“Look at them, they’re pathetic animals. They’d be better off if you killed them.”
I first encountered Amityville II: The Possession when I was a young teenager. I was staying around my grandparents’ house, and at the time already obsessed with all things horror. It was showing on late night television and my parents agreed that I could record it to watch the next day. I’d remembered seeing the videocassette in our local video shop; a horrible, ghoulish image of something half-man half-demon leered from the cover, its mouth twisted into what was either a scream or smile (I could never decide which), the title was in blood red with forked tails coming out of the lettering. Needless to say, to my thirteen year old eyes it looked ‘wicked’. So, after taping it off the television, with my parents and grandparents safely out of the way in another room of the house, I sat down that afternoon to watch my first ever ‘18-certificate’ film. Despite being excited, I have to admit to being more than a little nervous…
In the end, I watched the really, really creepy bits through the gaps between my fingers: Sonny listening to the demon instructing him to kill his family through the headphones of his Walkman (“You must do it…you must do it nooow”); his face changing as he’s slowly possessed; his subsequent rampage through the house with a rifle picking off various family members, and the exorcism in the house near the end.
Above all, I remember my intense physical reaction to it. By the end credits I was left shaking; reeling; nauseated. At times I wanted to look away, to turn the movie off because I was so scared, but couldn’t. Even when I knew I would be haunted by certain scenes and images from the film long after it had finished – branded on to my mind with a kind of terrible finality – I kept watching. In fact, I’ve never had an experience like it since. Sure, I’ve been disturbed by other horror movies, but not on the same level as this; nothing has made my heart race in quite the same way, and made me feel physically sick and frightened and guilty for watching something that I shouldn’t have watched; had no right to watch in the first place. Amityville II was my first proper step into cinematic darkness, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Released in 1982, Amityville II: The Possession was inspired by the real life DeFeo killings that occurred in 112 Ocean Avenue, Long Island, New York. On Wednesday 13 November 1974, six members of Ronald DeFeo, Jr.’s family were found in their beds, all shot dead by a rifle. The victims were car dealer Ronald DeFeo, Sr. (43), Louise DeFeo (42), and four of their children: Dawn (18); Allison (13); Marc (12); and John Matthew (9). Ron DeFeo, Jr. confessed to their murders the following day, telling detectives: “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It went so fast.”
There’s plenty written about Jay Anson’s novel The Amityville Horror and the controversies surrounding it, which stem from George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moving in to 112 Ocean Avenue shortly after the DeFeo killings. The Lutz’s supposed supernatural experiences were filmed as The Amityville Horror in 1979 and starred James Brolin and Margot Kidder, the movie made more than $86 million in the US.
Amityville II: The Possession is a prequel to The Amityville Horror and is based on the book Murder in Amityville by the parapsychologist Hans Holzer. In the book, Holzer tries to explain that Ron DeFeo, Jr. was possessed by evil forces. It is also based on DeFeo’s explanation on why he killed his family. Produced by the late, great Dino De Laurentiis, the movie is directed by Damiano Damiani (A Bullet for the General), with screenplay duties by the ever-reliable Tommy Lee Wallace (Fright Night Part 2, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch). At the time of its release, Amityville II: The Possession garnered a slew of mainly negative reviews, with The Daily Herald calling it “hackneyed, trite and periodically silly” and Time Out simply labelling it “awful”, though Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times claimed that the film “is actually slightly better than The Amityville Horror…”
Returning to Amityville II: The Possession, twenty-odd years later, I really didn’t know what to expect. Would it awaken the memories and feelings of that very first time I watched it? Would I feel a peculiar affection for the film? Or would I ultimately be left horribly disappointed? As soon as the credits came up, with an image of that house shrouded in mist, accompanied by the piano music and the child’s voice singing a simple, haunting lullaby, I felt a shiver run down my spine: I was almost that thirteen year old kid again…
The film begins with the dysfunctional Montelli family moving into their new home, the Amityville House, which just happens (quelle surprise!) to be built on an old Indian burial ground. There’s dad, a controlling, abusive monster played by Burt Young (fresh from his success in Rocky); downtrodden Mum, who the viewer feels sympathy for up until the scene where she accuses her eldest daughter of seducing her son; the two younger children, Jan and Mark, who like to play at putting plastic bags over each other’s heads (told you this family is dysfunctional); and, as mentioned, older brother and sister team of Sonny and Patricia, whose relationship grows increasingly more dubious as the film progresses.
The supernatural shenanigans start pretty much as soon as the family move in: blood gushes from taps; swarms of flies buzz manically in the basement; a tablecloth throws itself over a crucifix; a mirror cracks as the family say grace; paintbrushes levitate and daub freakish pictures on to the walls. While most of us would flee the house immediately, Dad Montelli decides to blame his kids and beats them with his belt. In eerie premonition of things to come, Sonny intervenes by pressing the barrel of a rifle against his father’s neck, temporarily putting a stop to the abuse but cranking up the tension inside the house tenfold (“Why didn’t you pull the trigger?” intones the demon, later. “Why didn’t you shoot that pig?”).
