Full disclosure: The Amityville Horror films do not make up my favorite franchise. And it has nothing to do with the central “haunted house” premise, but rather the execution of the series thus far, from the serviceable ground zero template, The Amityville Horror (1979) through the (as yet unseen) upcoming Amityville: The Awakening, with some stops in between at DTVville (not to mention the Ryan Reynolds remake; but I said not to mention, so not mention I shall). The name is so shopworn now that “Amityville” has become synonymous with “poopy”.
But, but, BUT…let’s rewind to a time when a follow up to the kind-of goofy James Brolin (and his glorious perm) starrer was actually anticipated. That film was a smash success at the box office, and the powers that be wanted to revisit the village of Amityville to see what other demons they could find in the basement. The result? 1982’s Amityville II: The Possession, a film that sets itself above (and apart) from the series by leaving a burning bag of Eurosleaze on the front doorstep, ringing the bell, and running away. And I mean that as a compliment.
Released by Orion Pictures in late September, the Dino De Laurentiis production put $5 million US into sweat equity, and sold the property to the public with a final tally of just over $12 million. They turned a profit, but it was a far cry from the original’s $86 million windfall. Let’s not forget though that II came out in the age of slashers, so that certainly had an effect on its returns (well, that and incest, but we’ll get there in a bit). Regardless, Amityville II goes for the weird, and for the majority of its running time succeeds in smearing a hypnotic, trashy aesthetic across the screen. Even after a scant three years, this was not your mother’s Amityville Horror.
Let’s start with the irrefutable: Eldest son Ronald DeFeo (age 23) killed his family, as they slept in their home, with a rifle on the morning of November 16th, 1974 in the village of Amityville, Long Island, New York. He is currently serving six consecutive life sentences after confessing to the murders of his father, mother, two sisters, and two brothers. More time stamped truths: George and Kathy Lutz and their three kids moved into the same house on December 19th 1975, and fled after 28 days. After recounting their ordeal to author Jay Anson, he wrote an alleged non-fiction book called The Amityville Horror which became a runaway bestseller, in turn becoming the film series we’re currently discussing. Okay, time to pump the fact brakes: In the book, the Lutzes make many a claim, including discordant voices screaming “get out!”, an imaginary pig with glowing, demonic eyes named Jodi, green slime oozing down the walls, and a secret room in the basement with painted walls dubbed The Red Room. The success of the book led to not only the first film, but a follow up tome entitled Murder in Amityville by Hans Holzer, which purports to tell the tale of how DeFeo came to murder his family. (Spoiler alert: Indian burial ground. Further spoiler alert: I’m currently smacking my forehead at this troubling trope.) One written adaptation by Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) later, we arrive at our current film. (Yay. Thanks for sticking around.)
The Montelli clan (name change! You were expecting a documentary?), led by patriarch Anthony (Burt Young – Rocky) and mom Dolores (Rutanya Alda – The Dark Half), move into their new home with eldest son Sonny (Jack Magner – Firestarter), eldest daughter Patricia (Diane Franklin – Better Off Dead), plus younger siblings, Jan and Mark (played by real life siblings Erika and Brent Katz). The Montelli’s already come with baggage; Anthony is an abusive jerk, and Sonny and Patricia seem very friendly toward each other. Before long, the strangeness is upon them: Dolores discovers the secret basement dwelling, obscenities are painted on walls (the two youngest are blamed and beaten by Anthony), and Sonny starts hearing voices in his Walkman (wait – what year is this?) instructing him to kill his family and sleep with Patricia (not in that order; that would just be gross).
Sonny dispatches his family, and is arrested for his crimes. Father Adamsky (James Olson – The Andromeda Strain), who has offered guidance to the family since they moved in, believes Sonny to be possessed, and works to have him released from jail so he can release him from his supernatural captor. Will he be too late, or is the demon just trying to devalue the home so it can buy it for cheap?
Confusion doesn’t necessarily reign, but it is part of the appeal of Amityville II. Take the time frame; I first saw this film when it was released on videotape, and assumed it was a straight up sequel that took place after the first film’s events. Why did I assume this? Well, I had a Walkman just like Sonny, and all the cars seemed to be pretty recent. However, there is no mention of previous homeowner issues; not a speck of slime or demon eyed swine are seen or mentioned. Therefore, it must happen before, right? You could come to that conclusion if you knew the backstory either through the original book or film, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. And if you did know what happened, II doesn’t really follow the reported events too closely anyway – other than “guy kills family, hates storage closet in basement” it’s kind of a clean slate. If it sounds like a bit of a mess, it is; but it’s made very palatable by some divine Italian intervention.
Director Damiano Damiani (The Devil is a Woman) was well respected and established in his homeland for decades by the time he was brought aboard, making melodramas and comedies with the occasional inclusion of Hollywood actors to broaden his films’ appeal. Dardano Sacchetti (The Beyond) was hired to do uncredited rewrites; I’m not sure what, but I can almost promise all of the sensible dialogue in the first half of the film is Wallace, and after Sonny is locked up the screenplay belies a more European sensibility in its handling of the court case and subsequent exorcism. The back half falls a little more in line with the heightened touch (and lowered verbiage) of Italian horror. And yet Damiani holds it together; until we get to the arrest, the film has a kinetic, palpable energy that none of the others in the series come close to, aided considerably by the virtuosic and invasive camerawork of Franco Di Giacomo (Il Postino). Before Sonny is possessed, the camera lurks, swoops, and stalks the family, waiting for the right vessel.
The Montelli’s are damaged goods before they move in, and the wrong cast could have tipped the film into unapologetic melodrama with ease. Young and Olson are the veterans here, and each assays their part with an authority and ballast that balances the scales of good and evil. Anthony is a flat out creep; he beats his kids, controls his wife with fear, and beats his chest in an alpha male war with Sonny. Father Adamsky is filled with empathy for the family against the patriarch, and later, genuine concern for the salvation of Sonny’s soul. Olson’s clear eyed earnestness sells a role that can spill over into pious parody in the wrong hands (see the original AH for a prime example). The wildcard in the cast is Magner, as this was his second and final screen appearance. He generates a lot of sympathy for Sonny, and easily gets the viewer on his side, even while committing several heinous acts. A true shame he never appeared on screen again – it’s a magnetic performance. Franklin, in one of her first roles, already exudes a fresh, easy going charm that transfixed many an adolescent back in the day. She’s very good, even though she has to suffer the indignity of the gratuitous incest subplot. At least Sonny has motivation being possessed by a demon, but I’m not sure about Patricia’s reasoning – maybe she wanted to borrow his Walkman?
Speaking of gratuitous, a discussion on early ‘80s horror would not be complete without a mention of bladder effects. These were really popular in ’81 and ’82; think The Howling, or the sinus pressure buildup in The Beast Within. Sonny goes through a similar ordeal; and as handled by future Oscar winner John Caglione, Jr. (Dick Tracy) and crew, it’s a glorious reminder of the ‘80s special effects adage, More is More.
And really, that’s the adage of this corker. Let’s face it, this type of film was old hat even before Brolin and Kidder moved in to 112 Ocean Avenue. Damiani and friends go the extra mile to ensure a good open house; believable performances where hammy usually resides, up to date effects for the tech savvy, and a stylish finish, all guaranteed to make Amityville II: The Possession the only house worth bidding on. Sure, you don’t expect to see a brother and sister soiling the upholstery, but it helps make for an unforgettable listing, don’t you think?
Amityville II: The Possession is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory as part of The Amityville Horror Trilogy.