In the early morning hours of November 13th, 1974, a twenty-three year old man named Ronald DeFeo, Jr. murdered his mother, father, two brothers and two sisters with a thirty-five caliber rifle in Amityville, New York.
A year later, George and Kathleen Lutz moved into their house along with Kathleen’s three children.
They drove away in the dead of night twenty-eight days later, claiming to have been ceaselessly plagued by supernatural phenomena. Soon after, they sold the book rights to their story, and well under five years after they’d purchased their would-be home, The Amityville Horror (1979) became the most successful independent film ever made up to that time.
Those are the facts, at least as we know them. Nine films followed, along with a host of unofficial cash-ins, and the Amityville story has been reassessed from any number of angles over the years, ranging from the plausibility of DeFeo’s massacre to the legitimacy of the Lutz’s claims. A saddening 2013 documentary entitled My Amityville Horror focused on Danny Lutz, the oldest of Kathleen’s children, recounting his personal experiences in the house and over the nearly forty years since, but the film ultimately posed more questions than it answered.
With so many of us still likely going stir-crazy as the world tries to right itself in the back half of this historic hell of a year, I figured what better time to delve into the Amityville series, having never personally ventured beyond the first three films.
“Surely couldn’t hurt,” I thought to myself, like the naïve idiot I am.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Opening on a barely glimpsed, but still harrowing depiction of the Amityville murders, this restrained chiller focuses on the house’s next real life caretakers, George and Kathy Lutz. James Brolin (Westworld, The Master of Disguise) and Margot Kidder (Black Christmas, Superman I-IV) both turn in strong, nuanced performances, but old Hollywood vet Rod Steiger steals the film right out from under them as the impassioned priest who knows something’s wrong from the start.
The first Amityville film is a much more methodical and understated horror movie than most modern audiences are used to, running nearly two hours and playing much more for creeps than shocks. Not unlike The Haunting (1963), the story is largely focused on one of the principals becoming mentally unglued by their place of residence. The primary difference here is that instead of a fragile young woman unravelling day by day, it’s burly man James Brolin, whose detached, enraged, intensely physical performance ignites the film’s final act all on its own.
While The Amityville Horror is still undeniably effective, it is certainly a product of its time, and hasn’t aged nearly as well as the same year’s Alien or When a Stranger Calls, both of which attempt similar slow burn atmospheres. And though it is largely by design, the film’s insistence in keeping us at a relative distance from its players results in a far less endearing two adults / three kids / one dog suburban family unit than the nearly identical cast of characters in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), which, in turn, results in us caring far less about their survival.
Amityville II: The Possession (1982)
In stark contrast to the original film’s slow buildup and reserved, unnerving atmosphere is this first sequel from prolific Italian director Damiano Damiani and most notably featuring Burt Young (The nefarious Paulie from Rocky I-VI)as yet anotherdespicablewoman beater, and Diane Franklin (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, TerrorVision).
Understandably, given the Italian creative team—despite being largely shot in Mexico City—the garish splashes of color, wild camera movements and stylized sex and violence on display here are far more resonant of the glut of Italian Exorcist clones of the mid-to-late seventies. It also notably apes a bit of camerawork and makeup design from Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), though it’s certainly not alone there. Interestingly, the film also certainly appears to have been an influence on Lenzi’s GhostHouse (1988), itself known in Italy as La Casa 3 [Evil Dead 3].
It all adds up to a vibrant, often shocking, but uneven sequel, which unfortunately starts up way too fast and tapers out towards the end. It’s also hindered by the kind of big, stagey performances common to Italian genre exercises of the era, but which were and are far less common in wide release American productions. And the fact that it’s based on a book about the actual Amityville killings, but claims to be a prequel about an earlier, entirely fictional massacre—that has never been mentioned—causes a bit of confusion (and, perhaps, raises an ethical eyebrow).
