Amityville II: The Possession (Collector's Edition) Review

The1979 box-office hit The Amityville Horror was a crashing bore, a psuedo-genre movie made for middle class people who don’t like their horror films to be too scary. Adapted from a book which claimed to be factual but was, in fact, a thoroughly documented fake, Stuart Rosenberg’s film got completely lost between wanting to be simultaneously scary and entirely respectable. Luckily, Amityville II: The Possession has no such pretensions. The best move made by Dino De Laurentis, taking over as producer of the franchise from Samuel Z. Arkoff, was to hire Damiano Damiani as the director. Damiani’s roots in exploitation had led to such marvellous pulp as A Bullet For The General, one of the definitive Spaghetti Westerns, and he brings a thoroughly disreputable energy to this prequel which makes it infinitely more fun than its prototype.

Basically, the film documents the events which occurred before the Lutz family moved into the Amityville house, as depicted in the first movie. In reality, in 1974, a boy killed his family with a shotgun in the Amityville house and claimed, as a defence, that "the devil made me do it." The film leaps off from this point into a fanciful examination of what might have happened if the devil really had made him do it. A frightfully uncouth Italian-American family arrives at the house, headed by slobbish patriarch Burt Young and method-acting mother Rutanya Alda. The latter is a little discomfited by blood running from the taps but all seems well until the family try to sit down for a meal and the house begins shaking for no obvious reason. Soon however, everything is going wrong. Mischievous spirits are daubing anti-parent graffiti on the walls, Dad is going mental looking for someone new to beat, Mom is behaving like a Prozac casualty and eldest son, er, Sonny is developing unnatural feelings for his sister. When a priest (Olson) comes to bless the house, he’s granted a reception almost as peremptory as the one which greeted his overacting colleague Rod Steiger in the first film. Yes, it’s business as usual at Amityville.

Amityville II: The Possession rips off so many movies that I’m not even sure that it’s practical to name-check all of them. However, it’s important to point out that it’s not merely content to hang on to the coat-tails of the previous film. While making the most of the sudden scary noises and badly acted members of the clergy from the original, it soon veers off into territory charted by The Exorcist, and more recently, The Shining. Added to this mixture are some very dubious incestuous stuff, not dissimilar from that in Paul Schrader’s much more serious Cat People; pumping bladder effects which often resemble those in The Howling; and a severely dysfunctional Italian-American family from Scorsese’s worst nightmares. This is all terribly silly but it’s done with so much conviction that it’s hard not to find it guiltily enjoyable. The key, I think, lies with Damiani’s direction which moves along at a helter-skelter pace while managing to include not only enough character stuff to make the family relatively credible but also some very cunningly timed shock moments. He’s a director who knows that half-measures are pointless with this sort of thing unless you want to end up with something that falls between two stools, as the original did. Consequently, the daft soap-opera which ensues when Sonny starts messing about with his sister and Dad begins to take his belt to anything that moves, is put across with a full-blooded Cinecitta melodramatic elan that’s hard to resist. The moment, incidentally, when Mom confronts Sister with the words “What have you done with your brother”, followed by a slap, is some kind of camp classic.

It’s been said, most memorably by Stephen King in “Danse Macabre”, that the subtext of the original film was that of a terrible financial catastrophe with which all the middle-aged people in the audience could immediately identify. The subtext of Amityville II: The Possession, if it has one, seems to be that terrible things await any working class ethnic family which makes the mistake of pretending to be WASP. This may well spring more from Burt Young’s extraordinarily scuzzy performance than from anything in the script, but it’s clear from the first scene that he really doesn’t belong in this neighbourhood. Of course, the subtext could simply be that sleeping with your sister and disobeying your parents will lead to very bad things indeed.

This prequel – a word I can’t abide but to which I can’t find an acceptable alternative – also improves on the first film in the most important area. Quite simply, it’s a hell of a lot scarier. Partly, this is due to the imaginative camera work of Damiani and his DP Franco DiGiacomo . The early scenes, where we prowl through the house at night, are tremendously effective and the use of light and shadow is masterful. In this film, far more than in the original, the house itself seems to become a character – and Damiani is very good at evoking a sinister undercurrent when nothing much is happening. The obviously dangerous nature of the house is effectively mirrored by the characters of the father and son, both of whom seem to be on the verge of erupting into madness at the slightest provocation. Burt Young's performance is very unnerving because he's just as scary as his possessed son. This creates an atmosphere of mounting tension that was entirely missing from The Amityville Horror. Admittedly, the supporting performances and Tommy Lee Wallace's script are workmanlike at best but there’s enough conviction is Jack Magnar’s nasty performance as Sonny to carry things through to the marvellous conclusion.

