Ham Salad: "The Amityville Horror"
As of this writing, in the year of our lord 2018, there are twenty movies at least indirectly related to the Amityville franchise in existence, three released as recently as last year, with an additional six more announced as upcoming projects. Most of them have little to nothing to do with the infamous “staring eyes” house in Long Island (which itself was remodeled years ago so that it doesn’t look like that anymore), but “Amityville” might be second to “Jason Voorhees” as the most recognizable name in horror, with the extra added benefit that there’s no copyright attached to it. You could name your holiday home movies Christmas in Amityville, and you’d be legally in the clear. Hell, you might even get an exclusive release on Crackle.
The Amityville Horror, and the lore surrounding it, might be the biggest hoax ever pulled on a gullible public, years before the internet existed. Concocted by author Jay Anson and George Lutz, it started as a book that purported to tell the “true story” of Lutz and his wife purchasing an enormous house for a song, furniture included, largely because the previous residents were horrifically murdered in it. Less than a month after moving in, the Lutzes and their three small children fled with just the clothes on their back, not because they weren’t comfortable living in a house where six people had been to shot to death just a year earlier, but because the house was haunted. The Lutzes claimed every sort of malevolent manifestation from bad smells to green slime oozing down the walls to demon pigs to invisible marching bands playing at three in the morning, and Anson’s book about their experience became a smash hit. It didn’t matter that the book read far more like a novel, or that some of the Lutzes’ wilder claims, such as their house was built on land where both mentally ill Native Americans were sent to die and where a Satanic worshiper named John Ketchum lived, were easily disproved. It was a scary, compelling story that the Lutzes told well, backed up by Ed and Lorraine Warren, two of the biggest charlatans of the 20th century, and people couldn’t get enough of it.
The only things that were true about the story, of course, were that a mass murder did take place in the house, and the Lutzes were able to buy it for dirt cheap. Bedeviled by debt rather than invisible marching bands, they fled the house because they couldn’t afford it, and cooked up the “chased out by ghosts” story on a lawyer’s advice to make money to pay their mounting bills. That came out relatively quickly, but it didn’t stop media interest in it, nor did it stop a movie based on the book, still clinging, along with George Lutz, to the claim that it was a true story. The film adaptation was released in 1979, becoming the second biggest box office hit of the year, and is, remarkably, still one of the most successful independent movies of all time.
Taken on its most basic merits, The Amityville Horror is an entertainingly hokey haunted house movie, made more so by the fact that it takes itself extremely seriously. Stephen King has praised the events in the movie as being a metaphor for the Lutzes’ fear of insolvency, which seems to be giving it a bit more credit than it deserves, but art is subjective, after all. In any case, it wouldn’t be remembered at all if it wasn’t for the contribution of not one, but two massive ham steaks in the cast.
Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, James Brolin, playing George Lutz, enters the movie already looking halfway around the bend, long before any supernatural forces show up. More hair and sweatshirt than man, from the beginning Brolin seems like all it would take is a loose shingle on his new house to cause him to snap, let alone being woken up at the same time every night by the sound of doors opening and closing. By halfway through the movie, he looks like he’s auditioning for The Charles Manson Story, and seems much more threatening to his family than errant lion statues and slamming windows.
However, James Brolin is amateur hour compared to Rod Steiger. Steiger plays Father Delaney, loosely based on a local priest in Amityville who paid a visit to the Lutzes to bless their house, with nightmare inducing results. While in the home, the priest allegedly heard a spectral, demonic voice ordering him to leave. The priest inexplicably waited a week before attempting to tell the Lutzes what happened, and then fell ill, developing a high fever and painful sores on his hands, while also being tormented by dark forces in his own home. Hauntings don’t usually involve the spirits leaving their place of origin to cause trouble elsewhere (the whole point of a haunting is that they can’t leave), but never mind all that. These events are recreated in the film, with a performance by Rod Steiger that leaves you thinking that he might be possessed by a demon himself: the demon of ACTING.
Steiger, never acquainting himself with the concept of subtlety in the first place, enters the picture with all the gravitas of someone about to perform the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. There’s almost no dialogue during the famous scene where Father Delaney is trapped inside the Lutzes' house, just Steiger sweating and pantomiming someone developing indigestion as the room fills with flies. He makes up for it later, however, in a scene where he attempts to offer up a prayer of protection for the Lutzes in his church. As we learned from the Exorcist series and myriad other movies about demonic possession, no scene that involves a lot of cutaways to statues of saints or the Virgin Mary ever ends well, and this one is a doozy. While Delaney is praying, he notices one of the statues beginning to crumble, and he decides that the best thing to combat it with is immediately raising the volume of his voice.
Given how junior priest Father Bolen (Don Stroud) looks at Delaney as if thinking “the fuck is wrong with this guy?”, it can be assumed that the statue isn’t really about to come down on their heads. Never mind all that, though, Father Delaney is going to send those demons back to Hell by shouting them there. “God, I beg thee, give them strength! Oh lord! Oh Jesus!”, he bellows, ending on a howling crescendo that sounds like he’s turning into a werewolf, as the audience, peering into an Ark of Overacting, gets their faces melted off.
And yet, moments later, when Father Delaney realizes he’s suddenly gone blind, he’s just sort of reticent about it. Some days you forget to have that second cup of coffee, other days you’re struck blind, what can you do?
We don’t really see much of Father Delaney after that, and if you’re expecting some last minute Father Karras-like heroics from him, you’ll be disappointed. Indeed, the character in the book isn't really any help either, and ends up taking off for California. Little is known about Father Ralph Pecoraro, the real life priest (named Mancuso in the book), except that, like virtually everyone else connected to Amityville, he had a little trouble keeping his story straight, including such minor details as whether or not he had ever actually met the Lutzes before blessing their house. He gave one televised interview, on Leonard Nimoy's marvelous "Bigfoot is real" TV show In Search Of..., his face obscured to protect his identity. Perhaps Pecoraro wanted to maintain anonymity, or maybe he was embarrassed, or perhaps he knew that, after how Rod Steiger played him, he couldn't be anything but a boring disappointment.