Looking back at the Amityville Horror franchise

Sarah looks back at the Amityville films, and finds a lot of scary things, not all of which were intentional…

112 Ocean Avenue, Long Island is probably the most famous haunted house in the world. Not that you’ll necessarily recognise the address – it’s far better known as the Amityville Horror house. Back in 1975, George and Kathy Lutz moved their family into the house… and then 28 days later, they moved back out, claiming to have been driven out by supernatural forces. Their story made the news, was turned into a book, and then made into a movie, in 1979.

It’s hard to imagine now that a family claiming to have encountered the devil in their basement could cause such a massive fuss, but I’m not here to interrogate the truth of their statement. What I am here to do, though, is to watch all of the Amityville Horror movies made to date, over the course of a day or two, and see which – if any – of them actually stand up.

Including the 2005 remake starring bearded wonder Ryan Reynolds, there have been nine Amityville Horror movies, with a tenth on the way sometime next year (not counting the non-fiction documentary, My Amityville Horror, about the experience and life of one of Kathy Lutz’s kids). That’s a lot of movies, so let’s get stuck in…

The Amityville Horror (1979)

The one that started it all: the first Amityville Horror movie was released in 1979, just four years after the Lutzes made their famous move and two years after Jay Anson published his book about it. It starred James Brolin as George and Margot Kidder as Kathy, both of whom were already pretty established actors – Kidder had just starred as Lois Lane in in Richard Donner’s Superman the previous year, if that puts things into context at all.

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Nowadays, daft films about families moving into haunted houses are ten a penny, most of them low budget straight-to-DVD affairs destined to clutter up supermarket shelves forever, but The Amityville Horror was a pretty big deal. The screenwriter, Sandor Stern, had only really written TV movies before, but the director, Stuart Rosenberg, also helmed Cool Hand Luke, and the Oscar nominated Voyage Of The Damned. Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that the filmmakers were of a certain pedigree.

And actually, it shows on screen. I’d seen this movie a handful of times before, but never really rated it. It doesn’t have the overwhelming sense of dread that something like The Exorcist does, and it’s not as weird as The Wicker Man, or as stylish as a lot of the Italian horror movies from the 70s, but on rewatching it, it’s definitely got something. Maybe I just needed to be an adult to appreciate it, but the dynamics of the Lutz family are well drawn – George and Kathy are newlyweds, giddy to be together, but aware that it’ll take some time for her three kids to accept him – and the slow decaying of their hopes for a new, betterlife in their new home is pretty heart-wrenching.

(It’s maybe worth nothing here that I’m in the process of moving house right now, after a disastrous move into a house that turned out to be an expensive and stressful mistake, so maybe I’m over-identifying!)

It’s a long film, with maybe one subplot too many – does anyone even remember the business about Kathy’s brother’s wedding and the missing cash? – but the escalation of supernatural attacks is well-handled, and the scenes with the bickering priests are oddly brilliant. It’s kind of impressive, too, how The Amityville Horror chucks in every single reason a house might have for being haunted. It’s on an ancient Indian burial ground! It was a witch’s house! It’s a portal to hell! People were murdered here! Most horror movies that followed in its footsteps would just pick one of the above, but The Amityville Horror fills its bingo card.

Through modern eyes, it’s not really scary, as such; not in the way a film like The Conjuring is scary, anyway. But unlike most horror movies based on true stories, there’s something that feels real about it. The characters act like real people, and their fear is understandable. It’s a slow burner, but it’s way more unsettling than I ever gave it credit for.

Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

Because no good horror movie can be allowed to exist without a crappy sequel, though, Amityville II followed just three years after the original movie. I’d never seen it, but I’d heard it was good. Unfortunately, it turns out that the people who told me that had lied. It is not good. It is not good at all.

