Orion Pictures serve up a nasty slice of supernatural horror. And I mean nasty.
1979’s The Amityville Horror never really spoke to me. I mean, I get it. It has that ‘based on true events’ aura, an iconic house that glows with a vague sentience, and a rather fine cast that includes Westworld‘s James Brolin, Superman‘s Margot kidder and a particularly brilliant Rod Steiger as the fly-ridden priest who is told, unequivocally, to sling his holy hook.
At the time of its release, The Amityville Horror was one of the highest-grossing independent films in history; partly due to the real-life story of George Lutz and his family, previously documented in Jay Anson’s quasi-fictional novel, and partly, it seems, because of the mainstream success of movies such as Richard Donner’s spawn of Satan saga The Omen and William Friedkin’s hugely controversial possession movie The Exorcist, also based on a novel that was based on a true story. Apparently.
It’s unsurprising, then, that The Amityville Horror holds such a lofty place in the horror pantheon, spawning a whole plethora of sequels. As franchises go, it gave us some real stinkers, but the original film’s popularity led to an inexhaustible franchise that even warranted an (absolutely woeful) reboot, and when you think of horror franchises it’s certainly up there. Hell, it was even the inspiration for a segment in The Simpsons’ very first Halloween special back in 1990. Whatever your opinion of a movie that exceeded all expectation, it certainly resonated with the public’s imagination.
The Amityville Horror dealt with the purported experiences of the Lutz family, who would move into the infamous Dutch Colonial house in the suburb of Amityville in Long Island, New York. The family claimed to have been subjected to 28 days of sheer torment at the hands of a malevolent spirit. Note the word Hands in that sentence. I’m referring to an inanimate object the way one would typically refer to a living, breathing entity.
The ‘unseen’ evil is a concept as old as cinema. In the 1940s, influential horror director Val Lewton, who would invent a technique known as the ‘Lewton Bus’, made an entire career out of the unseen presence. The ‘Lewton Bus’, a jump scare that first occurred in Lewton’s 1942 movie The Cat People, is something you’ll have seen a thousand times. In fact, in today’s industry it is second nature. The ‘Lewton Bus’ is a technique that slowly builds tension before startling the viewer with an incident that turns out to be innocuous. Think of the scene in The Exorcist in which a tentative Ellen Burstyn peruses the attic with a candle. The scene draws us in as Burstyn explores the barely lit space. We’re expecting to be confronted by some kind of evil, but when the candle’s flame suddenly flashes, Burstyn turns to find not a malevolent spirit, but Rudolf Schündler’s utterly harmless Carl, who is lambasted for creeping up on her. It’s a beautifully orchestrated scene that plays on audience expectation.
The Amityville Horror doesn’t handle things quite so well. The movie works as a dreary, oppressive exercise that wears you down psychologically, which is precisely the point, but I’m never convinced by the house’s unseen evil, or the visual fancies the evil sometimes assumes: the blood-excreting walls, the ludicrous ‘you scared Jody!’ moment with the bright lights peering through the window, patriarch George’s reflection behind the wall of the cellar. It’s all rather ludicrous.
Part of this has to do with the fact that we need evil to inhabit a living organism in order to feel any true semblance of fear. There are exceptions — 1963’s The Haunting and 1982‘s Poltergeist just two examples — but if the house is evil, you can always leave. If a loved one is the subject of that possession, it’s rather more difficult to shunt it to one side. It’s no surprise that The Amityville Horror works best when Brolin’s George reaches for the axe and does the whole Jack Nicholson in The Shining shtick. It’s wholly derivative and not half as effective, but we now have a flesh incubator to fear, the threat of emotional consequence allowing proceedings that much-needed edge. And Brolin is excellent, by the way.
Father Adamsky: Is it you’re intention, not to show yourself again?
Sonny Montelli: I could.
Father Adamsky: When?
Sonny Montelli: When, I please!
The real-life Lutz didn’t stalk his family with an axe with the kind of “Here’s Johnny!” abandonment that invariably sells tickets, but the film’s finale does have one foot in reality. A fictional Lutz’s turn is actually a riff on a previous Amityville-related story, one with actual evidence to back it up. A year prior to the real-life Lutz’ supposed hardship, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed six members of his family in the very same house and was later tried for second degree murder. Though DeFeo would plead insanity, claiming to have heard voices in his head, there were no supernatural elements tied to the crime.
Those claims came after DeFeo’s attorney, William Weber, began fielding book proposals for his client’s story. The Lutz family had previously met with the lawyer, and their haunted house yarn was the perfect way to drum up interest in the book. Weber didn’t believe their story, and actually recalls what were essentially creative writing sessions over many bottles of wine. Weber attributed his distrust to the fact that the Lutzes were “making a commercial venture.”
And so we come to Amityville II: The Possession, a movie that scared the living shit out of me as a boy. I put this so bluntly because there is simply no other way to put it. There were many films that affected me as a child, but very few got under my skin quite like Amityville II: The Possession, an often wicked film that left a nasty taste in the mouth and a vile bug in the brain, the kind that took me several weeks to expel.
