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Possession Obsession: Exorcist vs Amityville

  There was a definite change in the nineteen-seventies compared with what had gone before, and it seemed to happen with alarming speed, as one minute the hippies looked to be taking over the world with a mixture of peace, love and riots, then the next it was the Me Decade where the worship of the self was all the rage. One aspect of that was in the spiritual life the world was undergoing, as a move away from the stricter tenets of religion increased a belief in the supernatural, with a general fascination concerning the likes of ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot entering the mainstream consciousness. If there was a potential for all that weird shit to be true, then there would be plenty of people believing it, and that has lasted to the twenty-first century; for instance, there are still those who happily accept Uri Geller has magical powers, first revealed in the seventies, in spite of him being exposed time and again.

At the time the bestseller lists began to be littered with books on the paranormal, and two of those that made a huge impact were William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist, purported to have been based on a real case of demonic possession, and Jay Anson's The Amityville Horror, an account of how a normal family was persecuted by the presence of evil lingering from the murders that had occurred in their new home a while before they had moved in. Both these texts were turned into massively popular movies, but it was clear there would not have been one without the other: Blatty's brainchild was the fulcrum of a host of Satanic horror pictures that had been arguably inspired by Roman Polanski's classic adaptation of Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby, but The Exorcist was, if anything, even more of a sensation, filling a gap in the public's lives where religion had been and was now seemingly absent.

It was a film that won awards, Oscars even, and still has its imitators to this day as moviemakers down the generations attempt to recapture that lightning in a bottle moment when director William Friedkin placed the eerily credible tale before his cameras. It began in Iraq where a priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), at an archaeological dig apparently unearths and unleashes an ancient evil, a location that has if anything greater resonance decades later as a symbol of terror, though of a more down to earth variety, but when the action moves to Georgetown in the United States it was almost as if the story was predicting the fears of the next century, that importing of mayhem. Then again, as we are introduced to actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who is shooting a college unrest movie along the hip lines of Getting Straight or Drive, He Said, that unease is closer to home, represented as the hangover from the sixties unrest in the news every night.

Chris is a divorcee, another example of the new modernity, and a single mother to boot, of twelve-year-old Regan (Linda Blair), who starts to behave strangely after playing with one of those Ouija boards religious authorities tell kids never to mess with. Soon she is having fits and acting violently and verbally abusive, and the doctors cannot do a thing - then someone mentions an exorcism, naturally nobody believes in demons anymore he says, but the ceremony can convince an afflicted mental patient to calm down if their madness has made them think they are possessed. Except of course everyone watching The Exorcist in 1973 was totally taken in by the notion, and that's what gave the work its power, a power that continues to this day thanks to Blatty and Friedkin identifying something all those efforts like The Last Exorcism or The Rite or The Conjuring movies missed: the emotional element.

The scares were all very well, but the characters here were far from derivative, they lived and breathed with great authenticity. Burstyn was the heart, as her Chris is furious she cannot do anything to help her daughter, but distraught as well, particularly when she has to admit defeat and tragically call in outsiders to solve her problem - we can feel her shame and the actress was truly excellent. However the soul of the piece was Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) who is losing his faith and therefore perfect for the forces of evil to exploit through the defiling of a little girl; it's a two for one deal, get the girl and get the priest as well, what prizes for Satan. It is Karras who makes the ultimate sacrifice, perfectly Christlike if on a smaller scale, an act those turning away from religion could understand as it struck a chord. Yet one other thing endured in the minds of those cinemagoers emerging from the auditorium... was it really all true?

That famous cover from Time magazine featured in Rosemary's Baby which asked "Is God Dead?" resonated through the seventies, since if God really was past it, his evil counterpart was having a whale of a time: "The Devil Is Alive". Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the movies, unless you counted disasters and tragedies alike as evidence in the real world, and The Exorcist spread a lot of respect for Old Nick, the biggest blockbuster after it being The Omen, not based in truth but positing The Bible was an accurate guide as to what was happening in this newly Godless society. Audiences were so convinced that there were stories of parents examining their children's scalps for 666 marks, which would be proof of their Satanism, but The Amityville Horror had a killer premise too, drawn from the immensely popular book, purportedly non-fiction, that frightened a lot of late night readers before bedtime.