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Directed by Damiano Damiani, an Italian director known for his spaghetti westerns and poliziotteschi, it’s supposedly based on Hans Holzer’s novel Murder In Amityville, which is about the DeFeo family. That would make it a prequel to The Amityville Horror, rather than a sequel, except it’s set pretty solidly in the 80s: music and film posters litter the set, the family’s teenage son’s Walkman plays host to demonic voices, and, yeah, there’s basically no way this is a story about something that happened in the early 70s. It’s a bad start to a franchise when the first sequel immediately obliterates all sense of continuity, but it’s going to get worse.

The movie begins, like the first one, with a family moving into a new house in Amityville. The father is ex-military, an aggressive disciplinarian who doesn’t hesitate to raise his hand to his kids – or his wife. His wife is terrified from the beginning, screaming whenever a breeze blows through the house, which is a pretty bad start. And then there are four kids: two teenagers, Sonny and Trish, and two younger kids, whose names are irrelevant since they might as well not exist. Before long, Sonny has become possessed by whatever evil force exists in the house, and despite calling in an ineffectual priest, his entire family soon ends up murdered (though not before he goes all Flowers In The Attic on Trish, in some of the franchise’s most uncomfortable scenes).

But the movie doesn’t end there. There’s a whole third act to come, which sees the ineffectual priest, stricken with guilt, trying to exorcise Sonny by, er, breaking him out of jail and taking him back to the house. This last section goes on forever and gets increasingly stupid as it goes on. The eerie atmosphere of the first film is gone, and though there are some fun splattery 80s prosthetics at the very end, it’s mostly a waste of time. The fact that the action starts in the Ocean Avenue house barely even seems relevant – this is more of an Exorcist rip-off than an Amityville sequel, with Sonny even morphing into a Regan clone by the very end.

After watching this one, I was starting to seriously question the wisdom of attempting to watch another seven Amityville movies, even for the sake of writing an article. But I’m nothing if not a masochist, so…

Amityville 3D: The Demon (1983)

The third Amityville film attempts to restore some sanity to the franchise and actually, the premise is pretty brilliant. It opens on a séance, as a couple attempt to contact their dead child with the help of a couple of mediums, sitting around a table in the abandoned Ocean Avenue house. Before you’ve had time to roll your eyes, though, the film subverts your expectations – the mediums are frauds, and the grieving couple are actually journalists for a magazine dedicated to exploring supernatural phenomena. The glowing spirit orb is just a light on a stick, and there never really was any dead child. Psyche!

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So within the first ten minutes, Amityville 3D is already smarter than at least the last two Paranormal Activity movies. While, as viewers, we’d probably struggle to accept any more hard-up families moving into that creepy old house, the idea that a sceptical journalist who spends all his time debunking ghost stories would buy it makes perfect sense. After all, it is a beautiful house, with loads of space and a boathouse in the garden – and it’s very, very cheap…

Obviously, though, things don’t go well for the dude. There’s a complicated family bit, where his ex-wife tries to forbid their teenage daughter from visiting her dad at his spooky new home, and lots of pseudo-science thrown in to explain what might or might not be happening. At one point a minor character even explains there’s no such thing as reality, which does make it harder to know whether or not ghosts are ‘real’. The script feels very smart, so it’s a disappointment when it gets very dull towards the end – but the attempt to solidify the Amityville mythology by showing us the well referred to in the first movie and pointing it out as the source of all the house’s evil is much appreciated. There’s a definite Poltergeist flavour to the final reel, sadly, but the monster is kind of fun.

The thing I haven’t addressed is, ugh, the 3D. The Amityville 3D DVD I watched came with two pairs of red and blue anaglyph 3D glasses, and I did try watching the movie in 3D, but after about five minutes I gave up and just watched it in 2D. And I don’t think it really suffered much. There are some bits that are clearly just there to show off the 3D effects – the bit with the swordfish, for example – but there are long stretches where you can just forget it ever even existed.

As a film, this is a kind of fun 80s haunted house story, and it’s way better than Amityville II, but when you compare it to the original… well, it doesn’t compare.

Amityville 4: Evil Escapes (1989)

The fourth Amityville movie brought back the writer of the original, Sandor Stern – this time, in both a writing and directing capacity. What it didn’t bring back, though, was the original house. Nope, as the title implies, this instalment in the Amityville franchise sees the demon move out.

