On November 13, 1974, at his residence of 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo strode from room to room and methodically shotgunned his parents and four brothers and sisters to death in their beds. He later claimed during his trial that he was instructed to carry out these murders at the behest of disembodied voices. 13 months later, the Lutz family moved into the vacated house, only to flee 28 days later claiming to have been besieged by paranormal phenomena. The Lutz’s story was turned into Jay Anson’s “true-account” haunted house bestseller in 1977, which was subsequently adapted into a feature film in 1979. The film was critically savaged, but enormously successful with moviegoers, eventually grossing over $86 million. With the sequel-happy ’80s just around the corner, it was a no-brainer that follow-ups would ensue…and did they ever. As of this writing, there are 11 separate Amityville films, including the not-bad Ryan Reynolds/Susan George remake of 2005, the first three of which have been recently given the Blu-ray treatment by the superb folks at Shout! Factory.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The original screen version of Anson’s book has some moments of real fright and just as many of unmitigated silliness. Newlyweds James Brolin and Margot Kidder move their family to an upstate New York residence, whose idyllic exteriors belie a dark past of madness and murder. Visiting priest Rod Steiger receives the first indication that all is not well in a memorable early scene (spawning the famous “Get out!” tagline), and things head quickly downhill for the new homeowners. The biggest problem with Sandor Stern’s script is its lack of cumulative effect and its onslaught of weird happenings that are rarely addressed afterwards.
Plot holes abound as director Stuart Rosenberg strives for a roller-coaster ride, but for every inspired moment, there are dozens ripped off from other, better efforts. Things grow progressively hokier, and the unnecessary padding to justify Steiger’s presence doesn’t do the leaden pacing any favors. That said, the fever pitch finale is a winner even as it goes completely off the rails in terms of believable storytelling. For better or worse Lalo Schifrin’s sing-song, Oscar-nominated score (which occasionally borrows heavily from Bernard Herrmann) will probably stay in your head much longer than anything else.
Amityville II: The Possession (1982)
The second Amityville film is essentially a prequel, with screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace telling a fictionalized version of the DeFeo murders. Sonny Montelli (Jack Magner) becomes possessed by a malignant spirit due to the house being buried on a sacred Indian burial ground, a claim which parapsychologist Hans Holzer (upon whose book, Murder in Amityville, Wallace’s story is based) believes to be closer to the truth than the “portal to Hell” storyline introduced in the original. Here, the Montellis are presented as an already broken family; tyrannical Burt Young lords over his brood with fists and belt at the ready, while unhappy mom Rutanya Alda does her best to keep things from getting too out of control.
Director Damiano Damiani moves his camera to and fro, high and low with virtuosic agility, but the creepier moments are the quieter ones, such as when Sonny seduces his adorable younger sister, played by the adorable Diane Franklin. The first hour acts as preamble to the murders, and as they play out in brutal and startling fashion, the sequence packs quite a punch. The final act takes a wicked left turn into true supernatural fancy as tenacious priest James Olsen takes center stage, attempting to rid Sonny of the evil within. Damiani’s giddy melodrama is aided immeasurably by John Caglione’s special makeup effects and assorted demonic pyrotechnics.
Amityville 3D (aka Amityville III: The Demon) (1983)
Dino De Laurentiis, who also exec-produced Amityville II, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the revived 3D craze of the early 80s and cranked out this loopy follow-up to the events of the 1979 original. Tony Roberts, best known as a supporting ensemble player in Woody Allen early features, stars alongside Candy Clark as a couple of expose artists/journalists for “Reveal” magazine who make their living debunking the supernatural. So, it only makes sense that Roberts, recently divorced from shrill battle axe Tess Harper, wouldn’t be afraid to take up residence in the ol’ haunted Amityville house, right? As you might guess, Ol’ Shutter Eyes ain’t happy about this, unleashing all manner of mischief upon anyone who wanders by...in COMIN’ ATCHA ACTION!!! Glasses, pipes, Frisbees, frost and flies are all hurled at the camera with great gusto, but the camp factor outweighs the scares by 100 to 1.
The supporting cast also includes honey pie Lori Loughlin as Roberts’ daughter and fresh-faced Meg Ryan as her bosom buddy, the blonde providing the background of the DeFeo murders (apparently one-off screenwriter William Wales had enough of the Montelli nonsense) for those who missed the first two films. Robert Joy also has a decent part as a parapsychologist investigator. Veteran director Richard Fleischer (10 Rillington Place, Fantastic Voyage, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Compulsion) sleepwalks through the frights by serving up a truly ridiculous elevator run amuck, a wheezy bathroom-walls-closing-in, a blah séance, another frickin’ swarm o’ flies, etc.
There are a few bright moments, such as Clark’s automotive run-in with a truck carrying drain pipes, Harper’s stairwell encounter with a watery ghost, or the random Arctic blast attack, but it isn’t until the last reel that we get some enjoyably bonkers monster movie magic (courtesy of the revived portal to Hell) and an explosive crash boom bam psychokinetic snowstorm.
As you might have gathered, the Amityville films aren’t exactly the stuff of quality, but that hasn’t stopped Shout! Factory from pulling out every pretty bow in the basket to dress up these red-eyed pigs. Cataloguing the supplemental features is akin to rattling off an entire orphanage’s Christmas wish-list, but we’ll give it a whirl. (Avid Amityville fans be advised: Those who order their Amityville Horror Trilogy box set from ScreamfactoryDVD.com will receive the exclusive 18 x 24” poster featuring the new box cover artwork.)
