Of all the questions raised by The Amityville Horror and its moronic sequels the most vexing one revolves around the external range of a haunted house’s supernatural powers. Because while it makes sense for a demonic abode to slam windows shut on small children’s fingers, let loose with swarms of buzzing flies, and turn bearded wood-chopping fathers into homicidal paterfamilias, it’s not quite as clear why such a structure would have the ability to sabotage the brakes of a sedan driving on the highway, or to cause a woman’s briefcase, sitting on her car’s passenger seat, to magically burst into flames. In the original The Amityville Horror, the maniacal Long Island manor, attempting to keep Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) away from the Lutz clan, burns the progressive priest—who’s convinced the house is possessed by the Lord of the Underworld—by sending diabolical energy through the telephone. Which makes one shudder at the thought of what the malicious mansion might have done had the Lutzes had a computer hooked up to the Internet via their phone line—imagine the unholy avalanche of evil spam!
Such burning issues largely preoccupy one’s bored mind while enduring Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 ghost story, yet another of the decade’s many Catholicism-infused horror flicks. Like The Exorcist and The Omen, the real baddie of The Amityville Horror is Satan, who drove a boy to kill his parents and four siblings in cold blood, and whose wicked spirit, one year later, possesses new occupant George Lutz (James Brolin) and convinces him to do away with his new wife Kathy (Margot Kidder) and her three annoying kids. Supposedly based on a true story (recounted in Jay Anson’s bestseller), the film charts George’s gradual descent into madness—meaning he becomes perpetually cold (causing him to sit in front of a raging fireplace inferno), begins to resemble Ted Kaczynski, and exhibits a disconcerting disinterest in eating hot dogs. Brolin’s demented daddy is eerily similar to The Shining’s Jack Torrance (who wouldn’t become the Overlook Hotel’s caretaker for another year), from his attempt to break down a white bathroom door with an axe to the Indian burial ground-spawned souls that may be contributing to his lunacy, yet the difference in quality between Kubrick and Rosenberg’s scare-a-thons is as wide as the chasm between heaven and hell. That the film ends, after 28 days, in the most anticlimactic fashion imaginable is no surprise given the pathetic preceding scares—highlighted by the house locking little Amy’s babysitter in a closet…that has no locks!—but at least Steiger provides amusing hysteria as a crazy priest ultimately transformed into a crazy-and-blind priest, and the monumentally bizarre sight of a giant glowing-eyed pig (presumably Amy’s imaginary friend “Jody”) that George momentarily spies in the house’s upstairs window.
Baffling swine imagery carries over to Amityville II: The Possession in the form of childish drawings on a bedroom wall, though such nonsensicality feels more at home in Damiano Damiani’s supremely awful “based on real events” prequel about the home’s initial crimes. The Montellis (modeled after the DeFeo family that was slain by son Ronny Jr. in 1974) relocate to the Long Island dwelling at 112 Ocean Avenue and begin dealing with faucets that spew blood and rooms infested with insects. More problematic, however, is oldest son Sonny (Jack Magner), whose hatred for his abusive father Anthony (Burt Young, in a performance that nicely captures the insanity of short-tempered hobos) makes him susceptible to demonic possession by the house (which speaks to him through his walkman). This setup leads to the series’s crowning achievement: Sonny’s incestuous seduction of sister Patricia (Diane Franklin), in which he convinces his sibling to do the nasty by using his irresistible powers of suggestion:
Sonny: “Take off your nightgown.”
Sonny: “Just for a second”
Patricia: “OK. Just for a second.”
Unfortunately, Amityville II never comes close to matching this instance of twisted brotherly affection, simply devolving—after Sonny guns down his relatives with a phallic rifle—into a depressing imitation of The Exorcist replete with a noble priest (James Olson’s Father Adamsky) saving Sonny’s tortured soul via self-sacrificial exorcism. In a sign that the series had completely come off the rails, the house, whose malevolent control seemingly extends all the way to Sonny’s prison cell, is relegated to the periphery during the film’s final 30 minutes, appearing mainly as a scary prop for Father Adamsky (dressed in black and lit by streetlamps à la Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin) to gaze at from across the street.
Replacing derivation with gimmicks, the PG-rated Amityville 3-D finds director Richard Fleisher, a pioneer of the 1950s-originated optical illusion technique, trying to generate terror from cheesy three-dimensional effects involving a flying Frisbee, an airborne stuffed swordfish, and the house’s trademark buzzing flies. MGM’s DVD unfortunately doesn’t provide the film (the first series entry not based on “real events”) in actual 3-D, but it’s difficult to imagine such tricks—which also include a climactic “scare” in which the house’s spirit anthropomorphizes into a fire-belching variation of the Creature from the Black Lagoon—being less laughable with the use of red-and-blue glasses. An opening scene featuring charlatans trying to swindle people into believing the house is haunted, and new owner John Baxter’s (Tony Roberts) denunciations of otherworldly phenomenon as merely the “exploitation of the fear of death,” hint at Fleischer and screenwriters David Ambrose and William Wales’s desire to dive into meta territory. And Meg Ryan, in an early-career appearance as the best friend of Baxter’s daughter Susan (Lori Loughlin), briefly touches upon the sexual nature of demonic possession (as well as delivers the film’s lamest line) by asking, “Do you know you could have sex with a ghost?” Even considering Robert Joy’s supremely moronic performance as stuffy ghost investigator Elliot West, Amityville 3-D—one-dimensional in every way but its hokey visuals—is too poorly written, awkwardly staged, and pathologically stupid to register as campy fun. But at least it confirms that, if you’re a resident of the Devil’s earthbound vacation home, you can expect paranormal harassment even when riding in faraway office building elevators.
Of only slightly higher quality than the films themselves, MGM's transfers for this Amityville collection range from mediocre to sub par. The original film, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, looks the cleanest, with sharp detail and decent black levels. Unfortunately, colors aren't nearly as vibrant as they should be, and regular edge enhancement is all-too-noticeable. These same problems are even more pronounced on the two sequels' discs-which also feature worthless full frame transfers-and both (especially the darkly lit Amityville II) also feature an annoying amount of film grain. In terms of sound, the first and third films boast 5.1 surround tracks that are limited in scope but generally clear, whereas the rightfully disrespected Amityville II only gets a wimpy mono mix.
The Amityville Horror is the only film that receives any specific extras, though I'm not sure that's a good thing. "For God's Sake, Get Out!," a 21-minute retrospective documentary featuring Kidder and Brolin waxing nostalgic about the film, reveals how poorly Kidder has aged and little else. Meanwhile, Dr. Hans Holzer, a "PH.D in Parapsychology" who's written numerous books about the Amityville house, provides a tiresome commentary focused on the house's "real-life events" that, given his deadly earnestness, should be much funnier than it is. Radio spots and a trailer are also included. A fourth disc entitled Amityville Confidential presents two episodes of The History Channel program History's Mysteries: one about the events at the Amityville house titled "Amityville: The Haunting," the other about whether the whole thing was a money-making deception ("Amityville: Horror or Hoax?"). The latter features George and Kathy Lutz giving their first interview in nearly two decades, but their testimony-like every other quack and fraud interviewed in these skin-deep programs-is about as believable as the sight of that bloated pig in the house's upstairs window. Finally, a brief spot for the upcoming Amityville Horror remake is thrown in for good measure, and is a complete waste of time unless you're desperate for a sneak peek at Ryan Reynolds's chiseled abs.
For God’s Sake, doesn’t anyone in Long Island own a flyswatter?