Chill seekers found plenty to cool off with this summer: an Alien monster in outer space, a Prophecy of mutants in Maine, a Nightwing that blackened the skies of the Southwest with bats, not to mention a Dracula played for yuks. But the most farfetched villain of all was a malevolent six-bedroom house in suburban Long Island that oozed green slime, exuded nasty odors and somehow suborned its owner into terrifying his wife with an ax.
Called The Amityville Horror, it was based on the 1977 best-seller but, unlike any of the competing monstrosities, this one was ballyhooed as docudrama. The authenticity of it all—among other litigious issues, including who gets what piece of the now considerable eight-figure action—will be questioned in Brooklyn federal court this week. Simultaneously, Leonard Nimoy will host a 30-minute TV defense of the property titled In Search of the Amityville Horror. Whatever the outcome, the trial and TV apologia can only build a master hype campaign that has already made the movie the shlocky shocker of the summer ($40 million gross in one month) and crowned Margot Kidder the horror heroine of the year.
'It is a hoax,' charges the original lawyer
Whether the Case of the Haunted House will in the end be ruled a (literally) devilish plot or merely a money-making scam, the point of departure is uncontestable fact: One November night in 1974, Ronald DeFeo, then 23, gruesomely murdered his family of six in the Amityville, N.Y. house. Thirteen months later land surveyor George Lutz and his wife, Kathy, innocently moved in; after 28 days they left in fear, they say, for their lives and souls.
Their escape brought them unerringly to the literary marketplace, where writer Jay Anson turned 45 hours of taped conversations into a book. Some 6.5 million copies are in print and Anson and the Lutzes split the proceeds 50-50. (Movie rights sold cheap at $200,000, but the three of them stand to batten on their percentage of the profits.) Skepticism about the tale grew with sales, but Anson coyly sidesteps it, saying only that readers and movie-goers have to judge: "You cannot summon the supernatural on demand as proof."
The whistle blower is William E. Weber, the attorney who defended DeFeo (now serving six consecutive life sentences) and a man with his own ax to grind. He is suing for breach of agreement and for a share of the Lutz profits en the grounds that they reneged on a deal with him and another writer (with 41 hours of tape that preceded Anson). "I know this book's a hoax," charges Weber. "We created this horror story over many bottles of wine. I told George Lutz that Ronnie DeFeo used to call the neighbor's cat a pig," Weber says. "George was a con artist; he improvised on that and in the book he sees a demon pig through a window."
George sticks to his ghosts. "I'm tired of being called a liar," he declares. "It will be decided in court." But he will have to commute from San Diego, where he has taken a lease option on another house. "A new house," emphasizes Lutz. "We don't buy used anymore."
Since the Lutzes fled, other owners of 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville have had problems. James and Barbara Cromarty are being driven out after two years—but by a stream of gawking rubberneckers rather than the Devil. "We know everything was a hoax," insists Barbara. Last month they received an offer (sight unseen) by Samuel Stangl, a Tucson real estate operator whose deals, he boasts, are "almost psychic." The deal has yet to close, but Stangl has come up with one undisputed piece of evidence that the house is cursed: In this period of runaway real estate inflation, the price is $80,000, exactly what the Lutzes paid in 1974.
'For God's sake, get out'—to the moviehouses
There was certainly no whammy on the producers, American International Pictures—or their diabolic promotional power. It began when AIP chief Sam Arkoff went off on vacation, leaving the then unheralded book on the kitchen table. His daughter read it, and upon his return she and Milton Moritz, senior VP of advertising and publicity, urged its purchase, gleefully apprising the boss of the hype potential. "If there were an Academy Award for a publicity campaign, we should get it for this," crows Arkoff.
Indeed, AIP devoted considerable money and muscle just to make the book a best-seller. Creative affairs VP Charles Glenn (orchestrator of the Godfather promo) oversaw the distinctive tie-in paperback cover, while eight copywriters set to work on the movie campaign slogan.
As the July 27 premiere date approached, co-stars James Brolin and Rod Steiger joined the Lutzes—and a publicity-wise psychic research duo—for a cross-country blitz. Newspaper ads began to appear, appropriately, on Friday, the 13th of July, with the winning tag line: "For God's sake, get out." So successful was the tease, laughs Arkoff, that "people would call theaters and ask when For God's Sake, Get Out was opening." In the final two-week push, AIP spent some $3 million of its total $6.2 million ad budget, more than the movie itself cost. It worked. Horror already has become the most successful movie in the studio's 25-year history, pulling in dollars faster than any movie this summer except Moonraker.
Lois Lane gets the Amityville Horrors
"I suppose I believe in the possibility of many things, but I think pigs snorting in windows is taking it a bit far," admits Margot Kidder, 30. "But I laughed all the way through The Exorcist, so I'm not a good person to comment, and The Amityville Horror is extremely successful." Perhaps for no one more than Kidder herself, a Canadian with a reputation as a feminist and Jane Fonda backer who nevertheless once did a nude layout for Playboy. The box office has given new solidity to a career that seemed moribund before Superman took off last winter.
