Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Sub-Prime Home Loan Horror

After picking up the newest edition of the original The Amityville Horror on BluRay, I decided to run a quick self-diagnostic to try and figure out why a certain group of people (yours truly included) seem devoted to this odd, often unpleasant film. Most of the Tom Clancy-sized video guides rate the film a poor 1½-2 stars, dismissing it as ugly, lacking in actual scares, and mocking the performances. And yet the film has a special something that keeps this viewer – and many others – coming back again and again.

Released in 1979 and directed by Stuart (Cool Hand Luke) Rosenberg, Amityville was a big money maker for American International Pictures, and turned author Jay Anson’s purportedly true account of a possible haunting in a sleepy Long Island, NY town into a national sensation. The facts: On the night of November 13th, 1974, in the town of Amityville, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo fatally shoots parents, Ron Sr., and Louise, and his four siblings, Dawn, Allison, Mark, and John in their home at 112 Ocean Ave. Immediately taken into custody by the police, Ron first claimed that the crime was a mob hit from which he narrowly escaped, but by the next day he had confessed to all six murders. The expected insanity plea, citing voices in his head that prodded him to murder his family, failed, and Ron DeFeo Jr. sits in prison today. 13 months later, George and Kathy Lutz and their children Danny, Christopher and Missy moved into the house for the bargain price of $80,000. 28 days later, the Lutz family left the house in the middle of the night, never to return. They would later claim that they had spent those weeks under siege by all manner of paranormal experiences, ranging from cold spots and foul odors, to levitation and green slime. They sold the rights to their story and provided dozens of hours of audio tapes to author Jay Anson, who crafted the novel, "The Amityville Horror". The rest, however, is conjecture. George Lutz’s story had changed over the subsequent years, citing Jay Anson’s artistic license as the origins of some the more fanciful episodes, and this, combined with the lack of any tangible evidence (and the fact that no family that has lived in the house since has reported any supernatural occurrences of any kind) has cast a shadow of doubt longer than the South Shore itself.

Overlong at 2 hours and peppered with the odd bit of flat-footed dramatics (Rod Steiger chews the scenery, sends it back to the chef, then eats it again) the picture wire-walks over self-parody; the first time we see Brolin carefully sharpening an axe with his Manson lamps set to high-beam, it’s legitimately frightening, but by the 5th time even the most forgiving genre audience will be rolling their collective eyes. And yet we still find ourselves riveted to the story, and re-visiting the film in light of the recent home-loan crisis that has seemingly paralyzed the world economy may show why. After a prolog showing the DeFeo murders (the family is often referenced throughout the story, but never named) followed by the ubiquitous “one year later…” title, we meet George and Kathy Lutz as they tour the house as prospective buyers. Even at the bottom-rung price of $80K, the mortgage will be more than a stretch, but the prospect of the American dream of home ownership overrides fears both supernatural and financial.

George is a brand new husband and father (all three children are Kathy’s from a previous marriage) and most of the nefarious goings on could be construed as George’s anxieties manifesting themselves in the real world. In fact, the first really supernatural events begin to happen just after Kathy announces that she’s the first in her family to actually own a home and her Aunt is coming by for a visit. George angrily protests that they aren’t ready to “pass inspection”, and sure enough once Kathy’s Aunt Helena arrives, she’s immediately assaulted by a wave of nausea and is forced to flee the house. Was it ghosts, or the unkind vibes of a frustrated husband? The strongest manifestation of George’s middle-aged woe occurs towards the end of the film, when he sees his young and attractive wife ravaged by age. Hell, he nearly takes her head off with the axe that he’s been incessantly sharpening for the entire film before he’s snapped out of his murderous haze. Earlier, George’s business partner, Jeff (Slaughterhouse 5’s Michael Sacks) expressed serious misgivings about how quickly George changed his entire life for “some broad” and implies that George only married a pretty face and didn’t consider the consequences. And what worse punishment could there be for a man who married for beauty than to see his young wife whither before his eyes?

Lots of credit has to go to Brolin for a balls-out performance. Needing to appear in a highly agitated state for most of the running time must have made for an exhausting shoot and Brolin acquits himself quite well, cutting a believable path from family man to near-murderer in 28 days. When the house begins to “possess” him, George feels a constant chill and is unable to sleep – always waking up at 3:15, the exact time of the previous murders. He ignores his business and splits his time between feeding the fire in the living room and the ongoing care and maintenance of various chopping tools. Brolin really looks like he’s living through Hell and director Rosenberg doesn’t flinch in his depiction of the Lutz family’s decent into it. Margot Kidder lends fine support as Kathy, a tough role that requires her to convincingly stay with a husband who is turning into a homicidal maniac before her eyes. It’s a shame that this would be one of only a handful of high-profile roles for the actress after her turn in Superman. And keep an eye out for Murray Hamilton (telling Steiger essentially the same thing he told Roy Scheider in Jaws), Dirty Harry’s John Larch, and TV tough-guy Don Stroud as priests, a young Amy Wright (memorable as William Hurt’s hysterically eccentric sister in The Accidental Tourist) as a very unlucky babysitter, and The Believers’ Helen Shaver as the wife of Lutz’s business partner.

Unlike most horror films that simply suggest discomfort, this film possesses a palpable quality of impending dread. There’s no comedy relief to take comfort in (aside from one or two of Rod Steiger’s more animated outbursts) while we spend the better part of 2 hours watching the violent dissolution of what should have been the picture perfect American family. And while the black tar in the toilet and the blood-painted room in the basement are memorable moments, it’s the more everyday horror of misplacing a $1500 wad of cash intended for his brother-in-law’s wedding that audiences can readily identify with that keeps them coming back. Even autumn itself, typically photographed in loving, golden brown hues, appears onscreen like a harbinger of death.

MGM/UA home video, operating under the reigns of parent company Fox, have given the film a wonderful transfer – apparently the same one used in recent MonstersHD airings – full of rich detail and without the excessive digital noise reduction that has plagued many recent catalog titles. The extras are non-existent save for the theatrical trailer, which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the ridiculously high list price. A word in the corporate ear: With even the most generous online discounts, most people will be unable to get the $39.95 price tag below $30 – a nonsensical policy for any single disc release without extras. Very, very bad form.