Monday, December 10, 2007

Amityville II: The Possession (1982): or, My Demon Brother


Like most kids growing up in the 70s (or at least most of those who were into horror movies), I was fascinated by the story of The Amityville Horror, the supposedly true story of the Lutz family and their trials and tribulations in the most maliciously haunted house in America. The bestselling book by Jay Anson was nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, scaring folks out of their bedclothes from coast to coast and even in foreign countries. The 1979 movie starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder was a massive box office hit. And the sinister "face" of the house has become iconic shorthand for everything a threatening, demon-possessed house should be. When a house that looks like that says, "GET OUT!"--brother, you better listen.

But while that phrase and other parts of the Amityville legend have become enshrined in the cultural haunted house nomenclature--the "Indian Burial Ground" explanation, for instance--the legend itself has not aged well. The "true story" of the book has been exposed as a hoax. The glow of the film's boffo B.O. has dimmed as subsequent generations discover that despite one or two effective set-pieces (the rocking chair in the little girl's room, the horrifying red-eye pig-squeal at the upstairs windows) the film is actually a plodding, boring, melodramatic mess. Yes, the film has found, much like its female lead, that the passage of time can be cruel.

But then there was its sequel, Amityville II: The Possession. Released three years after the original, this movie drops all pretense of creepy verisimilitude and goes straight for the gut, cranking up the paranormal activity, turning the perversity dial to eleven, and tossing enough goopy gore effects at the screen to satisfy even the most jaded Mad Movie Connoisseur. Where part one now plays as a staid, slow-moving relic in which nothing much really happens, A2:TP shows like a freight train on fire barreling past a malfunctioning crossing alarm in the middle of a schoolbus caravan. And like that train wreck, it's definitely worth a long, fascinated look.

Taking as its source another of the few effective set-pieces from the first film--the horrific opening murder montage when Ronald DeFeo systematically killed his entire family (including two young siblings) with a shotgun in the Amityville House before the Lutzes moved in--A2:TP opens with these previous owners taking possession (ha!) of their dream home. The family, inexplicably renamed "Montelli" for the purposes of this film, is made up of a high-strung religious mother (Golden Raspberry-nominated Rutanya Alda), an abusive greaseball father (prolific character actor Burt Young of the Rocky series fame), angelic tots Mark and Jan (Brent and Erika Katz), budding vivacious teenager Patricia (a scrumptuous Diane Franklin; see also the 1985 John Cusack comedy Better Off Dead), and sullen chicken-chested eldest son Sonny.

Jack Magner plays Sonny with effective wounded menace; early scenes where he angrily but powerlessly cowers before his slap-happy dad--even before they get into the house for the first time!--tell you volumes about his character and dramatic situation. Not since Oedipus has there been a young man more likely to murder his tyrannical father, and Magner inhabits the role admirably, getting just the right mix of beaten-down goodness and mind-twisting anger boiling just under the surface. While his loving sister and disturbingly affectionate mother anchor him to his control for the moment, you can tell he just needs a little bit of tipping to go screaming over the edge.

"Did you say, 'Ge Tout'? Sorry, I don't speak German."

Of course the house they just moved into specializes in pushing those teetering on madness over the brink, and wastes no time putting the screws to Sonny. The Montellis have barely set foot in the house before the spirits who dwell there start acting out, announcing themselves with a self-opening secret door to the famous "Red Room" (and dumping sewage and flies on the hapless moving guy who invesigates it) and a ghostly grope of Mrs. Montelli, which lets Rutanya Alda start her hysterical crazy-eyed acting style early and stick with it throughout. In fact the speed and intensity of the haunting here is fairly shocking--you wonder how they were even able to buy the place without it spitting blood out the wall sockets and slamming windows on their noses during the open house. I guess, like Shirley Jackson famously wrote, "some houses are born bad." At least it's not boring.

We get a few more dysfunctional family-establishment scenes, all of them great. Sonny and Patricia share a strange moment in his room, as the younger sister pretty much comes on to her brother with a lithe ballet soliloquy. (Zang.) Later at dinner there's more slapping from Dad and screaming from Mom, with much crying and gnashing of teeth from all four children. Some ghostly knocking at the door leads Daddy to go grab one of his many shotguns (FORESHADOWING!) while upstairs levitating paintbrushes make obscene graffiti on the walls of the tots' room. When Dad threatens to belt the kids for the painting, Mom steps in and gets the strap for her troubles. When Burt chases her all the way down to the basement, spanking her all the way, Sonny steps in, grabs a rifle, and threatens to blow Dad's head off with it. Rutanya takes the gun and cries "What's happening to us?" But you can't help feeling what's wrong with this family was wrong well before they moved in.

