Sunday, January 13, 2013

Enchantéd, Pt. III: Amityville II: The Possession

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin 

III. Amityville II: The Possession (1982)
(R, Orion Pictures)


1982's The Last American Virgin was an unexpected detour into adolescent tragedy, bringing into question the conflict between love vs. lust, the transfixing trauma of one-way affection and the self-sabotaging juvenilia which holds one back from shaping or accepting their reality. It wasn't as hilarious as I hoped, despite a few moments that worked on the skill of the young actors, but I was sold on the dramatic all giving-no returning between Gary and Karen. And though I tried to tiptoe my way through recapping the entire movie, once you watch Diane Franklin as Karen make her fateful decision to forgive and forget, it comes with as much humanity as it does horror. For her first couple movies, Franklin plays characters with a twinkling tenderness that ultimately wrecks the viewer, as contrivance and manipulation in the story reveal ugly fates molding a striking beauty.

So swiftly it seems that Franklin, as relayed by her autobiography, got asked to audition for Amityville II: The Possession after wrapping up Virgin. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and importing Italian filmmaker Damiano Damiani, the follow-up to 1979's The Amityville Horror was based on Hans Holzer's Murder in Amityville, a speculative recounting of the real life crimes committed by Ronald "Butch" DeFeo, Jr. in November 1974. Avoiding all conflicting theories and alternative motives, it has to be said that a tragedy did occur as DeFeo was the sole survivor of a brutal mass homicide that claimed the lives of his entire family. Whatever may or may not be true about the Lutz family's postmortem paranormal claims, there was unwarranted blood spilled. Let us not lose track of the honest-to-goodness pain of this story, especially in the wake of a 2012 scarred by the loss of some innocent souls in both Connecticut and Colorado.

Perhaps it's a combination of the real-life traumas of the last year, the stylistic dreamscape atmosphere mastered by the Italian horror icons such as Dario Argento & Lucio Fulci and my unwavering faith in Mrs. Franklin's au natural likeability that makes this particular image from the movie feel like a painful requiem for the now:

The crux of Amityville II: The Possession is the twisted story of a picture-perfect family concealing multiple perversions and resentments. The Montelli clan has for its paterfamilias a hair trigger-tempered martinet who unbuckles his belt with irrational and alarming frequency. The God-fearing mother valiantly tries to instill unity and sanity but is not safe from her husband's wrath, reduced to neglected hostage instead of beloved spouse. The firstborn son and blossoming daughter have a more solid bond, albeit one that immediately gets sullied once the residential demon of 112 Ocean Avenue settles itself in the young man's soul. The younger siblings, meanwhile, exhibit a playful rapport consisting of attempted violence. The plot doesn't need to lean too much on the supernatural as the viewer can sense an implosion could happen at any moment.

Tommy Lee Wallace adapted Holzer's book for the screen, with unaccredited punch-up from Dardano Sacchetti. Wallace worked on Halloween III: Season of the Witch around this time, whereas Sacchetti had already penned the likes of Fulci's The Beyond (Seven Doors of Death) and City of the Living Dead (The Gates of Hell). In Halloween III, the controversial choice to jettison bogeyman Michael Myers resulted in a "pod people" pastiche about an Irish-founded California town where a Celtic occultist-cum-inventor malevolently inverts the past time of "trick or treat" to wipe out an entire coast's kiddie population and, with any luck, their parents. In both of the aforementioned Fulci films, the portals to hellish realms of zombies and pestilence are blown wide open by vengeful spirits, be they a suicidal priest or a lynched warlock. Like peanut butter and chocolate, the script for Amityville II: The Possession is at its most succulent in combining these two poles of existential gloom and mystical menace.