It’s not entirely clear where this fits in the chronology of the other Amityville movies, mostly because it’s never clear whether Amityville II fits anywhere at all, but it starts with a bunch of priests heading into 112 Ocean Avenue to give the place a thorough exorcism. They barely escape with their lives, but the evil seems to be gone – though it turns out that has more to do with the yard sale some enterprising soul set up to get rid of the previous inhabitants’ belongings. Anyone for a hideous bloodstained rug or a terrifying statue of God knows what? It should have been the worst attended yard sale in all of human history, but one elderly woman takes a fancy to a particularly hideous lamp, deciding to send it to her sister in California as a joke birthday present.

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Just like that, the Amityville ‘horror’ switches coasts, moving into another oceanside property with an elderly woman, her recently widowed daughter, and her three kids. You’d think being contained in a lamp would limit the evil’s opportunities for havoc, but by travelling into the house’s electrical circuits through its plug, it manages to do all sorts of things. Like switching on the garbage disposal at an inopportune moment, switching on a chainsaw while a small child is playing with it (which probably says more about his mother’s parenting skills than anything else) and, uh, making the landline vomit something that looks suspiciously like porridge when a priest calls.

There’s a surprising amount to enjoy in this movie, because it’s so inventive and so silly. It’s got some decent dialogue, too, though once again the priests get all the best lines. There’s actually a note of real tragedy underpinning the story, as the demon takes the form of the family’s recently deceased dad to lure the youngest daughter into its influence, but there’s not really much time to dwell on that absurdly upsetting idea in between all the electrical craziness. Why were there so many horror movies about electrical appliances in the 80s? (The Refrigerator, Shocker, Terrorvision, The Video Dead?) Honestly, if you look at Evil Escapes in that context, it starts to seem pretty good. But as an Amityville movie? It barely even qualifies. By this point, I’m starting to think this is the most tenuous franchise of the lot – there’s really very little to tie one film to the others.

The Amityville Curse (1990)

Speaking of films that don’t really qualify as Amityville movies, this one really really doesn’t. I almost didn’t even include it in this look back, because it’s got none of the hallmarks of the Amityville Horror story. Supposedly it’s based on another Hans Holzer novel, and again it’s meant to be a prequel, but… it just isn’t.It starts off with a priest being murdered in a confessional, and then skips forward to a couple heading out to look at a house for sale in Amityville. On the way, they get distracted by a different one, and decide to buy that instead. It’s maybe still meant to be in Amityville, but despite the wife’s declaration that she “knows this house” it’s definitely not the house we know. It’s a different colour, a different size, a different layout… yeah, it’s just a completely different house.

It does appear to be haunted, though. So there’s that. Maybe. I’m not sure if it’s just the copy we had – this isn’t exactly a movie that people are clamouring to restore, after all – but parts of this movie are almost impossible to even see, because it’s so dark and grainy. There’s one good gag about an elderly woman who shows up for no apparent reason: she spells her name, “Morriarty, with two Rs and one I” before revealing she actually only has one eye, and the other is glass – but other than that, this is dreck.

I should maybe note that it stars a pre-Sons Of Anarchy Kim Coates, and that at one point they totally nick the Psycho music, but, er, yeah, I’m really digging for stuff to find notable about this movie. It is absolutely one to skip if you ever fancy following in my slightly demented footsteps and watching all of the Amityville movies. If there’s not even a single shot of that iconic house with its awesome windows, I don’t think there’s any point. Next!

Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (1992)

This was the last movie I watched on the first day of attempting this ridiculous project – yes, that’s six Amityville movies in one day, with only one short break to watch The X Factor – so maybe I was slightly delirious, but I think this one is actually kind of good. Not good like the first one, but certainly as good as Amityville 3D or Evil Escapes. Maybe a bit better.