There were other films that affected me deeply. There was something about Carpenter’s grainy, low-budget slasher Halloween that was profoundly unsettling: the barely glimpsed menace, the quiet omnipotence, that bloodcurdling score ― it was as terrifying in the light of day as it was in the shifting shadows of night. When I was five, I accidentally walked in on the scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street where Freddy’s glove appears between Nancy’s legs and fled in a bluster of tears. It was weeks before I could be left alone in the bathroom again, though Krueger quickly became an infatuation.
Those films are infinitely better than Amityville II: The Possession, but they left half the impression on me in terms of pure terror. After all, this is a film that manages to wrap a haunted house tale, demonic possession, domestic abuse and even incest into a neat commercial package. But this is deeply unnerving stuff. In fact, there are times when the film is absolutely unconscionable, an indiscretion shy of becoming Satan himself.
Written by Halloween III: Season of the Witch director Tommy Lee Wallace, Amityville II: The Possession is actually a prequel of sorts. I write ‘of sorts’ because though it taps into the tragedy of the DeFeo family’s multiple shooting, it actually follows the story of the Montelli family, presumably for legal reasons. There’s no literal indication that this is a prequel, but due to its similarities with the DeFeo case, it is certainly one in spirit. The film also borrows from that of the Lutz family, as well as bits and bobs from a myriad of existing horror movies, aping everything from The Shining to The Exorcist.
When it comes to piling on the misery, it doesn’t mess around either. Before the movie is twenty minutes old the family are at each other’s throats after so many strange occurrences you’d think the Montelli’s would have immediately packed their bags and abandoned ship. As soon as they arrive, matriarch Delores (Rutanya Alda) has been groped in the cellar by an ethereal presence and has even witnessed blood pouring out of the kitchen tap, something she immediately laughs off (presumably she mistook the unmistakably thick, crimson tide for built-up sludge), and this is just the beginning. Director Damiano Damiani serves up a relentless onslaught of unpleasantness, one so blatant and on the nose you just can’t take your eyes off it.
I think part of the reason why the film struck such a nerve all those years ago is the fact that the home’s evil presence communicates with Sonny through his Walkman. I had a Walkman back then, or at least a cheap, non-Sony rip-off with the kind of headphones that inflicted their own evil by pulling out your hair strand-by-strand. That was the superficial element that really troubled me. What if a voice began communicating with me too? What in the hell was I supposed to do? It inspired feelings of inescapable doom, of mental imprisonment, and there’s nothing scarier than complete, psychological breakdown.
Demons’ Voice: [through Sonny’s cassette player] Why didn’t you pull the trigger? Why didn’t you shoot that pig?
But the film — a yucky slice of trash cinema with a real mean streak — resonated with me on a much deeper level. It doesn’t grab you with clever writing or technical panache or a profound understanding of its subject. It’s simply mean-spirited, bombarding us with icky moments of graceless, yet effective practical effects grotesquery. It also benefits from a colossal score by legendary composer Lalo Schifrin, which leaps from eerie lullaby to indomitable evil with an alarming jolt, and the sound effects are just awful. Not in the pejorative sense. They’re just deeply unpleasant in a way that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Eldest boy Sonny’s demonic transformation is also a sight to behold. The make-up can look shoddy at times, but during the film’s most infamous scenes, bathed in swathes of darkness, it looks the business. The initial possession is just excruciating. An unseen evil pursues Sonny from the basement to his bedroom in POV and pushes him back onto his bed, where cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo practically rapes actor Jack Magner with the camera, zooming in and out as the physical transformation begins.
From there the movie grows sleazier by the scene. There are so many queer moments, like when youngest sister Jan simulates suffocating her even younger brother by putting a plastic bag over his head like a deranged serial killer. Not because she’s possessed. Just for regular, everyday fun. The Amityville House isn’t subtle like before either. There’s no room for misinterpretation here. The seemingly inanimate scourge flaunts its wickedness for the sheer thrill of it. Blood, vomit, petulant acts of feng shui, it will stop at nothing to revile it seems, and Sonny’s bubbling, mutating head can be a real eyesore, but the film is much meaner than mere visual fancies.
Amityville II: The Possession is infamous for its scenes of domestic abuse, the kind that have grown even more disturbing in the ensuing years. Corporal punishment may have been alive and well in some quarters back in 1982, but there’s just no place for it in today’s world, and the film is a stark reminder of a more barbaric mentality. Burt Young’s curmudgeon patriarch, Anthony, is the primary culprit, and no one is out of bounds it seems. He smacks his wife around with the reckless abandon of a caveman with a rather severe toothache. His eldest boy has the cynical tongue of someone who has suffered his fair share of thrashings, and when the unseen evil paints satanic emblems on the bedroom wall of Anthony’s youngest, he is quick to reach for the belt.
