Of all the questions raised by The Amityville Horror and its moronic sequels the most vexing one revolves around the external range of a haunted house’s supernatural powers. Because while it makes sense for a demonic abode to slam windows shut on small children’s fingers, let loose with swarms of buzzing flies, and turn bearded wood-chopping fathers into homicidal paterfamilias, it’s not quite as clear why such a structure would have the ability to sabotage the brakes of a sedan driving on the highway, or to cause a woman’s briefcase, sitting on her car’s passenger seat, to magically burst into flames. In the original The Amityville Horror, the maniacal Long Island manor, attempting to keep Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) away from the Lutz clan, burns the progressive priest—who’s convinced the house is possessed by the Lord of the Underworld—by sending diabolical energy through the telephone. Which makes one shudder at the thought of what the malicious mansion might have done had the Lutzes had a computer hooked up to the Internet via their phone line—imagine the unholy avalanche of evil spam!
Such burning issues largely preoccupy one’s bored mind while enduring Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 ghost story, yet another of the decade’s many Catholicism-infused horror flicks. Like The Exorcist and The Omen, the real baddie of The Amityville Horror is Satan, who drove a boy to kill his parents and four siblings in cold blood, and whose wicked spirit, one year later, possesses new occupant George Lutz (James Brolin) and convinces him to do away with his new wife Kathy (Margot Kidder) and her three annoying kids. Supposedly based on a true story (recounted in Jay Anson’s bestseller), the film charts George’s gradual descent into madness—meaning he becomes perpetually cold (causing him to sit in front of a raging fireplace inferno), begins to resemble Ted Kaczynski, and exhibits a disconcerting disinterest in eating hot dogs. Brolin’s demented daddy is eerily similar to The Shining’s Jack Torrance (who wouldn’t become the Overlook Hotel’s caretaker for another year), from his attempt to break down a white bathroom door with an axe to the Indian burial ground-spawned souls that may be contributing to his lunacy, yet the difference in quality between Kubrick and Rosenberg’s scare-a-thons is as wide as the chasm between heaven and hell. That the film ends, after 28 days, in the most anticlimactic fashion imaginable is no surprise given the pathetic preceding scares—highlighted by the house locking little Amy’s babysitter in a closet…that has no locks!—but at least Steiger provides amusing hysteria as a crazy priest ultimately transformed into a crazy-and-blind priest, and the monumentally bizarre sight of a giant glowing-eyed pig (presumably Amy’s imaginary friend “Jody”) that George momentarily spies in the house’s upstairs window.