“THE AMITYVILLE HORROR TRILOGY” (Scream Factory Blu-ray Review)
For a movie that spawned at least eight sequels and a remake, 1979’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR should be better. To be fair, I’m not the biggest fan of haunted house films, but I know a good one when I see it (POLTERGEIST, THE HAUNTING, etc.), and the film has a few issues that just can’t be overcome. And at just a hair under two hours, it can’t even be considered ideal seasonal viewing; you can get in a better haunted house movie with time leftover for an episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT or TWILIGHT ZONE. However, for its fans (or those with more time to kill), Scream Factory has you covered, bringing the original film and its first two sequels to Blu-ray for the first time, with some new bonus features to sweeten the deal.
I know it’s blasphemy, but I actually prefer the 2005 remake to the 1979 original, as it’s more focused and has a way more attractive babysitter (the gawky girl with braces in 1979 becomes the fantastically appealing Rachel Nichols in the remake; definitely a trade up). I didn’t realize it the first time around (this was only my second time watching the movie), but it’s clear that AIP wanted to do THE EXORCIST just as much as they wanted a new HAUNTING. So, you have all these scenes of priests arguing or cops investigating (including one that’s basically a direct lift from the Kinderman/Karras scene in EXORCIST, albeit much shorter) which are fine on their own, but reduce the time we should be spending with the Lutz family. The two sons disappear for 40 straight minutes (save for a quick shot of one of them from behind as they leave for school one day), and occasional attempts to put the daughter in a more important role—one of the house’s ghosts becomes her “imaginary” friend—are clunky as they have no real follow-through.
Similarly erratic is George’s descent into madness. He’s a complete asshole one second and back to his friendly self the next, making it pretty jarring when he goes off to the library to find books on what may be wrong with his house, or turns hero to go save the family dog (though this is superior to the remake’s much more tragic arc for the pooch). Imagine if, in THE SHINING, Jack Nicholson did everything in his power to rescue his family after killing Scatman Crothers; that’s how odd it is here. Granted, I also have 20+ years of hearing about what a controlling asshole George was in real life working against the movie, but still, a more steady decline into villain (and some sort of motivated event that snapped him out of it) would have helped the movie greatly. James Brolin may be great in the movie (as is Margot Kidder as his wife), but the script’s jumpiness betrays them.
That said it’s still got some excellent moments, like their son’s hand caught in the window, or when George falls through the stairs and ends up in a vat of tar/blood/goo. Schifrin’s score is phenomenal* (no surprise there), and those damn “eye” windows still manage to invoke a sense of menace even after all these years of sequels and rip-offs. Plus, while they do take some liberties with the story, the scares are mostly grounded and thus seem like something that could have happened. There are no strange forces throwing people across rooms or even much in the way of physical presences (i.e. visible ghosts). Schifrin’s score keeps things tense even when accompanying image don’t measure up, and I like the blue collar aesthetic of it all—no experts brought in or anything, just George in his sweatshirts, chopping wood and what not.
Things improve for the first sequel, AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION, which is supposed to be a prequel but due to either laziness or a translation error (the film was written by an American and directed by an Italian with a largely Mexican crew) it’s actually a sequel in which the true events that happened to the DeFeo family happen once again. I mean, even if we ignore things like a Walkman which wouldn’t have been around in 1974, nothing matches up to what was said in the first movie; the number of children is off by one, none of them are killed while sleeping as we were told in the 1979 film, and even their name changed—the family is now the Montelli clan. Plus, Ronnie (or Sonny, here) was supposed to look like Brolin, but doesn’t look a goddamn thing like him at all. Hell, he even has the first signs of a beard when they move into the house, only to shave it off almost instantly. So if anyone tells you it’s a prequel, laugh at their ignorance, and then ask them why you’re talking about AMITYVILLE movies in the first place.
But this is the best the series ever gets. In a PSYCHO-y kind of twist, the big event we all know is coming (Sonny killing his family) actually occurs at the end of act 2, paving the way for a FUGITIVE/EXORCIST hybrid with Sonny on the run for a while, claiming innocence as a priest (James Olson) attempts to get permission to perform an exorcism on the young man. It’s a bit clunky since this stuff comes out of nowhere (there’s even a fellow priest played by Andrew Prine who is introduced far too late in the film), but it at least works as surprise since (again) we’re expecting it to end with the massacre. If it was threaded more traditionally throughout the film, it even would have felt more like a remake. And the demon makeup is terrific, particularly during its final stage where it begins to crack and “die.” I also enjoyed the bulging veins/muscles on the various possessed folks’ hands and necks. It’s impressive stuff courtesy of future Oscar winner John Caglione Jr. (he won for DICK TRACY).
I also enjoyed Damiano Damiani’s direction, such as the crazy “ghost POV” shots that go up, around the house and even upside down. He also stages a terrific long take with the Montellis screaming and hitting each other, moving from room to room as the scene grows more and more chaotic, ending with Sonny pointing a gun at his father (played with angry relish by Burt Young). Of course, some of the sleazier elements (i.e. the incest) probably would have been done more tactfully with an American director, but it’s par for the course for an Italian production, and unlike the guys that directed the other two films on this set, Damiani actually knows how to make a horror film. So, if you can get past this (relatively minor) element, this is the one to go with if you’re only going to make one visit to Ocean Avenue this season.