Amityville 3-D (1983)
The grand finale of the theatrical Amityville trilogy went the Friday the 13th Part 3D route in this underrated, gonzo shocker from director Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green). Continuing the series’ penchant for strong casts, the third film is headed by Tony Curtis (Popcorn), Candy Clark (American Graffiti, More American Graffiti and The Blob ), and Tess Harper (like, a lot), with a young Meg Ryan and Lori Loughlin backing them up. And though the plotting and character work is the least interesting of the initial series entries, Fleischer really elevates this paint-by-numbers story into something special here, wringing tension out of the negative space and always letting loose at just the right moment with pinpoint jump scares and some surprisingly violent set pieces. It again ignores the events of the previous entry, but manages to find a happy medium between the drawn-out chills of the original and the raw intensity of The Possession.
In revisiting the film for the first time in well over a decade, I was struck by the complexity of Fred Schuler’s work as Director of Photography on what could easily be written off as a gimmicky cash grab of a project. The interiors, in particular, echo his moody, sumptuous work on Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). And while the cinematography does occasionally suffer from those annoying red and blue anaglyph 3D highlights in areas of soft focus, the compositions themselves are sensational. There’s a truly dynamic sense of dimensionality and scale in the shadowy, layered isometric camera angles and complex dolly shots on display here. And although the big creature effect sequence near the end is definitely a bit much, the climax on the whole is sensational, with some of the most bombastic practical effects work of the era.
Amityville Horror: The Evil Escapes (1989)
The first made-for-TV entry in the series, Amityville 4 showed up fully six years after 3-D, to unquestionably diminishing results. Fronted by another pair of acting legends—this time Oscar winner Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker) and Jane Wyatt, with nearly a hundred credits to her name going back to the thirties—all this flick had to do was take the franchise name and roll with it for a two hour timeslot, but despite a handful of fun little moments, it sputters out long before the climax.
The “Story” this time out concerns a Burtonesque floor lamp that harnesses the demonic energy of the Amityville house and is subsequently purchased at an ill-advised estate sale following one of the goofiest opening scenes in horror history. It’s then shipped out as a morbid gag gift to a far less creepy house on the coast of California, where it plagues an already grieving family by turning their beloved household appliances against them. (And once again, Amityville 4 totally ignores the finale of the previous film.)
Despite the credentials of its topliners, The Evil Escapes is a listless slog, built atop a questionable premise, jam-packed from beginning to end with cheap, repetitive scares and further hampered by annoying child actors. And while there have certainly been films of less merit “Inspired” by true crime stories, it’s definitely a bit concerning that less than fifteen years after a sextuple homicide, TV audiences were tuning in for a toothless slasher movie about a lamp that strangles old ladies with an extension cord.
The Amityville Curse (1990)
A priest is killed inside a confession booth, which is then brought to the basement of his home in Amityville and left to collect dust in the basement until a band of five boring yuppies decides to drop in twelve years later. What follows is the second non-theatrical series entry in a row about a possessed piece of wooden furniture in a location that isn’t the Amityville house, and truly makes one yearn for the likes of Amityville Horror: The Evil Escapes.
Lacking even the schlocky occasionalfun of the previousfilm, and—once again—not even referencing its events, or any of the events of the series to date for that matter, Curse is a poorly lit, under written and irritatingly performed bore for the first nigh insufferable seventy-five minutes. The movie’s only saving grace is in its gung-ho finale, wherein we get both the bulk of the plot and a full-on Peter Jackson style splatstick gore comedy showdown all in ten minutes. It’s certainly not enough to save the movie, even in comparison to The Evil Escapes—whose climax, by comparison or not, is sorely lacking—but knowing it’s on the way is reason enough not to skip over Curse entirely.
Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (1992)
Kooky fun abound in the third consecutive Amityville not taking place in the Amityville house and centered around a piece of cursed wooden furniture; this time a mantle clock. A rare, oft-discussed direct-to-video sequel among creepy VHS collector weirdos like me, It’s About Time more than lives up to its pedigree, reenergizing the series with an utterly bonkers vision, and a kitchen sink attitude that was desperately needed after the last two sequels.
