Tag Archives: Amityville

Poltergeist #30DaysOfFright

polt1A young family finds they have paranormal activity within their home, it’s a poltergeist (meaning noisy spirit in German).What starts off as something playful soon descends into terror as the children are attacked in their rooms. The daughter, Carol Anne, is taken by the spirits and makes contact via the television – in the film’s most iconic moment – can she be saved and can the family stop themselves being dragged to the afterlife?

What sets Poltergeist apart from most haunted house movies is that it is set in a nice house, in a nice neighbourhood and everything looks normal. There is no Scooby-Doo haunted mansion vibe, no evil eyes like the Amityville house. It could be our house or yours, and that is its power.

polt2We are the Freeling family and that is what Spielberg does best, take an ordinary person or family and put them in an extraordinary situation. Just look at Chief Brody from Jaws, Roy Neary from Close Encounters or David Mann from Duel.

To many Poltergeist was Spielberg’s darkness to E.T.’s light, they both came out in the same month in the US in 1982. He served as writer on this and Executive Producer, although it has oft been mooted he had a closer hand in direction as well, rather than Texas Chainsaw-helmer Tobe Hooper. But that is a whole other blog entry.

All horror films should of course be watched with the lights off but Poltergeist loves the darkness, especially when the strobing effects kick-in. Fittingly, it really drags you into the television.

polt3The good thing is that since the advent of 24 hour television, whether that be rolling news or rolling balls around a roulette wheel, you will never again wake up with a Poltergeist television. There’ll never be that snow dancing shadows madly across your walls.

So the original Poltergeist seems more nostalgic and further away than ever. The film starts on that typical Spielberg world of safety and harmony, the suburbs, and actually the first half has plenty of sunny and light moments. Even the Poltergeist activity is initially treated as a joke and something to have fun with, the moving kitchen chairs for instance. Carol Anne states it is the TV people; I certainly never had that problem with Radio Rentals!

But that is what is great about this film, haunted houses don’t have to be scary and there doesn’t have to be fork lighting. Their home could be our home and that is what makes it so effective, and it’s the same with the more recent haunted house films, such as Insidious and The Conjuring.

There are signposts aplenty though, even the remote control cars that cause the man hulking beer to come off his bike in the opening scene are a precursor of things to come with toys coming to life and causing chaos. The dead budgie, Tweetie, even in its coffin cigar box it warns us of the shape of things to come when it is unearthed by a digger for the swimming pool.

There are even clues on the television, in an early scene the old Spencer Tracey film A Guy Named Joe plays on TV, there are already ghosts in the machine as it’s about a man who dies and comes back as a ghost. It was of remade by Spielberg seven years later as Always.

polt4Robbie and Carol Anne’s room is cool, full of Star Wars posters and toys, although I’m not sure about the Alien poster. The film really taps into those childhood terrors of open closets, things under the bed, thunderstorms, clowns and ominous trees tapping on your window. Ten fold, it could also be seen as an extension of a similar scene in Close Encounters when Barry’s toys come to life as aliens – and again some glorious light, a Spielberg staple – envelop the room and also bring toys to life.

A bit like the spirits at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, at first they beautiful, the spirit from the television that dances round the room before leaving its ectoplasm all over the bedroom wall is as haunting as it is enchanting. 

This is echoed in the sublime score by Jerry Goldsmith, beautiful but creepy, magically dark, especially the haunting dips in sound.

But then the spirits turn with fearful effect. That ruddy tree outside the bedroom window though, the impending thunderstorm marching closer not further away, it still gives palpitations. Then, the tree grabs the son, it’s startling and surreal, but it’s just misdirection so that Carol Anne can be sucked into the closet and to the other side. From here on in as ludicrous as things get, by and large you go with it simply because you are wrapped up in the emotion.

polt-9Crucially, it’s the performance from the mum and dad that really ground it and their efforts to do anything to get their daughter back, it’s the little things like her mum, JoBeth Williams, thrilled to be smelling her daughter after a blast of air travels through her and Craig T. Nelson (Patrick Wilson being a great substitute in the very Poltergeist-like Insidious) forced to get angry with Carol Anne to tell her to do as she is told or he’ll be forced to spank her. Amid all this supernatural fantasy is real, heart-wrenching drama

about a family with a ‘kidnapped daughter’, it just happens to be by a ghost. They are the emotional core of the film.

polt5And when they finally get Carol Anne back it is less smoke and mirrors and more wind machines and fantastic lights displaced by fish tanks. It’s dizzying, effective and so simple. This rescue is headed up by movie-stealing Zelda Rubinstein, who played Tangina, the spirit guide who pronounces the house is clean; she isn’t in the film half as much as you think she is. It is only for about ten minutes duration, but she leaves a lasting impression on both the family and the audience.

After that rescue the Freelings prepare to move out, of course, it turning out that the whole estate had been built on a graveyard, the headstones had been moved but not the bodies and Carol Anne – a beautiful and natural performance by Heather O’Rourke – was the focus of the spirits as she had been born in the house.

After all that went before, they and we think it is all over, and as they pack and play in their rooms they discover it is not. A great ending to the film, complete with mum being dragged up her bedroom wall and ceiling Fred Astaire style and some unwelcome guests in the unfinished pool, but I don’t buy the family not just leaving, and even if I did I certainly wouldn’t be letting my kids play in the room where one of them went missing and another was attacked by a tree. It was the clown that got him this time.

polt6As the dead explode from the ground in their caskets, to great effect, the Freelings do escape; thankfully complete with dog, E Buzz, by the way is a great dog actor as well with some brilliant expressions. Checking into a motel, this time they aren’t taking any chances and leave the TV outside. It’s a wryly observed ending to a satisfying and emotionally exhausting tour de force of emotions and effects.

