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The Series Project: Amityville Horror (Part 2)

Professor Witney Seibold conludes franchise with a theory: is every haunted house movie an Amityville Horror?

 

Okay. The second and final week has now begun on The Series Project: The Amityville Horror, and I have now seen all 10 ½ of these things (last week, I proclaimed that there were 11 Amityville films, but one only sort of qualifies; see below). I sorrowfully report that, even at their high points, these movies just aren’t very good. Like across the board. A few were kind of interesting (last week, I noted that Amityville II: The Possession had, at the very least, a good helping of twisted incestuous sexuality to keep it lively), but on the whole, these movie are pretty dully made, occasionally rock stupid (as in Part 4, which had a killer lamp), and, most regrettably, never scary.

Which is not to say there aren’t some things to be enjoyed. Even bad horror movies can be charming and creative in their gore and nudity. Some of these latter-day Amityville films have some really joyful set pieces. But, now that we’re rounding the corner into Part 6, we find ourselves faced with a pile of jumbled mediocrity, and a canonical through-line that is sketchy at best, and non-existent at worst. The nature of the evil in the Amityville house has not only moved to other houses, but seems unclear in its goals. I understand that the sink of evil can drive people crazy, and make them perform acts of violence and incest (which will happen again, dear readers), but sometimes the ghosts seem active and cogent in their pursuits, and sometimes seem vague and unconnected. Either their ghostliness makes them unfocused, or they just have A.D.D.

The style of these films also mutates and changes depending on the horror trends. So we’ll have a bunch of straight-to-video oddities, one ratcheted-up remake, and a truly terrible found-footage outing. Hang tight. If you made it through the killer lamp, you may be prepared. You may.

Luckily this week, we’ll be starting off with one of the stronger entries in the series.


 

Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (dir. Tony Randel, 1992)

I have to admit, I was actually kind of looking forward to this one. The director, Tony Randel, previously directed Hellbound: Hellraiser II, easily one of the most spectacularly bloody (not to mention most bizarre) slashers of the 1980s. Randel’s use of gorgeous practical effects, and his deliriously rococo sensibilities would, I would hope, translate well to a film about a haunted house and familial angst. And while Amityville 1992 isn’t as good as Hellbound (and I didn’t expect it to be), it’s a sight better than most of the other Amityville sequels for Randel’s contribution. Randel’s career is not entirely luminous; he directed, for instance, episodes of Power Rangers in Space, but if given his druthers, I imagine he could direct a surreal horror classic.

Amityville 1992 plays like a Tales from the Darkside version of a daytime soap. It’s a mite twisted in its sensibilities, and stronger for it.  The story conceit is taken from the lamp from Part 4, in that the evil of the Amityville house has infected an artifact from the house. In this case, the artifact is a cool-looking antique clock. The film’s subtitle clearly spells out what the clock can do: It’s About Time.

So a traveling architect named Jacob Sterling (Stephen Macht) has brought an Amityville clock back to his California home. He lives with his two kids Rusty and Lisa (Damon Martin and Megan Ward) and their nanny Andrea (Shawn Weatherly). Jacob is divorced, and one had an affair with Andrea, but they seem to be in the process of an extended breakup. They still sleep together occasionally, but they both agree that this is not a good setup for either of them. This relationship is surprisingly sophisticated for a film that will eventually feature a melting scene. Rusty is a typical metalhead teen, and worships a fake band called Skull Krusher. Rusty also has a weird relationship with his elderly neighbor (Nita Talbot), with whom he plays chess. Lisa is pretty bland, but she was played by Megan Ward from Joe’s Apartment and Freaked, and is just cute as a button.

The Amityville clock is not in the house for five minutes before it starts making things go bonkers. For one, it drills itself into the mantelpiece. It also has an uncanny ability to shift time around. Sometimes people seem to be moving extra slow. At others, it can create portals to the 14th century. While this has nothing at all to do with the Amityville movies at large, I did like the idea of a haunted clock that can mess with time. It can also make the neighborhood pets go nuts, and the local dog bites Jacob on his morning run. The bite wound will spend the rest of the film festering into an icky yellowed mass of pus.

