Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

Director: Damiano Damiani

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By Roderick Heath

Long my private vote for the best worst film of all time, Amityville 2: The Possession is the sort of film that ought to be utterly humdrum, but proves to be a welter of cinematic putrescence. A sequel to a big hit and a big enough hit itself to justify another sequel (Richard Fleischer’s Amityville 3-D, far better than either precursor), it still managed to be badly acted, tackily directed, photographed with elaborate yet hilariously pointless camerawork, festooned with cheapjack special effects—altogether representative of ’80s horror at its low point. Amityville 2 is for me that mother lode many movie fans search for to speak to some part of us that seeks perfect, laughable shit. Such great crap must be a strange, almost contradictory mixture: it must, obviously, be awful, but it must also be bearable enough to drag you along with its proliferating absurdity. Of late, many have found such a film in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), an interesting choice for being a so-called drama and the Calvary of independent cinema. But for me nothing quite scratches the itch like a truly bad horror movie. I have happy memories of my childhood’s household versions of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, making ruthless fun of this claptrap. And it never disappoints.

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Instead of fashioning a straight sequel to the intriguing, but witless The Amityville Horror (1979), the filmmakers made a prequel purporting to portray the original murders that gave an attractive and surprisingly affordable piece of real estate a bad name. The first film tied itself to a pseudo-factual account of the supposed haunting of a real Long Island house, and as the series’ cred was at least partly staked in that “based on a true story” frisson, a follow-up had to stay within those parameters. The Montelli family moves into the house, which a mover (a black guy—they always sense these things quicker in movies) senses is watching him. The family comprises cranky father Anthony (Burt Young), frayed mother Dolores (Rutanya Alda), hunky teenage son Sonny (Jack Magner), comely daughter Patricia (Diane Franklin), and two younger siblings, Jan and Mark (Erika and Brent Katz).

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Casting Young as anybody’s father is immediately unfair. Young offers a characterisation—frizzy hair, wild eyes, beer gut dangling pendulously against his slob shirts—that resembles less a hardworking, aspiring, middle-class paterfamilias than a wino the filmmakers hired off the street with the offer of fifty bucks and as much sterno as he could drink. All that’s missing is the cloud of flies buzzing about his head. Anthony bellows and barks and threatens his children with his broad leather belt and constantly jams a saliva-sticky cigar between his lips in a caricature of boorish plebeian masculinity. Somehow, he and his wife have produced a young Adonis of a son and a luscious daughter, in whom Damiani subtly suggests latent incestuous tension by having them bicker in a moron’s idea of screwball banter and having Patricia lounge against her brother wearing a skin-tight white woollen sweater. If ever a garment deserved an Oscar, that sweater is it.

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In a night of terror, repetitive knocking at the door brings out Anthony with his favourite rifle, whilst ethereal spooks terrify the younger children by painting a bizarre mural on the wall that suggests that if the house wanted to give up scaring unsuspecting tenants and take up art, it might one day have a fine exhibition at the Tate Modern. Consumed by hysteria, the family bellow and brawl, father slapping younger children and mother until son picks up the rifle and presses it to his father’s jaw. Mother takes the gun from her son’s hands and walks toward the camera to speak the line (honestly): “What’s happening to us?!” Mother attempts to talk their local Catholic priest, Father Adamski (James Olson!) into blessing their house, but another incomprehensible act of spook vandalism sets father off into a rage at his younger children again, causing Adamski to walk out in disgust: the last sane action in the film. When mother insists that father go to the church and apologise, the family dresses up and leave, except for Sonny, who isn’t feeling too hot. Alone in the house (shudder), Sonny is drawn downstairs by eerie noises, and finds a gate into the crawlspace open. And what does he see in there? You don’t want to know! No, really, you don’t want to know, it’s that disappointing!

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Like too many directors after Jaws (1975), Damiani uses a subjective camera to suggest a roving, malignant presence; Sonny is pursued around the house by an unperceived, but apparently horny apparition, constantly backing off from the approaching camera with a look of vague distress, as if the steadicam operator is giving him weird looks. Yeah, steadicam operators unnerve me, too: they’re always hairy and smell of cheap deodorant. But enough of that. The film turns here into a queasy gay-panic precursor to The Entity: the house wants to have sex with Sonny, as the spirit pinions him on his bed and repeatedly rams against his belly, infesting his hunky young body with mysterious lesions and swellings before the whole house erupts in orgasmic consummation. Rifles in their racks discharge spontaneously, windows and doors open and shut, furniture flies about, the boiler blows off steam, and the furnace spews fire. It’s safe to say the house is definitely a top. Having been perverted by a piece of real estate, Sonny’s new amorality knows no bounds, as he enters his sister’s room, and, in play-acting the fashion photographer with his model, gets her to take her nightgown off, and then pinions her for a night of hot, hot incest love, baby.