Spoilers for the ending

Once the family have met their end at the hands of a badly made-up demonic Sonny, it appears that the film is about to wrap up after an hour. But don't be tempted to get up and put the kettle on because the best is yet to come. This finale, a rip-roaring thirty minutes which I defy any horror fan not to lap up like cream, begins in a police cell where James Olson’s madly overplayed priest – Father Adamski, who is presumably an American relation of the minor Brit-electronic music stylist of the early 1990s - is convinced that Sonny – having just taken one of Dad’s shotguns and blown away his family - has been possessed by an evil spirit. “I saw one once in Puerto Rico. He was shouting and... kicking...” muses Moses Gunn’s bit-part detective for no particularly good reason before Sonny begins growling threatening dialogue and generally behaving like Linda Blair’s bad big brother. When informed by Father Olson that an exorcism may be necessary, he says “You can’t do that, you’re not authorised”, thus creating the first demon in cinema history to talk like a chartered accountant. Damiani’s plagiaristic nerve extends to shots directly cribbed from The Exorcist and some dialogue which, believe it or not, seems lifted from the insane screenplay for Exorcist II The Heretic. Meanwhile, a helpful librarian shows up to give us some background on the house – “These records are more interesting than any novel” she says, shortly before informing us that, yawn, the house in built on an Indian burial ground. This was particularly amusing back in 1982 when Indian burial grounds were thick on the ground, most notably in Poltergeist - a film from which this one would certainly have cribbed had it been released in time.

There follows an all-too brief courtroom scene where Sonny’s lawyer, looking like a young Johnny Cochran, tries to put in a plea of diminished responsibility on the grounds of demonic possession, and a confrontation between Father Olson and a Vatican representative – “Now I understand why his parishioners are complaining about him” muses a colleague. Stranded in a prison hospital, Sonny isn’t eating anything and messages like “Save Me” are appearing on his arm. “I must call a doctor” says the cop, understandably perplexed by this kind of situation. Father Olson becomes increasingly concerned – indicated by an unaltering expression of worry – but the cop offers him a chance to save Sonny’s soul by letting him kidnap the boy. Our priest drags Sonny back to the house and performs an exorcism which is quite gloriously camp and should be essential viewing for everyone who thinks that horror films have no redeeming social value. Indeed, the serious messages conveyed here are numerous and can, perhaps, be summed up by the moment when Father Olson says “Sonny, if you can hear me, pray my son.... pray. Fight the evil inside you” while being chased through the house by red slime.

It’s not long before the daffy priest is declaiming endless sentences that can be summarised as “The power of Christ compels you” (hmmm, heard that before somewhere) and Sonny is levitating (The Fury, The Exorcist), growling (Cat People, An American Werewolf In London, The Exorcist), pretending to be a woman (Carry On Girls) and suffering some kind of serious head eruption (The Thing). Throughout all this, there’s endless theological debate that resembles the equally rampant religious banter which caused The Exorcist III to disappear up its own fundament. “Let it be me!” says Father Olson in a manner which reminds you of the Everly Brothers and it all ends with a big explosion and yet another blatant steal from The Exorcist.

End of spoilers

The strange thing about this film is that it’s so entertaining despite being wholly ludicrous. In theory, the serious, almost documentary approach of The Amityville Horror should be more effective on an adult level than this brightly coloured, lurid comic strip but in fact, the very silliness of this prequel is what makes it much more entertaining. You get the distinct impression that everyone (except possibly poor old James Olson) knows what nonsense they’re involved in but that they’re having enough fun not to care. When you consider how bad most horror sequels are, such reckless enjoyment is quite a recommendation. The icing on the cake is that this nonsense had two, count 'em, TWO religious consultants. Must have been hard times at the seminary back in '82.

The Disc

Amityville II: The Possession has been available for some time on a barebones pan and scan disc but, as it has presumably passed into the public domain for one reason or another, Sanctuary have pushed the boat out on a surprisingly interesting special edition. The transfer is so-so but the soundtrack is impressive and the extras are more than enough to make a purchase worthwhile.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It's not a great visual transfer but compared to the cheap barebones disc it's a revelation. The film is framed with surprising care so it's worth looking at in in the 1.85:1 format. Colours are quite splendid, especially the blues and reds, and there's plenty of sharp detail to be seen. Problems with occasional pixellation on my review copy. There's a lot of grain, perhaps more than is necessary to give a film-like appearance, and some serious problems with artefacting in the darker scenes - especially during the last half hour which largely takes place in dark interiors. Overall, however, I suspect this is as good as the film has appeared since its first release.

There are two soundtracks on the disc. The first is a straight two channel presentation of the Dolby Stereo soundtrack and it's absolutely fine with some nice separations and clear dialogue. However, surprisingly, the 5.1 remix is even better. There's an atmospheric feel to the surround track and some good use of the .1 LFE channel. Lalo Schifrin's splendidly florid score comes across very well indeed on this remix and some of the loud sound effects may make you jump several feet out of your seat.

The main extra is a delightful commentary track from the generous and enthusiastic team of Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, who have also done commentaries for the upcoming Amityville 3D and Conan The Destroyer discs from Sanctuary. Their observations are acute and witty and they seem to genuinely like the film, which adds a layer of affection that stops the track from seeming too clever-clever. The duo certainly have no problem finding things to talk about for the whole 100 minutes.

The commentary is excellent, which is fortunate since the other extras are very limited. We get brief biographies for selected members of the cast and crew, a photo gallery of stills from the film (in sensible thumbnail format) and a rather odd reconstruction of the extended ‘Lost Souls’ sequence from the end of the film. This is a baffling collection of still photos which are all that exists from an alternative film and isn’t of any great interest.

There are 15 chapter stops and, shamefully, no subtitles at all.

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