Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween Havoc: AMITYVILLE DOLLHOUSE (1996)

It may not have reached the dizzying heights of insanity that followed in the wake of THE EXORCIST (1973), but THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) had a major impact on public consciousness and pop culture. In 1974 a drug user and nephew of a Mafia capo, Ronald DeFeo Jr., allegedly took a lever-action rife and shot and killed his entire family of six in their sleep. The murders were the talk of the nation, not just because of the nature of the crime, but there were numerous elements of the case that didn't add up. DeFeo changed his story several times, with many inaccuracies every time, and investigators couldn't understand how one man could shoot six people in a large house without waking any of them up. When he went to trial DeFeo tried to plead insanity but failed to convince a court that he was anything other than an anti-social drug addict and is currently still serving time in Green Haven prison, which according to Google is open 24 hours a day!

In 1977, Jay Anson, a writer of hundreds of television behind-the-scenes featurettes promoting feature films, wrote a fictionalized story based on George and Kathleen Lutz's questionable account of their alleged supernatural experiences. After the family moved into the infamous 112 Ocean Avenue house one month after DeFeo was convicted, according to the Lutz's, they and their three children were terrorized by an unseen demonic presence, forcing them to leave the home 28 days later. During that time, the Lutz's had paranormal and spiritual experts visit the house to verify the evil. One such person was in fact a priest who claimed that the strange things that happened in the story were true. The book was an instant best seller and has sold over 10 million copies. The facts behind the case, the nature of the stories and the people involved were a source of conflicting information and controversy, not to mention tangled legal suits to and from the Lutz's and those calling it a hoax. Forty years later, we still don't know exactly what happened during either case, but that hasn't stopped people from continuing to speculate or to use it as a spawning ground for a number of other books and movies.

The film version of the Lutz story, or at least the account of their experiences by way of the fictional book, released in 1979 to massive success. How much success? Aside from being in every periodical and in the conversations of most of the country, the film that cost $4.7 million, returned nearly double its budget on its opening weekend. That alone is what Hollywood execs fantasize about in private moments, but even better it went on to gross $87 million. To put it in perspective, in today's dollars that would be like a film budgeted at $16 million grossing $300 million. Staggering numbers, particularly considering that big studio films that gross that kind of money these days are made for around $100 million. A Hollywood exec would happily eat his own grandmother for those kind of numbers.

In 1982 the highly controversial AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION was released to a rather financially lackluster reception. Based on the book MURDER IN AMITYVILLE by parapsychologist Hans Holzer, it told what purported to be a factual account of the DeFeo killings complete with physical and mental abuse, rape and incest. Whether you are a fan of the film or not, it provided the tipping point that sent the film series into a spiral of exaggerated sensationalism. Personally I don't think that's a bad thing at all. The second sequel, AMITYVILLE 3-D (1983), chucked all of the attempts at realism out the window and just went for straight-up bubblegum horror lovingly presented in the best medium that bubblegum horror ever knew, 3D. I saw it in the theater when it came out and have a very soft spot for it. Some philistine wrote a review of it here. This was the last AMITYVILLE film to be released theatrically.

AMITYVILLE: THE EVIL ESCAPES (1989) was based on the novel by John G. Jones, author of numerous Amityville fiction and "non-fiction" books. Made for NBC TV, it was the first film to use Jones' popular (at least to him) concept that the evil could manifest itself in bits of furniture. For some reason Patty Duke stars as a single mother who is given a lamp from the DeFeo house as a gift. Things don't go so well and it's a pretty rough slog to the end. Contrary to the video poster art, the 112 Ocean Ave house is nowhere to be found in the movie. Part 5 was the direct to video effort THE AMITYVILLE CURSE (1990) which, while based on Hans Holzer's prequel novel of the same name, tells the utterly fictional tale of the cause of the house's curse. Strangely, it has these events, although alleged to be happening to the people who owned the house before the DeFeo's, taking place in a completely different house! I guess they figured that no one would notice, much like Universal thinking that John Williams' hugely successful theme for JAWS wouldn't be missed by anyone.

AMITYVILLE: IT'S ABOUT TIME (1992), directed by TICKS (1993) maestro Tony Randel, from yet another John G. Jones novel, completely gave up the pretension of being a proper AMITYVILLE sequel and went back to Jones' beloved furniture theme. This one featured a clock from the DeFeo home being sold off to some unsuspecting couple who discovers that the clock is cursed and can actually turn their living room into a medieval dungeon. Actually, I know people who would pay good money for that.

Is there anything scarier than an evil clock? How about... an evil mirror! AMITYVILLE: A NEW GENERATION (1993) purports that the evil has now found a home in a dressing mirror. Why a mirror? Because it reflected the image of one of the DeFeo murders. No, seriously, that's what it is. Directed by John Murlowski, who went on to pretty much end Terry "Hulk" Hogan's leading man movie career with SANTA WITH MUSCLES (1996), this is arguably the low point of the series. While the charms of these sequels are admittedly dubious, this is a grind to get through and halted the series for three years. The series picked up again, this time with quite possibly the most ridiculous contrivance of any horror sequel ever, AMITYVILLE: DOLLHOUSE.

