Sunday, March 10, 2013

DAMIANI'S SLEAZY POSSESSION



Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Damiano Damiani’s Amityville II: The Possession is a great underrated horror movie from its period. Released in September of 1982, it came along at the tail end of a wave of demonic possession films that had started a decade earlier with the 1973 release of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Yet despite being one of the final entries in a cycle that was quickly growing stale, Amityville II remains one of the best examples of the genre, surpassing 1979's The Amityville Horror by a good margin.
 
While The Amityville Horror was based on supposed events, Amityville II at it’s core is a prequel that is based on real, proven events - the 1974 massacre of the DeFeo family (parents and four children) by the oldest son, Ronald DeFeo (it was after this event that George and Kathy Lutz bought the now-infamous Amityville house and fled from it in terror 28 days later, claiming it to be harbouring demonic forces). Using the DeFeo story as the spine of his screenplay, along with material from Hans Holzer’s 1979 true crime book Murder in Amityville, Tommy Lee Wallace incorporated the supernatural spook elements from the first film and came up with a plot about a highly dysfunctional family who move into the Long Island home and instantly become prime feeding material for its infested soul, with the most troubled and vulnerable occupant, oldest son Sonny Montelli (Jack Magner) chosen as the one to spread mayhem and murder.
 
Of course, Amityville II is not necessarily a exceptional film if you are looking at it purely from a writing, performance and directing perspective - it’s the presence of other interesting elements which help distinguish it from similar fare. The dialogue may not always be sharp, but the themes the screenplay explores are often confronting and uncomfortable - none more so than the incestuous relationship depicted between oldest siblings Sonny and Patricia (the wonderful Diane Franklin). The scene where Sonny (quite easily) persuades Patricia to take off her nightie, then confesses to stealing her underwear before he seduces her, has an air of perverse sexual tension that is almost palpable. And while this happens after Sonny has clearly become possessed, there are obvious prior hints that their relationship is a very flirtatious and sexually-charged one (look no further than the scene where Patricia, dressed in tight jeans and pure white jumper, practices her ballet poses in front of Sonny). The incestuous angle is one of those themes found in early-80s genre cinema that most studios would not even try to get away with today (especially in such an exploitative way), and it’s what helps give Amityville II that unique feeling of sleaze and seediness which pervades almost every frame of its running time.
 
One of the most curios aspects of Wallace’s screenplay is that it doesn’t let you feel much sympathy for the characters. Instead of taking a likeable family and establishing an identity for them which is slowly destroyed, Wallace gives us a family who are already dysfunctional, ugly and rotting away from the inside. Father Anthony Montelli (Burt Young) is the slovenly, brutal head of the family, constantly grumpy and dishing out slaps across the face and belts across the backside at the drop of a hat. He looks like he works on a wharf or a meat-packing plant in the Bronx, and totally out of place in his new surroundings. Young’s performance is both amusingly over the top and genuinely creepy. As wife Dolores, Rutanya Alda plays her character like someone slightly out of step with time - in many ways, she epitomises the loyal but naive American housewife of the 1950s, in denial but still desperate to cling to the suburban dream. You have to wonder what her wholesome character first saw in the man she married, but Young and Alda manage to create an interesting chemistry between each other that is always fun to watch.
 
As Sonny and Patricia, Jack Magner and Diane Franklin are terrific in roles that would have offered a bit of a challenge to effectively pull off. Magner is generally decent as a teenager on the verge of manhood but still living under the oppressive hand of his father, but where he really excels is simply in his presence, his eyes and his facial expressions, which become progressively more demonic and deformed as the story unfolds. And Franklin (Terrorvision, Better Off Dead, The Last American Virgin) demonstrates once again why many people (myself included) consider her one of the best and most versatile young actors from that period. In Amityville II, Franklin’s character displays some interesting dualities - she exudes a naive innocence yet eagerly embarks on a sexual affair with her brother. After sleeping with him, she runs off to confess the next day to the family priest (James Olsen), yet tells Sonny that she doesn’t regret what has happened between them at all. Franklin has rarely looked lovelier than she does here.
 
The final reel of Amityville II not only does an entertaining riff on The Exorcist, but offers up some pretty tasty prosthetic make-up effects courtesy of John Caglioni, Jnr. By 1982, thanks to the rising cult status of make-up artists like Dick Smith and Tom Savini, effects had become an integral part of a horror movie’s success. It got you valuable coverage in horror bible Fangoria, and in the pre-internet days a horror flick with convincing or unusual make-up effects always garnered some effective word of mouth.
 
Another factor which adds greatly to the appeal of Amityville II is it’s gloomy look and sense of oppressive atmosphere which cinematographer Franco DiGiacomo creates, using shadows and darkness inside the house and washed-out colours in the exterior scenes, giving the film a continually bleak and colourless tone (as does the fine mist, dead leaves and dirty pools of melting ice that fill many of the outside locations). There is the expected overuse of POV shots to try and create tension, but there are also some genuinely clever and creative photographic touches - a white tablecloth flies down a hallway and covers an offending crucifix that is hanging on the wall, and there’s a nice shot which tracks Sonny from behind as he stalks the house at night, before the camera does a continual 180 flip and tilt to reveal the character front on. The film’s tone is compounded by a suitably creepy and ambient score from the always reliable Lalo Schifrin.
 
Filmed mostly in Mexico (the house exteriors were shot at the same New Jersey location as the previous film), Amityville II comes close to being one of late Italian director Damiano Damiani’s best films. It doesn’t reach the same heights Damiani scaled in his 1966 spaghetti western A Bullet for the General or the 1971 Italian cop actioner Confessions of a Police Captain, but in Amityville II he delivers a downbeat yet wildly entertaining spook show with a healthy dose of 42nd St grind.
 
If you live in Melbourne, Australia, ACMI cinemas will be screening Amityville II: The Possession on Sunday, 14th of April as part of Scream and Scream Again, a program of horror movie sequels from the 1970s and 80s, which will also include Jaws 2, Halloween II and Damien: Omen II. You can find more about the screenings at the ACMI website. Amityville II is also available on DVD, the best release being Sanctuary’s 2004 UK special edition, which features an+ entertaining audio commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, along with a nice booklet and set of mini lobby cards.
 
Review Copyright John Harrison 2013.