For the 1979 original, the fun starts with the ported over 2004 MGM documentary, For God’s Sake Get Out, which features chats with Brolin, Kidder and other players. Everyone seems to be in great humor, even as the two stars reveal that life on the set wasn’t always so rosy due to their differing approaches to the craft. (Looking back, Brolin’s crazy Amityville hair and beard definitely deserved their own screen credit.) This is followed by “Haunted Melodies”, a new 9-minute Red Shirt Pictures featurette with composer Lalo Schifrin who performed scoring duties for the first two features before hanging the baton off to Howard Blake.
The original ghost hunter, Hans Holzer, provides an extremely informative audio commentary, discussing the DeFeo case in great detail although it’s clear that he thinks much of the Lutz account is invented, and then further embellished for Hollywood’s purposes. Holzer truly believes the story of an Indian chief’s spirit possessing the land, and makes a great distinction about it being the land that is haunted, not the house. (This is mentioned repeatedly.) Though there are a few moments of dead air, he provides a great deal of intriguing information regarding the paranormal...although he rarely comments on what is actually happening on screen. He also enjoys a few digressions, talking about his feelings about the afterlife, the “business of religion” and even plugging his literary C.V. His utter disgust and indignation, seeing it as disrespectful to the true story, toward the “fictions” presented during the film’s last 15 minutes (ostensibly the most enjoyable for horror fans) is pretty hilarious.
The second disc is where things really get cooking. My personal favorite of the three showcased features, it’s nice to see how much love is lavished upon this underrated effort (which also appears on Rue Morgue’s "200 Alternate Horror Films" list) by Michael Felsher and his Red Shirt cohorts. The always gracious and appreciative Tommy Lee Wallace lends his voice to “Adapting Amityville,” discussing how much he enjoyed working under the Laurentiis banner and how, as an aspiring director himself, he felt some discontent with Damiani’s approach to the material at the time of release but now quite enjoys the final result. “Family Matters” features a conversation with the still lovely and charming Diane Franklin, discussing the still-oogy incest sequence between herself and Magner, revealing that the actor generally kept himself at a distance from the rest of the group, preferring to stay in character. (By contrast, she says Burt Young was a dreamboat.)
Stalwart character actress Rutanya Alda has the best set stories in “A Mother’s Burden,” talking about how co-star James Olsen had the cast’s Mexico City hotels swapped after finding their original lodging nearly cracked in half by a recent earthquake, as well as the challenges of fight scenes with the enthusiastic Young or repeated takes of falling dead on a hard wooden floor. Genre vet Andrew Prine pops up for “Father Tom’s Memories,” but doesn’t have much to add to the conversation, which reflects his nearly incidental role in the film.
David Gregory of Severin Films also kicks in the engaging “Possession of Damiani,” an interview with the late director before his death in March of 2013. (We do see several of the same film clips pop up in the various featurettes, but it’s a small quibble.) There’s also a fun “Easter Egg,” a 90-second interview with Stephan Dupuis (co-Oscar winner for The Fly with Chris Walas, don’t ya know) talking about his work on the film under Caglione with a snazzy Charles Bronson portrait in the background.
Alexandra Holzer, daughter of Hans, is interviewed for a segment entitled “Continuing the Hunt,” talking about her experiences growing up at her father’s knee and her frustrations with the glut of ghost hunter television programs proliferating today. She’s quick to blame Hollywood’s proclivities for hiring men, but one only needs to listen to her alternate audio track (if you can get through it, that is) to realize that the answer as to why she hasn’t gotten her own show has less to do with her sex and much more to do with her lack of presence and insight. Her “commentary” consists primarily of dictating what we’re seeing onscreen (“Here’s the first paranormal experience the mother encounters...”) and calling out the “Hollywood” elements added by the filmmakers, which is pretty much everything. Wait, you mean Ronald DeFeo didn’t escape from prison and return to his house for a final showdown with a priest? He didn’t crack open to reveal a demon inside? The house didn’t explode in a fireball? Wow, thanks Alex. There’s nothing worthwhile learned here that we don’t get from Holzer Sr.’s track on the ’79 film, and to make matters worse, for some reason the audio engineers only give us her audio, which means that whenever she isn’t talking – which is a lot of the time – we can’t even hear the movie playing underneath. It’s easily the WORST audio commentary I’ve EVER heard, and I’m surprised that Shout! Factory didn’t just eat her session fee and find someone else. (Was Tommy Lee Wallace busy?) Avoid like the plague.
The main attraction for Amityville 3D is that it is now available for the first time with 3D Blu-ray capability, but since I’m currently lacking the requisite technology to properly show it off, I’ll have to postpone my thoughts on the matter until a later date. However, there’s a 10-minute interview, “A Chilly Reception,” with the still charming and gorgeous Candy Clark to make up the difference. The actress laughingly remembers being nearly paralyzed from the waist down for the first day of shooting due to leg cramps brought on by hiking the Teotihuacan pyramids in Mexico City, as well as the trials of having hot wax blown into her face and hair in order to look like she was getting the frosty demonic treatment. There are also original theatrical trailers for each of the films on their respective discs.
The Amityville Horror Trilogy will be released October 1, 2013 from Shout! Factory, just in time to kick off your Halloween season. Pre-order your copy HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine