The Amityville Horror and the Terrors of Home Ownership
The 2000s saw a wave of horror remakes, most notably 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, produced by Michael Bay’s company Platinum Dunes. His company also produced a remake of The Amityville Horror in 2005. Critics largely panned the movie, as they did the original. Though flawed, it captures the severe economic anxiety that Americans soon felt during the Great Recession. With the news that over a third of the American populace is behind on their rent or mortgage, the perils of home ownership and strained finances that the film explores, make for a timely and relevant re-watch as the economic effects of COVID-19 still resonate.
Both films were based on the best-selling book by Jay Anson about the Lutz family. Eager for a slice of that American dream, the family bought a house in Amityville, New York at a remarkable price. The house sold for cheap because Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his family in it.
It’s easy to look back at the 1979 film, directed by Stuart Rosenberg and starring James Brolin as George Lutz and Margot Kidder as Kathy Lutz, and view it as a classic. It was part of an American golden age of horror in the 1970s, a decade that saw the release of The Exorcist (1973), Dawn of the Dead (1978), The Omen (1976), among other genre staples.
Yet, Amityville did not receive many accolades from critics. Roger Ebert only gave it one and a half stars. He wrote, “The problem with ‘The Amityville Horror’ is that, in a very real sense, there’s nothing there. We watch two hours of people being frightened and dismayed, and we ask ourselves… what for? If it’s real, let it have happened to them. Too bad, Lutzes! If it’s made up, make it more entertaining. If they can’t make up their minds… why should we?”
Even today, meaty criticism on the film is difficult to find, at least compared to other films from that period. One exception is Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. He points to the film’s underlying economic anxieties, captured best not by toilets that spew black goo, but rather during a scene in which George stresses over a check he has to cut to cover his brother-in-law’s wedding costs.
Amityville 1979, the Bad House, and Economic Distress
King writes, “Everything which The Amityville Horror does well is summed up in that scene. Its implications touch on everything about the Bad House’s most obvious effect – and also the only one which seems empirically undeniable: little by little, it is ruining the Lutz family financially. The movie might as well have been subtitled The Horror of the Shrinking Bank Account.”
King also points out the historical context of the film. It was released during 18 percent inflation, high mortgage rates, and a spike in gasoline prices. The 1979 film, like Anson’s book, was a massive success, despite poor reviews. It grossed over $80 million at the U.S. box office, becoming one of the most successful independent films of all time.
The 2005 Remake and the Perils of Home Ownership
Likewise, the 2005 remake received poor reviews but had impressive box office numbers. Writing for the BBC, Paul Arendt said, “If you were to take every scary movie from the last ten years, mix them in a bucket and throw them at a cinema screen, the resulting splash would look a lot like this film. Spooky kids, nervous pets, doomed babysitters… it’s all as familiar as a pair of bloodstained slippers.” He also calls the original film “rubbish” and credits its success to clever marketing.
Yet, there must be a reason both films slayed the box office (the remake grossed $109 million on a budget of $18.5 million). The success of both films is likely due to the economic undercurrents that King analyzes in Danse Macabre. That anxiety goes even further in the 2005 rendition, directed by Andrew Douglas.
To be clear, the film has some major eye-rolling moments. Do we really need to see Ryan Reynolds’ six-pack abs? Additionally, there are so many quick cuts and jump scares that it’s dizzying. However, the scenes that focus on the family still hold up well.
The suburban ideal is depicted from the get-go when George (Reynolds) and Kathy (Melissa George) drive through a picturesque neighborhood, complete with canopies of brilliant fall foliage. The long driveway, littered with leaves, leads them to the house. The home is so massive that it devours them the minute they step inside. At one point, Kathy says, “I’ve never felt so sure about anything in my life.” They’re hooked.
In an interview with JABLO, Douglas noted the importance of the house’s appearance in the first film. He compares it to a jack-o-lantern or a skull due to its large, dark windows. He added that the house manages to tap into the subconscious. The initial scene of George and Kathy entering the house is one of the most effective shots in the remake. The house consumes them. Every problem they have as a married couple is exacerbated by the financial woes home ownership causes.
The Original and Remake: A Comparison
Where the remake splits from the original is in its emphasis on Kathy’s previous marriage (her first husband died) and her kids from that marriage. This is barely touched upon in the 1979 film, though it is addressed in Anson’s book. The house only worsens the tension between George and Kathy’s son Billy (Jesse James), who refers to George as a douchebag. He will never see him as a parental figure, nor will he ever accept George as a replacement for his biological father.
Furthermore, the remake makes a major change from the source material. In the book, Jodi is a demonic pig. In 2005 film, Jodi is a ghost, a lingering spirit from the DeFeo murders. It attaches itself to Kathy’s daughter, Chelsea Lutz (Chloë Grace Moretz). By today’s standards, Jodi is not all that scary. The creation is too CGI-heavy, but the concept is an interesting change. The ghost is a manifestation of grief, attempting to lure Chelsea to her death by promising her that she can see her father again if she jumps from atop the house. The house emboldens every character’s negative emotions, be it grief or financial stress.
As the film progresses, George becomes more and more red-eyed, with shaggy hair and a long, thick beard. At one point, he barks that he’s going to do the “disciplining” around here. Tensions become so strained that he refers to Kathy and her kids as a “whacko family.” In a 2005 interview with Dread Central, Douglas stated that the movie is as much about “a dysfunctional family as it is about bleeding walls.” The scenes that work best in the remake are the ones that focus on not only economic anxiety, but family tension.
As the familiar unravels, financial tensions worsen. The family is trapped, due to their financial responsibilities to the house. George says, “You know these projects, Kath. They’re big projects. You don’t just walk away.” He adds, “You’re the one who wanted this god damn house. Now you got it.” Rifts deepen so much that George sleeps in the basement, the very pit of the house.
In some ways, the economic woes that home ownership can cause, coupled with a family’s grief, are given more attention in the 2005 remake than the 1979 film. As stated, the quick cuts, CGI, and a shirtless Reynolds, are all major flaws and a product of the film’s time. Even Douglas admitted to Dread Central that the film errs “a little on the side of ADD” at times, and he hints that was due to studio interference.
However, there are aspects of the remake that are generally well-scripted and well-done. It’s that economic anxiety that King noted. The suburban ideal leads to personal hell, as best shown not through cheesy jump scares but verbal spats between Kathy and George. The film preceded the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008, caused by junk mortgages that big companies sold to families eager and desperate for a piece of the American dream.
Due to economic uncertainty caused by COVID, both Amityville films warrant a re-watch. The monstrous house is the perfect metaphor for a family’s struggle to pay the bills, while maintaining their sanity. This subconscious fear made both films a huge box office success.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.