows up to bless the house and is horrified to discover massive swarmings of flies and a demonic voice ordering him to "get out!" Strange events occur at 3:15 every night, with George becoming more withdrawn and subject to cold spells while Kathy occasionally pops up in bed, screams "She was shot in the head!," and falls back to sleep (as one does). More mishaps occur like a window falling on one child's hand, the babysitter getting locked in a closet, and a wad of money disappearing before a wedding reception. Meanwhile one of the kids develops a friendship with "Jodie," an invisible friend who might actually be real... and connected to the evil past of the house.
By any standards of mainstream filmmaking, The Amityville Horror should have been a catastrophe. The exploitative nature of the story coupled with a bizarre hambone performance from Steiger (whose role has little relationship to the book or connection to the other characters) would have been enough to sink even the strongest film. However, the film simply works on a primal level to such a degree that Stephen King even wrote one of his best segments in Danse Macabre about its potency as "financial horror." Kidder and Brolin make a believable and sympathetic couple (despite her amusing fondness for sexy calisthenics), and Lalo Schifrin provides a superb, utterly creepy score which went on to be nominated for an Oscar and, contrary to rumor, is not the same as his rejected score for The Exorcist. If the Steiger footage had been completely excised, this would be an extremely tense, stylish study in domestic supernatural terror; as it now stands you have to contend with some cinematic whiplash. In its best scenes though this still packs a punch and set off a long-running series that's still very much with us today. It doesn't hurt that director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) keeps a firm hand on the main narrative and knows how to deliver a real chill when required, especially anything involving Jodie.
Along with Love at First Bite, The Amityville Horror was the last real hit film released by American International Pictures before it folded in 1980 after being bought by Filmways. Early home video releases from Vestron on VHS and laserdisc were pretty dire, looking extremely soft, cropped, and desaturated; the first really watchable version came when it eventually moved over with other AIP titles to MGM (who mounted a very J-horror-influenced 2005 remake). For some reason the first U.S. DVD in 2000 was non-anamorphic while the U.K. one was (both featuring a mono track instead of the superior 4.0 one used in premiere engagements), but a special edition on both shores came along in 2005 featuring the 16:9 version with mono or 5.1 options along with the trailer and "For God's Sake, Get Out!" (20m41s) with Brolin and Kidder looking back at the making of the film and their opinions about its veracity.
A mediocre (and absurdly expensive) Blu-ray from MGM popped up in 2008 with a disappointing VC-1 encode that left a lot to be desired, but a U.K. Blu-ray from Second Sight blew it out of the water in 2017 featuring a nice PCM 2.0 stereo track, a 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix, and optional English SDH subtitles. Extras include a 1m18s intro and audio commentary by author and parapsychology professor Hans Holzer (who wrote his own books about the Amityville phenomenon), a "Brolin Thunder" (16m1s) interview with the star about his intentions to go into directing and the path that led to acting in this film, "Child's Play" (16m39s) with Peluce talking about how he got cast with his mom vetting his scripts and not finding the actual shooting experience scary at all, "Amityville Scribe" (16m27s) with screenwriter Sandor Stern covering his career and the evolution of the script from the book, "The Devil in the Music" (14m5s) with the mighty Schifrin at his piano explaining how his musical background informed the score, the complete My Amityville Horror 2012 documentary (85m11s) with Daniel Lutz sharing how the entire experience negatively impacted his life, the "For God's Sake, Get Out!" featurette, a trailer and TV spot, and a 3m40s reel of radio spots. Meanwhile back in the U.S., Scream Factory issued the first three Amityville films in a Blu-ray box with this one containing the "For God's Sake, Get Out!" featurette, the trailer, TV spots, radio spots, a still gallery, and the Holzer commentary, plus a different Schifrin interview from Red Shirt Pictures, "Haunted Melodies" (9m56s).
In 2022, Vinegar Syndrome gave the film its global 4K premiere with a combo featuring a UHD and Blu-ray. The UHD looks superb with HDR grading bringing out some gorgeous autumn colors, and the film grain in more textured and natural (with a thicker texture than before compared to what looked more scrubbed down in the older HD scan during daylight sky shots). While earlier versions opened with the MGM logo and the familiar AIP logo that appeared throughout the '70s, this one opens differently as "American International - A Filmways Company," which would appear to be the correct one since the company had already been bought by this point. The film features two DTS-HD MA audio options, essentially giving you the best possible options to date: the 2.0 stereo mix and, for the first time on video, the theatrical surround mix as a 5.1 track. It's great to have the latter as it features some aggressive and effective panning effects (even dialogue) without the fake rear channel splitting, with a lot of punch to the music, thunder, etc. The stereo mix is no slouch either, with plenty of separation throughout in a way that may please your ears even more. As usual, the UHD features just the film with the bitrate maxed up while the Blu-ray houses extras both old and new. The Holzer commentary and intro, "For God's Sake, Get Out!" featurette, "Brolin Thunder," "Child's Play," "Amityville Scribe," both Schifrin interviews, the trailer, TV spot, and radio spots, plus a different 5m32s gallery. New here is "My Amityville Diaries" (21m3s) featuring Stern, Peluce, and actors Don Stroud, Marc Vahanian and Amy Wright (the traumatized babysitter). It's a very worthwhile addition offering a chronological tour through the crafting of the film including a desire to make the film scarier than the initial treatment, making sure everyone understood why the family didn't just leave right away, Rosenberg's focused directorial style, the acting fun of falling down stairs, and the experience of seeing the final product with an audience who ate it up.
VINEGAR SYNDROME (Blu-ray)
SCREAM FACTORY (Blu-ray)
SECOND SIGHT (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on October 12, 2022.