However, Amityville II: The Possession is very much an exploitation film, calculated to latch onto prior and present box-office glories (The Exorcist and Poltergeist, namely), integrating taboo themes for deliberately vicarious shock situations (I neglect to mention Franklin's nudity in these early films because the contexts are far from titillating) and filmed on the fly with low-budget resources (notice both Jim Morrison AND Debbie Harry posters in this film supposedly set in the early 1970s?). Dino De Laurentiis began the decade with a belly flop as the producer of Flash Gordon and invested much of the early 1980s into producing horror movies, the most notable of which were Halloween II and Halloween III. Amityville II: The Possession feels like a safe bet, a backwoods carnival spookshow ride with the invaluable Lalo Schrifrin's Herrmann-esque discordance piercing your ears and the fetid stink of cavernous basement passageways filling your nose. That it ends with a self-sacrificial shouting match of "Demon Be Gone" is just further formula in motion.

But Amityville II: The Possession has moments of prosthetic and elegiac poetry so ripe with fascination that, upon the hindsight-clouded second opinion, the renegade Damiani and crew may have made the endless series' sole crown jewel.

Anthony and Dolores Montelli are played by Burt Young and Rutanya Alda at a low-key point in their careers following appearances in definitive 1970s films such as Rocky and The Deer Hunter. Hardcore horror fans may recall Young from Blood Beach and Alda from Girls Nite Out (The Scaremaker), and theatrical adverts for both have been featured in compilation releases like 42nd Street Forever Vol. 3 and Trailer War. Jack Magner has his only starring role as Sonny Montelli, bearing a striking resemblance to the charismatically creepy Malcolm McDowell of 1982's Cat People. Diane Franklin, of course, acts the part of Patricia Montelli and real life siblings Erika and Brenda Katz play Mark and Jan Montelli. The supporting roles belong to eventual hero James Olson as Father Adamsky, Moses Gunn as Detective Turner and the consummate Andrew Prine, no stranger to haunted houses thanks to 1978's The Evil, as Adamsky's right-hand Father Tom.

The idyllic opening duly shows the Montellis arriving at their new Long Island habitat in separate cars, with Anthony, Mark and Jan getting there first and Dolores and Patricia pulling up afterwards. Mother and daughter beamingly sing a bar of "Home! Sweet Home!" to which the perpetually scowling Anthony shoots them down with an acidic retort. It gets worse when Sonny, delayed by the excitement of his cherry-red automotive anachronism and the hankering for some smokes, is chewed out for not following the women and threatened with a whipping. Already, the mighty Burt Young has excelled at the seemingly thankless task of playing a teeth-gnashing ogre of such feverish dislike that even the impromptu warmth of a steak dinner as recollected by Patricia itself reveals a nasty agenda fueled by dominance and conditioned docility.

Moving into their abode, Anthony and Dolores find the windows mysteriously nailed shut and the latter is shaken up twice by bizarre phenomenon in both the kitchen and the cellar. But it is Sonny, egged on by ghostly voices emanating from his Walkman(!), who is set-up as the perfect host for the apparition who continually provokes the Montellis on their first night within the house, causing peaceful dinners to erupt into verbal tantrums and making paintbrushes turn sentient in order to deface the tots' bedroom walls with blasphemous commands and twisted images straight from a bleeding Birthday Party album ("Now pay witness to Sonny‘s burnnnninnng!").

Dolores anxiously turns to pastor Adamsky to bless their home, but neither Anthony or the other Evil take kindly to this favor. When Dolores demands Anthony visit Adamsky to give a rightful apology, the withdrawn Sonny stays behind as the rest of his family goes to church. The following sequence depicting Sonny's fateful seizure by the wicked spirit is a gonzo tour de force of pyrotechnics, practical make-up effects, blinding red/green color filters, and one particularly offbeat POV tracking shot which is heavily indebted to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, to be honest, but astounding in its execution just the same. The special effects team of John Caglione and Gary Zeller do a top-notch job of making Sonny's flesh pustulate and inflate whilst the camera careens madly and the lighting gets Technicolor lurid. The cinematography of Suspiria gets fused with the pubescent body horror of An American Werewolf in London, making for a warped moment of stylish dread that trumps anything Stuart Rosenberg's 1979 blockbuster accomplished.

