Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Amityville II: The Possession (1982)


I have to open this review by saying that I consider The Amityville Horror (1979) to be a truly abysmal movie. It is a stultifying traipse through the conventions of the haunted house film; a lousy melodrama, one that is anchored in a swamp of po-faced seriousness due to a faux ‘based on true events’ gimmick that hamstrings any attempt for inventiveness or imagination. Nevertheless this feeble garbage became something of a sensation thanks in large part to a clever marketing campaign, and in even larger part to the gullibility of the American movie-going public. The most successful aspect of the film is Lalo Schifrin’s spine chilling music, its scariest moment a brief scene in which Rod Steiger (fly covered and gasping for air) is yelled at to “GET OUT!!” by a disembodied voice. Three years later Italian super producer Dino De Laurentis felt enough time had passed for a sequel, and to the enormous credit of all involved it totally dispenses with the restrictive ‘true story’ trick and fully commits to the supernatural. This is indeed ironic, considering that a major plot event of Amityville II is based on actual recorded events! In fact there is more true-to-life basis in the second film than the first! Amityville II is also technically a prequel, in the days before that term wasn’t synonymous with crap Star Wars movies. But it’s clear from the outset that the filmmakers couldn’t care less about evoking a specific period in time. This is not slipshod on their part; it’s illustrative of creative minds unshackling themselves from the supposed ‘reality’ of the Amityville story, and choosing to follow a trail blazed by The Exorcist (1973) and the more concurrent Poltergeist (1982). It comes to something when the major influence on a sequel isn’t the film that spawned it.

In defence of the Amityville franchise it is able to draw on one of the creepiest pieces of real estate in horror history, and in spite of its winking attic windows that seem to personify the evil that dwells deep within its shit and fly infested basement, the For Sale signs keeping getting taken down. The family on this occasion is Italian-American, they are called the Montelli’s, and the word dysfunctional might well have been coined with them in mind. From the outset the family patriarch (Burt Young) admonishes his children, insists they call him ‘Sir!’ and has an especial interest in cutting his eldest child Sonny (Jack Magner) down to size. His shrew-like wife Dolores (Diane Franklin) has the skittish self-denial of the long term abused, and punishes her husband by denying him sex. But this only aggravates him more, and a when a series of inexplicable events occur in the Montelli’s dream home, he’s only too quick to take it out on the children. It isn’t long before he’s thrashing his youngest with a belt, but before he has an opportunity to batter his wife, Sonny aims both barrels of a shotgun at his head! With a family dynamic such as this, a demonic spirit hell bent on evil is not going to have much difficulty in wreaking havoc. The important thing is that frequent John Carpenter collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace’s screenplay does an excellent job of creating a grim atmosphere of human evil, of parents so wrapped up in their own petty obsessions and squabbles that one of their children can undergo such a radical change of character, and they barely notice it. Although a lot this is laughably melodramatic, the cruelty that lies within the Montelli’s is very disturbing, and it’s a propensity for violence and vindictiveness which cannot even be purified by Dolores’ devout catholic faith.

One of the major set piece sequences of the film is Sonny’s possession. This is an extended sequence which begins with an exploration of the basement, and for me the scariest moment in the film; Sonny discovers an arm coming out of wall! Italian filmmaker Damiano Damiani is so totally unused to the horror genre that he throws almost everything at this sequence; 180 degree pans, zooms (especially when Sonny is lying on his bed and the possession becomes an implied rape), elaborate tracking shots of a fleeing Sonny, and perhaps most impressively the point-of-view of the camera itself representing the unseen evil. Damiani is a director known for style and restraint, of subtlety and intelligence; his first major departure into the horror genre sees him dispense with this in favour of outright exaggeration and stylistic absurdity, but the results are very exciting. I’m not sure whether Damiani’s decision to direct the film in this style shows contempt for the material. On occasion some of his filmmaking decisions come perilously close to lampooning the genre, though it must be noted that scene after scene retains the power to impress. The most distasteful manifestation of Sonny’s newly possessed psyche (prior to the massacre of his family) is the development of an incestuous relationship with his sister Patricia (Diane Franklin). This should be shocking, but the Montelli’s are such a repulsive family that even this is not wholly unexpected. When the mother’s suspicion is aroused is it jealousy that flits across her face? The importance of this subplot is that it enables local priest Father Adamsky (James Olson) to suffer a burden of guilt that leads into the films weaker final third.

Amityville II reaches a crescendo of tension with Sonny’s shotgun massacre of his entire family. By this point Sonny’s bubbling and pulsating head has assumed the true face of the ghastly creature that inhabits his body. But unfortunately for the film, it limps on for another thirty minutes, and it switches its attentions to Adamsky and his inner struggle with the guilt that plagues him. James Olson is excellent here, and he is ably supported by Andrew Prine, but the final third falls flat. The film has shown its hand with regard to moments of tension, and all that is left is for the demon to truly show itself in an orgy of special make up effects that culminates with Sonny’s head splitting apart. The finale is the closest the film comes to replicating the mischevious demon of The Exorcist, especially when a sluttish Patricia appears in place of Sonny and prick teases the uncomprehending priest. It’s a shame that Amityville II is unable to maintain the momentum built up in the first half, and it seems a weakness to me, to suddenly shift the whole focus of the film onto a character that up to that point had been peripheral to the main action. Nevertheless I think this is an admirable effort, a rare instance of a sequel improving on the original, and effortlessly the strongest entry in the Amityville franchise.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. Agree, the only thing I don't love are some of the make up effects in the end, when the demon shows up, but that's about it, same as you, I like it a bit more then the first one.

  2. Shaun, i completely disagree about the film falling apart in the last half-hour, this movie is quite magnificent from first-frame to last.

  3. Jennifer Croissant17 August 2012 at 19:41

    When this was first shown on British television in 1986 i was genuinely appalled by it (especially the scene where he murders his family), although i also thought it was a truly superb horror movie as well.

  4. I like it a lot and feel it's merely an exercise in excess; a polished exploitation movie from a director not known for this kind of thing. It looks so totally dissimilar from anything else he was involved in, I am curious if Damiani was the actual director for the duration of the shoot.

  5. I remained haunted by its' cheesy giallo-like charms since I first rented it back in the day...So I recently bought the sucker on DvD for a pittance, And it is winging its' way to my arms as I type!

  6. @ Franco - When I first saw this movie I was very impressed by the special make up effects, and in places still am.

    @ Eddie - I like the film, but "magnificent from first-frame to last"? We'll have to agree to disagree on that!

    @ Jennifer - It premiered in '86? That's an interesting trivia note, I must have watched it not long after its original air date...maybe around 89/90...but I too first caught it on television. The shotgun massacre is deeply unsettling, largely because children are involved, and remains the most haunting moment in the film.

    @ Brian - A highly uncharacteristic picture from Mr. Damiano...we of course know him more prominently for the tight, densely plotted, muted stylistics of pictures like CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN, DAY OF THE OWL, and HOW TO KILL A JUDGE? This was his only departure into the horror genre, and it completely stands out in his filmography. You're doesn't feel at all like a Damiani picture. Perhaps Tommy Lee Wallace did more than just write the film? It certainly has the same bitter and cynical flavour of HALLOWEEN III.

    @ Highwayknees - I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one buddy!

    Many thanks to one and all for the comments! :-)

  7. Question: did it remind you a bit about Evil DEad II? Specially during that scene in which the demon follows the kid around the house?

  8. jimmie t. murakami23 August 2012 at 23:08

    Shaun, i just watched the widescreen version of this on YouTube (albeit with slightly dodgy picture quality) and i noticed for the first time that famous bit where a childs legs (or maybe a dolls legs being moved by an adult) come into veiw at the bottom left of the picture for a couple of seconds, its just as the camera is panning over the character whos in the process of being possessed as hes walking from one room to the next, this might not be visible in a panned and scanned version but i was wondering if you could watch the version that i watched on YouTube and see if you can spot those small legs just moving for a second at the point in the film i was talking about, if you do maybe you could give your opinion on what was happening there, was it a mistake, was it a real ghost, or was it something that Damiani threw in to spook the eagle eyed amongst us even more. Like i said it would be good to know your opinion.

  9. Although I'm not quite as enthusiastic about 'Amityville II' as Shaun is, I do accept that it has its creepy moments - and can certainly work its spooky charms with a late-night viewing in a darkened lounge room...

    But more unnerving for me are the 'History Channel' documentaries included (as 'Extras') with certain DVD releases of the title. They cover both the 'hauntings' and the actual murder case, and are equal parts entertaining and...creeeeeepyyyyyyy! :)


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