24 January 2010

Amityville II: The Possession Is the Only Amityville You Need

Amityville II: The Possession (1982)
Directed by Damiano Damiani. Starring James Olson, Burt Young, Jack Magner, Diane Franklin, Rutanya Alda, Moses Gunn.

Younger viewers today may wonder why the whole “Amityville Horror” ordeal was such a phenomenon and success in the late 1970s. The series of movies and cluster of books are mostly terrible, and have never developed any of the dedicated following that other horror franchises have attracted. The 2005 re-make of the 1979 movie The Amityville Horror was met with tepid indifference (although I think it’s marginally superior to the ‘79 film), and talks of another Amityville film are meeting equal indifference.

Of course, the reason that Amityville got so much traction with the public in its day was because it was sold as a “true story” and was plastered all over TV talk shows, newsmagazine programs, In Search Of…, newspapers, and tabloids. As the “true” part started showing its seams—such as a Brooklyn District Court decision that ruled the story was wholly or in most part a fabrication—readers and viewers still showed immense interest in the tale of a demonically possessed Long Island Dutch Colonial mansion. After all, the public, in love with movies like The Exorcist and The Omen, didn’t want to hear about an “unhaunted house.” Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur. (The Snopes article about the events is definitely worth reading.)

Helping to make the haunting story stick is the continual public fascination with gruesome murders. The 100% true part of the story, unfortunately, is the 1974 mass-killing of the DeFeo family in the house. The eldest son, Ronald DeFeo Jr., was convicted of the murders against the defense’s plea of insanity; he’s still serving a life sentence.

Now, detach Jay Anson’s book The Amityville Horror, the supposed story of the Lutz family who moved into the house a year after the DeFeo killings, and the 1979 American International movie from their cultural context and you’ll find both are complete duds. The book is trashy and ludicrous, and the movie is an utter bore. It’s gained semi-classic status merely because of the ‘70s horror mania and the hoopla about the house. It was also an enormous hit at the time, guaranteeing a sequel. Many sequels came, but except for the first two (and the recent re-make) all of them went straight to TV, cable, or video. Multiple production companies leaped in to make tie-in films, since the name of the town isn’t copyrighted and anybody can make a movie with “Amityville” in the title.

There’s probably no need to mention how much the real town of Amityville hates all this.

However, the first sequel, 1982’s Amityville II: The Possession, is the only film in the series I can recommend. It’s an entertaining piece of low-budget supernatural horror made in the middle of the slasher-movie deluge; free of the constraints of the lame Jay Anson book, it manages some style and scares that the first film completely lacks. It has many flaws, especially a second half that looks just too much like a certain 1973 hit movie about possession, but it actually entertains.
The movie makes some slight pretension to the “true story” business, since it’s based on Hans Holzer’s book Murder in Amityville, which “paranormals up” the DeFeo killings to try to make them supernatural occurrences as well. Amityville II: The Possession appears to be a prequel to the first movie, telling the story of the DeFeos, renamed the Montellis, and how the entity in the house possessed the oldest son and sent him on his killing spree. However, the continuity of the movie is strange, no mention is ever made of The Amityville Horror, events in this film don’t match the flashbacks in the first, and the killings are so heavily fictionalized that the movie might be best considered as taking place in an alternate universe. Only the original theatrical poster (click on it to see a larger version) makes a direct temporal connection between the two, indicating this is the family that lived in the house before the Lutzes.

(If you want the true story of the DeFeo killings, the book about the trial, High Hopes: The Amityville Murders by Gerald Sullivan and Harvey Aronson, is excellent if you can find a used copy.)

Dino DeLaurentiis handled the production of this film, with Italian director Damiano Damiani (who made the superb Western A Bullet for the General) behind the camera and John Carpenter collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace on the script. Most of the film was shot in Churubusco Azteca Studios in Mexico, although the house exteriors were filmed at the Tom’s River, NJ home that stood in for the real house in the first movie. (The current owners of the house, sick of publicity and tourists bothering them, didn’t want film crews anywhere near their home.)

