In November of 1974, an Amityville family of six were wiped out by one of their sons who wandered from bedroom to bedroom one night around quarter past three and shot them all to death. It is no wonder that nobody wants to live there, but now George Lutz (James Brolin) and his fiancée Kathy (Margot Kidder), with Kathy's three children from her first marriage, are surveying the property. Due to its unpopularity with prospective buyers, the house is going cheap, so George and Kathy decide to take a chance and buy it, after all, as George says, houses don't have memories. However, he's about to be proved very wrong as strange things begin happening around the building - could it be possessed?
The phrase "Based on a True Story" has been much abused by film and television over the years, giving the production the excuse to get away with any amount of illogical plot developments dressed up as fact. Was The Amityville Horror real? Some would say that Jay Anson's bestselling book of the case was completely made up, a sensational tale invented to cash in on the contemporary craze for all things supernatural; others believe that the house may well have been haunted, but the events were exaggerated in the telling, and certainly the film throws in enough detail to make you draw the conclusion that an overactive imagination was at work here.
The book was adapted for the screen by Sandor Stern, and looks as if it was cashing in on the type of horror film inspired by the success of The Exorcist, which also claimed to have been loosely based on a true story. But where that film contained genuine drama and philosphical dilemma, Amityville simply aims for the fears of the modern consumer as the Lutzes start to live beyond their means in a spiritual as well as financial manner. To add an air of TV movie of the week authenticity, we are told via captions what day it is and how many days it is since the family have moved in, which makes the film seem even longer than it is.
The first strange thing to happen, apart from a breeze that moves the estate agent's papers, is that Kathy's priest, Father Delaney, has an encounter when he arrives to bless the house. To call Rod Steiger's performance as the priest "extraordinary" is an understatement: he goes startlingly over the top as if trying to rise above of the quality of dross he's appearing in. The house isn't impressed either, as when the holy man produces his bible and starts blessing, the room he's in fills with flies, he suffers a migraine and a voice from nowhere tells him to "Get out... GET OUT!!!" Oddly, Steiger never shares a scene with any of the Lutzes, as if his footage was edited in from a different film altogether.
What scuppers The Amityvile Horror as a decent fright fest is that there's no real story, it's more a collection of anecdotes that you can take on face value or scoff at. No less than three characters find the house too creepy to enter, Kathy's daughter gets an imaginary friend to talk to, and George begins losing his mind, chopping up logs for the roaring fire and generally, potentially acting like the murderous son who, it turns out, he physically resembles. The worst thing that happens to them is that they lose their home and they get thoroughly frightened, but the ending tells us they went to live elsewhere, presumably without paranormal incident. The seventies guilt at leaving religion behind adds a tone of Satanic threat, but it just seems silly and the film is too monotonous to engage you. You're better off with the similar but more entertaining The Shining which was released the year after. Music by Lalo Schifrin.