The 1970’s was an era where Hollywood real­ly picked up on the idea that the hor­ror gen­re could pro­duce block­buster hits: The Exorcist, Jaws, The Omen and The Shining are all good exam­ples of major stu­dio hor­rors that res­onat­ed with the pop­u­lar cul­ture and con­tin­ue to do so. Though it is not as pop­u­lar today, The Amityville Horror should be viewed as a mem­ber of this club. This adap­ta­tion of a sup­pos­ed­ly true sto­ry has some seri­ous flaws and hasn’t aged as well as its afore­men­tioned block­buster cousins — but it’s more effec­tive and res­o­nant than it gets cred­it for.

The Amityville Horror focus­es on the tra­vails of the Lutz fam­i­ly as they move into a new house where a mass homi­cide occurred a year pre­vi­ous. George (James Brolin) is the patri­arch, who is will­ing to over­look the house’s his­to­ry to get a good deal and estab­lish him­self as a good provider to his new wife and her chil­dren from anoth­er mar­riage. Kathy (Margot Kidder) is the moth­er, who looks at the house as a sym­bol of pros­per­i­ty for her new union and a sym­bol of the hope she has for blend­ing her kids and their new step­dad into a prop­er fam­i­ly.

Unfortunately for the­se new­ly­weds, the house has oth­er plans. It starts to lash out vis­i­tors, most notably well-inten­tioned priest Father Delaney (Rod Steiger), who finds him­self strick­en with ill­ness when­ev­er he tries respond­ing to Kathy’s pleas for assis­tance. The youngest daugh­ter devel­ops a sin­is­ter imag­i­nary play­mate and worst of all, George’s per­son­al­i­ty shifts in a dark, poten­tial­ly homi­ci­dal direc­tion that sug­gests he might be fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the house’s past mur­der­ous ten­ant. The only hope for the fam­i­ly is to leave… but they might not live along to do that.

The Amityville Horror was a hor­ror movie for its time and — in some respects time hasn’t been that kind to it. It’s a relic of a more inno­cent pre-internet/24-hour news cycle era, when a “true sto­ry” wasn’t sub­ject­ed to a lot of fact-check­ing. The events of the Lutz family’s tale have been chal­lenged many times over since this film came out and hind­sight makes it easy to see how Sandor Stern’s script, which adds yet anoth­er lay­er of fic­tion­al ele­ments into the mix, bor­rows heav­i­ly from oth­er haunt­ed house fare like Burnt Offerings and the nov­el of The Shining. The results are bla­tant­ly obvi­ous hokum to mod­ern eyes, a com­plaint hor­ror buffs have lodged again­st the film since its orig­i­nal release.

That said, hokum can be fun — and The Amityville Horror deliv­ers on a flam­boy­ant lev­el in that respect. Director Stuart Rosenberg, a Hollywood vet, was bet­ter known for dra­mas but his direc­tion is pret­ty vig­or­ous here. He sets a creepy vibe with the help of Lalo Schifrin’s score, which weaves a frac­tured kid­die-cho­rus lul­laby into the expect­ed shock orches­tra­tions, and crafts sev­er­al set­pieces that have become favorites with hor­ror fans for their shame­less, go-for-broke the­atrics. Highlights in that vein include the house’s fly-assist­ed attack on Father Delaney, a car stunt sequence where the brakes and wheel mys­te­ri­ous­ly lock up on a speed­ing car and an all-stops-out finale where the walls start bleed­ing and stair­cas­es col­lapse under peo­ple. Fred Koenekamp’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy is very effec­tive in help­ing cre­ate an intense mood for the­se the­atrics, with plen­ty of tight close-ups and an effec­tive use of the zoom lens to ratch­et up ten­sion.

However, the big ele­ment that ups the camp clas­sic ante here are the per­for­mances. Brolin and Kidder are like­able leads with a decent lev­el of chem­istry and they go into oper­at­ic over­drive here: Kidder’s fran­tic attempts to con­tact Father Delaney have a com­pelling hys­te­ria and Brolin’s quick trans­for­ma­tion from his usu­al low-key macho man per­sona into a frizz-per­med, wild-eyed mani­ac is fun to watch. He clear­ly rel­ished the chance to go dark and gives his all here. Sometimes the script works again­st him (the infa­mous “Mother of God, I’m com­ing apart!” scene) but he’s quite creepy in parts. 

That said, the film’s over-the-top act­ing award must go to Rod Steiger. He was infa­mous for a ten­den­cy to over­act before this film but it was The Amityville Horror that cement­ed his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the all-time Hollywood hams. His abil­i­ty to rant and rave as the ever-more-hys­ter­ic priest in this film is amaz­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly a scene where argues with church supe­ri­or Murray Hamilton (who’s pret­ty good at ham­ming it up him­self) and an amaz­ing scene where he goes berserk try­ing to deliv­er a prayer while hal­lu­ci­nat­ing the church is falling apart around him. He doesn’t just chew on the scenery, he oblit­er­ates it. Also wor­thy of note on the over­act­ing tip is a bit role from Helen Shaver as a new-agey type who freaks out and chan­nels a wacky spir­it voice dur­ing a vis­it to the house.

All of afore­men­tioned camp ele­ments are fun and give the film replay val­ue — but the best analy­sis of The Amityville Horror is that it con­nect­ed with main­stream audi­ences for a sec­ond, equal­ly impor­tant rea­son: it func­tions beau­ti­ful­ly as an alle­go­ry for the American eco­nom­ic fears of the late ‘70s, name­ly the dan­ger of buy­ing a house. Stephen King was the first to put for­ward this analy­sis in his bril­liant gen­re study Danse Macabre and it works real­ly well.

Stern’s script con­scious­ly adds an ele­ment where the Lutzes know they are get­ting in over their head buy­ing this house but do so in hopes their dreams of home and hearth car­ry them through. The hor­rors the house inflicts on this fam­i­ly are essential­ly their deep­est fears about their finan­cial gam­ble made flesh — and they neat­ly mir­ror the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the family unit brought on by the dif­fi­cul­ties of liv­ing with their “bar­gain” of a house. 

Thus, when the prob­lems with their house cause George and Kathy to turn on each oth­er — and George to turn on the chil­dren — it’s often more unnerv­ing the film’s actu­al scares. In fact, the film’s most upset­ting scene might be the one where a stack of mon­ey need­ed to pay for a wed­ding recep­tion sud­den­ly and mys­te­ri­ous­ly dis­ap­pears, seem­ing­ly swal­lowed up by the house itself. It’s the moment where the film’s hor­ror and the­mat­ic ele­ments line up — and George’s anguish when he real­izes the mon­ey is tru­ly gone will give you a sick feel­ing in the pit of your stom­ach, no mat­ter what you think of the film’s haunt­ed house plot.

In short, The Amityville Horror deserves its place in hor­ror his­to­ry despite its flaws. It deliv­ers the camp­i­est vari­a­tion of haunt­ed house thrills — and its under­tow of finan­cial-themed dread might get to you in ways you don’t antic­i­pate.