All the genuinely creepy moments revolve around actor James Magner who plays the possessed Sonny (in the Ron DeFeo, Jr. role) and his inexorable transformation into demonic psychopath. When Mum brings a priest into the house, the luckless Father Adamsky shakes Sonny’s hand causing shelves to rattle and fall, and the fridge door to explode open, spewing its contents out across the kitchen floor. The priest returns in a later scene to bless the house, only to find Sonny hiding away in his room behind a cupboard, hollow-eyed, shifty and ghoulishly pale. The conversation they have is awkward and charged with tension and infinitely more disturbing than the priest’s sprinkler oozing blood instead of holy water moments later in the parents’ bedroom.
On his birthday, Sonny kisses his family in turn and with some finality (he even has time to grope sister Patricia, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Mum). Then it’s all thunder and red lightning, and in a quite stunning scene the camera spins wildly round Sonny’s room to stop abruptly in front of Sonny’s face – which has now changed into a hellish, contorted mask of pure malevolence. With thunder crashing and lightening flickering, rifle-armed Sonny embarks on his terrible crusade, picking off his family one by one inside the Amityville House. There’s no escape; the doors and windows have all been nailed shut. One of the more memorable and chilling moments has Patricia walking backward in the darkness and straight into a malformed, laughing Sonny.
I can easily see how this shook me up as a kid; as an adult, and despite having now seen an enormous number of horror films, I still find this entire section creepy, distressing and downright difficult to watch. There’s just no way out for any of them; no matter where they go, no matter where they hide, Sonny will get them; they will die. The idea of not knowing the people closest to you, of them causing you the most harm, has always been something that I’ve found highly unsettling, and I guess it’s why I find films such as The Shining and The Exorcist so horrifyingly effective.
The movie is definitely of its time, with its sleazy, trashy eighties vibe; the child’s lullaby that’s infrequently used reminded me a little of the “1,2, Freddy’s coming for you” rhyme in A Nightmare on Elm Street. There were some great uses of the camera; in a scene where a spooked Sonny is all alone in the house, the camera tracks him from behind, then loops over his head and dangles upside down in front of his face, achieving a sense of disorientation and unbalance in the viewer whilst simultaneously echoing Sonny’s warped state of mind. In fact, Damiani directs with gusto and verve, displaying a sureness for horror in pretty much his only foray into the genre.
On the negative side, Burt Young’s character was a stereotypical sleazy, wife-beating Italian-American, and the second half of the picture – where James Olson’s Father Adamsky tries to make amends for abandoning Patricia –isn’t quite as interesting or as entertaining as the first. The film also resembles The Exorcist a little too closely, and in some quarters has been dismissed (understandably, but unfairly so in my opinion) as an Exorcist rip-off. However, there is an undeniable power to the scenes where Father Adamsky squares up to Sonny and the demon inside the house at the end (“You’ve decided to do this on your own,” the demon sneers as blood and slime dribbles down the walls around them, “without the support of the church. You are disobeying the church. Now you are alone, Adamsky”). There’s also a great leap-out-of-the-seat moment when Sonny jumps – Evil Dead style – out of the darkness to attack the priest in Sonny’s bedroom.
Returning to Amityville II: The Possession after all these years wasn’t as disappointing as I had feared. I didn’t cover my eyes up like I did when I was a kid (honest guv), but there was still something admirably grim and unsettling about its overall tone and mood; James Magner cuts a truly monstrous figure as Sonny – he had this creepy half-sneer half-smile thing going on which totally rocked. The SFX were a joy; no CGI here: just good old fashioned eighties make-up and prosthetics. I loved the scene where Sonny’s face crumbled away during the exorcism scene, revealing the bug-eyed demon underneath. I loved too, the pulsating flesh and bulging veins on Sonny and Father Adamsky as they slowly succumbed to the demon within. It also kicks the pants off The Amityville Horror; the prequel’s much nastier, more entertaining, and wholly unforgiving. Respect!
Although Amityville II might not have been so scary second time around, it sure is a hell of a lot of fun. And I still found parts of it unnerving– I still maintain that the massacre is one of the most genuinely disturbing things I’ve seen in film. The movie’s like a nightmare carnival ride, peppered with familiar horror tropes and clichés, but strangely lovable for it all the same. I adored the claustrophobic and unremittingly grim atmosphere and, for that reason alone, can highly recommend this movie. It certainly inspired my (rather macabre and now adult) sense of wonder. So, if you like your horror films harsh and uncompromising, packed with paranormal activity, thunderstorms, exorcisms, garish colours and lighting, incestuous relations and possessed Walkmans, all suffused with a sleazy, trashy vibe and a grim, almost palpable sense of impending doom, then Amityville II: The Possession is definitely for you! (Cue scary demon voice) “Watch it…Watch it nooow…”