Written by: Hans Holder (book), Tommy Lee Wallace (screenplay)
Directed by: Damiano Damiani
Starring: James Olson, Burt Young, and Rutanya Alda
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“What have you done with your brother?"
Even at the height of the Amityville hysteria, critics and naysayers were quick to cast judgment on the Lutz’s account of their residence at 112 Ocean Avenue. It’s a question that still lingers to this day, but the world received its first hint of an answer back in the 80s when the Lutzes kept their story on life support by shamelessly publishing a follow-up book that dealt entirely in fiction.
However, The Amityville Horror Part II never made it to the big screen, as the Lutzes weren’t the only ones looking to further exploit the already growing legend. Soon after Jay Anson’s book became a bestseller, parapsychologist Hans Holder delved into that history which could not be disputed by chronicling the DeFeo ordeal in Murder in Amityville. Before George Lutz could commission an adaptation of his own sequel, he met his exploitative match in Dino De Laurentiis, who went to work on producing Holder’s book instead, and 1982’s Amityville II: The Possession was the fascinating—and sleazy—result.
Ostensibly a prequel that chronicles the DeFeo murders, the film weirdly changes the names despite the infamy of the horrific crimes (and it’s not like the first film shied away from that ordeal, either). At any rate, The Possession opens with yet another wide-eyed family (the Montellis) eager to move into the Amityville haunt. Unlike the Lutzes (in all their 70s sitcom glory), the Montellis are a powder keg eager to explode: patriarch Anthony (Burt Young in all his loony glory) has no qualms about beating his wife (Rutanya Alda) around and possibly raping her, while oldest son Sonny (Jack Manger) begins to experience improper sexual longings for his sister (Diane Franklin). Urged by the entity haunting the house, those longings become more overt and violent until they crescendo with the familial bloodbath that served as the backdrop for the original Amityville Horror.
But the fun doesn’t stop there! After retracing the original’s footsteps (albeit in scuzzier fashion), Amityville II contorts into an Exorcist riff in order to hit most of the highlights in the 70s demonic cycle. Weirdly enough, it also manages to anticipate the likes of The Exorcist III and The Exorcism of Emily Rose when it briefly devolves into a loopy legal drama where Sonny Montelli’s lawyer attempts to get him off by reason of demonic possession. Bless De Laurentiis—it’s almost as if a film that featuring skeezy incest and the unflinching murder of an entire family weren’t loony enough, so he was sure to save room for over-the-top, gory exorcisms and even a climactic explosion to truly highlight this film’s almost deranged approach to the Amityville mythos. While it results in a film that’s difficult to take seriously (despite the ever-so-serious nature of these crimes), it makes for an entertaining second stroll through Amityville.
If the original film bordered on an ABC Movie of the Week aesthetic, then The Possession is more akin to a gossip or tabloid rag spewing itself onto celluloid. With exploitation vet Damiano Damiani at the helm, the mantra is obvious: it’s Amityville but much trashier and delivered with a discernible hint of Eurosleaze. After the comparably prim and proper dalliances of the original film, it’s a welcome change of pace, even if the wholly unlikable Montelli clan creates a different dynamic here. Where the original at least had the pretense of depicting a man’s agonizing struggle for his own soul, Amityville II delights in exploring the most despicable and unholy corners of this silly bit of American folklore. Initially, any drama is subverted in favor of staring into a nutty abyss that leaves audiences wondering if it’s really going to go there (and yes—yes, it does).
However, the eventual shift in focus is rather abrupt. The domestic stuff might be over-the-top and creepy in all the wrong ways, but it at least works as shameless exploitation—say what you want about it, but Amityville II is a film that realizes its schlocky ambitions and embraces them for large chunks of its running time. Its attempt to manufacture actual drama by once again retracing the original’s steps (a kindly priest is brought in to serve as the hero) briefly deflates the proceedings by resorting to tired old exorcism shenanigans (read: the priest shouting and invoking the Lord while also battling his own hidden demons). To its credit, Amityville II doesn’t completely relent on the nonsense: in addition to cooking up a possession plea bargain, the lawyer conspires with said priest (James Olsen) to organize Sonny’s jailbreak from the local hospital, and the climactic exorcism does feature some spectacularly gooey effects (in fact, its visceral nature would be right at home in one of the 70s’ full-bore Euro-Exorcist rip-offs).
Damiani also consistently interjects a sense of verve that hustles past the script’s various speed bumps. Amityville II is much more cinematic than its predecessor, what with its daring camera moves (a disorienting 180 degree turn is a notable highlight) and its sustained atmosphere. The usual parlor tricks reappear but are more inventive this time around (rather than a cross inverting itself on the wall, a sheet billows over the family totem), and even the kitschier stuff (such as the demonic entity communicating through Sonny’s Walkman) is goofy fun. Given how batty the film is, it might be odd to also consider it a bit restrained, but Damiani does ease off of the Euro-horror of it all by not plunging completely into camp or outright incoherence (which means it probably wouldn’t fit in with its Italian brethren too much after all).
Easily the best of the franchise, Amityville II is gloriously unhinged but compelling junk that doesn’t seem particularly concerned with veracity or venerating the DeFeo tragedy. Instead, it seems to sniff out some of the bullshit before completely embracing it—if the Lutzes (and others) intended to air the house’s dirty laundry, then De Laurentiis (who wisely retains the franchise’s most important stars in the foreboding house and Lalo Schifrin) is all too eager to comply. When writing this review, I considered dubbing it an “unsung treasure,” but I’m not sure that’s really the case at this point, as it seems like the consensus has come around to championing this one. Scream Factory has certainly done its part with its new Blu-ray collection, which brings The Possession to HD for the first time ever and with a host of supplements to boot. A far cry from MGM’s relatively bare bones release, this one features interviews with Damiani, Alda, Franklin, Andrew Prine, and screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace. Holder’s daughter Alexandra also provides an interview and a feature length commentary in addition to the various promotional material. With such a wealth of extras, Amityville II feels like the crown jewel of the collection, which is fitting since it outclasses the other two (with a decidedly classless approach, of course). Buy it!
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