Whether it’s a product of the publicity machine or not, Poltergeist came with that horror film staple, the curse. They said it happened with The Omen, with The Exorcist and now this. 

polt-7Rumours were rife that actual skeletons were used in the swimming pool scene and the murder of one of its stars prior to release didn’t help matters, nor did major players dying after parts 2 and 3. The remake seems to have bucked that particular trend – unless you count its death at the box office.

You know what though; I enjoyed the updating, such as the family having little choice in moving to the once aspirational suburbs. It didn’t add anything particularly new or did anything better but I certainly found it suitably creepy if not as visually memorable as the original.

The Amityville Horror

On January 13th 1976, the Lutz family moved out of their dream home, 112 Ocean Avenue, after only 28 days. 

 That dream became a nightmare best depicted in The Amityville Horror (1979).

THE-AMITYVILLE-HORROR-MOVIE-GREATSI’ll always have a soft spot for the film as it was the first horror film that I ever bought on VHS (Woolies, Mansfield, 1987 if you are interested), a striking cover from The Video Collection showing Margot Kidder facing down a ruddy great axe. A publicity shot as that scene isn’t shown from that angle in the film.

The film, based on the best-selling novel by Jay Anson, was a massive success upon its release, very much taking its horror cues from both The Omen and The Exorcist, and like the latter had the much-loved horror staple of being based on a true story.

amity4 The truth and the half-truths have long been conjecture but it is certainly undeniable that the murders at Amityville and the subsequent stay by the Lutz’s has become the stuff of horror lore, from possession to houses being built on Indian burial grounds and blood running down walls. 

 And that is still what makes it a massively accessible story, its a classic haunted house movie, hokey in places but that is part of the fun of it. 

Oft-imitated? Sure, and you’ve only got to look to the return to haunted house films of late, from Sinister to When The Lights Went Out and The Conjuring to see their enduring appeal.

 All of which are old school in their scares, like Amityville, the latter The Conjuring – also based on true events – even features two paranormal psychics who at the close of the film are heading to their next case, none other than at the house in Amityville. The house, with those unmistakable evil eyes actually features in the opening of The Conjuring 2. 

And talking of the house, that’s where we start with the opening titles over a silhouette of the building featuring a haunting Lalo Schifrin score – allegedly a rejected The Exorcist score but isn’t, however it was used to great effect on the trailer for Pet Sematary and suitably sets the tone.

The film and book would have us believe that the house is evil, it is certainly the star of the film (if not the original house or location)  and its evil eye windows can be seen staring at us throughout the titles and the poster – interestingly enough the windows of the original house were changed to normal rectangular ones to stop people finding it.

Cut to a dark and stormy night, what else. So far, so typical house of horror, but amid the lightning outside we see lightning inside, created by gunfire in each of the rooms. Although the family, clearly including children, aren’t named they are the very real DeFeo family, by eldest son, Ronald DeFeo, shot in their beds as they slept on November 13th 1974.

The Lutz’s (played by James Brolin and Margot Kidder) and their children look round the house a year later, shown round by the estate agent who just so happens to be the save the clocktower woman from Back To The Future, funnily enough Strickland from BTTF also plays a coroner in the previous scene.

As the couple are shown round the house it overlaps with scenes of the murders taking place in those rooms, which is really effective. They buy the house for $80,000 and so the film unfolds, slowly burning and building to its climax of exploding windows and walls and stairs that drip blood. 

 It certainly slowly turns the screws in the minds of the characters and the audience and builds pressure cooker-style, exploding like the front door off the house. And whilst everything doesn’t work or make sense it has more than enough images and moments to linger and stay lingering to this day.

You believe Kidder and Brolin as a couple and slowly follow their decent. Rod Steiger also has a memorable turn as Father Delaney, he perhaps has one of the most memorable scenes in the film blessing a room in the house only to interrupted by flies in winter (the films answer to The Omen’s er Doberman) and a hissing malevolent voice telling him to ‘get out!’

 Even if it almost seems as if his character belongs more in The Omen at times. Added to that we have upside crucifixes, invisible friend Jodie, glowing pig eyes, a self-rocking chair, dubious cellars and the ‘we forgot the dog’ moment. There is also a nice appearance from Murray Hamilton, probably best known as Amity’s Mayor Vaughn in Jaws.

The debate over whether it is a hoax or true horror rumbles on, but the truth is that this is still a memorable and creepy film.

amity3 Classic? For me it is, although that may be more to do with when I first saw it. Even if you have never seen The Amityville Horror you will have certainly seen a horror film that has taken influence from it. If you have never seen it, or not seen it in years make sure you make the rightmove and give it a viewing.

Just make sure it’s the original and not the insipid 2005 remake.

A prequel to the 1979 original followed in 1982, entitled Amityville  II: The Possession – based around an essentially fictional version of the DeFeo family, and a a further sequel in eye-popping 3D, Amityville 3D in 1983. Perhaps now most of note for being the screen debut of Meg Ryan.

Several direct to video offerings have continued the Amityville franchise (in pretty much name only) which has concentrated on everything from a haunted lamp from the house and a model of the house. I’ve still a fondness for The Possession and 3D, from when I first saw them.

The related film that is also worth a visit is My Amityville Horror, a documentary revolving around one of the now adult Lutz children. It adds a further dimension to the book an film, just don’t expect it to answer many questions. It’s a nice and unique addition to the continuing story – true or otherwise.