Sunday, September 16, 2012

Amityville Horrors

Real life is scarier than ever these days, so who needs horror movies?

Nonetheless, I watched three of them the other night when the This TV network presented an Amityville Horror triple feature. Way back in 1977, when the book by Jay Anson was published, I remember reading excerpts from his supposedly nonfiction account of the Lutz family’s hair-raising experiences in the Long Island house. The incidents that raised their hair included an invisible marching band and a giant red-eyed pig named Jody. It was all done with sufficient skill that I recall turning away from the page every so often to see if someone - or something - was creeping up behind me.

The 1979 film version, one of the last productions from American International, a company that specialized in horror during the 1950s and '60s when the major studios shunned the genre, was a dreary affair: badly acted (by James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, and others) and indifferently directed by Stuart Rosenberg who, in better days, directed Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. The result would only raise goosebumps if you watched it in frigid temperatures. Several of the scenes made me laugh out loud when I saw the movie on television a few years later, and I laughed again when watching it the other night. Nonetheless, audiences flocked to the film in enough numbers to warrant a sequel.

Amityville: The Possession, released in 1982, was actually a prequel, telling the story of the family that occupied the house before the Lutz family moved in. One member of the family was a teenage boy who became possessed by evil spirits and murdered his parents and siblings. It’s a marginally better film, especially in the acting department, with James Olson acquitting himself well as a priest called in to confront the demons possessing the shotgun-wielding teenager, but I doubt it impressed audiences that had seen the eerie Poltergeist only several months earlier. Still, it must have made a profit because a third film was released only a year later.

Surprisingly, Amityville 3D is the best of the bunch, a competent thriller with a couple of good scares. The credit probably belongs to Richard Fleischer, one of those workhorse directors whose body of work (The Boston Strangler, Fantastic Voyage, The New Centurions, Mr. Majestyk) has never attracted devotees of the auteur theory, but which has always displayed sound craftsmanship. There’s a nice spooky tone throughout, and Fleischer was blessed with good actors, most notably Tess Harper and Candy Clark. This isn’t a classic by any means, but it’s a satisfying chiller on the same level as the best of schlockmeister William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler). Still, it's not as scary as the current world headlines.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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