The Amityville Horror may be the most infamous haunted house movie ever made. It’s tied to a supposedly true story that may never be lived down. There are new documentaries and specials airing about it every single year and there probably will be for some time to come. It’s understandable, too. There’s an appeal to it that cannot be denied. Everyone either wants to believe it or wants to debunk it. Whether it’s a true story or not, people see what they want to in it. When the book came out, it was a massive, massive hit. Even if the Lutz family seemed to be completely taken aback when it happened, it was obvious that someone was going to make a movie about it.
When the film adaptation came out, it was also a huge hit. It earned a reputation as a classic. For what it is, The Amityville Horror is a fine movie. It’s a popcorn flick that was made to capitalize on a very successful headline, essentially, and as such it was very good. But when compared with other haunted house movies of the era like The Legend of Hell House and The Changeling, it doesn’t hold up as well.
Obviously, every movie aims to make money, but when it’s made solely for the sake of profit, something gets lost along the way. Amityville Horror, being such a notorious book already, was seeking the largest possible audience. As a result, it pulled all of its punches. When it tries to be scary, it doesn’t try to be so scary that it might lose some of its audience, and it tries to get around the grisly backstory of the house without disturbing the audience.
That’s where Amityville II: The Possession comes in. It’s not nearly as well regarded as the first movie, but that doesn’t matter. I’m very comfortable in my belief that it’s a better film. It is, however, much more disturbing and I think that has a lot to do with why it might not be as talked about as the first. The Possession is a sort of prequel to the original, telling a highly stylized version of what happened to the DeFeo family during their stay in the house. It was always bound to be darker just on the subject matter. Instead of hearing footsteps and seeing levitating furniture before fleeing the house, Ronald DeFeo was supposedly influenced by the property to murder his entire family in their beds.
That’s the story that this film is centered around. It’s the main event, in a morbid sort of way. Right from the beginning, it’s made very clear that this is not the traditional, wholesome American family that we are used to seeing in features of this type. Sure, it’s a father, mother, two teens and two young children, but there are red flags right off the bat. The father is abusive and controlling, the mother is so hollowed-out that she just turns a blind eye to everything, and the two teenagers share a romantic attraction. The two young children, who are the two traditionally innocent characters, are ultimately doomed by their environment.
For most of the film, we follow Sonny (the Ronnie De Feo character) as he is slowly corrupted by the house, undergoing a transformation that is both physical and mental. Interestingly enough, the one scene of the feature that everyone knows is going to happen comes almost exactly halfway through the movie. As the general audience is at least somewhat familiar with The Amityville Horror going in, this is the best thing that could happen.
Watching Sonny go room to room and kill every single one of his family members is harrowing. It’s not the kind of horror you’d generally expect in a haunted house movie. But that’s the kind of horror that Amityville II is built on and is precisely why it works as well as it does. There’s something scary about a cross hanging itself upside down on the wall, but something much creepier about seeing a girl suggest to a priest that her brother is only romantically interested in her in order to hurt God.
The script by Tommy Lee Wallace, based on the book Murder in Amityville, does not hold anything back. Even as it fades into a more traditional exorcism movie in the second half, that sense of hard-edged horror is there. The second half is worth it for the makeup effects alone. Sonny’s transformation is one of the most imaginative I’ve seen in a possession movie to the point that, by the end of it, he’s simply a full-on demon and the boy is gone altogether.
Amityville II doesn’t have the audience that the first movie has, even though it’s a more horrific and memorable piece. People are still quick to dismiss this one and I think it’s because of the disturbing element that the entire film hinges on. But I definitely urge people to give it a second chance, even if it was unsettling the first time. It’s the best of the franchise, although the original does run a close second when you look at everything that followed this one.