No virtue goes unpunished once the now-possessed Sonny makes his way to his sister's room. At this point, Patricia Montelli begins a queasy character arc, one based on the unreliable Butch's claims, that pushes my buttons on how much onscreen abuse I can see a sentimentally-beloved young actress take. Sonny encourages Patricia to play model for him (remember a little film called Maniac, anyone?), and she even obliges his request for her to doff her nightgown. Audiences and actor alike marveled at the gullibility over this moment, but then Sonny produces a pair of panties he pilfered from the laundry. The stunned Patricia is weakened enough for the impure-minded Sonny to pounce upon her.

Bless Diane Franklin for being such a trouper, and for the cognitive capacity to get out of backseat negotiations with aplomb (for God's sake, read her book!), but growing up under the nurturing wings of Better Off Dead... and TerrorVision drove me not just mad with amour for such a vivacious, attractive woman, but also attuned me to her underappreciated comic chops and an untapped, genuine commitment to odd characters. At my tender teen age, Franklin was one of the first It Girls who I felt had an honest-to-goodness It to be noticed, one which she has preserved in the wake of her retreat from the majors. Thus, her back-to-back film debuts from the same year were a huge shock to the nervous system the first time I watched them. Indeed, people who shouted obscenities at the screen during the end of The Last American Virgin may have blissfully felt karma was dealt upon seeing her in Amityville II. In both cases, I can only sense Franklin showing me how much the love of my coziest celluloid memories are stronger than the bleakness of either Virgin or Amityville II.

Like her mother, Patricia turns to Adamsky for guidance during a trip to confession, but can't bring herself to finger her brother as the molester whose sole motivation in his conquest was "to hurt God." A later visit to the priest before Sonny's birthday bash is further proof that Adamsky is astoundingly oblivious to inner human turmoil, although he rightfully asks permission for an exorcism from the church's ornery archbishop before Sonny's final judgment. Adamsky blows Patricia off not just because he has a sermon to work on, but also because a parishioner has just passed away and Father Tom has arrived to spirit him away on a fishing trip. One reels at the possibility of him actually stepping in for five minutes to wish Sonny happy birthday, because Dolores notices the incestuous advances of Sonny and, after her psychotically-gestating brother has berated her as a "dumb bitch," Patricia is confronted by her mom and slapped across the face out of ill-minded spite (the Golden Raspberry committee must have had this admittedly laughable scene fresh in their minds when they dishonored Rutanya Alda once again with a Worst Supporting Actress nod following Mommie Dearest).

I liked Patricia Montelli, as she was the only person of the family to actually feel guilt, sorrow and moral conflict. She's a very pretty girl. That's why it's decided that Sonny will kill her last.

DeFeo reportedly murdered his family in their sleep, whereas Patricia is awake and in fear throughout the stormy, stalk-n-splatter massacre. This accounts for much of the suspense and revulsion I felt, as Sonny systematically picks off his relatives armed with one of his father's rifles, starting with his parents and then his youngest siblings. And then he concludes with a teary, pleading Patricia, and we see her being hauled off in a body bag when daylight comes and Father Adamsky, startled in his sleep, tells Tom to turn around and go back to Long Island, where he watches the police cart away an amnesiac Sonny.

The third act of Amityville II: The Possession is rather tedious, as Sonny veers between calm and crazed in plain sight of Adamsky (played with stoic semi-nobility by James Olson), who finally shows some initiative when he defies his Catholic elders and the judicial system simultaneously by convincing Tom and Detective Turner that Sonny should be broken out and taken back to Ocean Avenue for the final cleansing. And it's the phantom of forsaken, misunderstood Patricia who pushes him forward, first in a vision from the house's front door and then over the telephone. The subjectively-filmed, slasher-style evil is expositional bunkum that mixes Salem witches and Indian burial grounds but fails to create a memorable image for them, thus placing it leagues below The Beyond. And if you count all the derivations from The Exorcist with all available digits of your body, you'd swear this was produced not by Dino De Laurentiis but Ovidio G. Assonitis (indeed, this movie kind of reminded me of 1987's Lovecraftian Southern Gothic hack job The Curse, which is definitely not a good thing despite my long-time fascination with said Wil Wheaton vehicle).