Most of the family goes to church to meet Father Adamsky (James Olson), but Sonny stays home and starts getting messages through his Walkman encouraging him to kill baby kill! In one of the scenes that stuck with me in the 80s, Sonny reclines on the bed and his bare chest deflates dramatically, ribs sticking up and out, in a gross and wonderful practical effects scene. Guess he's possessed now, all right!

I've mentioned the perversity of the film, and those who have seen it will have no trouble remembering exactly what I'm talking about. We get another scene of Sonny and Patricia together in which Patricia talks explicitly about their parents' sex lives, how she doesn't think "Mommy likes to do it" anymore, and it makes Daddy mad. "I hear them arguing about it," she says. That's gotta make it hard to sleep. Diane Franklin plays the budding nymphette extremely well, and it's clear in this scene and others that her affection for her older brother is tinged with her burgeoning sensuality, lending an uncomfortable erotic undercurrent to their scenes together.

Later, fully under the demonic influence of the house, her brother suggests they play a game of "photographer," where he pretends to be the camera man and she the model. Patricia readily poses for him on the bed, and when he suggests she remove her nightgown, she all-too-readily accedes! Things quickly go from icky to creepy when her brother pulls a pair of her dirty panties from his pocket, explaining he got them from the laundry. Before you can say "Hotel New Hampshire!" Sonny and Patty have broken several BIG Old Testament laws, and the familial corruption is complete.

"Why are you looking at me so funny, bro?"

Meanwhile Mom has asked Father Adamsky to bless the house, letting the priest in on all the dysfunction going on at the Montelli abode and giving him the first glimpse of the evil spirit that's now directing Sonny's every move. His Godly Spidey-Sense tingles more when Patricia brings her sins to him at confession, saying memorably that her "friend" does these things with her just to hurt. "To hurt you?" he asks, concerned. "No," she replies. "To hurt God!" Ho-lee shit. Or un-ho-lee, in this case.

So we're about an hour in to a 100-minute movie when Sonny finally demon-Hulks out and takes the shotgun to the whole fam damily. We're treated to some pretty grody demon-transformation makeup as Sonny kills his parents first, chases down the younger siblings (a very chilling sequence), and finally penetrates his sister with buckshot, for a change. This sequence is very unlike the same one in the earlier movie, where it was an enigmatic plot point that DeFeo shot each family member in his or her bed, where they seemingly stayed put despite the multiple shotgun blasts in other parts of the house. Still, it works here, and the practical effects on Sonny's face are pure 80s-horror goodness.

With still forty minutes run-time to go we switch our focus entirely to Father Adamsky, who now wants to exorcise Sonny and the house. The narrative loses a little steam and believability as the priest defies his church superiors and the law to bust Sonny out of jail and take him back to the house for the ceremony. But things pick up again when Sonny escapes and the priest must hunt him down through the increasingly rambunctious house--slime down the walls, rivers of blood flooding the basement from the Red Room, and other surreal and strangely effective scenes of horrific haunting. It culminates in a priest vs. demon confrontation that features an incredibly graphic and goopy makeup effect for Sonny's "final transformation" and a straight-from-The Exorcist rip-off resolution that will still leave a Mad Movie fan with a smile on his face. The final shot of the strangely un-destroyed house with a "For Sale" sign swinging out front, like a trap re-set and waiting on the next victim, is a fitting conclusion to an hour and forty minutes of fun.

Though I remembered quite a bit about this movie from my previous viewings in the 80s (mainly the Exorcist-esque makeup and the incest subplot), there was an awful lot I'd forgotten that I found myself enjoying a lot this time through. The sheer energy of the haunting is a welcome change and keeps things from ever getting too boring, and the perverseness and dysfunction of the family (anchored by Burt Young's wonderfully slimy performance as the Montelli the Elder) are really something to see. Jack Magner is great as the demon-possessed killer, and Diane Franklin as the naive nymph sister is similarly affecting. I didn't even mind the departure from haunted house to exorcism territory, as it was just the kind of kitchen-sink cheese that lovers of 80s horror eat up with both spoons. At the end I found myself sated and content, and willing to pronounce this far and away my favorite of the entire Amityville series (though if you've seen any of the other sequels, that may seem like faint praise).