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Like Evil Escapes, it’s about an artefact from the original Amityville Horror house getting out into the wild and causing problems. There’s another bizarrely convoluted family set up at the heart of the story, which takes a little while to untangle, but: a single father leaves his two teenage kids with his ex-girlfriend while he’s on a business trip, and then when he gets bitten by a dog and develops a kind of supernatural rabies, lets her bring her new boyfriend over to help out.

She needs all the help she can get, really, since the other thing her ex brought home from his trip was a steampunk-looking clock that used to belong to occultist murderer Gilles de Rais (and which also allegedly turned up in the 112 Ocean Avenue estate at some murky point in history, because this totally wasn’t an original script someone repurposed with the Amityville name in order to sell it). It’s one of those clocks that has a sun/moon dial on it, only at 3am it clicks round to a devil face, and nasty things happen. Also, there’s some time travel.

I’m not entirely sure it makes sense, and the ending creates a massive paradox, but just for the sheer weirdness of it all, I quite liked it. It’s another one that’s got some surprisingly fun dialogue, and a few moments that Final Destination fans will especially dig. It’s unfortunate that the weird incest angle from Amityville II makes a reappearance, and apparently people in the early 90s had a real problem with blood dripping out of their mirrors since there’s a scene that’s almost identical to one from little-known 90s teen horror Mirror Mirror, but… I’m not sure I’m selling this. I’m not, am I?

What about if I tell you that the father in the story is an architect, working on a new waterside development in Amityville, and that his scale model eventually ends up featuring a hell of a lot of familiar-looking windows? It’s the little things that make all the difference when you’re watching a string of unrelated cheap horror movies from the genre’s darkest period, trust.

Amityville: A New Generation (1993)

The second day of my Amityville marathon kicked off with A New Generation, and the opening credits seemed pretty promising. There are a few names I actually recognised – David Naughton, Terry O’Quinn, Lin Shaye – which is the first time that’s happened since Meg Ryan popped up for two scenes in Amityville 3D, plus the director of photography was Wally Pfister. Yup, the same Wally Pfister who worked with Christopher Nolan on Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. If anything, this film should look good, right?

Well, it definitely looks better than some of the other Amityville movies, but we’re certainly moving into the 1990s now. It looks like a low budget 90s erotic thriller, if I’m honest. And the lead actor, Ross Partridge, has the worst case of 90s face I’ve ever seen on a human being.

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Still, once again, the movie gets off to a fairly promising start. Partridge plays Keyes Terry, a struggling artist who’s given a macabre mirror by a homeless man after taking his photograph. His neighbour soon comes a cropper due to the demon lurking in the mirror, and then… then we’re plunged into a convoluted and not terribly interesting mystery as Keyes discovers the homeless man was actually his father, and he’s got a hell of a lot of repressed memories to deal with.

Although the names have been changed, the homeless man is sort of meant to be DeFeo, maybe; there’s something about him murdering his family in the Amityville House, but then we see him murder Keyes’s mother while he’s in the institution, and it’s all too dull to want to follow too closely. Turns out the mirror is another artefact from the Amityville Horror house, though – though at what point it was there and who it belonged to is a mystery.

The whole thing culminates in a terrible art show and a quip about getting seven years of bad luck for breaking a mirror. It’s not very funny. This movie is a mess. This franchise is a mess. But at least it’s nearly over…

Amityville Dollhouse (1996)

It makes no sense whatsoever, but a small part of me is delighted by the different ways filmmakers have come up with to justify using the Amityville name in completely different stories. This time, it’s a dollhouse. A newly married couple, each with their own children from previous relationships, move in together and try to blend their families, but there’s a weird old dollhouse with evil-looking windows out in the shed, and when they bring it inside, the supernatural shenanigans begin.

I’ll give this one credit for at least bothering to replicate the new family dynamic from the first movie. It’s a little more complicated than the Lutzes’ relationships, since there are kids on both sides, but it’s nice to at least get something that almost ties back. There’s so little continuity or attention to detail in this franchise that I’m clutching at straws, desperate for anything that sort of feels like it makes sense.