Divorced and now Brady Bunched dad, Bill Martin (Robin Thomas), decides to build a new house for his newly extended family of five on the scorched earth of a home that had been burned to the ground by one of the previous residents after killing his family. Things have been reinvented so many times during this series that, well, why not? It's not like there is any consistency with the original story anyway. Testimonies and details changed many times over the years, but the one thing that was factual is that there was a house on 112 Ocean Avenue that the DeFeo's and the Lutz's both lived in. But whatever, might as well throw that one out too. Untouched by the fire is a small, dilapidated, padlocked shed that Bill decided to keep but never even bothered to look into until after he moves his brood into the new house. Sort of a vermin infested housewarming surprise, as it were. As it turns out the shed is filled with some pretty weird junk, including large insects that have been framed for display and a old Dutch colonial dollhouse that looks just like... Yep, apparently due to the economy, the Evil was downsized out of the 112 Ocean house and has had to make due with a replica doll house. I'm kind of feeling a little sorry for it actually. "GET OUT! Oh, wait, you can't get in because I'm so small. Dammit!"

Shortly after this discovery, strange things start happening in the new house. While Bill is demoing the gas fireplace (that was apparently the only thing left from the old house after the fire) for his new wife Claire (Starr Andreeff), the flames shoot up into the chimney. The couple laugh about it, but they wouldn't have been if they knew what happened after they left the room - the flames go out by themselves! I know, scary right? We even get a suspense sequence in which Bill thinks that there is a home invader in the house because he sees his own shoes sticking out from behind a wall. Uhhh, yeah. At this point you will probably start rethinking your choices of evening entertainment, but trust me, it gets, let's say "better".

For her birthday, Bill has bought his 10 year old daughter Jessie (Rachel Duncan) a new bicycle and wouldn't you know it, the dollhouse, who you know is up to no good when its bedroom lights start glowing, makes the truck in the garage run over it. Naturally Bill is at a loss to replace it and decides to dust off the dollhouse and make that her present. Jessie being the most saccharinely precocious child in movie history, is delighted.

Clearly when you are a great force of evil, humiliated by being trapped in a dollhouse, you are going to need to get creative. So as soon as the dollhouse is in Jessie's possession shit starts to go down. Duchebag oldest son, Todd (Allen Cutler), accidentally kills dweeby stepbrother Jimmy's (Jarrett Lennon) pet mouse after it crawls under the dollhouse bed and suddenly turns into a giant rodent under Jessie's real bed. Jimmy is so upset by this and the fact that he has a step-family at all, that he has a nightmare that his dead father has returned from the dead and wants Jimmy to... kill Bill (alright, alright, I apologize).

Todd's girlfriend Dana (Lisa Robin Kelly) thinks, like all girls do, that the filthy old shed that packed with dirt, rust and bugs would be a great place to get stuffed and mounted. Apparently the dollhouse finds illicit sex offensive, which is odd since the church has had a firm, upstanding opinion that sex is bad, umkay, so one would think that a demonic entity would be all for some rough shag. Apparently, the coupling is so offensive that the dollhouse causes a minor earthquake in the shed which leads to a framed bug returning to life and burrowing into Todd's ear. It ain't much, but it is one of the most sphincter-clenching sequences as you are likely to witness in the entire series. See, I told you it got better. In this one scene alone we get boobs, rubber insects and aural penetration. Yeah, it doesn't take much for an Amityville sequel to make me happy.

As the family falls apart faster than Chris Christie's presidential campaign we find out that Jimmy's nightmares of his undead, homicidal old man are not in fact nightmares as his father keeps reappearing in progressive states of decomposition. We also get a hippy/biker aunt and uncle who run an occult bookstore and are sure that they can come up with something to stop the evil. Or create more of it as they find out that one of the dolls in the dollhouse is nothing more than a facade for a nasty giant wasp. What wasps have to do with the price of beer in Bakersfield is unknown, but hey, it sure looks cool.

One of my favorite bits is when Todd is about to get some action with Dana and goes to get "some drinks" while she warms herself by the (evil) fireplace. Considering the fact that Todd is a hormonally charged teenager and his girlfriend is ready and willing, you'd think he'd run into the kitchen pour a couple glasses of whatever floor polish he could get his hands on and be in his skivvies by the time he made it back to the couch. For some reason, Todd decides this is the perfect time to get his mixology on and decides to make a couple of elaborate frozen margaritas complete with salt-rimmed cocktail glasses. All the while the fireplace is lurking, just waiting to make its move! No spoilers, but lets just say, if Todd was a normal teenage guy, his girlfriend would have been safe. He only has himself to blame.

Written by first timer Joshua Michael Stern, who has gone on to a spotty, eclectic career that has lead up to him writing the new Epix series GRAVES (2016), a comedy about an ex-president and his ambitious wife that clearly is aiming for a "ripped from the headlines" political satire, that is not being well received. Perhaps, he should have just gone for another Ammity sequel. After producing all of the Amityville sequels starting with THE EVIL ESCAPES, Steve White pulls double duty as director here. White is certainly competent in that department, featuring many nice camera angles and an excellent, if totally gratuitous, one-take tracking shot where the camera rotates in the middle of the dining table as characters come and go. It's hard to describe, but it's actually really impressive. Interestingly it was White's first and last directorial credit, which makes one wonder if there was another director originally slated. In spite of these guys both being first timers, and admittedly not highbrow fare, they manage to pull it off better than many serial offenders that littered the video store shelves at the time.

While the first act is a bit slow, DOLLHOUSE, with it's ridiculous, latex-heavy final hour is easily the best sequel since AMITYVILLE 3-D. It may not be saying much, but look what happened in recent years. Someone got the bright idea to start up a new series of films with a 2005 remake of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR starring Ryan "Fart Joke" Reynolds in the lead. That's just wrong. Like worse than ketchup on a hot dog wrong. What about the unofficial sequels that followed, you ask? There aren't any. Nope. Never happened and you can't tell me otherwise.

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