Saturday, January 10, 2015

#198: Amityville 3-D (Richard Fleischer, 1983)

Despite some hilarious shots meant to take advantage of 3D technology (you'll never look at a Frisbee the same way again), Amityville 3-D mightily disproves the old adage about the third time being the charm. In the Amityville franchise, the underrated second one is the only one that has any real perversity and style (though I admittedly haven't seen the other three Amityville-related films or the recent Hollywood remake of the first one). This third trip to the Long Island haunted house is a rough one, and the film is too often predictable, stupid, occasionally unintentionally funny, watered-down, and boring.
In this installment, the recently divorced John Baxter (Tony Roberts) is a magazine writer and aspiring novelist working for a publication that exposes supernatural hoaxes. He busts a couple of phony spiritualist mediums renting the Amityville house with his colleague, photographer Melanie (Candy Clark). When the disgraced mediums flee and the property's owner bemoans his inability to sell the house, the broke Baxter buys the place dirt-cheap. You know what happens next. He's a skeptic, and skeptics in generic horror films get their asses handed to them.
Baxter's ex-wife Nancy (Tess Harper) has a bad feeling about John's purchase of the home, but their teenage daughter Susan (Full House's Lori Loughlin) and her best friend Lisa (Meg Ryan) are intrigued by the place's spooky reputation, with sexy results. Sorry, I meant to say tragic results. Both estranged spouses confide in a psychic researcher named Elliot West (Robert Joy), for reasons never explained. I like how so many horror and science fiction films try to convince people that major universities have departments specializing in the study of paranormal and psychic phenomena. Yes, I majored in ghostbusting at Yale, but that's a rare exception in the world of academia. Despite John's skepticism and rationality and expert mansplaining abilities, he eventually agrees that crazy, spooky, unexplained haunted house-type shit is happening. Elliot West brings his paranormal team to the house, and the house goes bananas.
I need to take a few moments here to try to get my bearings about this Amityville place. We're talking a seriously inconsistent haunted house here. For the first family to live in the house, the DeFeos, the house possesses the oldest son and daughter and forces the son to kill his whole family. Then, James Brolin and Margot Kidder move in, and the house gets fly-happy and drives a priest completely insane and locks a nerdy babysitter in a closet. The house possesses James Brolin, but just a little bit, and relentlessly screws with the family but doesn't kill any of them. They get in their car and leave, the worst things to happen to them being a bruised hand, some submersion in black goop, and a lot of unnecessarily chopped wood. Then the phony mediums move into the place and use it for fraudulent purposes. The house leaves them alone. Tony Roberts moves in, the house doesn't try to possess him or any of his colleagues or relatives, but it does try to murder all of them, very aggressively, even going after them when they are nowhere near the house. Come on, Amityville Horror house. Get it together and quit being the premiere dilettante of the psychic manifestation world.
Maybe the problem is that the filmmakers can't decide why the house is spooky. In the various films, the reasons for its freaky ways are as follows: a son murdering his whole family caused a psychic imprint of evil to remain, the house was built over an ancient Indian burial ground, and the house is a portal to hell. Amityville 3-D decides to go with the latter two explanations but doesn't reconcile them. Why an Indian burial ground and a portal to hell? Are the filmmakers saying that Native Americans are evil, or are they saying that the white developers' disrespect of the sacred burial grounds caused the portal to hell? Or is it some unrelated but terrible coincidence, like how a couple shitty but unrelated things often happen on the same day? You'll get no answers here. Help me, Meg Ryan.
This disregard of continuity is a problem throughout. I suspect that some helpful scenes were cut from the film, leaving it a little incoherent. Both John and Nancy confide in Robert Joy's psychic researcher character about their deepest insecurities, but the film doesn't give them any reason to do this. As far as we know, John worked with the man on one article for his magazine and Nancy doesn't know him at all, but there she is in his research lab, asking for advice. In another scene, Melanie is going to the Amityville house to work on an article with John. He tells her that Dolores will let her in if he's not home yet. Who the hell is Dolores? When she gets there, she does in fact meet Dolores, whose presence is unexplained and who is never seen or heard from again after this scene. We can infer that she may be a housekeeper, but the movie makes a point to say that John is broke after his divorce. Do broke people hire housekeepers? All we know about Dolores is that she knows where the fuse box is.
We clearly are not dealing with a cinematic masterpiece here. The film hits all the expected generic horror and Amityville-specific notes and when it does try to throw in some new beats, they are laughably ridiculous. (If you rent this for any reason, make it the hilarious elevator scene.) There are also some pretty funny 3D-specific shots that don't work on home video (though Vulcan Video in Austin, TX, threw in two pairs of 3D glasses with the rental -- suck on that, Netflix), like a hilariously fake and novelty-sized fly that keeps buzzing toward your face, and many other hilarious items that zoom toward your face, including microphones, lead pipes, ectoplasmic blobs, a swordfish, and a Frisbee.
This is not one of director Richard Fleischer's high points, but the man had a fascinating life and career. He was the son and nephew of a pair of animation pioneers, Max and Dave Fleischer, famous for the Popeye, Betty Boop, and Superman cartoons, the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special, and the first animated shorts to have sound. Richard took his family's animation aesthetic and translated it to a lengthy live-action Hollywood career that lasted from the mid-1940s to the late 1980s and covered nearly every major film genre. Some of his many, many credits as director include The Narrow Margin, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle, The Boston Strangler, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Soylent Green, Mr. Majestyk, Mandingo, The Prince and the Pauper, the Neil Diamond remake of The Jazz Singer, Conan the Destroyer, and Red Sonja

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