So 2.5 thumbs for this cool piece of fright film from the early 80s. If you haven't seen it in a while and are in the mood for some nasty, goopy nostalgia, you could do a lot worse than to give it another look.

But for the love of God: GET OUT...of the clothes hamper! She's your sister, dude!

12 comments:

kindertrauma said...

Great review of a very underrated movie! Not only is it quite easily the best in the Amittyville series, in my (perhaps f-d up) book it's second only to THE EXORCIST as far as possession films go. It's not afraid to be unlikable and uncomfortable and it just reeks of wrongness and disfunction throughout. It's absolute humorlessness gets under the skin and creates an arena that seems very demon friendly to say the least. Love this site for not swaying to popular (wrong) opinion!

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for reading! Yeah, re-watching part 1 a couple years back was very disappointing for me, but re-watching this one was nothing short of wonderful. Maybe I'll try Amityville 3-D again to see if it's really as crap as I remember.

Love your site, btw. I've added a link to the sidebar. Maybe I'll contribute some of my own childhood traumas...

Feel free to read around the site and make more comments. There's a handy index of reviews linked at the top of the page.

kindertrauma said...

We'd love to get a traumafession from you vicar! That would be very cool! I still find Amityville 3D a difficult watch but It does have one good scene (drowned Lori Loghlin returns). I must profess a soft spot for the Patty Duke T.V movie Amityville: the evil escapes and (more embarrassingly) Amityville dollhouse. Neither are very scary but they're kinda fun anyway. Thanks for checking out the site,(we love yours and have linked to you as well) and we''ll be keeping our claws crossed about that traumafession!

The Vicar of VHS said...

When I think of one appropriately traumatic, I'll let you know. :)

CG said...

Hmm. I almost watched this one last night. That's....umm....pretty weird. Watched Ice Cream Man instead. Looks like I made the wrong choice, because this sounds pretty damn good.

Jonathan said...

I agree that this is the best of the "Amityville" films by a landslide, but I also agree that a statement like that isn't really saying a whole lot. I love the relentlessness of it for the first hour and the balls the film showed by having the creepy family dysfunction and incestual relationship. This is not the route usually taken to cash in on a former success. Horror sequels, while usually bloodier, also play it a lot safer and just show more of the same. That is not the case with this film.

Still, that last forty minutes is excruiating for the most part, and the final moments are a direct rip-off of "The Exorcist;" they don't even try to hide that fact. The funny thing is that "The Exorcist III" sort of rip-offs this film in its final third. Very strange chain of events there if you think about it.

Good review, though; enjoying the site.

The Vicar of VHS said...

As I say, I didn't mind the Exorcist turn at the end so much, since it was so goofy it had me guffawing, therefore I was still entertained. :) Plus I really dug the "split-head" makeup.

Exorcist III is actually one of my favorite horror movies, period. The writing, acting, filming, all great in my book. Brad Dourif was cheated out of an oscar nom for supporting actor--never has a man scared me so much with both hands tied behind his back.

But I don't think it's really fair to claim E3 ripped off A2 just because it ends with a priest being tempted by a shape-changing, smack-talking demon. That's pretty standard for the genre, really.

Thanks for reading! Comment more!

Jonathan said...

Fair enough on the "Exorcist III" rebuttal, and I too acutally like that film, a lot better than this one. I even kind of enjoy "Exorcist II" for the flat out stupidity and craziness going on in it. Talk about the strangest sequel ever made to an Oscar nominee.

Kitty LeClaw said...

"Sonny finally demon-Hulks out and takes the shotgun to the whole fam damily."

... I think I might <3 you.

viagra online said...

I found that movie in a pile of junk, I take off all the dust and clean up the fungus in the tape, I sit down to see this movie and when I finish look it, I thought "has been better leave that tape going directly to rot".

Anonymous said...

Vigra online, you are a jaded idiot. Maybe go back to watching Michael Bay films? It sucks that the 80s are over and they don't make films as good as this anymore. I feel sorry for you.

Nine-Fingered Menace said...

The name change of the family wasn't inexplicable, it was to avoid lawsuits. Remember, this is based off a real tragedy. I watched this a few years back; sometimes even I'm appalled at what I watch. Oh well, preacher's kid; guess it comes with the territory.

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