Based on a supposedly true story, 1979's The Amityville Horror pits newlyweds George and Kathleen Lutz (James Brolin and Margot Kidder, respectively) against a Long Island lakeside home that's one mean sonofabitch. No sooner have they moved in with their towheaded tots when strange things start to happen: voices at night, a roomful of flies, toilets overflowing with black goo, chairs that move on their own, doors that rip off their hinges. And no wonder: The basement is a literal passageway to hell!
Despite all this, it's not quite the kick in the pants the Lutzes need to move out. Personally, any one of those occurrences alone would have me crying "Refund!," but the pig eyes glowing red in the window would fall high on the list. (That scare has lost a lot of its shock value over the years, now less effective than the clichéd appearance of a cat jumping out of nowhere … and that's here, too.)
As a child, seeing The Amityville Horror even edited for network TV was a frightening experience, but it's pretty tame today, save for Kidder's skanky, half-naked ballerina dance. While its massive box office and the prestige of having overacting Oscar winner Rod Steiger in the cast combined to make the '79 pic considered a horror classic, I much prefer the much-maligned Amityville II: The Possession.
On its surface a prequel about the De Feo murders that took place in the house prior to the Lutzes moving in, Amityville II veers off into territory staked by The Exorcist, but with an Italian-horror spin. What on Earth caused Sonny (Jack Magner as the film's Ronald De Feo stand-in) to shotgun his parents and siblings to death one night? Per director Damiano Damiani and screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), the boy had a demon inside him, inserted via the ol' Indian-burial-ground trick.
Even with its implausible events, the original Amityville lived in its own version of reality — so well, in fact, that even people today believe the real-life abode is truly haunted. Amityville II ignores all that and goes batty, which is the main reason I love it. I also admire it for having the guts to work in a subplot of incest, however icky. (Actress Diane Franklin discusses these scenes at length in a new interview on the disc.)
Finally, 1983's Amityville 3-D stars Woody Allen regular Tony Roberts as John Baxter, a tabloid reporter who buys the evil Amityville house because he's ain't 'fraid of no ghosts. And he still isn't after the real estate agent is attacked by flies; his co-worker is burned alive in her car; and his own daughter drowns. Even Baxter's own scary elevator ride doesn't seem to shake him.
The whole film could have the same effect on the viewer not in the proper frame of mind: super-cheesy. After all, this is the kind of movie in which a pre-fame Meg Ryan asks, "Did you know you can have sex with ghosts?" and a mounted swordfish flops itself back to life and goes flying across the room. I admit to having a soft spot for its altogether goofiness.
The last third of Amityville 3-D (viewable in both 3-D and 2-D versions here) is a total redo of Poltergeist, but without the benefit of a Steven Spielberg-sized budget. It has to settle for Dino De Laurentiis. It'll do. —Rod Lott
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