“Trilogy,” which implies a governing thematic concern uniting its installments, might be too glamorous and misleading a word to apply to the first three Amityville Horror films, which are more suggestive of a group of genre paperbacks hastily published in bulk under a similar theme, with any commonalities between them scanning more as coincidence than grand design. Not to mention the obvious fact that, like, nearly a dozen other sequels followed in the years since Amityville 3-D’s release in 1983. No, the Amityville Horror series is something simpler and more commonplace: an unexpected enterprise that sprang from the phenomenal success of the first film.
If we’re to accept most producers’ claims at face value, seemingly every current horror film is based on some kind of true story, no matter how tangential the connection may be. But The Amityville Horror, based on the bestselling novel by Jay Anson, benefitted enormously from its highly debated true-life roots, which concerned the experiences of the Lutz family when they moved into the scenic titular New York neighborhood the year after a grisly mass murder took place in their new house. The marketing for the film was so effective that otherwise reasonable baby boomers are still inclined to speak of that movie with a slightly creeped-out ambivalence.
As just a film, rather than an event cloaked in ominous portent, The Amityville Horror remains spectacularly uninvolving despite its promising raw materials. There’s the famed shiver-inducing design of the house itself, of course, which has rear windows that appear to be eyes that malevolently regard anyone foolish enough to approach the property, and there’s also the Lalo Schifrin score that shrewdly merges the shrieks of Psycho with the chillingly soft cooing of Rosemary’s Baby. Director Stuart Rosenberg also has the astute instinct to render the otherworldly terror that besieges the Lutz family through the quotidian: The Lutzes aren’t terrorized by elaborate otherworldly effects, but by windows that won’t open, money that inexplicably disappears, toilets that overflow, and flies that are weirdly present despite the cool weather. Plus a husband, George (James Brolin), who finds himself lapsing ever more pronouncedly into the decades-old horror-movie fugue state known, unofficially, as “loony ax-fondling beardo.”
Logically, the film can most fruitfully be read as a story of a struggling family economically torn apart from the purchase of a house that turns out to be a lemon (though George’s ownership of a boat throws a minor kink into this interpretation), but Rosenberg isn’t able to corral his promising symbolic flourishes into a satisfyingly coherent whole. The Amityville Horror is a blunt, ugly movie, and those qualities might have worked for the film if it wasn’t so deliberately and punishingly paced, and if the plot wasn’t so haphazard and superficial: The Lutzes move in, the house works them over artlessly for nearly two full, redundant hours, and the family moves out. That’s it: domestic abuse as entertainment.
But you’ll miss The Amityville Horror’s spare, squat ugliness after sitting through Amityville II: The Possession and Amityville 3-D, both of which were presided over by mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis. Keep in mind, these films were made long before the age in which a sequel was regarded as anything other than a cheap, quick cash-in (with something like The Godfather Part II obviously acting as a pronounced one-in-10-million exception), and these films are sporadically amusing for their pointed indifference toward the cash cow that yielded them. The interiors of the house, most amusingly, don’t match up with the rooms of the first film, as these sequels are clearly set jobs.
Amityville II gooses its routine exorcism story with sibling incest that’s laughably beside the point, and Amityville 3-D mostly follows a character played by an unengaged Tony Roberts as he talks up a book he never writes while parading around in sweaters of increasingly questionable taste. Near the end, his character’s daughter absurdly perishes and Roberts summons all of the physical torment of a man who spilled the last 10th of his sixth beer on the living room floor. It tells you something about this series that the actor still somehow gives the most engaging lead performance in this trilogy, which could be said, if we’re to eventually cut the films some slack, to cover the evolution of the American husband from aggrieved quasi-working-class stud to overeducated, resolutely absent pretentious ass. You can have that theme for free, undergrads; just be sure to tell me what your professor says.
An unsurprisingly mixed bag: The first two films have been transferred with a reasonable amount of attention paid to image clarity and detail, and the first film boasts two DTS Master Audio tracks that sound remarkably nuanced considering the age and budget of the productions. Amityville II: The Possession sounds flatter, but that may be due to the film’s less-textured mixing—tough to tell. Amityville 3-D is a visual disgrace, though, as there are images that are so blurry they’d embarrass a new VHS tape circa 1990; to be fair, this could be partially due to the inevitably poor aging of the 3D effects. The sound mix is comparably competent but forgettable. The producers of these discs obviously, and correctly, assumed that the sequels were of primary value as a gimmick for padding a box set that might be used by consumers as fodder for an October horror-movie marathon.
Shout! Factory offers a generally enthusiastic package for fans of the films. The audio commentaries with Dr. Hans Holzer, Ph.D in parapsychology, and ghost hunter/author Alexandra Holzer are initially enjoyable for adding a whiff of possibility that some of the events that transpired at the old Amityville home might have been real, but they grow dull pretty quickly. It’s too bad that James Brolin and Margot Kidder, who speak engagingly of their work in the first film in the too-short "For God’s Sake, Get Out!" documentary, weren’t able to participate in an audio commentary. The various other interviews with cast members are similarly diverting, especially the piece on Amityville II screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace, who speaks bluntly about his dislike of the first film and of how he sought an approach for a sequel that would attempt to avoid almost any association with that film. The Amityville 3-D disc is pointedly bare, and that’s a shame, as it would be interesting to hear how journeyman cinephile legend Richard Fleischer got himself attached to the project. Rounding out the package are trailers and audio spots.
Shout! Factory wasn’t quite able to rouse itself up to its typical standard with The Amityville Horror Trilogy, which is understandable considering the general dullness of the films themselves. Horror fans are advised to look elsewhere.