After a bit of a slow start, the head of a fractured family living in a suburban expressionist monstrosity is mauled by a German shepherd, and things spiral out of control from there for his son, daughter and ex-lover, now relegated to the status of reluctant live-in caretaker. A unique sense of off-kilter dread gradually increases over the middle half-hour, at times evoking the trademark set pieces of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, as seen through the lens of a demented Animaniacs Halloween special. And the final act is an utterly glorious freak-out bonanza, overflowing with Yuznaesque psycho-sexual body horror and splatterpunk style.
There’s a wonderfully refreshing tongue-in-cheek mentality to Amityville 1992 oozing out of every element of the production, from the eye-popping color palette to the wack-job performances and gooey KNB FX work. Even if the logic behind a lot of the goings-on of the “Plot” are shaky at best, it’s by far the most fun of the sequels, and the first since Amityville 3-D to be able to fully hold an audience’s attention for a full ninety minutes. I’ve certainly never seen anything quite like it.
Director Tony Randel is best known for helming the magnificent Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988),but what he accomplishes here on a fraction of the budget and in ostensibly one location is staggering, while evoking similar lurid imagery and twisted dream logic. For a direct-to-video horror flick that was, ironically, incredibly difficult to find on video, it’s a joy to be able to recommend the film in a world where it’s currently free to watch on numerous streaming services. Amityville 1992 has already long since attained minor cult status, but its visionary, go-for-broke sensibilities are deserving of far greater actual viewership.
It’s about time.
Amityville: A New Generation (1993)
Another location that isn’t Amityville, another cursed wooden object and another group of unremarkable yuppies await you in this dry, paint-by-numbers thriller set in a west coast loft. A number of familiar faces such as David Naughton (An American Werewolf in London), Ross Partridge (Baghead), Julie Nickson (Rambo: First Blood Part II), Terry O’Quinn (The Stepfather) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft) help to keep things marginally interesting, but we’ve seen all this before. Similarly disappointing is the stilted blocking of the actors, which spoils some otherwise impressive cinematography by frequent Christopher Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister.
The haunted furniture at the center of things this time is an old mirror, which is strangely nowhere near as creepy as it should be from the get-go. The same screenwriters from It’s About Time return here, attempting to flesh out that film’s evocative mirror-based set piece to feature length, but the film is regrettably deadly serious and won’t allow itself to have any fun with the material. It’s a shame too, because there’s some workable stuff here and one of the best casts of the series, but aside from a bit of a deviation in the second half, it’s the same story we’ve seen three times in a row, and lands dead on arrival as a result.
Amityville Dollhouse (1996)
Yet another possessed wooden plot device in yet another new house drives this obscure seventh sequel. While it does tread increasingly familiar ground again, however, Dollhouse easily places second behind It’s About Time among the non-numeric series entries.
A newly formed instant family that’s at each others’ necks from the start is plagued by the titular dollhouse, an effectively spooky little prop that likes to start fires and generally screw with our principals. It’s a novel concept, but another group of irksome child actors and a sluggish first hour keep it from gaining any traction. Thankfully, there’s a decent sprinkling of amusing moments throughout, and a typically effects-heavy final act. Unfortunately, the big climactic showdown is marred by some surprisingly choppy editing and shamelessly lifted in more ways than one from Steve Miner’s fan-favorite House (1986), released more than a decade prior.
In addition to being the only film in the series not to even mention the word “Amityville” at any point, this was a surprisingly difficult movie to find, and the only installment in the ten “Official” series entries—of at least twenty-four films to date—not to be featured on any streaming service that I could find. In fact, at the time of this writing, there is only one DVD copy of Amityville Dollhouse available on Amazon, for the low, low cost of $69.99.
