|by Peter Sobczynski
Seeing as how I haven’t watched any of the theatrical films inspired by the infamous Long Island home that was the scene of one actual multiple murder and an alleged case of demonic possession, I was curious when I fired up “The Amityville Horror Collection”–a four-disc set comprising the three films (1979's “The Amityville Horror,” 1982's “Amityville II: The Possession” and 1983's “Amityville 3-D”) and a fourth bonus disc–to see how the films have held up over the past couple of decades. Surprisingly, they come across the same today as they did back them–they are nothing more barely believable nonsense that will throughly disappoint any horror fan over the age of seven. On the other hand, fans of schlock may actually have a ball with this set–between the films themselves and the bonus materials, there are more laughs on display here than in most genuine comedies.
When it came out in 1979, “The Amityville Horror” was an enormous hit at the box-office, perhaps fueled by fans who couldn’t get into sold-out screenings of “Alien” or “Dawn of the Dead” or even “Prophecy.” Today, it is just a draggy compendium of every haunted-house cliche that you can possibly think of strung out to an almost-interminable two hours. However, as unintentional comedies go, the film is a riot. The overacting by Rod Steiger (as a tormented priest) was legendary even in the day but his efforts pale in comparison to the work turned in by James Brolin as George Lutz, the former family man who finds himself growing further estranged from his wife (Margot Kidder) and kids as he begins to develop a special bond with his axe–the moment where he sits by the fire and screams “I’M COMING APART!” is one of the great inadvertent laugh-out-loud moments in horror history (even Brolin himself makes fun of it in a short documentary included on the disc. Even the smaller supporting roles are chock-full of goofiness; Helen Shaver nearly tops Brolin with her attempt at a possessed voice and, apparently under the impression that he is supposed to be in any movie featuring a town with the name “Amity,” Murray Hamilton shows up to do for the priesthood what he did for small-town mayors in “Jaws.” About the only thing in this amazingly tacky film that still holds up today is the sight of Margot Kidder exercising in her leotard. (Suppose this set will find an honored place on the mantle at the Brolin/Streisand compound?)
As for the sequels, “Amityville II: The Possession,” which deals in part with the real-life murder case that took place in the home a year before the events of the first film, is probably the best of the bunch thanks to a relatively gripping first half and some surprisingly strong technical contributions (considering that they were in the service of a schlocky sequel) from composer Lalo Schifrin and editor Sam O’Steen). However, the fairly sleazy material in that first half (involving abusive father Burt Young, incestuous brother/sister duo Jack Magner and Diane Franklin and the wholesale shotgun slaughter of the entire family) and the outright stupidity of the second half (where it shifts gears and becomes another “Exorcist” clone) don’t really jibe and the resulting film is more depressing than scary. With “Amityville 3-D,” they weren’t even bothering to try to make anything other than a cheapo monster movie using the three-dimensional gimmick (not included on the disc) as a way of propping up the otherwise familiar proceedings. (Having actually seen this in its 3-D splendor, I can tell you that it didn’t work.) The only real entertainment value comes from seeing once-respected actors (such as Tony Roberts and Candy Clark) trying to make a buck by working alongside such soon-to-be-famous performers as Meg Ryan and Lori Loughlin. (Suppose this set will find an honored place on the mantle at the Meg Ryan compound?)
As for the bonus materials, the set comes with a fourth disc that includes two reasonably interesting documentaries on the entire Amityville phenomenon produced for the History Channel as well as a short featurette promoting the upcoming remake as one of the most terrifying things ever produced by human beings. (However, the mere fact that MGM isn’t showing it to critics until two days before its opening would seem to suggest otherwise.) However, the best extra by far is the truly deranged commentary for the first film delivered by Dr. Hans Holzer, PH.D in Pararpsychology (as the back of the disc helpfully informs us), who wrote a book on the house that was used as the basis for the second film. In a hilarious discussion, he insists that many of the supernatural claims were true and complains endlessly about the additions thrown in by the filmmakers (it wasn’t blood that oozed out of the walls–that would be ridiculous, according to him–but green slime, which is apparently far more reasonable). If I didn’t know any better, I would suggest that the entire commentary is joke along the lines of the ones on the discs for “Spinal Tap” and “Blood Simple”. In fact, it is almost worth picking up the set just to hear it for yourself.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR: Written by Sandor Stern. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Murray Hamilton, Don Stroud and Meeno Peeluce. 1979. 119 minutes. Rated R.
AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION: Written by Tommy Lee Wallace. Directed by Damiano Damiani. Starring Burt Young, Rutanya Alsa, Andrew Prine, Jack Magner, Diane Franklin and Moses Gunn. 1982. 104 minutes. Rated R
AMITYVILLE 3-D: Written by William Wales. Directed by Richard Fleischer. Starring Tony Roberts, Tess Harper, Robert Joy, Candy Clark, Lori Loughlin and Meg Ryan. 1983. 93 minutes. Rated PG
An MGM Home Entertainment release. $39.95
NEW AND NOTABLE
THE ADVOCATE (Miramax Home Entertainment. $14.99):Although the cover makes it look like a steamy cinematic romance novel with Colin Firth at his swooniest, this little-seen 1994 gem is one of the oddest courtroom procedurals that you will ever see in your life. In it, Firth plays a lawyer in 15th-century Paris who decides to relocate to the countryside, only to find himself involved in a web of intrigue that culminate with him being hired to defend a pig in court on charges of murder. If that brief description doesn’t make you want to drop everything and seek it out, I don’t know how you can consider yourself a true movie fan.
THE CORPORATION (Zeitgeist Video. $29.99): Although it didn’t receive even a fraction of the publicity that was expended on “Fahrenheit 9/11" when both premiered last summer, this lengthy documentary, which explores and dissects (in a manner both humorous and horrifying) the role of the corporation in the world today and the damages that such institution inflict on the world in the name of higher profits. Although it may seem like another left-leaning documentary preaching to the converted (especially with the appearance of such commentators as Michael Moore, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky), this film is a scrupulously fair and even-handed look at a subject that literally affects us all in a manner that, despite the extended running time, is always fascinating, compelling and not a little bit enraging.
ELEKTRA (Fox Home Video. $29.98): You know, I am almost tempted to pick up this disc of one of 2005's notable flops–a lifeless spin-off of “Daredevil” with Jennifer Garner delivering a performance that all but screams “Contractual Obligation”–just to go to the selection of deleted scenes (including one with a much-hyped cameo by Ben Affleck) and see how bad a scene has to be to get deleted from the likes of “Elektra.”
MISCHIEF (Anchor Bay Home Video. $19.95): Hey, I know exactly who you people have been so eagerly awaiting the DVD release of this fairly uninspired 1950's-set sex comedy and all I have to say is, “Shame on you!”
RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS (Buena Vista Home Video. $29.95): In this loving tribute to the drive-in detritus of his youth (shot as part of Showtime’s “Rebel Highway” series of remakes of old American-International Pictures programmers), Joe Dante created a minor masterpiece with this funny gem about three teen girls (Julie Bowen, Holly Fields and Jenny Lewis) who, when one of them gets pregnant, fake their kidnappings and set off in pursuit of the lothario responsible before he can enlist. As with all of Dante’s work, this is a slyly affectionate genre goof filled with in-jokes, cameos and one of the biggest parts in years for his personal good-luck-charm, the irrepressible Dick Miller. For a featureless disc, the price is kind of a rip-off but the film is such a blast that you won’t feel too cheated. (Also new this week from the same series is Jonathan Kaplan’s less-than-essential (unless you have a craving to see Matt LeBlanc embarrass himself more than usual in an early role) “Reform School Girl.”)
SIDEWAYS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although there is a danger that this sleeper hit might encounter the same kind of backlash that “Lost in Translation” suffered from when it hit video, most should come away from this touching and hilarious saga of two middle-aged men (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) dealing with their respective personal crises with a road trip filled with wine, women (in the forms of Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) and wackiness. Equally entertaining is the hilarious commentary track from Giamatti and Church.
SILVERADO (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $19.94): Although it didn’t exactly revive the genre, this tribute to old-fashioned Westerns, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, has actually held up pretty good over the last 20 years. It may run a little too long and Kasdan’s insistence on stuffing every possible genre trope means that there are a lot of subplots and supporting characters that wind up on the short end of the stick (Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Goldblum and John Cleese are particularly underused), but it is a lot of fun to watch (even on the reduced scale of a TV screen) and contains what is still the most joyous performance of Kevin Costner’s entire career.
SPANGLISH (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $28.95): Although this film by the usually reliable James L. Brooks, in which an affluent California family and a Mexican immigrant affect each others lives when the latter goes to work for the former as a maid, is easily his weakest and most unfocused work to date, it isn’t quite as bad as some have suggested. Once again, Adam Sandler shows that he can, when prodded, actually turn in a decent performance that doesn’t rely on dumb vocal tics or obnoxious behavior, Paz Vega is a vision to behold as the maid and Tea Leoni, whose performance as a frighteningly self-absorbed mother was roundly criticized, does deserve credit for going all out in playing such a throughly unlikable character.
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originally posted: 04/08/05 13:39:22
last updated: 04/08/05 14:15:27