Rusty also learns about the Amityville house in a few compulsory scenes that feel tacked on. Like they needed to connect this to the Amityville franchise at the last minute. Veteran character actor Dick Miller has a cameo.

Andrea is the one who tries to keep the house together, and even tries to go on dates with her new douchebag boyfriend. It’s Rusty who first notices that the clock might be altering time. When he tells his neighbor about it, she’s run down by a diaper truck. Eventually, the clock also infects Lisa, and there’s a really legitimately sexy scene where Lisa’s own reflection reaches out of a mirror to grope at her and bring her to climax. It was an interesting way to see how this previously chaste character was forced into sexuality. After that she starts dressing all trampy. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a trampy character be the hero in one of these?

And, yes, Lisa’s trampiness leads to a delicious scene of incest when she strips to her undies and tries to seduce her brother. Why is it that all the good ones feature incest? Or does that say something disturbing about me? Lisa also lures her boyfriend into a basement room, where he is mysteriously melted into a puddle on the floor. I like melting scenes. They defy logic in an enjoyably daffy way.

In the climax, the clock and Andrea face off, people die, and Rusty is transformed into a baby (!). Andrea peels back the wall panels, and find the clock has infested the walls with gears and stuff. She bests the clock, and is thrown back in time to the beginning of the film. She, rather wisely, immediately breaks the clock. “What was that about?” Jacob asks her. “It’s about time!” she shouts back, angrily storming from the house. Groan.

Maybe it was the sterile 1990s condo interiors. Maybe it was the sexuality. Maybe it was the unconventional family dynamic, but I found myself strangely digging this sixth film. And, since so little of these films interconnect, you can jump straight to this one and not miss anything. If you’re going to see any Amityville films, see Parts 2 and 6. Although the next one is fun in a hey-I’m-up-way-too-late-on-a-school-night-and-this-just-came-on-cable sort of way.


 

Amityville: A New Generation (dir. John Murlowski, 1993)

We’re firmly ensconced in ‘90s territory with this one, as this seventh follows a loft of would-be artists who congregate at coffee houses and make pop culture references. It’s very much a Beverly Hills 90210 vibe this time ‘round. But, y’know, with demons and suicides and stuff. Even though there are some recognizable actors, this film, like the fifth, has almost zero impact. I can still remember it, but I saw nothing that really made it stand apart from any average horror film from the 1990s. It just sort of sat there. Inert. Perhaps I was just worn down at this point. Perhaps I had seen too many Amityville movies in a row to accept this as a unique film in its own right. But as a whole, I found myself blandly accepting this video wallpaper. Not bored, not excited, not outraged, not entertained. In a weird way, Amityville: A New Generation slipped me into a Zen state wherein I was simply observing myself. To its credit, this is the first Amityville film to feature proper nudity.

So we’re still not back in Amityville, NY, and the evil is now represented by an evil mirror. This mirror is given to the main character Keyes (Ross Partirdge) as a gift from a nutty homeless man. Keyes and all his roommates are Bohemian artist types who can’t pay rent, and who propose to their douchey landlord (David Naughton from Midnight Madness) that they pay rent by hosting a high-profile art show. The sensitive Suki (Julia Nickson-Soul from Double Dragon and dozens of others) is the first to babysit the mirror, and it kills off her horrible ex-boyfriend. Then it inspires her to paint demons and to act slutty. Then she seduces David Naughton. Then it makes the demons come to life. Then it makes her hang herself. Poor Suki. She really got the short end in this story.

Wow. The ghosts can sure do a lot. I’ve been keeping a tally.

The deaths attract cops, of course, and the lead detective is played by Terry O’Quinn from The Stepfather. He has an eye on Keyes, and seems to know more about Keyes’ past than he does. Keyes, you see, like the guy from the fifth film, can’t remember a lot of his childhood. Terry O’Quinn eventually reveals that the creepy homeless man that gave Keyes the mirror was his father and, get this, one of the Amityville killers.

He wasn’t Butch DeFeo, the real-life Amityville killer, nor was he Sonny from the second part. No, he was just another murderer to had lived in the Amityville house, and this is the first we’ve heard from him. Why was he living on the streets in California? In a clever piece of current events, they explain that he was one of the nutjobs let loose when Reagan closed all the sanitariums. He recently died on the streets. When Keyes learns of all this, he snaps a bit, and begins to make more violent art, much to the consternation of his girlfriend Llanie (Lala). He also starts to have flashbacks wherein he finds himself in an insane asylum, talking to his dead father.