The movie opens with the familiar strains of Lalo Schifrin’s score from the first movie, an eerie two-note motif. Schifrin’s score was the only superb element of The Amityville Horror, earning it an Academy Award Nomination and status as one of the great scores in horror movie history. It’s a pleasure having Schifrin back on the sequel.

The faux-DeFeos, the Montellis, waste no time aggravating viewers. Swarthy Burt Young plays Mr. Anthony Montelli as a crude, belt-wielding, wife-abusing brute. Oldest child Sonny (Jack Magner) is a rebellious youth already at odds with his father (he smokes, the little punk!). Mrs. Dolores Montelli (Rutanya Alda) is trembling, easily frightened, and under her husband’s stubborn boot. The bright spot is oldest daughter Patricia “Trish” (Diane Franklin), a sweet teen girl. Franklin gives the film’s best performance, moving between a sparkling innocence to complex feelings of confusion.
Although the Montellis get on each other’s nerves in shouting fights so fast that you really can’t blame a haunted house for any of it, at least it’s something happening—which the first movie managed to avoid at every point. I can’t deny that watching Burt Young do his tough bastard schtick is enjoyable; if he had taken the belt to the demon instead of his two youngest children, it would have saved the whole family a lot of grief.

Quick kudos to the real-life siblings Erika and Brent Katz, who play the youngest Montellis. They don’t have a huge impact on the story, but their camaraderie is very realistic; it’s easy to tell that they are actual brother and sister and they aren’t really “acting.” The young children in the first film were practically non-entities, so this bit of realism goes a long way in improving the sequel.

The house moves much faster this time, painting demonic portraits on the wall, giving the family weird visions, protruding an arm from a ghastly secret room in basement, covering up a crucifix with a cloth so it can go about its business, etc. But mostly, the entity in the house works on the surly Sonny, first speaking to him through the headphones of his Walkman and telling him that Paul is a dead man miss him miss him to kill his family; then fully possessing him in a long sequence where director Damiani goes full assault with odd camera moves and atmospheric photography, and the prosthetics department starts applying various throbbing veins and protrusion on actor Magner’s face and arms. The scene eventually goes over the top with its stylizations, like when the demon plays hop-on-pop on Sonny, but it still manages to entertain.

The movie’s most notorious and creepy scene has Sonny seducing his sister Trish. It’s easy to blame the entity for this, but the movie had already shown that the two older siblings have an odd relationship, and that Trish isn’t adverse to the idea from the beginning. She later admits that she feels “no guilt” about it, although her actions show she’s very bewildered. The entire incest angle is the most interesting part of the script, raising questions and creating goosebumps that many of the overt “horror” sequences don’t duplicate.
This is the Gas Company, reminding you not to store combustibles with your demon
Unfortunately, after Sonny finally answers the call of the demon inside him and goes on the killing spree, the movie has forty-five minutes of running time left, and it’s a steep fall-off from here as the story becomes a blatant rip-off of The Exorcist. Could the make-up on Sonny have at least tried to look slightly different than a photo-duplicate of Linda Blair’s make-up? Father Adamsky (top-billed James Olson) tries to exorcise the demon in Sonny, but has to break him out of jail because, for some reason, he must do the rite in the church. (Damn medieval fine-print!) Events such as the demon casting his Level 5 Wall of Fire spell, force the action back to the house… but the guts are already out of the movie, and Olson’s white bread performance can’t carry it. There’s only so much I can enjoy of shots of a priest walking around a poorly lit house commanding the evil presence to please just go away. However, there are some fine air bladder effects for the emerging of the demon from Sonny’s flesh, a huge piece of pyrotechnics (which the house somehow immediately repairs), and a quietly striking coda. But overall, the last part of the movie is self-defeating.

If you feel the need to experience anything with the name “Amityville” in it—and I don’t see why you would—then Amityville II: The Possession is the only choice.

For those of you who would rather have a quick fix, you can hear some of Schifrin’s great score in the movie’s trailer (which repeats the claims from the poster as well):