Friday, August 30, 2013

Amityville II: The Possession

Amityville II: The Possession and I have a history. We go way, way back. It's one of the main reasons I watch horror movies to this day and it also shaped the way I watch them.

When I was a kid I had the best babysitter. Her name was Jana. She was beautiful and cool and an incredibly talented artist. I idolized her. One night, while she was watching me, we started flipping through channels on the television. It must have been close to Christmas because one channel was showing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I really wanted to watch that. Jana didn't. She kept surfing the channels until she found Amityville II: The Possession. She wanted to watch that. I did not. I wanted her to go back to Rudolph. But we had a second tv upstairs and Jana said I could up there and watch whatever I wanted. She said it was alright, I didn't need to stay downstairs with her. But I'd seen the opening moments of this Amityville movie, with the creepy-ass lullaby music and the foreboding side shots of the house with the iconic attic windows that look like eyes. I was scared. No way in hell was I gonna go upstairs and watch Rudolph or anything else on my own. I had no choice but to stay downstairs with Jana and endure the horror. 

My parents made it home long before the movie ended. But it was too late. The damage was done. There are three scenes in particular that I clearly remember seeing that night. I remember the mover discovering the false wall in the basement and going into the hidden room, which is crawling with flies and all manner of leaky, drippy filth. I remember the older brother, who has been hearing demonic voices through his headphones, looking down malevolently from his attic bedroom window on his unsuspecting family and friends below in the yard. But the scene that really got to me was the one where the invisible but undeniably evil forces in the house paint disrespectful graffiti all over the walls of the younger children's bedroom. While the children are in the room, screaming in terror. When the parents get to the room the children try to explain the mess, saying it wasn't them it was the brushes. Their father's not buying it. He's a hothead and a bully and he removes his belt and starts beating the kids with it. This was too much for little-me.

Then it got worse. After my parents got home my dad drove Jana back to her house and I rode with them. Jana told my dad about the movie and told him that she had explained to me that it wasn't real and there was nothing to be frightened about. My dad, however, begged to differ. Nope, he told her, that's based on a true story. It really happened. I'm in the backseat of the truck and I hear that. How on earth am I supposed to react to that bombshell? Thanks a lot, Dad.

It would be years before I'd watch Amityville II: The Possession in its entirety. But just like Stephen Gammell's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark illustrations, the scenes I remembered from watching the movie that night with Jana have always stayed with me. Though it's not the most well-made or frightening movie around it was my first real exposure to the genre. It scared me but the fear developed, as I grew older, into a morbid fascination with horror stories.

Although it's the second entry in the series, Amityville II: The Possession is technically a prequel, loosely based on actual crimes committed in the house at 112 Ocean Avenue before the Lutz family moved in and the events that formed the basis for the original Amityville Horror allegedly transpired. Amityville II opens with the Montelli family, father Anthony, mother Dolores and children Sonny, Patricia, Mark and Jan moving into their dream home. Within the first few minutes of the movie it's apparent that Anthony is an overbearing and, at times, frightening patriarch. I believe that the house begins to have an effect on the Montellis as soon as they set foot on the property but I also think it uses pre-existing familial tensions to create a highly volatile situation. I almost felt like the house was testing the Montellis in the earlier half of the movie, trying to determine which member of the family would make the perfect conduit for its diabolical plans. The entity within the home eventually possesses the oldest Montelli child, Sonny. Although there are moments when Sonny appears to be in control most his actions in the second half of the movie are attributed to the demonic presence that's using him for a host. Sonny is most certainly not himself when he takes his father's shotgun and proceeds to murder his parents and his three siblings (a truly unsettling and heartbreaking sequence in the movie). When the family priest, Father Adamsky (an admirable performance by James Olson), arrives on the scene after the brutal killings have occurred Sonny claims to have no memory of the crimes he has committed. Adamsky becomes convinced that Sonny is possessed and vows to exorcise the demon, even though the church refuses to sanction his actions. 

Amityville II: The Possession is certainly reminiscent of earlier horror films, the most obvious being The Exorcist. The resolution to the story is more or less lifted straight from the William Friedkin classic. The abusive father and the domestic violence in the movie reminds me of The Shining and the demon POV shots are very much like the ones that feature in The Evil Dead. While Amityville II may lack the style and originality of these other more celebrated horror titles I still think it's pretty effective and entertaining. I think Anthony Montelli is pretty repulsive from the start. I hate the way his wife and eldest daughter cower before him and go out of their way to keep him appeased. I still hate the scene when he beats his younger children with his belt. It is every bit as harrowing to me as it was when I saw it as a child. And I hate the way he systematically shatters oldest child Sonny's self-esteem. I think Jack Magner turns in a particularly effective performance as Sonny. At times troubled, menacing and creepy but also sensitive and sympathetic. I think he fights until the very end to retain as much of his humanity as possible while under the control of a powerful and entirely evil entity.

I also enjoyed Diane Franklin's performance as older sister Patricia. She and Sonny have a close bond that's established early on in the movie but devolves into an incredibly troubling incest side plot once Sonny is possessed. I'm not really sure what to make of that development. I mean, this isn't Cathy and Chris in Flowers in the Attic, hooking up because, y'know, they're locked in a freakin' attic, hormones raging, with no one else to turn to for comfort. Nope, this is a demon-possessed older brother putting the make on his sister as an affront to God. And the sister kind of knows what's up and goes along with it anyway. And even though she goes to Father Adamsky to confess she later tells her brother that she's not ashamed of what they've done. It's just all over the place. Kind of like when it's revealed that the house was built on an ancient Indian burial ground (of course) by a witch who fled from the trials in Salem. And it also appears to have some kind of hell mouth in the basement. That is a lot of bad juju to throw at the audience. Better to pick one atrocity and run with it, rather than throwing all of them against the wall to find the one that sticks.

And yet. And yet. Even the missteps are kind of charming. I know I'm biased because I saw it as a kid and it made such an impression on me but I really do think this an alright flick. It's dated and clunky but it has some good gore effects and some decent acting. If you like this sort of thing and you keep your expectations reasonable you're liable to have a good time with this one.