There’s a big climax during an art show where Keyes threatens everyone with a shotgun. One of the artists is played by Richard Roundtree. Keyes threatens to kill everyone, but Llanie talks him down, and he shoots the evil mirror instead. All is well. The people at the art show assumed that the gunplay was all part of a really arch performance art piece. Even the cops are ready to let Keyes go.

There is a little talk about how the loft-dwelling Bohemians are kind of an ersatz family, and the evil mirror taps into that family dynamic in the same way it did to the Lutzes in the first film, but it’s not really made clear or explicit. The idea of the need to create art until you die was also brushed up against, but, again, not explicitly. I wish this film could have worked up more passion either for or against it, but I felt so unmoved by the entire affair, I feel like I just need to leave it there. Seventh Amityville film. Done and done. What’s next?


 

Amityville: Dollhouse (dir. Steve White, 1996)

So in this eighth film we are finally, after a two-film hiatus in California, back in Amityville, NY. Imagine that. I suspect the other films were, like the fifth, not intended to be Amityville films at all, but the name of the famed little town was irresistible, and was hung on them like so many Christmas ornaments. This film, at the very least, tried to return to form by making it a family angst drama set in a haunted house. It’s not very good or atmospheric, and the climax is really effing stupid, but it at least more closely resembles an Amityville film.

So another architect, this time a guy named Bill Martin (Robin Thomas) has built a new house on the same lot where the old Amityville house used to stand. It doesn’t look like the same lot, as it now overlooks the ocean from a cliff, but for argument’s sake, we’ll say this is good ol’ 112 Ocean Ave. The new house doesn’t look terribly modern, but it does look new. The old shack out back, however, is still intact from the last house, and will, of course, still contain evil. Again, this is the first time we’ve heard of a shack behind the Amityville house, but, again, I will take this inconsistency in stride. Bill is just moving into the house with his two kids, innocent Jessica and gay pinup Todd (Rachel Duncan and Allen Cutler), and his new wife Claire (Starr Andreeff) and her gloomy son Jimmy (Jarrett Lennon) who befriends mice, and looks like a castoff from The Addams Family.

Everyone hates the new living arrangement, but they’re – in a line that will be oft repeated – trying to make it work. Bill also has a creepy witchy sister (Lenore Kasdorf) who senses evil in the house, and whose burly boyfriend seems all too willing to fight demons. He’ll get to later. Just wait…

Bill finds a dollhouse in the shack out back which looks exactly like the Amityville house. Who made the dollhouse, why it’s in the shack, why the ghosts are in it, none of these things are made clear. I guess I can accept a random evil dollhouse. Bill gives it to Jessica, and she falls in love with it. She also begins to notice that it’s making weird stuff happen.

Everyone becomes altered by the evil. Bill grows increasingly frustrated by his ill-working house. Jessica begins a journal of the creepy stuff she sees coming from the dollhouse, like when a mouse ran into the house, and a giant monster mouse simultaneously appeared under her bed. Little Jimmy begins receiving visits from his dead biological father (in scenes reminiscent of Stephen King novels), who implores Jimmy to kill Bill. Each time the dead father appears, he is in a further state of decomposition. Eventually, this zombie dad will fight the stepdad. It’s a quick fight. Zombies ain’t got game.

Claire, meanwhile, begins having very, very strong sexual fantasies about her new stepson Todd. It doesn’t help that Todd has a smooth, ice-cream-like body of rippling muscles, and that he spends a lot of his screen time with his shirt off. Claire, in another sexy mirror scene, stands in the bathroom and masturbates to thoughts of Todd. Good, twisted sex. I want to assure you that the twisted sex in these movies is not enjoyable for prurient reasons (well, perhaps not entirely prurient reasons), but because it represents such a boon to twisted storytelling. It adds a soapy, almost campy dynamic to the proceedings that, at the very least, lend the films in question some small shreds of personality.

Todd also has a girlfriend that he likes to make out furiously with, although something horrible always happens when they get going. In one scene, Todd finds a four-inch-long bug climbing into his ear. In another, her head catches on fire. Poor kids. Can’t they just get off in peace?

