DirectorStuart Rosenberg, Damiano Damiani, Richard Fleischer
Release Date(s)1979-83 (October 1, 2013)
Studio(s)MGM (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: A-
- Overall Grade: A-
For many people, ghost stories were their first introduction to horror. Their appeal is universal and cross-cultural. And at least part of the reason is that ghosts don’t tend to bother you out in public, surrounded by people. Ghosts are territorial and they’ll only come after you if you invade their turf. Trouble is, their turf is usually now your turf.
Haunted house stories have been a resilient horror staple for centuries. But the predominant haunted house of the last quarter century is the one in Amityville, Long Island. Ever since the publication of Jay Anson’s (supposedly, allegedly, possibly maybe) non-fiction book in 1977, Amityville has been synonymous with evil spirits and unexplained phenomenon. The book spawned a long-running series of movies (most of which went direct-to-video but still) and a cottage industry of books and documentaries looking to either support or debunk the claims.
Now, Scream Factory has collected the first three visits to Amityville in a handsome new box set: The Amityville Horror Trilogy. Granted, the use of the word “trilogy” suggests these movies are more connected and well-thought-out than they actually are. Let’s take a gander inside. Don’t mind the flies.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR
James Brolin and Margot Kidder star as George and Kathy Lutz, the real-life couple who fled the house they’d moved into just a few weeks previously and kicked off all this nonsense in the first place. They’d picked up the house at a bargain-basement price, unaware that the previous owners, the DeFeo family, had been brutally murdered there by the oldest son, Ron Jr.
Strange things begin happening almost immediately when Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) arrives to bless the house. He’s attacked by a swarm of flies and hears a voice commanding him to “Get out!” Kathy’s daughter, Amy, makes an invisible friend named Jody who has a pretty serious aversion to George. As for George himself, he starts losing sleep, spends a lot of time chopping wood and tending his axe, and makes the unsettling discovery that he looks a lot like Ron DeFeo Jr.
In his indispensible 1981 book Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes that the reason Amityville struck such a chord was because of its subtext of economic unease. I think he’s right on the money. The movie’s most effective moments focus on Brolin’s unraveling, searching desperately for a wad of misplaced cash and barking at Kidder that she’s the one who wanted a house in the first place.
The movie loses its footing a bit when it switches to Steiger’s efforts to persuade his fellow priests that the house needs an exorcism. Catholicism was at the height of its popularity as the One True Faith of Terror, so it’s hardly surprising that the men in black are called in. But Kidder is the Catholic in the family and, as depicted in the movie, she doesn’t seem to be the most devout believer in the congregation. As it is, it feels like it’s included out of obligation rather than organically.
This is the original Amityville’s second appearance on Blu-ray, following a bare-bones MGM release in 2008. The movie looks very good, if not revelatory, in HD. It isn’t the sharpest, most detailed image you’ll see but it’s certainly an improvement over DVD. Audio options include the original mono track and a 5.1 mix. The 5.1 is fine but somewhat artificial. My preference is for the mono track but your mileage may vary.
Several extras are carried over from the Special Edition DVD, here making their Blu-ray debut. These include a good, candid 20-minute interview with James Brolin and Margot Kidder and an audio commentary by parapsychology expert Dr. Hans Holzer. Holzer’s commentary is pretty good for about the first half hour, then he starts repeating himself or just stops talking altogether. Don’t feel terrible if you don’t make it to the end. The disc also includes a new interview with legendary composer Lalo Schifrin, the original trailer and TV spot, seven radio spots and a still gallery. All in all, a nice mix of old and new extras.
Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B-
AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION
For the 1982 follow-up, screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace opted to go the prequel route and go back to the original DeFeo murders. They’ve been renamed the Montellis and unless you read the poster on your way into the cinema, there’s nothing really in the movie to suggest that this is a prequel but never mind.
This time, Burt Young and Rutanya Alda are the unfortunate homeowners and Jack Magner is the oldest son who starts hearing voices (through his Walkman) telling him that taking a shotgun to his entire family would probably be a good idea. Like Brolin’s character in the first film, Magner’s got some real-world pressures bearing down on him. His dad’s an abusive scumbag, so for protection, he gets closer to his sister (Diane Franklin). Much closer. Uncomfortably closer.