The Amityville Horror (2005)
After seven almost entirely unrelated sequels and nearly a decade of silence, The Amityville Horror got the Platinum Dunes remake it so dearly didn’t deserve. The Michael Bay-fronted production label had scored a hundred million dollar jackpot two years prior with their gritty-but-glossy Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake from prominent music video director and first time feature helmer Marcus Nispel, and went the same route here, handing the reigns to be newcomer Andrew Douglas. But while Douglas’ film would go on to make another hundred million-plus bounty at the box office—along with first-and-only-time feature director Samuel Bayer’s dismaying A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)—Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) easily remains the most effective of the five Platinum Dunes remakes, with Amityville being, perhaps, the most abysmal.
Similarly to the nightmarish fortress that was the Sawyer homestead in TCM ’03, the titular Amityville house has been jacked up to a colossal, labyrinthine monolith in the remake. The faux grit true crime look is attempted again as well—to far lesser effect—and the editing is cut so quick during the introduction and climax and against such intense lightning effects that I’m certain a Rise of Skywalkeresque seizure warning would have been issued to theaters, had the film come out more recently.
The leads are committed here, for what it’s worth. Melissa George (30 Days of Night, Dark City) and Ryan Reynolds (who basically disappeared after this) try their best to elevate the material, but the hollow script, erratic editing and drastically truncated runtime are against them. Reynolds’ take on George Lutz goes from wide smiling nice guy to deranged, bloodshot abuser seemingly between scenes before the first half hour is up, and George’s Kathy Lutz is given practically nothing to do but sit there and take it with tears welling up in her eyes for the better part of an hour. Chloë Grace Moretz—who would have been seven at the time of filming—steals the film right out from under both of them in her debut performance as their troubled daughter Chelsea, and Phillip Baker Hall is wasted in a too-late cameo, filling in for Rod Steiger as the benevolent priest who is accosted by a swarm of now CGI flies.
The few attempts at new set pieces are the best stuff here by far, particularly Chelsea’s death-defying tip-toe atop the roof of the house, but this comes off as a half-baked, tactless cash-in, and a mean-spirited one at that. Its reliance on ill-advised J-horror jump scares and ugly digital effects not only constantly irritate but date the film tremendously, and it somehow barely feels any quicker than the original film, even while clocking in at a full half hour shorter (at the expense of its character development). Even Amityville Curse had more going for it with its raucous finale and gruesome practical makeup effects. Along with The Hitcher (2007), Amityville ’05 stands as the most woefully misguided of the Platinum Dunes remake lineup, but even more surprising is that against all odds, it’s also by far the least enjoyable Amityville.
Amityville: The Awakening (2017)
Another solid cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bella Thorne, McKenna Grace and Kurtwood Smith is wasted in this drab, troubled reboot from at no fewer than twenty-four producers including Jason Blum, Avi Lerner and the Weinstein brothers. Shelved for three years and finally given out as a freebie on Google Play, The Awakening isn’t as annoying as the remake or quite as boring as Curse, but it’s close on both counts in spite of a handful of strengths. There’s a refreshing take on the central family unit this time out, focusing on a single mother with two daughters and a comatose son confined to a hospital bed. Unfortunately, a talented cast and halfway unique setup can’t save it from insipid characters, cheap effects and endless jump scares.
It’s not bad to look at, but the decent lighting job is marred by a flat shooting style and a dark, dull visual filter added in post. For its handful of good ideas, all the talent on display and all the cooks in the kitchen, what we’re left with in the heretofore final attempt at an Amityville flick is a bland, joyless eighty-seven minutes with credits.
And can we stop with the CGI flies?
In 2008, I took a road trip with some friends to the Amityville house. The exterior had been heavily altered, the windows redesigned and the paint job redone, but it remained a quieting monument to one of the most gruesome mass murders of the twentieth century, regardless of the quality of the hokey horror flicks it had spawned (And then we got lunch at the Friendly’s down the street, which was pretty sweet).
As it is, the Amityville series stands as an atypically fragmented, haphazard franchise, which has unfortunately never quite been able to find its footing. That said, the fact that It’s About Time is so clearly the star of the series outside of the original trilogy, despite being the middle entry of five largely identical, non-connected installments, is a testament to how there really may be gold left to mine in just about any hill.
You just may not want to dig too deep.