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When mother finally gets Adamski to return, he moves about the house shaking holy water around until Sonny and the evil presence conjure another pointless manifestation—the holy water turns to blood, making mother freak out about the cleaning up, and Adamski vomits in the sink. Soon mother perceives the rather too fraught glances between brother and sister, and a suddenly primly dressed and shamed sister goes to confess to Adamski, who soon enough goes off on a fishing trip with another priest with whom he seems very, very friendly, and ignores a worried phone call from Patricia. These damned ministers, who do they think they are, going off to have fun when people are in danger from haunted houses?!

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Unhinged either by having sex with houses or sex with his sister, or perhaps to keep Young from making another Rocky film, Sonny walks into his parents’ bedroom and shoots his father, before deciding to go the whole hog and, in a sequence the whole family can enjoy, executes mother and three siblings. Adamski awakens in a fright to find his friendly fellow priest bent over his bed and smiling, which is a more frightening notion than anything else in the film. “You were dreaming,” the friendly creepy priest says. No, Adamski insists, he felt something. They dash back to Amityville and discover, sure enough, authorities carting away the corpses and a distressed Sonny screaming that he can’t remember killing them. Having at last gotten the familial psychodrama out of the way, Amityville 2 can finally become what it always wanted to be: a really awful Exorcist knock-off.

Adamski interviews Sonny in his nuthouse cell and finds he’s possessed, apparently not by Mercedes McCambridge this time, but by Joan Crawford. It’s a pity he didn’t shout before his killings, “Bring me the axe!” Moses Gunn plays…I’m not sure what, but he spends his time looking between Sonny and Adamski like he hasn’t read the script, and is glad he didn’t. Adamski begins to dig into the house’s troubled history, and learns—are you ready, folks?—that the house was built by a Salem witch over an Indian burial ground. Now there’s tempting fate.

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Within all this idiocy might have been an intriguing template for satirising the nuclear family idyll consumed by changing mores and the anxieties of upward mobility, rather than taking refuge in the already exhausted Catholic guilt theme. Sonny keeps a Jim Morrison portrait on his wall, associating his spree with the oedipal massacre at the core of Morrison’s epic song “The End,” whilst his possession leaves him looking like Lou Reed circa Transformer. He hears demonic voices through his headphones (he has a Walkman, despite the fact the film is set in 1974), evoking both the threat of schizophrenic disintegration and furthering the timeless paranoia over the pernicious influence of evil pop music on modern youth. (And, indeed, Fall Out Boy make me think about mass homicide, too.) Damiani had been a workhorse director and writer in Italian cinema for many years, but his cheaply cynical approach imbues the film with no more relevance or intensity than a commercial for cornflakes.

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Sonny soon escapes from hospital and Adamski, to save Sonny from the demon, races to the house to perform an exorcism. When Sonny arrives, he cackles like a drag queen at Adamski, and warns him that his exorcism can’t succeed because he hasn’t been given the church’s authority. The demon then tries to throw off Adamski by morphing into Patricia, wearing slutty eyeliner and red lipstick to suggest the priest had wanted to bed her, before waggling her tongue at him. Unfortunately, this display suggests less the Whore of Babylon than Divine. The demon then starts to tear its way out of Sonny, splitting him apart with make-up that looks like dried lasagne, before Adamski, knowing how this scene goes, shouts out for the demon to take him instead. Flames explode from the house’s windows, and Adamski is left sprawled in the corner, whilst Sonny floats in a halo of light. He’s been saved by the power of the Lord, only to be hauled away and executed for multiple homicides. “We’ll make them understand,” the friendly priest promises him. Sure. And Adamski is left, the telltale swellings throbbing on his arm, within the house. A chilling…or something…coda shows a “For Sale” sign up outside the house, whilst from someplace deep within, in the shadowy depths of the netherworld, the laughter of Ed Wood echoes from beyond. l

  • Robert spoke:
    31st/10/2009 to 4:54 pm

    After losing a suit, the distributors had to send out posters to every theater playing the film, stating in very big print that it was NOT a sequel. I guess audiences must have wondered why there was a “2” in the title…

  • Rod spoke:
    31st/10/2009 to 10:14 pm

    Well, it isn’t a sequel, is it? It’s a prequel! Maybe they should have called it Amityville -1.

  • Jamie spoke:
    30th/11/2010 to 9:27 am

    It’s better than the Phantom Menace!

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