The utilization of filmmaking as a commentary on social, political and global issues is a longstanding trait of the craft. The unique ability that film has to hold up a mirror while simultaneously conveying a story through a visual format is not only relevant upon the film’s initial release, but for the subsequent years after as well. Due to the medium’s permanence, prevalence and accessibility, films can often give us a glimpse into social climates of the past and allow us to recognize, learn and ponder over where we’ve been…and where we’re going.
Regardless of the intention of a particular film, there is often an innate time-capsule quality imbued upon it due to the climate in which it was created. For better or for worse, a lot of films are products of their time and tend to reflect the general societal atmosphere that surrounds them. The year 1979 was no different, and it was indeed a great year for movies. Notable films from 1979 include Alien, Apocalypse Now, The Warriors and Dawn of the Dead. All of these films are brilliant and their commentary on the social and political climate of the 1970’s oozes out of every frame. However, there are also films that certainly have a lot to offer despite a much more subtle (perhaps even unintentional) approach. The one on deck to discuss today is Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 haunted house classic, The Amityville Horror.
George Lutz and his wife Kathleen, move into their Long Island dream house with their children only for their lives to be turned into a hellish nightmare. The legacy of a murder committed in the house gradually affects the family and a priest is brought in to try and exorcise the demonic presence from their home.
Based on the ‘true’ story of George and Kathy Lutz, the film is based on their account of events documented in Jay Anson’s book, The Amityville Horror: A True Story. Published in 1977, it was clearly prime fodder for a film and quickly went into production. Similar to the book, the film takes place in 1975 and stars the then up-and-coming James Brolin as George and the fabulous Margot Kidder as Kathy. While the film is considered a horror classic, it is also widely regarded as a bit slow and uneventful. However, I’m here to argue that what the film lacks in horror shock and awe, it makes up for in interesting relationship dynamics, social commentary, and encapsulates a particular moment in time with a nuanced subtlety.
In 1979, there was a lot of social and political shifting happening. The Vietnam War had recently ended in 1975. Richard Nixon had resigned amidst the Watergate scandal in 1974, only to be pardoned by his never really elected successor Gerald Ford. The Cold War was still in the back of everyone’s minds and the 1960’s liberal ideals and social attitudes were beginning to blur at the edges. Inflation, unemployment and slow economic growth were very real concerns for a lot of American citizens and the appeal of the classic American Dream was beginning to gain in steam.
Right off the bat we can recognize and draw some similarities between the slow creeping conservatism seeping back into American culture with George and Kathy Lutz. This beautiful, newlywed couple has created a blended family; combining small business owner George with Kathy and her 3 small children. One could even argue that in 1979 the 2 boys and 1 girl equates to the classic nuclear family ideal of 2.5 children. (Just sayin’) And despite this ‘classic’ representation of a family, the fact that George is not the biological father of the children shows a more progressive, evolving acceptance of different family blueprints.
Next up is the house itself. Early in the film while contemplating the purchase of the home, George and Kathy discuss the price of the home. According to the US Census data, the average home price in 1975 was around $40,000. Now, it’s already pretty crazy to think about the fact that the Amityville home was being sold to the Lutz‘s for double this at $80,000. And as George observes, the house is clearly worth much more. This was a huge amount of money for a new family back then and an investment that neither one of them took lightly…or left lightly. Also mentioned is the fact that the Amityville house was the first home that anyone in Kathy‘s family had owned. Much like today, owning a home is no easy feat and a huge materialistic footprint in the classic idea of the American dream. The weight and excitement of this purchase is clearly conveyed through the characters, their words and actions. With or without the evil presence inhabiting the Amityville house, if you look at it as a bigger representation of outside financial, job and economic pressures it soon becomes a scenario highly relatable to many families in the late 1970’s.
Standing right next to the house in terms of importance throughout the film is the relationship dynamic between Kathy and George. While the lack of ‘house terror’ is probably the biggest contributor to the general criticisms affecting the movie, it does allow for more Kathy and George screen time. The film certainly does have its weaknesses, but the relationship dynamic between these two leading characters is a strong one with depth, conviction and intricacies. From the very beginning, it is clearly established how in love Kathy and George are. Between their eye contact, playful PDA and general interactions with each other, it is evident that this is a relationship literally in the honeymoon phase. Outside of the physical demonstration of attraction also comes a secondary level of establishing dialogue. For example, when speaking of the children, George tells the realtor, “We already have two boys and a girl.” WE. WE have. With this one word George conveys to the realtor (and more importantly) Kathy that he considers her children his own.
