Timed to coincide with the loud 2005 remake, MGM has brought out the first three films, plus a bonus disc, in an attractively priced "Amityville" boxed set. Previously available as a bare bones DVD, MGM's transfer of the first film is excellent, and alongside the original, punchy mono mix, there's a re-channeled Dolby 5.1 track, offering some redirected sound effects.
When Jay Anson's book was first published, it became a sensational best-seller among all age groups; even school kids were avidly reading chapters for the shock value: a room of flies, a ghostly pig's head, a son's murderous rampage, and the secrets lying entombed below the pretty Dutch Colonial foundations. The cinematic possibilities of the book were ultimately realized by veteran indie studio American International Pictures [AIP]; with a decades-long history of exploiting (and beating to death) the Edgar Allan Poe films, biker movies, "Beach Party" flicks, and anything teenagers devoured at any given moment, AIP suddenly found themselves in the big leagues when the horror film broke box office records, and became a cash bonanza (which no doubt offset the colossal failure of AIP's other 1979 biggie - the Kibble-speckled disaster epic, "Meteor").
Unlike "Meteor," the "Amityville" cast was comprised of a multi-generation talent pool: co-star Margot Kidder, fresh from the blockbuster, "Superman"; Stuart Rosenberg, long a workmanlike but A-level director, with a few "Twilight Zone" episodes under his belt from the 1960s; Oscar-winning actor Rod Steiger in his prime Unrestrained Acting Mode; and AIP veteran Don Stroud, playing a supportive priest as Steiger goes cuckoo. MGM's excellent making-of documentary assembles Kidder and co-star James Brolin to discuss - with great wit and charm - the importance of the picture in their respective careers. Both also give affectionate nods to the film's cast and upper-level crew, as "Amityville" was staffed by some stellar technicians, including ace cinematographer Fred Koenenkamp, and composer Lalo Schifrin.
Also in the doc is parapsychologist Dr. Hans Holzer, now one of the few surviving 'experts' to have investigated both the history of the house, and the bizarre events that forced the Lutz family to flee one night, and never return. The Lutz' story, which formed the basis of the Anson book, is further dissected by Holzer in an amusing but rambling feature-length commentary track. Holzer's views in the doc are concise recaps of the home's history, and while he further elaborates on related topics, Holzer repeats great chunks, and his best moments, unsurprising in a two-hour track, are at the very beginning. Listeners will find his plausible and engaging views contradicted by often wacky takes on religion, poltergeists, and the 'uncooperative' current homeowner (whom he names, for Pete's sake), but these collisions actually enhance Holzer's inimitable character, and the mystique of parapsychologists. (Note: his rivals and critics are interviewed in the documentaries contained in the bonus DVD, which are even more entertaining.)
Holzer's track does separate factual events from the Hollywoodized versions that have subsequently warped our knowledge of the Lutz' experience, plus the history of the actual land; and while Sandor Stern's screenplay ultimately pushes the story into a familiar denouement of bleeding walls and spook-house nonsense, "Amityville" should be noted as the closest antecedent to 1982's blockbuster, "Poltergeist." Stern fused elements from "The Omen" and "The Exorcist" wave, but his rewriting of the "Amityville" terrors clearly established a template for tales of urban invasions, and assaults on the suburban nuclear family.
Unlike "Amityville II: The Possession," and "Amityville 3-D," later sequels - mostly a collection of pitiful, ephemeral TV movies - transplanted the "Amityville" curse to more urban tracts, and where the original film brought on a new wave of suburban evil to theatres, the sequels became pale impressions of the more successful "Poltergeist" franchise.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan