The Amityville Horror franchise is not known for “greatness.” It began as a hoax concocted by George Lutz, which he based on the real life case of Ronald DeFeo. DeFeo murdered his family one night at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island in 1973, and the Lutz family were the first to move into that address afterwards. They only stayed there for about a month, during which they claimed to be haunted by demonic voices, phantom pigs, invisible marching bands, and a mysterious black ooze coming out of the walls. None of the stories have ever been substantiated, but Lutz got a book deal with author Jay Anson, who novelized his story as The Amityville Horror. This was later adapted into a 1979 film starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. For whatever reason, that film ended up being one of the most financially successful films of the 1970s. This was despite the fact that it was produced by American International Pictures (known best for their cheap drive-in movies from the 1950s and 1960s), and the fact that it’s boring as shit.
Amityville was so successful, in fact, that it spawned a prequel: Amityville II: The Possession (1982). That film claimed to tell the story of the DeFeo family, but it took so many sickening liberties with the lives of these real life murder victims that I really can’t endorse watching it myself. It takes its inspiration from Ronald DeFeo’s murder defense, wherein his lawyer, William Weber, seriously tried to push the claim of “demonic possession” in court. This seems especially tasteless considering that George Lutz and William Weber turned out to be in cahoots with each other at the time. (But not for long; Lutz soon tried to sue Weber, as well as several other people and a few different magazines and newspapers. It seems to me that this was all nothing more than a “get rich quick” scam.) Yet Amityville II was also successful at the box office, which meant that another movie would soon follow in its wake. So in 1983, Orion Pictures gave us Amityville 3D, which is commonly thought to be even worse than the original Amityville.
The poster art for Amityville 3D (1983)
The thing is, I actually enjoy Amityville 3D quite a bit; in fact, I think it’s probably the best Amityville film ever made. This is primarily due to the fact that it isn’t “based on a true story”; it’s completely fictional, and it doesn’t bother to claim otherwise. Sure, the story is abysmally stupid, and the characters are more two-dimensional than you can believe. I can’t even remember any of their names; I just remember Tony Roberts is an asshole skeptic who moves into 112 Ocean Avenue and who stubbornly refuses to believe it’s haunted. Never mind the fact that it kills his best friend, Candy Clark, and his daughter, Lori Loughlin. Then he and his wife Tess Harper get help from Dr. Robert Joy to free their daughter’s soul from the house. Oh yeah, and there’s a slimy Bug-Eyed Monster living in the basement, and it seems to be responsible for all the weird shit that happens in the house. That’s pretty much the entire plot right there; there’s nothing about the DeFeo murders or the Lutzes. Ostensibly, nobody connected with the Amityville Horror hoax has ever made any money off of this film, which automatically makes it superior to its predecessors.
Mind you, Amityville 3D isn’t what I’d call a “good” movie by any means; it’s still just an exploitation movie. The key difference lies in what it chooses to exploit: a silly movie theater gimmick that doesn’t mean much today (i.e., 3D camera photography), as opposed to a real life murder case. I find that sort of thing much more forgivable, personally. But there are a few things about this film that I really enjoy. For one thing, it actually scared me pretty badly when I first saw it as a kid. I mentioned earlier that Candy Clark buys the farm; well I wasn’t expecting that to happen, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it to happen in the way that it does. In a sequence that shamelessly rips off The Omen (1976), Clark’s character discovers a demonic face that appears in the photographs she’s taken around the property at 112 Ocean Avenue. She freaks out and goes to warn Tony Roberts, but then she gets harassed by a demonic fly while she’s driving in her car. She crashes into the back of a truck, and the inside of her car is set on fire. Then she screams one of the more convincing screams of pain I’ve ever heard in a movie while all of her skin melts off.
Candy, honey, WHAT HAPPENED?!?!
I have a thing about seeing really gross shit happen to women in movies; it gets stuck in my brain for some reason, and it keeps me from sleeping comfortably for a while. And I’m not talking about simple stabbings or that sort of thing; I’m talking total bodily disfigurement, like when Harry Canyon disintegrates the redhead girl in Heavy Metal (1981), or when Karin Dor gets eaten by piranhas in You Only Live Twice (1967). It doesn’t unsettle me nearly so much when things like this happen to male characters; I guess that’s why I can stomach John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which has an all-male cast. Maybe it’s because the female characters who are subjected to horrible deaths like this are so often sexualized as well, which is an unfortunate stain on the genre. But that’s certainly not the case with Candy Clark in this movie; sure, Candy’s always a pleasant sight, but she doesn’t prance around in any skimpy outfits here. She’s fully clothed the whole time, and she doesn’t have any sex scenes either. So I don’t know why this particular scene gets to me as much as it does. All I know is that I have to give Amityville 3D credit for shocking me pretty good, and in a way that even most good horror movies don’t.
The other thing I enjoy about this flick is Robert Joy’s character. He’s a parapsychologist who works at some nameless university or institute somewhere, and who is both a “believer” and a “skeptic” at the same time. He clearly believes in the paranormal, but he’s slow to believe in any particular claims (or to make any claims himself) without sufficient evidence. While he was clearly written into the movie just to make it feel more like 1982’s Poltergeist (which also featured scientists with a similar attitude), I enjoy his presence all the same. I also like him because he’s the only character with a good head on his shoulders. The other characters are either too quick to believe in the Amityville Horror hype (i.e., Candy Clark and Tess Harper), too quick to dismiss it (i.e., Tony Roberts), or too quick to fuck around with it (i.e., Lori Loughlin and the other teenagers). Of course, the believers turn out to be totally right in the end; but they’re still just as annoying as everyone else. Robert Joy’s position is the one I prefer to take in real life, and I appreciate the fact that he’s also the only character who’s charming and likable.
I mean, what the hell IS that thing, anyway?
The only serious complaint that I have against Amityville 3D is that there just isn’t enough of the gooey booger monster that appears at the end. It would have been much more impressive if the writers had decided to reveal this beastie at the beginning of the final act and let it raise some serious hell for a good 20 minutes or so. As it is, we only see the damn thing for a few seconds before it scorches off Robert Joy’s face and drags him down the tunnel to the Underworld that’s down in the basement. Then we get some telekinetic-fu as Tony Roberts, Tess Harper and the rest of Robert Joy’s investigative team get thrown around by invisible forces throughout the house. This part is actually pretty entertaining (especially the part when the basement door explodes and crashes into one of the scientists; it looks like a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon); but I really wanted to see some monster-fu instead. Oh well; at least the house explodes at the end. (It’s a well-established rule in my household that explosions will automatically improve any film – especially if it doesn’t make any sense for them to happen.)
It’s worth noting that in the previous Amityville films, the evil of the house is “confronted” by the Catholic Church. The first movie features Rod Steiger as a priest who tries to help the Lutzes from afar, but who really doesn’t accomplish anything useful in the end; he just sort of loses his marbles. The second movie has a priest who tries to perform an exorcism on the Ronald DeFeo character, but who only succeeds in getting himself possessed instead. In Amityville 3D, Robert Joy’s character is a little more successful in dealing with the evil than his clerical predecessors (I mean, he does piss it off enough to make it blow its own home to smithereens, which has to count for something). This transition from relying on organized religion for answers to relying on quacky pseudoscience was characteristic of the times; this was the era when the New Age movement really let fly, and people were swapping the Gods with “ancient astronauts” and stuff like that. Not that I’m criticizing anyone for believing that stuff if that’s what they want to believe; I just think it’s fascinating that the Amityville filmmakers would choose to take this route. The entire point of 1979’s The Amityville Horror was to cash in on earlier films like The Exorcist (1973), which are definitely very pro-traditional religion. Amityville 3D is more like an inbred bastard stepchild of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), which uses scientific speculation to explain its supernatural events.
There are several more Amityville movies that came out after Amityville 3D, but only one of them saw a theatrical release, and that was the idiotic 2005 Amityville Horror remake (starring Ryan Reynolds). The rest are all made-for-video or made-for-TV cheapies that have nothing to do with the house at 112 Ocean Avenue. My favorites among these are those that were produced by Steve White (including 1989’s Amityville: The Evil Escapes, 1992’s Amityville: It’s About Time, 1993’s Amityville: A New Generation, and 1996’s Amityville: Dollhouse). These are all about cursed objects that were once located in the Amityville house (i.e., a lamp, a clock, a mirror and a dollhouse), but which are now owned by different families across the country. They’re sort of like 90-minute episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series, only the owners of Curious Goods aren’t around to save the day. I have a special place in my heart for those shitty movies; they’re dumb as hell, but I enjoy them nonetheless.