Home Ownership Is Hell, Over and Over Again in ‘The Amityville Horror Trilogy’

Address: Amityville, New York

Zoning: Single-Demon Residential

Possession: Day of Final Closing

Bedrooms: 6

Full Baths: 2

Blood Baths: 2

Fireplace: 1

Hellmouth: 1

Owning a house has always had a whiff of terror about it. Sometimes, only the conventions of horror can accurately portray the psychological experience of caring for a residence. Paranormal phenomena mimic in an exaggerated way the all-too-normal problems homeowners experience: bad plumbing, contaminated basements, malfunctioning windows, cold spots, hot spots, invasive plants, invasive neighbors, vermin.

As the ’70s drew to a close, one house became the nexus for all the fears and anxieties attendant on the cornerstone of the American Dream. If the Watergate Hotel came to signify loss of faith in government earlier in the decade, the haunted Dutch colonial in Amityville captured a similar trepidation about the viability of the family home—and, for that matter, the family.

A 34 year run of 13 films has made the sturdily graceful abode with the signature attic eye windows one of the most famous cinematic residences, after the Bates house in Psycho and Tara in Gone with the Wind. Scream Factory has now released the first three—The Amityville Horror (1979), Amityville II: The Possession (1982), and Amityville 3-D (1983)—in a boxed blu-ray set. Just in time for Halloween and the recovery of the housing market.

In the first film, based on the bestseller The Amityville Horror: A True Story (1977), by Jay Anson, George and Kathy Lutz move into a house in Amityville, Long Island, with her three children from a previous marriage, only to flee a month later when paranormal events drive them from the house. The priest invited to bless the home instead becomes victimized by it. The daughter describes an invisible friend who seems to be a malevolent spirit. George becomes morose and violent, influenced by the murders that took place in the house in the year preceding the Lutzes’ purchase. In the basement he discovers an old well from which the evil seems to be emanating. A little research links the disturbance to an Indian burial ground and a renegade witch from Massachusetts.

Amityville II: The Possession depicts the events leading up to the murders that haunt George in the first film, fictionalizing the crime that really did take place in the Amityville house before the real-life Lutzes moved in. In 1974, Ronald DeFeo, 23, shot to death his parents and four siblings there. In the prequel, the Montelli family undergo similar unexplained phenomena as the Lutzes, and the escalation culminates with the oldest son killing the rest of the family, after being possessed by a demon from the portal of evil in the basement.

The third film follows yet another family—a debunker of hauntings and his estranged wife and daughter—as they experience the now familiar round of paranormal goings-on in the house. The father enlists the help of a team of scientists to prove once and for all the origins of the supposedly supernatural phenomena. He gets his answer, and he and his wife barely escape as the house self-destructs around them.

George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin and Margot Kidder) seem a model couple. Upwardly mobile, moderately religious, the newlyweds are set on bettering themselves and their three children. The house is a financial stretch for them—they can only afford it because the murders have depressed the price—but George’s business seems to be thriving, and Kathy is eager to be the first in a family of ‘renters’ to own a home.

So when George starts to neglect his job, and the $1,500 earmarked to pay for Kathy’s younger brother’s wedding reception disappears, the developments pose just as great a threat to the family’s well-being as the goo-spewing plumbing or fly-covered attic window. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, his 1981 survey of horror films, ‘the picture’s subtext is one of economic unease’.

And class warfare. None of the films in the trilogy depicts the neighborhood or neighbors in any detail, but in the first film you almost feel that the demonic presence in the stately waterfront house, complete with boathouse, objects to the Lutzes status as arrivistes as much as to their crucifix-carrying, house-blessing ways. When George begins to feel the pull of the hellmouth, he takes to chopping wood incessantly, and the once well-groomed co-owner of a thriving surveying business thus devolves into an unkempt, axe-wielding primitive. After he strikes Kathy, the parodic portrait of the working-class lout is complete.

Anthony Montelli (Burt Young), patriarch of the prequel, takes the devolved George Lutz to a lumpen extreme. He beats his wife Dolores (Rutanya Alda) as well as his children, and you wonder how he has bankrolled the house, let alone the fine furnishings that make the Lutzes’ goods seem like flea-market finds.

With one foot in the prole-friendly ’70s and the other in the status-obsessed ’80s, Amityville II presents the American family as bipolar, even schizophrenic. Where Anthony is vulgar, Dolores is refined. He’s an abuser; she’s an enabler. Where he is a-religious, she is pious.

‘I’m coming apart!’ George bellows at one point in the first film. It’s true of the whole family in the second. When possessed Sonny (Jack Magner) seduces his younger sister Patricia (Diane Franklin), the franchise teeters the closest of any of the three films to substituting nihilism for family values. The malevolent force dwelling in the basement might still be classist, but you really can’t blame it for wanting to rid the world of this dysfunctional family.

Evidently desperate to add at least the illusion of depth to the franchise, the producers opted to shoot the third film in 3-D (reproduced on the blu-ray for players and TVs equipped for it, along with a standard version). Gone are all the class markers of the first two films. John Baxter (Tony Roberts), who works for Reveal magazine as an investigator of paranormal activity, his newly ex-wife Nancy (Tess Harper), and his partner in hoax-busting, Melanie (Candy Clark), are all securely affluent professionals.

Gone, too, is the Catholicism central to the first two films, which both borrow heavily from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and their imitators, and in which evil manifests according to church teachings. The appeal to science—John stubbornly refuses to believe that any of the strange happenings at the house are supernatural, despite Melanie’s attempts to convince him—looks back to older haunted house films like The Haunting (1963) and The Legend of Hell House (1973), and forward to today’s reality-TV paranormal programming like Ghost Adventures andGhost Hunters.

While the horror in the first two films drives their respective families apart, in Amityville 3-D, it brings husband and wife back together. When daughter Susan (Lori Loughlin) drowns just offshore, leading to the creepiest scene in the trilogy—a soaking wet and affectless Susan walks wordlessly past her mother and up the stairs—Nancy becomes convinced her daughter is still alive and won’t leave the house. It’s a moment right out of modernist drama (or at least Ordinary People), and for a little while John’s desperate rationalism and Nancy’s manic delusion recall the house from Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms and its troubled inhabitants.

The residence is destroyed at the end of the third film, but it—like the stubborn insistence that home ownership brings happiness—would return for sequels, remakes, and documentaries for the next three decades. For every house with a hellmouth, it seems, there’s an endless supply of desperate Americans eager to amortize their souls for a shot at the good life.

Extras include 2004 interviews with Brolin and Kidder and a new interview with Lalo Schifrin (who wrote the score for the first two films) on disc one; new interviews with Prine, Franklin, Alda, director Damiano Damiani, writer Tommy Lee Wallace, and Alexandra Holzer (daughter of Hans Holzer, paranormal investigator and author of Murder in Amityville, upon which Amityville II is based) on disc two; and a new interview with Clark on disc three.

RATING 8 / 10