The fact that George is coming into an already established family unit is not lost on Kathy. While the circumstance of the previous relationship with her children’s father is never disclosed, it doesn’t really matter or change the fact that George is marrying not just Kathy, but her 3 children as well. After a romantic interlude, Kathy comments on this matter by telling George she wants him to have “no regrets” and that she “wants to be the best.” These comments, while understandable, come off as a bit dated to modern ears and fit right in with Kathy‘s traditional, Catholic values. With the basis of their relationship firmly established through dialogue and interactions, it makes the slow breakdown and deterioration of their perfect American dream all that more sad, complicated and scary.
As the house begins to affect the family, it is George that bears the brunt of it. He becomes irritable, distant and dismissive towards Kathy and her children. Along with his physical appearance (and performance), the niceties of his previous interactions with Kathy begin to fall by the wayside. A lack of eye contact and an increase in dismissive and aggressive behavior begin innocently enough, but soon become a problem. The interesting thing about George‘s descent into madness is his continual acknowledgment of this very fact. He is aware that something is happening to him, and he is also aware of what an asshole he’s being to his family. Unlike many on-screen ‘bad dads,’ George checks himself time and time again (often after a bad episode) reassuring his wife, his family and his friends that he loves them, cares about them and doesn’t want to hurt them. Even though we are meant to think that it is the evil presence plaguing men of the Amityville house for decades, perhaps George‘s behavior is also a representation and by-product of the new economic pressure he’s internalizing with a new family and home.
Countering George‘s behavior every step of the way is Kathy. In the beginning of George‘s affliction, Kathy‘s concern is there, but she often dismisses and makes light of George‘s attitude and lets his behavior slide. One of the few times Kathy really seems deeply affected by George‘s actions is when the boys are causing a scene resulting in George blurting out “These kids of yours!” Countering his previous language towards the children, the poor choice in wording revealed more to Kathy than days of distant and deflective behavior. However, once her daughter Amy begins to spend a little too much time with her invisible friend Jody, it is then that Kathy begins to look a bit deeper into the house itself. The fact that it is Kathy, the mother figure, consistently acknowledging and interacting with the children reinforces traditional (although dated) ideas of gender and parent roles. Another reinforcement of traditional and historical American values comes with Kathy‘s dependence on religion. While the cops are called in once, Kathy visits, calls, prays and pesters her local priests time and time again. Despite her best efforts and hopeful nature, she is left abandoned and without answers from those she depended on most for support.
The final depiction and manifestation of growing social conservatism I’m going to discuss comes conveniently at the end of the film. Interestingly, despite the house’s best efforts, the entire Lutz family makes it out alive. A line gets crossed with George and his violent urges and rather than indulge and go all Jack Torrance on his family, George and Kathy abandon ship. As soon as the car is off the property, young Amy realizes that the family dog is not with them. George, despite Kathy‘s resistance, lives up to his role as the man of the house and heads back in to save the pup. With this act, George goes from being the largest threat to the destruction of the family, to the one who keeps it together. Read into this what you will, but at the very least what we as an audience receive is a happy ending. Despite everything the family has been through, the ups and downs, the flies, ghosts and bleeding walls, they all leave in one piece. And in case you forgot, this is a horror movie; a horror movie with a fairy tale ending.
So, will we be seeing The Amityville Horror in anthropology classes of the future? Perhaps I’m giving this film too much credit in regards to it’s deliberate and intentional comments on late 1970’s family life. However, intentional or not, The Amityville Horror encapsulates a fascinating story set in a pivotal moment in American history. Like so many of its predecessors and contemporaries, the film is a product of its time. The quick turnaround from story to film actually aides the film in this way and adds to the overall accuracy in regards to realistic social climate and evolving family dynamics. Through the highs and subsequent slow and subtle breakdown of Kathy and George‘s relationship, we can learn a lot about how a stereotypical American family was perceived to function. It is through films like this that we can learn where we as a society have been, where we can improve, and where we are likely to be heading.