Eventually the witchy sister and her boyfriend figure out what’s going on, and go in to fight the evil. There’s a really bizarre climax wherein Bill and boyfriend dive through the fireplace into an alternate dimension where they use salves and powders to fight guys in rubber demon costumes. Yes, we are finally confronted with the actual Amityville demons for the first time since Amityville 3-D. They look really, really goofy. They look like guys in suits. They’re neat suits, but they’re not scary. One of the demons looks like a bat-winged Satan. Maybe it is Satan himself. This little trip to the alternate dimension has all the dramatic heft and logical posturing as the ghost grandfather coming out of a mirror with a hand-grenade in Troll 2. Eventually the family flees, they stuff the dollhouse into the fire, and the house destroys itself. In a clearly tacked-on voiceover at the end, we hear the family, now closer for the experience, discussing how they will build a new home together. I suspect they were stabbing for an ending like the one Poltergeist had. It doesn’t work.

And, in many ways, this was where the series ended. I still have three films to write about (well, two and a half), but this was kind of where the original canon came to a close. It was a strained affair, this series, and the interconnection between the films was shaky at best. The movement through the chintziest elements of ‘80s and ‘90s straight-to-video horror was kind of interesting, but there are finer examples of straightforward horror mediocrity.

Years pass. The ‘90s come to a close. Michael Bay starts a horror trend. A remake movement begins, and someone else though they’d have a go…


 

The Amityville Horror (dir. Andre Douglas, 2005)

So this new version of The Amityville Horror came in the wake of the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), which proved to be a bafflingly large hit. Michael Bay’s production company started looking for familiar horror properties they could update. It was too early to touch some of the classic slasher franchises, so for a few years there, remakes were relegated to slightly lesser-known classics like The Hitcher, The Hills Have Eyes, The Omen, and, yes, The Amityville Horror. These days, nothing is sacred. This 2005 film came at a time when a little bit still was.

So how does this stack up? Again, I’m sad to report that this film just still isn’t that good. The editing has picked up, the gore comes by the bucketful, the spooky music is much louder, there is some actual atmosphere, and there’s even some sex and drugs to up the ante a little bit, but it’s still not that scary. The original 1979 film was, at the very least, kind of moody and spooky. It derived much of its scares from how little you actually saw. This new remake takes the opposite approach, and shows you just about everything, including a spooky little girl ghost with bit eyes and white skin. It seems like those little girls are standard haunted house issue these days. The result, though, is that it pushes too far in the opposite direction. If you’re frustrated by not seeing any ghosts, then this film may satisfy you. If you’re looking for something genuinely scary, this film may feel crass.

Indeed, the entire film feels like a Tool music video. Its edits are rapid and its imagery is gory and wet and drippy and monstrous. This entire film is coated with a patina of damp. Why is everything so wet and sticky in this film? Does it tap into our innate fear of mildew?

George Lutz this time is played by Ryan Reynolds, a sexy and handsome bloke who had the good manners to remain shirtless for long portions of the film. Kathy is played by Melissa George, who is also plenty good looking. In the original, they had a kind of subdued relationship, and were attempting to outlive her old husband. In this one, things are made more explicit, and the two come across as lighthearted jokesters. This does nothing to the holy themes of the original, but it does make the early scenes move swiftly and affably, which is more than can be said for any of the films between part four and here.

The house looks different too. The famous quarter-circle windows are now on the front of the house. The interior looks different. There is no mention of the Red Room. As soon as the Lutzes move in, spooky things begin happening. Their young daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) still has an imaginary friend named Jody, only this time we see that she’s waterlogged and scary and has a gaping wound in her head. Do kids really want to make instant friends with other invisible children with head wounds? Is that a thing?

To the remake’s credit, they no longer allude to “Sonny,” but the actual details of the actual DeFeo murders from 1974. A lot of these details are revealed to the kids by a babysitter (Rachel Nichols) who gets high and reveals that she used to sit for the DeFeos, and she’s now spooked out by being in the house again. If you’ll recall, the babysitter in the original was a dowdy blonde 13-year-old with headgear. In this film – in-keeping with the remake’s need to ratchet up the original – she is a half-naked supermodel type with a taut bare midriff. And rather than just being scared in the closet, she actually sees the dead Jody, and has to be carted off on a stretcher.