This time, the Catholicism angle is more seamlessly integrated as Magner succumbs to full-on demonic possession. It’s a little surprising that the murders occur about an hour in, leaving the last act of the film to be a strange cross between The Exorcist and a courtroom drama as fightin’ young priest James Olson tries to convince the authorities to free Magner into his care for an exorcism.
Amityville II isn’t a particularly frightening movie but it is kind of a hoot, thanks in large part to director Damiano Damiani’s commitment to pushing the envelope. The movie has a nicely foreboding atmosphere and, after Magner is fully possessed, a gonzo go-for-broke appeal. The original Amityville Horror wasn’t exactly Oscar-bait but compared to this, it’s practically a prestige picture. Amityville II is a welcome reminder of the more unsavory elements of exploitation’s heyday.
It’s fair to say that Amityville II has never looked better than it does here. This is the best transfer of the set, with outstanding detail and rich color. The monaural audio is perfectly acceptable, certainly on par with the work on disc one. Scream Factory assembled a killer set of extras for this disc, including new interviews with Tommy Lee Wallace, Rutanya Alda, Diane Franklin and Andrew Prine and a new interview with the late Damiano Damiani. Commentary duties are handled by Alexandra Holzer, daughter of the aforementioned Hans Holzer, who died in 2009, as well as a lengthy video interview. The commentary too often just narrates the on-screen action but the interview is worth checking out for more info about Holzer’s involvement with the case, the Lutzes and the DeFeos. Finally, there is a pair of trailers (including one in French), a still gallery, and a hidden Easter egg interview with makeup artist Stephan Dupuis.
Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/A-
As set-ups for threequels go, Amityville 3-D isn’t bad. A pair of reporters (Tony Roberts and Candy Clark) for a Skeptical Inquirer-type magazine arrive at the house to expose a phony psychic scam that’s been holding fake séances. Roberts gets some of the house’s history from the property’s real estate agent, who confesses he finds it impossible to unload the house. Roberts is going through a divorce and needs to find a new place anyway, so he makes an offer. Who better to move into the East Coast’s most haunted residence than a professional skeptic? He ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
Unfortunately, the movie’s inspiration pretty much begins and ends with its basic premise. Soon enough, the usual Amityville spookfest kicks in, albeit in a slightly tamer, PG-rated fashion. Roberts’ daughter (Lori Loughlin) seals her fate by picking the notorious murder-room as her bedroom, the gateway to hell is discovered in the basement, yadda yadda yadda. Some of this is kind of fun, especially in director Richard Fleischer’s gratuitous use of 3-D which, in a typically 80s example of the gimmick, is about as subtle as a steel pipe crashing through your windshield (which actually happens, of course). But overall, a palpable sense of franchise fatigue hangs over the effort, so it’s hardly surprising that the next entries in the saga went to the small screen.
This is the softest transfer of the set, thanks solely to the original 3-D format and in no way a flaw of the disc’s mastering. I don’t think there’s anything to complain about here, it just is what it is in 2-D. The audio is again perfectly serviceable. The big extra is the first ever home video release of the film in all its 3-D splendor. I can’t comment on the effectiveness of the presentation but I’m certainly happy to know its there when/if I ever get a 3-D setup. Other than that, there’s a new 9-minute interview with Candy Clark that’s both interesting and amusing, and the original trailer.
Film Rating: C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/C+
On the whole, Amityville fans should be reasonably satisfied with this collection, particularly with the generous extras on Amityville II and the long-awaited 3-D presentation of the third movie. There are some minor quibbles. The interview with Lalo Schifrin is terrific but it would have been nice to see some more new features on the original film (although I’m the first to admit I don’t know what else I’d suggest doing, since so many key creative personnel on the film are no longer with us). Also, MGM’s 2005 DVD box set included a bonus disc called Amityville Confidential that included a pair of History Channel documentaries and a plug for the then-new remake. Nobody cares about promoting the remake anymore but it’s slightly disappointing that the docs aren’t here. Disappointing but hardly a deal-breaker. This is another thoughtful, well-produced set from Scream Factory and a great way to kick off the Halloween season.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke
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