Friday, November 28, 2014

#195: The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979)

One of the most financially successful horror films of the 1970s and a staple of late-night television until the mid-1990s, The Amityville Horror inspired several sequels and a remake despite not being all that great. I've seen it several times due to its cultural ubiquity, and I have fond memories of watching it in the dark on Denver's KWGN station on late weekend nights as a grade school kid in the 1980s, wrapped up in an afghan blanket my grandmother made, eating cookies, the only one in the family still awake (my siblings were younger and my parents are not the night owls I am and always have been), freaking myself out by the sounds of our house at night. Subsequent viewings as an adult, however, have not been as memorable. The film suffers a little more each time I watch it, and it's mainly of interest to me now as a Hollywood period piece and a chunk of nostalgia.
The film's popularity is in large part due to its dubious "based on a true story" origins. Adapted from Jay Anson's supermarket paperback bestseller by screenwriter and future director of cult weirdo horror film Pin, Sandor Stern (whose day job until the '90s was his family medical practice), and directed by old Hollywood pro Stuart Rosenberg (whose credits include Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Village, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), The Amityville Horror purports to tell the true story of the Lutz family's terrible experiences living in the haunted Long Island home. Though the Lutzes divorced in the 1980s, they remained on good terms, insisting on the truth of their story until their deaths in the mid-2000s from emphysema and heart disease. They were also lawsuit-happy, suing anyone who publicly doubted the veracity of their story.
The (mostly) undisputed facts about the house are that Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed his mother, father, two brothers, and two sisters there in the mid-1970s, and the Lutzes bought it cheap shortly afterward. Several different families lived in the home both before and after the DeFeos, and the Lutzes were the only ones who claimed the house was haunted. Spookily, the owner of the home from 1987 to 1997 was later killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, though that's a matter of geography and coincidence in my skeptic's view. The house has since been dramatically remodeled and the address changed to protect the homeowners from the constant barrage of uninvited tourists, which sounds to me like a much greater burden than any paranormal shenanigans, though I'm a bit disappointed the spooky upstairs windows have been altered.
Now that they're both dead, I have no problem saying that I think the Lutzes were opportunists and hucksters looking to cash in on the house's reputation, but I don't have a problem with that. They weren't hurting anybody, and it's fun to believe in haunted houses when you're a bored small-town kid. What I do have a problem with is their barrage of lawsuits, but that has very little to do with this movie, and I'm getting off the subject.
In the film, the Lutzes are portrayed by the very '70s-looking pair of James Brolin and Margot Kidder, and the rest of the mostly wasted cast includes such veteran character actors as Val Avery, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, James Tolkan, and the supremely hammy Rod Steiger. The film opens with the DeFeo murders and then jumps forward a year to the day George and Kathy Lutz buy the house. They know about the murders, but the gorgeous lakeside house is a bargain for the working class family, which includes three young children from Kathy's previous relationship. Soon, however, weird stuff happens. You probably know all this already. Black gunk comes out of the toilets, a chair rocks by itself, the house yells "Get Out!" in a spooky voice, blood oozes down the walls, flies swarm Rod Steiger's face, a nun throws up, a friend is scared to go inside, James Brolin can't stop chopping wood and gets all strung-out and crazy-looking, a weirdly piggish red-eyed thing looks in the window at night, a library book is stolen for no good reason, and the house is always freezing.
The Lutzes put up with this nonsense for several weeks. Then they get in their car and get the eff out of Dodge, in a dramatically anti-climactic finale. And here's something I've never understood. You have a house that is the site of a gruesome mass murder. This house also drives the priest played by Rod Steiger completely insane. Instead of focusing on the murders or the crazy priest, we spend the bulk of our time with a family that moves in for a few weeks, freaks out, and leaves. That is easily the least interesting story here. This situation was rectified in the much-maligned prequel, Amityville II, which is a far stranger, more kick-ass, much sleazier quality horror movie.
Another problem with the film is Stuart Rosenberg's pedestrian visual style and lack of feel for horror. The Amityville Horror was the only horror film Rosenberg directed, and it shows. His pacing is sluggish, the framing of his shots TV-movie generic, and his character development poor. I may get kicked out of movie town for saying this, but I have a lot of the same problems with his most beloved film, Cool Hand Luke. That film benefits from a much better script and more charismatic performances, but Rosenberg is a dull director with a bland visual palette.
There seem to be some editing problems as well. Val Avery's detective character has a few scenes that don't make much sense in the context of the existing movie, leading me to believe that the bulk of his part was cut from the final product. The storyline involving Rod Steiger's priest character also never intersects with the main story, though you do get a few of Steiger's patented epic freakouts. That guy chewed so much scenery he had to have his teeth replaced every month. Also, what's with Margot Kidder's sexy workout attire consisting of an unbuttoned dress shirt, underwear and one leg warmer?
I have a lot of complaints and amused bafflement, but I also have a lot of nostalgic affection for this movie. And as my wife pointed out last night, the film depicts the very real horrors of homebuyer's remorse. I love the little house my wife and I bought a few years ago, but our first handful of months in the home were a constant battle with the rats that had taken up residence in our attic. It was a stressful time that drove our exterminator around the bend (shades of Steiger) and was finally figured out by our plumber. For a while, I felt like Brolin in the movie, yelling "What the hell do you want from me?" to the rats in the attic instead of the demonic entity in the walls, and we were tempted a few times to just get in our car and drive away. Unlike the Lutzes, we finally kicked out our unwelcome guests and won the battle for our home. Where's our highly exaggerated bestseller and movie?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