George begins acting really abusively, and clearly the house is making him go mad. He keeps hearing whispers. He is cold. He chops wood. In this version, he axes the family dog to death, thinking it’s a ghost. There is a priest in this version, played by Philip Baker Hall, but his role has been greatly decreased. Indeed, much of the religious elements have been downplayed in this version. We still have shots of the sizzling holy water hitting the floorboards, and Father Calloway still hears the ominous voice and is beat down by flies, but that scene feels kind of compulsory. I’ve always thought unholy demons worked better when they were up against holy iconography. But this film doesn’t have issues of faith, or even horror really on its mind. It’s mostly empty style.

Another wrinkle unique to the remake:  We learn that the ghosts in the house are led by the dead spirit of a priest named Ketcham, who used to torture Indians on that land hundreds of years ago. Tales have it that he was buried in a crypt under the house. This is supposedly based on fact.

The Lutzes spend their 28 days, and then leave in a panic. This time, they have to knock out George, who has just started a killing spree (but hasn’t killed anyone yet), and take him on a boat away from the house. As soon as he’s away, he’s all better. The last shot of the film is Jody’s ghost standing at the foot of the stairs, crying for her lost friend. A pair of demonic hands pull her through the floorboards.

Despite the style and musical stings and earnest noisy attempts at jump scares, The Amityville Horror 2005 is, like its predecessor, just kind of average. I think I like the original better, but mostly just because it was the first to do this. Sure, this remake has its stylistic strengths, and, at 82 minutes, is mercifully brief, but it’s still not scary.

What’s the real story? Let’s find out in…


 

Amityville Confidential (2005)

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that, while I promised 11 Amityville films, this one is actually just a bonus DVD that came with the re-issue of the original film, released to coincide with the 2005 remake. It is not a feature film, but two episodes of the long-running History Channel series History’s Mysteries, hosted by Arthur Kent. It is a low-budget documentary show that is more sensationalistic than it is informative. 

The two episodes included details the real stories behind the Amityville house, and the haunting experience of the real-life Lutz family. It’s nice to have some things cleared up, although, at this point, we know most of it already. Here’s what we know for sure: Ronald “Butch” DeFeo did indeed kill his family there, although he has given several reasons as to why, from demons to mob connections. The Lutzes did indeed live there for only 28 days, and left without any of their belongings. They have not given details as to what happened on the last night, only to say that it was traumatic and awful. Some paranormal researches have scouted the place, and came up with a few spooky pictures (including one of an unidentified child), but nothing conclusive. There was indeed a history of people moving out quickly, and there is a vague link to a man named Ketcham, who may have been tried for witchcraft in Salem, MA.

Also, and this is a valid point: How could Butch DeFeo have killed his whole family in their beds with a shotgun, and not awoken the neighbors or anyone else? Surely one shot would have awakened the whole house…

The second part of the TV series details the writing of the book, and the complex web of debunking and accusation that followed the Lutzes for years. Many claim that this was all fabricated. Some say the Lutzes bought the house with the full intention of moving out and inventing a ghost story. Two reporters in particular formed a blood feud over whether or not there were ghosts. The entire affair became mired in a conflict of personalities. Was it a hoax? Probably. Is it weird that the Lutzes did indeed feel the need to leave after 28 days? Yes it is. Do you believe in spooks?

But we’re not done yet. ‘Cause you know how there are so many found-footage horror films these days? Well, they decided to move to Amityville for one final sequel.


 

The Amityville Haunting (dir. Geoff Mead, 2011)

Oh sigh.

Yeah, so the found footage horror movie craze, which started with The Blair Witch Project, but was resurrected by Paranormal Activity, has now made its way to Amityville. The film is told from the perspective of some in-home security cameras, and from the hand-held digital camera attached to the hand of a 13-year-old boy, who just moved into the famous Amityville house on 112 Ocean ave. In this universe, The Amityville Horror is a movie and a book, and the kid is familiar with the stories. I’m not sure if this should count as a remake, a reboot, or what.