Still, if Margot is flying even higher these days than she did as Lois Lane, her new film is just part of it. In a surprise move last month she married actor John (On the Yard) Heard, 34, after an eight-month, on-and-off relationship. They met while director Paul (An Unmarried Woman) Mazursky was casting his upcoming Willie and Phil. Heard dropped out of the film—but not before hooking up with Margot. "We disappeared together for six weeks and no one could find us," giggles Kidder, who finished the movie last month. "It was a love that became inevitable. The wedding was just very beautiful, romantic, in John's sister's backyard in New York. The bride wore white," she laughs. "I'm in heaven. It's not a marriage where I'm going to have to be little wifey in any sense. Anything I want to do is not threatened by the marriage. Also," she adds, "the marriage is not going to be threatened by anything I want to do."
That wasn't the case with Margot's first marriage, to novelist-screenwriter Tom (The Missouri Breaks) McGuane. "Marriage is an institution that serves the husband while the wife gets the short end of the stick," Margot believed pre-Heard. "She becomes the property and workhorse." Especially, she found, on McGuane's 300-acre Montana spread: "Women there really did live for their men. Boy, was I miserable." They first met on the Key West set of his 1974 movie, 92 in the Shade. In a swaperoo for the books, McGuane's wife, Becky, dropped him for Peter Fonda, the movie's co-star, while Tom ditched Elizabeth Ashley for Margot.
"We both knew it was a mess. It just didn't work," Margot now says of her three years (one married) with McGuane, who has since wed singer Jimmy Buffet's sister. The 1977 divorce was "painful," but Kidder worries most about their 3-year-old daughter, Maggie. "I feel enormous guilt that Tom and I couldn't work things out," says Margot. "Maggie's paying the price for our mistake. She goes back and forth between Montana and California, and that has to be rough on her in someway."
Maggie, in fact, has become an anchor to reality for a woman who admits she "used to love to carry on. I'm given to wretched excess, and with Maggie I'm not allowed to. She comes running into the bedroom at 6:30 and announces that the sun is up. She's been very good for my health and my soul," reports Margot. "Part of me is this eternal dilettante. I'm cursed with a curiosity for everything and find it really hard to say no—and that goes beyond your regular sex and drugs experimentation, which I went through. I read Einstein and I want to become a physicist. I'd like to live in the South of France and try painting. It's time I faced facts."
Kidder gets justly annoyed at a rep for flightiness that has linked her romantically with pals like former Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue, Harrison (Star Wars) Ford and Chevy Chase. "As a feminist I resent being identified with boyfriends. I am myself and not who I go out with. It's insulting and demeaning." But she finds attention hard to avoid—as when she took Dan Aykroyd's writer girlfriend, Rosie Shuster, to the Oscars last spring. "We got Rosie dressed up in a tuxedo and bowler, and my agent got 10 phone calls asking, 'Is Margot Kidder a lesbian?' "
Born in frontier Yellowknife to a peripatetic mining engineer, Margot traces her liberation to her mother, a teacher. "She always said, 'Don't think you're going to get happiness from a man. You've got to get it yourself.' " Attending 12 schools in 11 years, Margot finished a year at the University of British Columbia before she ran off at 17 with a boyfriend to see the world. She made it as far as Toronto, losing the boyfriend but acting for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Kidder waitressed, sold hairnets and worked in a slenderizing salon "strapping fat ladies to vibrating machines." At 19 she borrowed $450 and went to Hollywood. She snagged the ingenue lead in 1969's Gaily, Gaily but hated "living in the Sunset Marquis Hotel and weeping every night." She retreated back to Canada to study filmmaking.
She ventured forth to act in such works as Sisters by director Brian de Palma (her boyfriend at the time), James Garner's TV series Nichols ("one of the best working experiences I've ever had") and 1975's The Great Waldo Pepper with Robert Redford. Along the way she became a member of the women's workshop at the American Film Institute, writing and directing a short feature, Again. Then she chucked it for McGuane's Marlboro trip. Three years later she skipped a cow-cutting lesson to audition for Superman. "I thought, 'No way I'm gonna get this part,' " relates Margot. "Flew off to London, tested Thursday, got the part on Friday, went to work on Monday." It was a hard movie to make, but she and co-star Christopher Reeve hit it off. "Margot and I ended up blood relations," he says.
With her enormous success this year, Margot admits, "I've joined the nouveau riche," though she still drives "a beat-up underwear-salesman's Buick with banana milkshakes and orange crush spilled all over the seats." She and Heard will spend part of their time at Margot's luxurious three-bedroom Spanish home in a Malibu canyon, where Kidder grows vegetables, reads, writes and "won't have a pool because it's too California." They are also planning a New York pad to accommodate John's booming theater career (he recently drew cheers as Cassio in Richard Dreyfuss' Othello).
As for the deferred honeymoon, Margot points out that they'll be in Niagara Falls later this month, where she'll film Superman II, the first of four sequels to which she's indentured. "I'll make a lot of money and assure Maggie a future where I don't have to worry," says Margot. But she still wants to "do something really meaningful with my life beside make money," and plans to film Margaret Atwood's 1976 feminist novel, Lady Oracle. "I've always played either bad girls or whores or psychos, and I've always enjoyed doing it," sums up Kidder. "But I guess I got tired of kissing ass to get parts I thought were stupid. I'm obsessed with Lady Oracle. It's a very positive statement about women needing to take that step to become themselves, to take hold of their identity. A feminist," continues the victim of The Amityville Horror, "is any woman who has given up masochism as a way of life. I have."