#194: The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)

This beautiful Swedish silent film is one of the few horror classics that would be right at home in a Sunday school curriculum. At once a melodrama with horror elements, a Dickensian ghost story, and a Christian morality tale about faith, repentance, and forgiveness, Victor Sjöström's silent mini-epic is also about storytelling and how a story is framed when it is told from multiple points of view. The film takes a straightforward narrative and transforms it into something complex and strange by shuffling the pieces around and having different characters relate them in flashback. This is not a cheap gimmick, as it all too often becomes in modern cinema (especially during the late-'90s wave of Pulp Fiction knockoffs and the mid-2000s wave of Short Cuts and Magnolia wannabes). Instead, this narrative strategy shows how one person's actions and point of view affect the community of people around that person, how the same story's focus can change when the storytellers are different, and the resonance and complexity of experience that are added to a story when it isn't so single-mindedly devoted to one character. 
The Phantom Carriage begins with a young woman on her deathbed. The woman is a Salvation Army worker and devout Christian who is dying of galloping consumption. Attended by her mother and a fellow Salvation Army sister, the woman, Edit (Astrid Holm), shocks them both by asking them to summon a man named David Holm to her dying bedside. The audience doesn't know why yet, but both women are reluctant to perform this task. Edit's mother even begs her coworker not to summon David Holm. Edit's demands are too persistent, however, and the search begins. The audience is then told in the intertitles that it is New Year's Eve. 
Next, we are introduced to three homeless alcoholics ringing in the new year by drinking in a graveyard next to a clock tower. One of the men tells a story about an older man he once knew to pass the time. In flashback, we see the relationship between the two men. The older man is kindhearted and comes from an academic background, but he's fallen into the seedier side of life through his alcoholism. The men are drinking, smoking, and gambling buddies, but the older man grows somber and afraid every New Year's Eve. The younger man asks him why New Year's Eve disturbs him so much, and the older man tells a story that we see in yet another layer of flashback. The older man is terrified to die on New Year's Eve because he believes the last person to die that day is doomed to drive Death's carriage for the year, collecting the souls that have died. We see some eerie footage of the phantom carriage in action, collecting the souls of a suicide victim and a man who drowns at sea. 
When we return to the trio of drunkards, we learn the connection between one of the men and the dying Salvation Army worker, but we don't yet know how that connection was made. In the remaining 90 minutes, the various strands of the story come together to tell the singular tale of Edit, David Holm (played by Sjöström himself), Holm's wife and children, the phantom carriage, and the poor soul doomed to drive the carriage for the year. What follows is a sophisticated approach to storytelling and visual presentation that feels classic, not dated.
The visual style is complementary to the narrative approach. Using few effects other than super-imposition, colored tinting, costumes,  and a handful of iris shots, Sjöström has a simple, direct style that is understated and naturalistic compared to many films of the era. The actors use small gestures instead of large, overstated ones, and Sjöström avoids flashy angles and camera tricks. At the same time, the organization of elements within the frame and the photography are elegant and imaginative without calling too much attention to themselves. It's a good-looking film that doesn't overwhelm the viewer with claustrophobic beauty. Despite its supernatural story, Sjöström's style is closer to the naturalism of the Lumieres instead of the fantasy worlds of Melies. 
Victor Sjöström has been called the father of Swedish cinema and was a Renaissance man of silent film. He worked as an actor, screenwriter, and director, and was often all three at once. Born in 1879, he made his first film in 1912. As a director, his most well-known films are The Phantom Carriage and The Wind. He only directed a few films after the end of the silent era, but he continued acting until shortly before his death in 1960. Film buffs most likely know him as an actor in one of Carl Dreyer's greatest films, Ordet, and a couple of Ingmar Bergman films, To Joy and Wild Strawberries, the latter his final and most famous film in which he played an aging professor coming to terms with the choices he made in his personal life. If you only know him as an actor and like silent films, check out The Phantom Carriage. Criterion released it on DVD and Blu-Ray a few years ago in a pristine print with your choice of scores by Mattie Bye or KTL. I'm now kicking myself for not noticing which score was set when I watched it last night because it was a great piece of music.