Chris kicks off a new feature series, focusing on the best and worst in the world of horror franchises…
Over the past few years there has been a noticeable increase in haunting or ghost stories, more than likely due to the relative inexpensiveness of making them. Although Paranormal Activity and its lucrative returns have put the style firmly back in the public consciousness, the big daddy of the haunting film is still arguably The Amityville Horror and (at least some of) its sequels.
Possibly because the original film and its immediate sequel are based on events that happened – which is not the same thing as being based on a true story – the name Amityville has pretty much become the byword for haunted house or ghost movies since the 1970s. And even though the Amityville series has become a bit of a joke due to the unending tedium of straight-to-video/DVD releases, the Amityville brand and those early films are still held in fairly high regard. So, to paraphrase a certain TV show, let’s take a look through the keyhole at the world’s most famous haunted house…
The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, USA, 1979)
The Amityville Horror is adapted from the novel by author Jay Anson, which in turn was based on the allegedly ‘true’ events that happened to the Lutz family when they moved into their dream home at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, Long Island in December 1975. George Lutz (James Brolin), his wife Kathy (Margot Kidder) and their three children begin to experience strange goings on within the house, such as George’s mood swings and his constant chopping and burning of wood to keep warm (even when nobody else can feel any cold), daughter Amy’s invisible friend Jodie and the fact that the rooms are full of flies even in the middle of winter. They call on Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) for help in blessing the house, but he too falls under its diabolical influence and suffers attacks from unknown forces. After only 28 days in the house, the family flee for their lives, leaving behind all of their belongings.
Keeping good company with the other genre greats of the 1970s, The Amityville Horror was one of the last big-name horror films of that decade. Not as visually stimulating as The Exorcist or as downright nasty as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the film manages to create its own atmosphere through the uses of sound and strong – occasionally overcooked – performances from the three main leads, particularly Brolin as the under-pressure George Lutz, whose sanity seems to be unraveling before our very eyes.
However, and this could be the decider for many, the film is very slow and not a lot actually happens. The narrative relies on the subtleties that happen within the family dynamic, the little changes that happen to each character as they go through their own arcs, so if you’re looking for ghosts, ghouls and monsters tearing the family to shreds with waves of blood and gore, then this isn’t the film for you. What we do get is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced, understated catalogue of events, that build and build to a climax that may not leave you open-mouthed but is still satisfying within the context of the film.
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiano Damiani, USA, 1982)
Exploiting the burgeoning home video market in the early 1980s, many of the horror giants of the previous decade were joining a production line of low-budget sequels to keep fans happy, and the Amityville series was no exception. Loosely based on the real-life DeFeo murders that took place in the house in 1974 – 18 months before George and Kathy Lutz lived there – the film begins with the family (the name has been changed to Montelli) moving in. Headed by abusive father Anthony (Burt Young), the religious family have barely unpacked before local priest Father Adamsky (James Olson) pays a visit and gets a uneasy feeling, not only from Montelli Senior’s stand-offish attitude but also eldest child Sonny (Jack Magner), who is beginning to display some odd characteristics. These include pulsating cysts in his neck, a pale complexion, threats to shoot his father and voices on his personal stereo telling him to “shoot that pig”.
Before long Sonny has started an incestuous relationship with his teenage sister and starts paying serious notice to the voices coming from his headphones, culminating in the shooting of his whole family – mother, father, two sisters and brother – on a stormy night. Believing that Sonny is being held by demonic forces, Father Adamsky intervenes after he is arrested for the murders. He helps Sonny to escape custody and is led back to the house, where Adamsky goes head-to-head with the demon inside Sonny in a battle for the young man’s soul.
It all sounds terribly exciting, and compared to the first film it is. The film maintains the same Lalo Schifrin score, is fairly faithful in tone and atmosphere and is very chilling, although the poetic cinematography of the original movie has been replaced by a more brutal aesthetic. Obviously riffing on The Exorcist, there are plenty of pulsating veins, green slime and eerie noises to compete with the wave of darker and edgier horror films that were coming through on the video market.
The main thing that lets the film down though is the pretty lame script and the way in which it is delivered by some of the stars. Burt Young is probably the best known actor here and is pretty solid doing his bad-tempered Italian turn, but Rutanya Alda as his wife Delores and, to a lesser extent, Diane Franklin as eldest daughter Patricia are pretty bad, either shouting or whining their lines. Commando star James Olson hams it up as the desperate priest Adamsky, and Jack Magner is worthy of mention as he actually does a good job as the troubled Sonny. Strange that he never went on to do anything else.
But as a piece of early ’80s horror, it does its job pretty well. There are plenty of flaws to pick through: if this is set in 1974 then how come Sonny has a personal stereo and why does everybody drive ’80s cars? Whatever, it still works and as long as you don’t view it as a historical document of what actually happened to the real-life DeFeo family, then it’s probably the most entertaining film of the series.
Amityville 3-D (Richard Fleischer, USA, 1983)
Yes, you read that title right, as the thing to do back in the early ’80s was to make your third instalment in glorious 3-D. Jaws and Friday the 13th did it, so when it came to revisiting 112 Ocean Avenue the filmmakers pulled out all the stops to make sure that their film was the best of the bunch. Sadly it didn’t quite work out that way.
The film (also known as Amityville III: The Demon) stars Tony Roberts as John Baxter, an investigative journalist looking to expose the hoax hauntings and seances that are allegedly taking place in the house (the character is supposedly based on Stephen Kaplan, a paranormal investigator who was trying to expose the Lutz’s story as a hoax). After calling the bluff of some fake mediums, Baxter meets up with the real estate agent who owns the house and, as he has just gone through a divorce, decides to buy it at a knockdown rate. Needless to say, the usual strange events start up once Baxter has moved in, although this time it all seems to happening to the people around him rather than himself. That is, until his daughter Susan and her friends take a ride on the boating lake by the house and Susan loses her life. But John’s ex-wife Nancy (Tess Harper) has just seen her in the house, so what is going on? Maybe the covered-up pit in the basement holds the key…
Of course it does. Also featuring a young Meg Ryan as Susan’s friend Lisa and Land of the Dead/The Hills Have Eyes actor Robert Joy as Baxter’s doctor friend Elliot West, Amityville 3-D is quite possibly one of the most dreary and dull films ever made. Lacking any sort of atmosphere, it borrows elements from other films – most notably The Omen and its use of photographs predicting death – and doesn’t really attempt to do anything throughout its running time except make you wish the end was a bit nearer. Tony Roberts bumbles his way through the (non-de)script like a daytime TV soap actor, Robert Joy provides the overacting that James Olson and Rod Steiger did so much better in the first two films, and everybody else is just bland or unlikeable.
Not a lot else to say about it really. The scenes that were obviously set up for the 3-D effects are obvious and pointless, and the demon of the alternative title doesn’t appear until the last scene… and then disappears after about five seconds. But even though this is a masterclass in boring the hell out of the audience, it isn’t even the worst of the series. That would come later…