Maybe I shouldn’t give it too much thought, as this film is easily the second worst in the series, right after that dumb one with the lamp. The film is sloppy, poorly presented, and has little reason to exist other than to try out the new found-footage gimmick. The characters are shallow, shrill and horrible. They all yell at each other and bicker and bicker and bicker. Is this the way we’re presenting conflict these days? By having people merely yell at each other over petty crap? The people are never established as real humans, and barely even register as archetypes. They’re just annoying people being haunted by ghosts.

The ghosts, by the way, turn up very clearly on cameras. The little girl (sigh) has another ghostly best friend (sigh) whom none of the family can see, but turns up clear as a bell on camera. He’s not ghoulish, either. He’s just a little boy named Matthews. No one named Matthews, by the way, ever stayed at Amityville. There’s a teenage girl (sigh) who whines incessantly, and often sneaks out of the house to hang out with her boyfriend. The narrator (Devin Clark) has no intelligence or insight, and only films things for fun. When his parents argue, he’s sure to film it. The dad in this family (as played by Jason Williams) is a military stooge who barks orders at his kid, and says things like “On my six, sergeant!” He does go a little loopy, but ends up installing the security cameras, and hiring a friend to give him crosses and other holy artifacts. In this film, holiness is actually something of a bugaboo; when dad hangs a cross on the wall, teenage daughter (Amy Van Horne) screams that she hates him.

Yes, there are the usual scenes of doors swinging slowly open, and the usual not-at-all-scary sudden appearances of mysterious shadows. I’ll say this in the film’s favor: In long shots, often the ghost hides in the shadows, and is not necessarily seen right away. That’s kinda neat. The deaths, however, are handled less skillfully; indeed when a surveyor dies by a falling electrical wire, his body is never found, and the family never discusses it.

This film is on Netflix’s streaming service. Don’t watch it.


 

Series Overview

Usually in The Series Project, I’ll start with at least one legitimate classic, and then dive headlong into the law of diminishing returns. The Amityville Horror, rather sadly, never really provides us with a great film. The original is fine, I guess, the second is pretty good, and the sixth is watchable, but the rest are crazy, stupid, bland or some combination of the three.

Seeing as the only common characters throughout the films were the ghosts, we have to look at them, and see their motives. They want to kill, or make you kill, or just get out. Essentially, they want to be alone. If they can make you commit incest along the way, so much the better for them. Maybe they just have pervy incest fantasies, and like making others enact them.

Here is a list I wrote down of the stuff the Amityville ghosts can make you do in order to achieve their ends, and the numerical films in which such powers are demonstrated. The remake counts as part 9. The 2011 film counts as part 10.

Drive You to Commit Murder: 1, 2, 4, 6, and 9

Make You See Dead People: 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, and 10

Set Fires By Remote: 3, 5, and 8

Flood the Basement with Ethereal Water: 3

Make Members of the Clergy Puke: 1, 2, and 4

Possess You Outright: 2, 4, and 7

Summon Actual Demons: 3, 7, and 8

Summon Flies: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 9

Make You Commit Incest: 2, 6, and 8

Move Furniture, Doors, Cabinets, etc.: All of them except 6

Make Doors and Windows Unbreakable: 2, 3, 8, and 9

Drive Cars by Remote: 1, 4, 6, and 8

Rebuild Itself, Perhaps: 4

Possess Animals: 4, 5, 6, and 8

Produce Gobs of Black Glop: 1, 4, and 6

Age You in Reverse Until You’re a Baby: 6

Make You Actually Commit Suicide: 7

Turn Rubber Spiders into Real Ones: 8

Resurrect Dead Bugs: 8

Create Honkin’ Big Mice: 8

I can’t really find a common theme between these powers. I guess it can manifest itself in whatever way it sees fit. As I pointed out in my coverage of Amityville 4: the Evil Escapes, and the follow-up The Amityville Curse, the ghosts from that one house can escape and move into other houses on a whim. They can haunt things from a distance, and kill whomever they please. When looked at in a certain way, these ghosts could be the exactly same ghosts from just about any other haunting film. Why not? Why not have the ghosts in The Shining be the same ones from the Amityville house? Maybe they’re free agents, who haunt on spec, and are trying, over the course of centuries, to get in Satan’s good graces.

Heck. You got a better story?