Sunday, May 1, 2011

#106: Amityville II: The Possession (Damiano Damiani, 1982)

None of the films in the Amityville franchise earned good reviews or critical respect (though most horror films are treated poorly by the majority of mainstream critics), but 1979's original The Amityville Horror has since become an iconic movie in the horror canon. A huge hit and still a popular Halloween rental, the film has all the hallmarks of horror success: the obligatory remake, sequels, a catchphrase ("GET OUT!"), and scenes and locations that have become pop culture touchstones (the Amityville house, the flies on Rod Steiger's face, the blood oozing down the walls, etc.) The Amityville Horror is one of the most famous haunted house movies ever made, and many of its effects have become standard haunted house movie cliches.

The Amityville Horror is a popular and influential film, and I don't dispute its iconic status. I have to admit, though, that it's not a very good horror movie. The locations look fantastic, the leads (Margot Kidder, James Brolin) are likable, the opening scenes set up some effective tension and mood, and if you're within fifteen years of my age in either direction (nearly 34), you probably saw this on late-night television as a kid and freaked yourself out. However, the film never really goes anywhere, nothing much happens, some of the supporting actors should have been reined in (I'm looking at you, Rod Steiger), and the approach to the material is just too damn straightforward and respectable. Directed by Hollywood veteran Stuart Rosenberg, most famous for making Cool Hand Luke, the film lacks the scuzz, sleaze, B-movie economy, death, slime, sex, angst, lunacy, and fun I find in many of my favorite horror films.

Enter the awesomely named Damiano Damiani. Amityville II: The Possession brings the scuzz, sleaze, B-movie economy, death, slime, sex, angst, lunacy and fun sadly missing from the first film. Derided at the time of release for being a cheap, exploitative, bottom-feeding cash-in, this is one of those rare sequels that completely obliterates its predecessor. This is a real horror film, a kick-ass, punk-rock, demonic possession jamboree, full of glowering yellow eyes, creepy grins, fire, blood, slime, screams, incest, murder, poltergeist activity, Jim Morrison posters, hilarious mustaches, demons, Argento and Bava-esque color schemes, and the phrase "Camping, anyone?"

The film benefits from the lean, B-movie energy Damiani gives the material. Known for a series of low-budget spaghetti westerns, crime films, and comedies, Damiani goes balls-to-the-wall in his only horror film. Instead of the traditional TV-style blandness and respectability of the first film, the sequel features controlled but aggressive/expressive camera movements that capture different points of view, including those of several characters and an omniscient observer. Sometimes gracefully gliding through and around the house and sometimes moving in tight on characters' faces or circling around them (in some cases, even moving upside down), the camera is an active participant in the action. I'll talk about the fine cast later, the special effects are effective and squishy and tactile and gross and fun and the score by inventive composer Lalo Schifrin (Dirty Harry, Enter the Dragon) is good, good stuff.

Though I've been calling Amityville II a sequel, it's really a prequel. This film tells the story of the ill-fated family killed in the opening scene of the 1979 movie before Lois Lane and Barbara Streisand's husband moved in. We see this troubled family move in to the Amityville house at the beginning and watch them come unraveled almost immediately. The father (Burt Young) is a cigar-chomping, domineering, abusive cretin, and his wife (Rutanya Alda) is a kindly devout Catholic who keeps the family together when Burt goes nuts. The oldest son, Sonny (Jack Magner), is a likable, rebellious, angsty teenager, though there's a hint of forbidden sexual attraction between him and his adoring sister Patricia (Diane Franklin). The other two children are much younger, and they don't do a whole lot besides scream and clutch each other tightly as shit flies around the room, though they get a few funny moments together when the little girl puts a plastic bag over the little brother's head for laughs. Poor, angsty, charismatic Sonny gets possessed by a demon shortly after moving into the house, which turns him into a bad boy rock star who does evil shit because evil shit is fun. He throws Satanic poses, glowers menacingly, laughs disturbingly, seduces his sister (which happens far too easily on her end), and finally wastes them all with his dad's shotgun. The rest of the film concerns a priest's efforts to cast the demon out.

Veteran character actor Young does a great job of playing a giant prick, and Rutanya Alda does an equally great job of playing the burdened Catholic mother. She also makes one of the great scared shitless faces in the movies. Alda looks like everyone's kindly aunt, but she's had one hell of a cult movie career. These are just some of the films she's appeared in: De Palma's Greetings and Hi, Mom!, The Panic in Needle Park, The Long Goodbye, Scarecrow, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Fury, The Deer Hunter, Rocky II, When a Stranger Calls, Christmas Evil, Mommie Dearest, The Stuff, Black Widow, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and TV's Tales from the Crypt. She's also been in the 1985 Mario Van Peebles vehicle Rappin', which I leave to to describe: "An ex-con and break-dancer helps save a neighborhood from a greedy developer while trying to win a rap contest." Diane Franklin has a tough role to play as the sister who lets her demon brother get his swerve on with her private area, but she makes it work. You may remember her from such '80s teen classics as The Last American Virgin, Better Off Dead, and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Finally, I must give the bulk of my praise to Jack Magner as Sonny. He blows the doors off. This guy plays the best possessed teen I've ever seen. So much of the film is contingent on his facial expressions, line delivery, and movement, and he delivers the goods. I was shocked to discover he appeared in only two films. His only other role is a small part in Firestarter. What happened to this guy? My brief Internet research turned up nothing. If you know the rest of the Jack Magner story, help me out. I'm curious.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It knows exactly when to rip off The Exorcist, and when to do something else. It's simply a fun, solid horror movie. Nothing more, nothing less. It isn't afraid to kill children, which is a plus in my book, and it isn't afraid to divert from the straight line drawn to its door by the first movie. Damiani brings the Italian horror color scheme, inventive camera work, and kick-ass soundtrack I love so much to the suburban American dysfunctional family/teen angst milieu. It's not high art, but it is art. Skip the first movie, and give this one your attention instead.


Erin said...

I agree. This one blows the original away, and is underrated if not completely ignored.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes! Although this movie came out when I was a teenager, I never saw it until I was 32! It still scares me today, especially the acting by Jack Magner. I also wish I knew what happened to him...