The movie doesn’t really make sense, of course. There’s some fun stuff with the dollhouse, which can open windows and light fires on its own – the best bit is when the daughter puts her new step-brother’s pet mouse into the dollhouse and creates a giant mouse demon in the real house – but the plotline with the zombie dad kind of ruins everything. You can tell horror movies had devolved into camp by this point – the rotted zombie grins and quips like a latter day Freddy Krueger, and it’s just kind of obnoxious.

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The second half of the film focuses entirely on him and almost forgets about the dollhouse, which makes the whole thing seem utterly incoherent. What’s the threat here? What are the rules? There aren’t any, so when some occultist biker relatives show up to save the day, all you can do is shrug. Yeah, sure. Whatever.

The Amityville Horror (2005)

Dollhouse marks the end of the sad old Amityville franchise. It was left to fester until 2005, when Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, bent on remaking every horror property they could get their hands on, decided to give it a new lick of paint. I saw this movie when it came out, and didn’t really rate it, but after watching seven movies in which nothing really happens, this one came as a relief.

The difference in aesthetic between the 80s, 90s, and 2000s is glaring. This Amityville Horror is all rapidfire editing and crazy filters. The house looks different, too: now those spooky windows have been moved round to the front of the house, rather than the sides, and the interior is different, too. They even changed the address, moving the house up the road to 412 Ocean Avenue. (Only one thing is identical: the bizarrely patterned mirror wall in the master bedroom.)

Like the original, this movie actually has some actors you’d recognise in it: George and Kathy are played by Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George, the babysitter is played by Rachel Nichols, and even one of the kids is startlingly familiar – it’s Chloe Grace Moretz. That at least gives an air of competency to the proceedings, though Reynolds never quite manages to get as scary as Brolin at the end of the original.

There are a lot more scares than in the original, though – and a new bit of mythology. Rather than being the home of Salem witch John Ketchum, it becomes the home of evil Reverend Jeremiah Ketchum, who captured, tortured, and killed Native Americans. It’s his influence that permeates the house – the well to hell is gone, as is any suggestion that the evil comes from a demon or the devil. It’s all just one evil dude back in the 1600s causing problems. Also, the youngest child’s creepy invisible friend Jodi is no longer a demonic pig – she’s a little ghost girl, one of the family killed most recently in the house. It sort of makes sense, you can see why they did it, but it’s odd seeing these tweaks so soon after watching the original.

The most upsetting thing they changed, of course, is the fate of Harry, the Lutzes’ faithful dog. In the original, he’s there until the end, even dragging George out of the hell well. Here, he gets chopped up quite early on as George hallucinates that he’s possessed by a demon. Yuck.

The weirdest thing about watching all of these movies in such quick succession? It looks like the 2005 remake might be the only film that’s actually aware there were others in the same franchise. While all the others ploughed on as if they had nothing to do with anything, this one seems to contain references to almost every other movie – there’s the altars of blood like in It’s About Time, the panelled doorway to the hidden room is like in The Possession, a throwaway line cribbed from 3D, a dead parent subplot like in Evil Escapes and Dollhouse, and a bathtub scare like in It’s About Time. Maybe my brain is so desperate for something to seem connected at this point that it’s clutching at coincidences, but it’d be nice for them to be deliberate callbacks.

Honestly, I quite enjoyed this movie this time around. Maybe it’s just because stuff happened, maybe it’s just because the story made sense, maybe it’s because Ryan Reynolds walks around half-naked a lot of the time, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d expected.

Final Thoughts

So what have I learned from all of this? Um. Mostly, that there are a lot of horror movies in the world, but that doesn’t mean I have to watch them all. Honestly, of the lot, I’d only recommend watching the original film, the remake, and one of the ones in the middle – probably Evil Escapes, or maybe It’s About Time – to see what the franchise devolved into. There’s no continuity, no developing story to keep you going, and most of the movies don’t even involve the famous haunted house.

I’ve also learned to look out for bloodstained walls while I’m househunting. Just in case.