The Test of Time: The Amityville Horror (1979)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Because of its mortifying, albeit nebulous, real life inspiration, the story of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR has transcended mere moviegoing over the past four decades or so. Yes, the incessantly lackluster sequels and effete franchise offshoots have sullied its namesake a bit, but let’s not forget how revered the original 1979 film is, was, and most likely will forever be. Indeed, Stuart Rosenberg, the man who directed such classics as COOL HAND LUKE and THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, was a brilliant choice by producer Samuel Z. Arkoff and MGM. Rosenberg brought a serious, A-list sensibility to an otherwise B-horror story, and treated the material and cast of characters accordingly. The result? A surprise independent hit of a horror blockbuster based on a real life tale of terror.

So, how has the movie fared over the past 38 years? A fair query, particularly given the fact the newest chapter in the AMITYVILLE saga, THE AWAKENING, continues to limbo in release purgatory. As we continue to wait, we shall ruminate. Has the ’79 original appreciated or depreciated over time? Find out below when we once and for all square-off THE AMITYVILLE HORROR vs. The Test of Time!

THE STORY: Based on Jay Anson’s bestselling novel, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR posits the real life tale of George and Kathy Lutz, a young newlywed couple who knowingly moved into an affordable house where a mass murder took place just the year prior. A man shot his wife and four children without a known motive. The address was 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville New York (though the house was replicated and shot in Toms River, New Jersey). As soon as the couple assumed residence in the ill-fated abode, they began to experience a skein of supernatural events. Not even a Catholic priest could successfully exorcise the place into peaceable ablution. Among the inexplicable phenomena: a mysterious room full of buzzing flies materializes, black ooze emanating from the toilet, dermatological welts and lesions suddenly manifesting on the priest, hissing black cats and barking dogs, doors randomly locking, windows suddenly shutting, etc.

George (James Brolin) begins to grow withdrawn, saturnine, thermally frigid, while Kathy beings undergoing increasingly disturbing visions that seem to reenact the very murders that went down in her bedroom. Is this all in their paranoid heads or is there really something sinister going on inside the house? This is the essential crux of the story’s dramatic drive…in real life, the novel and the movie.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: It gives me no real pleasure to bluntly say that what worked so well in 1979 does not do THE AMITYVILLE HORROR many favors today in 2017. Honestly, very little of it has warded off the rust and moldering foundation laid 38 years ago. We’ll speak on that below, but first call to attention what does retain its potency now. The mood. The ambience. The atmosphere. While the veracity of the origin story remains controversial, there’s no denying how slow-bubbling simmer Rosenberg allows the story to build over the course of the picture.

The story action slowly creeps under your skin and injects an impending sense of the portentous deep down into your very fiber, and does so without you really noticing it. It’s no mean feat to mount a sense of escalating dread, a heightened fray of the foreboding, and for Rosenberg’s part, he did an admirable job on that front. His tactile, less-is-more approach actually behooves the movies staying power…had the FX been more plentiful and equally gauche as they are in limited fashion now, far more dated the flick would feel today. There’s wisdom in its simplicity.

Also, the acting in the film is far better than you’d expect from a cheap AIP horror flick. Brolin’s a bit wooden, sure, but Margot Kidder was nominated for a Saturn Award for her solid performance, and we all know how believable Oscar winner Rod Steiger always is. Round outs from vets like Murray Hamilton, Helen Shaver and Don Stroud lend a level of credence to sub-five-million dollar horror flick most of its ilk can’t afford. I’ve always dug Kidder’s loose, insouciant mien, and here it counters nicely to her later outburst of outright fright and terror. Her relaxed comportment soothes us as well, and vice versa, when her scarification grabs hold, we feel it all the more. And not for nothing, the exterior of the house still packs an ominous wallop as one of the more prominent inhuman characters.

Oh, and without a doubt, Lalo Schiffrin’s weepily saccharine score need be mentioned. Though long rumored to be a discarded score he wrote and composed for THE EXORCIST (officially debunked), the childlike innocence of Schiffrin’s notes in AMITYVILLE strikes more of tone of Chris Komeda’s in ROSEMARY’S BABY. At least the main theme does, and when mixed in with the shrill stings accompanied by certain jump scares, the opposing sounds create something eerily new altogether.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Quite a bit, actually. But if we had to pare it down to a few aspects, instantly coming to mind are the overlong duration, stodgy pacing and chintzy visual FX. While there can be a certain effectiveness to the slow-burn Rosenberg tempers, it still takes too long to get there. Too many lulls, lags and dry spots in the first and second acts amount to a needless 118 minute runtime. One of the things the 2005 remake rectified so well was cutting the action by 20 minutes or so to create a tighter, more focused experience. Watching the ’79 version now borders on the boring.

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword though. Consider the scene between Steiger and Hamilton in the latter’s seminary office. While it’s easily one of the best scenes in the film in terms of sheer performance, in terms of the story, it totally detracts from the momentous drive of the main arc and slows everything down. You could cut the scene and loose the great acting, or you could leave it in and risk overstaying your welcome. I see the dilemma, but the fact remains, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is too long with too many languorous spells of eventless action.

Perhaps the biggest disappoint nowadays though, when seeing the film in 2017, is just how awkwardly outmoded the VFX are. Granted, Rosenberg used them sparingly, wisely so, but still, what does remain hasn’t aged all that well at all. To be fair, most VFX from nearly 40 years ago don’t, but straight-up, bona fide horror classics like ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST and THE SHINING do. The red-faced image of George appearing on the brick wall in the basement is embarrassingly bad by today’s standards, so too are the cracking statures in the church, the clunky glowing red eyes in the window-frame, etc. The blood seeping through the walls and gory staircase still work pretty well, but that’s about it.

THE VERDICT: Truth be told, time hasn’t treated THE AMITYVILLE HORROR all that well. The main reason why it proved to be such a surprise box-office hit in 1979 was the mystery over whether or not the origin story was true or not. Brolin and Kidder were on record saying they never bought the Lutz family tale, and in the decades since, info has come out that would seem to support the entire AMITYVILLE HORROR was indeed a fabricated hoax. So at the time, the film got a pass for being a terrifying “true story” of sorts. Viewing it today with that knowledge kind of allays its scariness. More, the movie is too long, at times far too sluggish, and its VFX have grossly depreciated over the past four decades. That said, there still is an admirably mounted sense of brooding atmosphere and slow, skin-crawling creepiness under it all.



Source: AITH

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.