Sunday 16 November 2014

Amityville II: The Possession [1982]

AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION is an American horror film that was directed by Damiano Damiani and originally released in September 1982.  It stars James Olson, Jack Magner, Diane Franklin, Burt Young, Rutanya Alder, Andrew Prine and Moses Gunn.  It is a prequel to Stuart Rosenberg's THE AMITYVILLE HORROR that had been a big hit in 1979 and as such tells the story of the Montelli family who lived in the house before James Brolin and Margot Kidder got their hands on it.

Whereas the original movie purported to tell a true story which was essentially fiction, this prequel fictionalises a real life story - the mass murder committed by Ronald DeFeo on 13 November 1974 when he shot dead his parents and four siblings.  Both before and after his subsequent conviction DeFeo has offered numerous entirely different accounts of what happened that night none of which, as far as I can tell, is that he was possessed by a demonic spirit emanating from the ancient Native American burial ground over which the Amityville house was built.  Nevertheless that has not stopped this theory becoming the most widely circulated explanation of events, thanks to the series of movies - which has now reached its tenth instalment - which peddles it ad nauseam.

Ronald DeFeo's mugshot
It strikes me as distasteful, to say the very least, that such an horrific crime for which the perpetrator was properly tried and convicted (and to this day remains in jail) is the subject of such frivolous treatment.  Imagine if, for instance, it was suggested that Jeremy Bamber, Ian Huntley or Mark Bridger was actually a wholly innocent individual driven to commit murder via demonic possession. Then imagine that this suggestion was not merely made, for instance, on some deranged internet forum but was the central claim in a series of (at least initially) very successful films.  That's essentially what is happening with this movie.

Face ripper!
A reprehensible foundation for a film then.  I think director Damiani, who was an intelligent and talented film-maker (of which more later), recognised this and so decided to make the sleaziest, tackiest, most ridiculous film he could in order to draw attention away from the revolting premise at its heart.  He really gives it the beans too: taps pour blood, the walls ooze blood, there's wife beating, child beating, incest, blasphemy, flesh ripping and fake beards.  Just about every haunted house / exorcism cliché you could think of is chucked in to the extent that when the 'My God, that house is built on an ancient Indian burial ground' line is trotted out the overall effect is hilarity.  Indeed, when one sees the aforementioned fake beard it's hard not to believe that Damiani quite deliberately trying to drawn your attention to how ludicrous it all is.

Ted Ross and his amazing fake beard.
It doesn't even join for Pete's sake.
The most obvious source for all these visual and thematic clichés is of course William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST [1973], which for all its excesses is actually a reasonably intelligent exploration of faith.  Perhaps more surprisingly, Damiani also borrows from John Boorman's notoriously terrible EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC [1977], which for all its intellectual pretension is actually a mind-bogglingly tedious and incoherent mess.  I often have a pop at Italian genre cinema for its shameless low-budget recycling of successful films but AMITYVILLE II proves that such tactics aren't beneath American film-makers either.  Yes I know it was produced and directed by Italians but you take my point.

The exorcist is coming

Crucifix abuse

At least the two Exorcist pictures could boast the likes of Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Ellen Burstyn, Richard Burton and Louise Fletcher.  Plenty of Oscars there.  AMITYVILLE II on the other hand can't boast any such class; hell, it doesn't even have a Linda Blair.  For all their efforts on other, better films, James Olson, Burt Young and Rutanya Alda is not a trio that is going to get anyone's pulses racing here.  It's a shame because the two youngsters - Jack Magner and Diane Franklin - are actually rather good; had they been given better support by the grown ups things might have turned out differently.

Jack Magner as Sonny and Diane Franklin as Trish
James Olson is best known for his role as one of the heroic scientists in Robert Wise's classic sci-fi epic THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN [1971].  He was perfectly cast in that because he has a heroic physique but is almost entirely without charisma, less charismatic even than Charlton Heston, a superficially similar type.  Unsurprisingly Olson found himself better suited to TV work, where he spent most of his career.

James Olson as Father Adamsky

The great Burt Young as Mr Montelli
Burt Young is the slob's slob.  Rarely seen clad in anything more than a vest and grease-stained trousers he was Hollywood's 'go to' guy for feckless ethnic losers.  So good at it he was that even got an Oscar nomination for it, for his turn in the first ROCKY [1976].  My favourite Burt Young role though is Curly in Roman Polanski's peerless CHINATOWN [1974], the jealous husband to whom Jake Gittes does a favour and from whom Gittes eventually gets one in return.

Rutanya Alda as Mrs Montelli, finding something nasty in the basement.
Which is probably why it's kept in the basement.
Rutanya Alda is really a supporting actress, adept at playing insipid spinsterish pale young women, which she did rather successfully in some very good films of the 1970s.  Unfortunately she is handicapped somewhat by having one of those faces that it's almost impossible to remember.  When I see her name appear in the title credits of a film I think 'Yes I recognise that name, couldn't tell you what she looks like'.  Conversely when I see her name in the end credits I think 'Blimey, she was in it; who was she?'

Moses Gunn (L) as Detective Turner, telling Father Adamsky where to give it to him.
Moses Gunn was an interesting character actor who moved with seemingly effortless ease between heavyweight drama such as John Frankenheimer's monumental adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH [1973], theatre productions - he made award-winning Shakespearean performances, and blaxploitation flicks, such as the daddy of them all SHAFT [1971].  He was too, shall we say, individual looking to ever get more than character parts but I would urge you to keep an eye out for him because he's always interesting, even in AMITYVILLE II where he memorably asks a Catholic priest to pistol whip him.

A couple of other supporting players are Andrew Prine as James Olson's priestly colleague and Leonard Cimino as the monsignor.  Prine is someone I have written about at least twice; he's a veteran of delirious cinema and would certainly be in the Cinema Delirium Hall of Fame if there was such a thing.  Maybe there should be.  Cimino was a really odd-looking actor who tended to play really odd cameo roles.  He's Baron Harkonnen's doctor in David Lynch's DUNE [1984] who says, "Put the pick in there, Pete... turn it round, real neat."

Andrew Prine (L) as Father Tom

Leonard Cimino (L) as the monsignor

Damiano Damiani, who died last year aged 90, was an Italian writer-director of films that usually fitted neatly into defined genres and then quietly subverted them from within.  Good examples of this are LA STREGA IN AMORE [1966], which is nominally a classic Italian ghost story but which is actually an observation of the nature of power in male-female relationships; and QUIEN SABE? [also 1966] which, as director Alex Cox once pointed out, is a commentary on US intervention in Latin America masquerading as a spaghetti western.  Of course by the time he got to Hollywood the best he could get were dreadful horror film such as this one.

The script is by Tommy Lee Wallace who is arguably most famous for doing inferior follow ups to other people's work.  For instance, he wrote not only this prequel but also the first sequel to John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN [1978] as well as directing HALLOWEEN III [1982] and writing and directing the sequel to Tom Holland's FRIGHT NIGHT [1985].  It's not that he's untalented; it's just that he kind of made a rod for his own back by involving himself so closely in projects that were never going to be as good as their forebears.

Cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo shot, among many others, Bertolucci's labyrinthine THE SPIDER'S STRATEGEM [1970] and Argento's flawed but interesting FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET [1971].  The music is by Lalo Schifrin, who needs no introduction from me.

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