Young is inspired casting. He was no doubt picked due to his abusive relationship with fictional sister Adrian as the downtrodden Paulie in Stallone’s timeless underdog tale Rocky, but Wallace’s screenplay gives us very little reason to empathise with the character, which is indicative of the film’s despairingly despondent tone. Like Jack Torrance before him, Anthony’s history of abuse is the perfect trigger for the family’s complete emotional meltdown, but there’s just too much of it. With The Shining Kubrick alluded to violence, but Damiani rams it down our throat along with his entire arm. Even mommy dearest dishes out the whacks when push comes to shove. It’s a total smackfest.
Even more troubling is the film’s incest angle. The domestic abuse element is a tough watch all these years later, but the fact that the movie is almost forty years old softens the blow somewhat. And I must stress to you the word Somewhat. As for the incestuous side of things, there’s just no excusing it. I hadn’t seen Amityville II for many years, and I’d forgotten just how twisted it is. I remembered the scene in which eldest sister Patricia (80s icon Dianne Franklin) is encouraged to strip off and taken advantage of by older brother Sonny, but I imagined it to be justifiable based on the fact that he was already in the throes of possession, that this was ultimately the devil’s work. No such luck.
Even before Sonny becomes possessed their relationship is utterly disquieting. The two obviously care for each other — which makes affairs even more icky — but before they’ve even unpacked they’re all over one another. There’s no sexual action — yet — but the two are touchy-feely from the off, embracing each other the way an amorous young couple might and casually swapping lewd innuendo, half-joking that they’re not each other’s type. I could understand it if they were step-siblings. Kids are hormone-ridden, lacking in foresight and prone to temptation, but the two are flesh and blood relations. It’s all just a little queasy.
The scene that everyone most remembers sees a mutated Sonny stalking his family through the Amityville house with his father’s rifle, and it is still utterly devastating. Don’t expect too much subtlety here. This was the scene that most resonated with me as a kid, and it’s no wonder. Mom and pops are dispatched with such depleting effrontery you’re left feeling kind of breathless, and though it stops short of showing the two youngest kids being murdered, you see Jan’s twitching feet as she passes, which in itself seems like overkill.
Sonny: [with Patricia’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, her lips an inch away from his] Hey, you’re getting heavy.
Patricia: You used to hug me all the time.
Sonny: That was when you were younger.
Patricia: [swinging from Sonny like a lovesick puppy] No, that’s because now you’re old and snotty.
Sonny: There’s another reason.
Sonny: You’re not my type.
Patricia: [sighs] You like them tall? [cups her breasts] Big boobs, right?
Sonny: [flirting] That’s none of your business. [growing earnest] How about you? What’s your type?
Infant Mark’s slaughter is even more jarring. He is zoomed out of shot before the trigger is pulled but the lurking Sonny, all harsh shadows and gleaming malevolence, shoots him at point blank range in the back. Then it’s the previously molested Patricia’s turn. Father Adamsky, having seen the events in a premonitory dream, even unzips a body bag to perform the last rights as the family are unceremoniously shipped off to the morgue. Not the father’s, the mother’s or even the teenager’s, but the youngest girl’s. Did we really need the image of her lifeless corpse staring back at us?
Astonishingly, it could have been a whole lot worse had it not been for an initial test screening that went down like a heavily-weighted corpse. Several scenes had to be scrapped completely, including one in which abusive sourpuss Anthony anal rapes Dolores. Whose carnal urges were they attempting to fulfil here? It was clearly something moviegoers weren’t too happy about seeing. Apparently, the incest scene was added by Damiani with the sole intention of shocking audiences, and it all seems a little self-motivated on the director’s part, as if he’s getting some kind of cheap, personal thrill out of the whole ordeal. Sonny and Patricia’s incestuous meeting was also much more graphic in the original cut, providing viewers with a warts-and-all front-row ticket to the dance. Good riddance, I say!
The final act is all about Sonny’s absolution, but a fat lot of good that will do him in the eyes of the law. The boy’s better off dead. After being shipped off for psychoanalysis, Sonny claims not to remember his crimes, though the demon still inhabits his soul, revealing itself as and when it pleases. Ultimately, it becomes a crude imitation of The Exorcist, continually highlighting just how good that film is with it’s shoddy dubbing and an admittedly shabby practical effects finale. It’s much less engrossing than the first two acts, fading with a rather dissatisfying whimper, but the film’s set-pieces and instances of moral ambiguity stay with you. It’s cheap, nasty and compels like the power of Christ. Kind of.
Following her early molestation, Patrica confesses her sin to Father Adamsky, telling him that Sonny ‘does it’ to her to “hurt God”, and though I’m not religious myself, the whole film might be worthy of that accusation. What makes it so dreary is that it lacks any semblance of humour. You may smirk at some of the SFX, but it’s played as straight as a die. Damiani’s much-anticipated sequel was widely reviled back in 1982, and rightly so. But if you’re looking for horror in the purest sense, look no further. Amityville II: The Possession is the real deal.