Even if time allows however, you should skip AMITYVILLE 3-D, unless you have a 3DTV and want to enjoy the idea of young Meg Ryan jumping out of your screen. This is a “true” 3D disc, meaning you need the right kind of TV to make use of it; red and blue glasses won’t help you here. I sadly do not have such a device, so I was stuck watching in 2D, reducing the value of this chore even further (worse, the movie constantly looks a bit blurry due to the down-conversion). To its credit, it’s not as bad as watching FRIDAY THE 13th PART 3 in 2D—there are only a couple of relatively quick “Comin At Ya!” shots, unlike FRIDAY’s lengthy “Let’s stick a pole or a yo-yo in their faces for 30 seconds” shots—but it’s just not a very exciting movie. Bland family melodrama (the new Amity house owner is getting divorced from his wife) and some generic science expert characters take center stage here, and director Richard Fleischer brings none of his SEE NO EVIL experience to the table. The film doesn’t have a single real scare.
There is however, one slightly creepy bit around the halfway point, where a dripping wet Lori Loughlin enters the house and retreats to her bedroom, much to her mother’s annoyance, only for us to discover [spoiler] that her character is outside and dead. Unfortunately, the mother’s shrill insistence that the girl is inside (and dad Tony Roberts’ fairly subdued reaction to finding his daughter dead in his backyard) reduces the emotional impact and the scare that the scene should have. It’s still an admirable attempt, considering that death and one that directly precedes it seemed like they would both be “safe” characters.
To be fair, Fleischer seems to be going for a more classical, THE HAUNTING-style approach after the R-rated theatrics of THE POSSESSION (which, true to AMITYVILLE series form, it ignores). But it is Part 3 of a series that had been R-rated so far, and in 3D to boot. Why are you going for restraint now? The final ten minutes are fun, but getting there—despite this being the shortest of the three films—takes more patience than should be necessary; even more so if you’re watching these in quick succession.
It seems Scream Factory feels similarly about 3-D, offering only a single bonus feature: a pretty typical Red Shirt interview with co-star Candy Clark. Unless you count the 3D transfer, this makes one of the very few Scream titles that lacks a commentary track. And the stuff on the first film is pretty slim, especially if you own the previous DVD as it carries over the (full frame/standard def) retrospective with Brolin and Kidder and the commentary by Hans Holzer, a paranormal expert who wrote a book on the house and doesn’t think too much of the film. It’s a fun track when he’s actually talking (he either gets sucked in or nods off on several occasions), especially when he makes fun of its “Hollywood!” touches. He even laughs when Brolin smacks Kidder in the face. The only new feature is an interview with Schifrin, where he talks working on this film and its sequel, claiming Dino De Laurentis insisted he return (he’s the only crew member of note that returned for the sequel, best as I can tell).
Fittingly, the best film gets the most extras. THE POSSESSION boasts a whopping six interviews (why they didn’t combine them into a full retrospective like they did for the HALLOWEEN sequels, I do not know), including one with Damiani, who passed away not long ago. The best of the bunch is screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace, explaining his approach, the research he did, what he didn’t like about the finished product, etc. The others remain worth a watch, even Prine’s (seemingly shot during the same session where he did his piece for THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN) who has some funny stuff to say about his minimal role. Rutanya Alda talks about a cut rape scene (whether it was filmed and then removed, or just cut before they even got that far, is unclear) and Diane Franklin vigorously defends the incest subplot. It seems both ladies are quite proud of the film.
For a commentary, we have Holzer’s daughter Alexandra (who also provides a 30-minute interview, the longest of the bunch), who’s even less chatty than her father. I’d estimate there’s actually only about 10-12 minutes’ worth of her insight throughout the entire 104 minute film. It’s a shame that out of three movies they couldn’t get a single person who actually worked on them to provide a commentary, especially when one of them is recycled from a previous release. The transfers aren’t exactly home runs, either. The detail and color are up to Shout!’s high standards (as are the audio mixes), but all three images could have used a bit of cleanup, as they’re besieged by specks and dirt throughout. I assume they’re the same transfers used for the DVD release of the “trilogy” back in 2004 (not counting the 3D version of the third film, of course), so if you already own that set and don’t particularly like THE POSSESSION and/or own a 3DTV, there’s not much reason to upgrade.
Hopefully they will release the second film on its own down the road so fans can own it without having to shell out for the other two entries, since it’s the only one that got the traditional Scream Factory treatment. However, if you don’t already own the DVD set and are a fan of at least two of the three films, it’s worth picking up for the spooky season. I doubt there will ever be a complete series boxed set since the films are in so many hands, so this will be as good as it gets for the foreseeable future.
*It’s unfortunate that Jerry Goldsmith ripped off Lalo Schifrin’s score in POLTERGEIST, because now it just keeps reminding me of the superior film that came along a mere three years later.