The aforementioned melancholic image of Patricia at the door is the greatest reward one could attain from watching Amityville II. The movie doesn't quite give much thought to anyone other than Sonny and Patricia in terms of post-mortem madness, which is a bit of a shame since seeing the ghosts of Anthony and Dolores taunting the priest would've been warranted and allowed Adamsky a further emotional stake in his exorcism. And when Patricia resurfaces out of the blue at this point, Franklin is tarted up big time to tease the priest for his covert lust ("CONFESS!"). Even in death, this tragic little teen dream is defiled and discarded.

But let's give credit to a rather neglected source by decreeing that Jack Magner is like the Mark Patton of this franchise. This is not going to be snarky, so don't shame yourself by assuming I'll be so. I've spent so much time on Mrs. Franklin, who some quarters have cited as an inspiration for the J-horror archetype of the sullen ghost girl, that I almost forgot to say that Magner has a quiet empathy and range of expressive traits that were a lovely contrast to the glut of horror from those days. Call it the Final Boy syndrome: like Patton (Jesse of the immortal A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) or Brian Backer of The Burning, Magner taps into his blood-borne qualities with gusto, whether it be a wide-eyed look of alarm, a rakish grin or a deep-seated expression of accepted abuse. I don't know if De Laurentiis remembered him to help out for a bit in Firestarter, but let's acknowledge that Magner gives a legitimate performance in this movie, just like Young, Olson, Alda, Franklin, and even Andrew Prine in what I would consider the most inconsequential supporting role in the film. And to mix the best of both worlds, watch the playful chemistry between Magner and Franklin in single-shot moment that feels like a harbinger for the coming danger.

Damiano Damiani is also someone which who you could do worse by in comparison to, say, Claudio Fragasso. This being filmed during the banner years for cult cinema from Italy, Damiani's crackpot camera techniques and moodiness occasionally works very much in the film's favor. Lightning storms, upside-down and back-to-front Steadicam movements, the relentless darkness and shadows within the house...all of these elements are quite unnerving. It's a bit too showy and campy when the camera lens swoops on Sonny as he lays in bed, because it feels like Count Floyd just came onboard an understudy director, but the sexual implications of such gel with the incestuous angle. The last third doesn't quite have the same zip as the prior acts, and the special effects are too conventional and lack the thematic fluidity of yore, but Damiani has done so insanely much to keep you amazed by the end of Sonny's rampage that you are attentive enough to become bored.

Nevertheless, I felt the same exact way watching Amityville II as I did when revisiting The Last American Virgin after nearly ten years. There's a realistically downbeat tone to the film which is at once respectable, inconsistent and overbearing. The plot is so derivative of more bracing source material that you can sense the half-heartedness and lagging all too well. I carry certain moments from these films in my head and my heart, but I can't honestly say in good company or online that I well and truly love them as wholes. Maybe it's just the way I personally came to deify Diane, a divine image both comely and comical, but for all the qualities both good and bad in her first features, there's a reason why the gateways to geekery passed onto me when I was a boy deserve to be carried over to future generations. I'll get to them soon, but for now, and in preparation for a future Diane Franklin-themed piece, I will fashionably tempt you, Troy McClure-style, with the following words: "Hardcore Nudity!"

1 comment:

  1. This was actually the first time I ever saw Franklin and I saw the movie at an age when I was too young and naive to know just how many other films it was ripping off. Which is why it remains a favourite of mine.