Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
“La la… la la… la la la la la…. “ sing the creepy kids…
It’s always odd to re-visit a film that you thought was really terrifying, only to find out it’s mostly laughable and absurd. That was the case with The Amityville Horror, which I watched again this week. Let’s just say turning out all the lights didn’t help. Although it’s a lot better than the mess of a remake that came out in 2005, it disappoints because it builds and builds…. to not much.
James Brolin (hairier than ever) and the late Margot Kidder (who at the time was in between Superman projects) play a married couple who move into a giant new house that seems too good to be true, and far too under-priced. They both know that the reason the place is cheap is that a young man shot and killed his family in the house not loo long ago. But that’s okay… as Brolin says, a house doesn’t have memories. Or does it?!?
I always thought that this movie was one of the better haunted house movies because it allows suspense to build as opposed to throwing everything at the audience from the very beginning. In this respect, the movie works. The remake had blood flowing from the walls in the first act and then went downhill from there.
For most of the original movie, not a lot happens. The problem is, if you are going to have your audience wait around a whole movie for a satisfying climax, you need to go all out in the end and create a great pay-off. There really isn’t a pay-off in the movie, and instead just a lot of absurdity. There doesn’t seem to be a point to the proceedings.
There are some delights in the film (some unintentional) One of my favorite scenes of this or any movie involves a nun who comes to the house and feels sick to her stomach. She drives off, stops her car, leans her head out her window, and vomits in the loudest, most ridiculous way ever. I don’t really know how this bit got into the movie with the director’s approval, but I’m very happy it did.
The acting in the movie is solid, with only Rod Steiger truly hamming it up in a supporting role as a priest. I can’t decide if he was acting over-the-top on purpose or trying to go for the Oscar in a movie he thought was going to be truly groundbreaking. Brolin and Kidder have a nice ferocious chemistry that slowly comes unglued as the movie goes on. Brolin especially comes off pretty well here in a role that eeks of Jack Nicholson in The Shining (sorry Jack, this movie opened first). There’s one creepy scene in which Kidder goes to check on her daughter, walks over to the window, and sees eyes peering in at her.
If there were more of scenes like those, the movie would be much more effective. Unfortunately, in the case of the 1979 Amityville Horror, there is too much build-up for so little pay-off.
Watching Like a Writer
The Amityville Horror makes me think of how a house can be used effectively in horror. In the last year I’ve read the great Sarah Waters novel The Little Stranger and classic Shirley Jackson chiller The Haunting of Hill House, both books that are all the scarier for the way the house settings became characters in their respective stories.
The question then becomes how do you use a house in a way that’s spooky or horrifying for the reader. I would suggest giving the house a slightly odd quality, whether it’s to do with the architecture or its history. And then description is key, description that shows enough of the house to suggest there’s something wrong with it, without getting to the point of giving away too much for the reader. Usually what the reader doesn’t read, and what the viewer doesn’t see, makes a scene scarier, especially in the case of haunted house stories.
Write a flash fiction story, 1000 words or less, that takes one or two characters into a haunted house. Subvert the reader’s expectations first of all, giving us something we wouldn’t necessarily expect, and then try in a short amount of space to make the house terrifying. How will you do it?