Naturally Anson's work with the Lutz family had to be adapted for the big screen, and A.I.P. under the tutelage of minor mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff picked up the rights; his company had made healthy profits from the drive-in and grindhouse circuit, but were looking to move up a gear, and The Amityville Horror delivered in that it quickly became one of the most lucrative independent movies ever made, with everyone involved making a lot of money out of what the naysayers claimed was a major hoax perpetrated by the Lutzes. Their account was that they had moved into the house on Long Island a year after a sensational mass murder had occurred where a young man had killed his parents and siblings with a shotgun; this was no random act, as it turned out something evil lurked in the building that was haunting the new tenants to the extent that barely a month after they moved in, they moved straight out again.

The seeds of the scepticism were all there in the film, it had to be said, as time and again we were reminded George Lutz (James Brolin) could not really afford to move into the property, and needed money rather desperately, which would be a good enough motive for exploiting the history of a murder house for his own profit. Over and over the matter of funds arose, as often as the worries about faith represented by what happened to the hilariously overacting Rod Steiger who played the unfortunate priest, our Karras and Merrin stand-in who shows up to bless the place and winds up shouted at by a spirit in a room full of flies. Wife Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) is the religious one, therefore we view the action through her eyes, though we never see her meet the priest (they try to talk on the telephone, but the line goes faulty), all to cash in on the concerns about vulnerability to dark forces as exposed by its predecessor, The Exorcist.

It was not a little girl who was possessed this time, but George who starts looking like a pale, sweaty, red-rimmed eyes version of Ronald DeFeo, the actual murderer, and takes up chopping logs to pass his time with an axe he tends to more lovingly than Kathy. While this was happening, the financial matters became more pressing, and Sandor Stern's "one damn thing after another" screenplay did its best to mount tension that was clear from the first scene, yet aside from scaring the audience with weirdness (and people were scared by this film) as many pointed out, nothing all that terrible happens to the Lutzes, at least nothing that could not be explained by them freaking each other out in a suggestive atmosphere. To be kind, you could take the opinion that George's psychosis from his money worries had infected the rest of his family, and this resulted in them making each other temporarily mad, though even then the facts of the book and film didn't stand up to scrutiny.

Son Daniel Lutz made his own movie, My Amityville Horror, decades later, a documentary where he put his side of the story, but far from being convincing it made you pity the subject for getting so messed up by his early life infamy. Yet his was not the only Amityville follow-up, as a mini industry of sequels arrived from the truly bizarre Amityville II: The Possession in 1982 onwards, including the inevitable remake in 2005 that didn't even do the courtesy of sticking to the book's dubious facts and spiralled off in its own direction. It didn't matter that it had been debunked, the idea of evil as a tangible entity was too appealing to ignore, and many other efforts were inspired by Amityville just as it had been inspired by The Exorcist, Poltergeist and, yes, The Entity among them. Not that the Friedkin work was immune to sequels either, none of them matching the source in its phenomenal success, but containing some downright odd endeavours to do so. The dark glamour of watching a horror movie claiming to be truth continues unabated.

The Amityville Horror from 1979 has been released by Second Sight in a Blu-ray steelbook special edition, with more extras you can shake an axe at:
• Brolin Thunder - A new interview with actor James Brolin
• Child's Play - A new interview with actor Meeno Peluce
• Amityville Scribe - A new interview with screenwriter Sandor Stern
• The Devil's Music - A new interview with soundtrack composer Lalo Schifrin (a definite hightlight)
My Amityville Horror - feature-length documentary with Daniel Lutz, the aforementioned personal film
• For God's Sake, Get Out - featuring James Brolin and Margot Kidder (a vintage featurette, but not that vintage)
• Intro by Dr. Hans Holzer, PhD. In parapsychology (author of Murder in Amityville)
• Audio commentary by Dr. Hans Holzer
• Original trailer, TV spot, radio spots
• Four reproduction lobby card postcards (SteelBook Exclusive)
• New optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006