31 Days to Scare ~ Amityville II: The Possession

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family moves into their new home, which proves to be evil, resulting in the demonic possession of the teenage son. Only the local priest can save him.

Stars: Burt Young, Rutanya Alda, Jack Magner, Andrew Prine, Diane Franklin, Moses Gunn, James Olson

Director: Damiano Damiani

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Few would argue that 1979’s The Amityville Horror is any kind of movie to write home about.  While it’s poster, preview, and press shots suggested a snazzy new twist on The Exorcist the final product was ham-fisted, poorly acted, and more funny than scary.  Still, the public that had made the book that inspired the movie a bestseller turned the feature film adaptation into the second highest grossing film of the year ahead of Alien, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and The Muppet Movie.  I mean…think on that…it made 86 million dollars, 20m short of the #1 title, Kramer vs. Kramer.

Three years later new producer Dino De Laurentis took over the property and made this prequel to the events that transpired in the original.  Now the movie would focus on the murders that took place in the house and supposedly were the source of the haunting that plagued future tenants.  While it’s considered one of the stronger entries in the franchise of countless sequels spawned over the next several decades, it’s easy to see where director Damiano Damiani and screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace (Fright Night Part 2 and Halloween III: Season of the Witch) ripped off other films when piecing together their contribution to the Amityville legacy.

The Montelli family has moved into that soon to be infamous house with the windows that look like eyes.  Nestled into the sleepy hamlet of Amityville in Long Island, NY the family has relocated to start a new, quieter life.  Still, they bring some major baggage with them.  The father (Burt Young) is an abusive drunk, the mother (Rutanya Alda) is religious woman frightened of her husband’s anger, and while their two youngest children seem to adjust well to the new living arrangements it’s tougher on eldest son Sonny (Jack Magner) and daughter Patricia (Diane Franklin).

Sonny’s a loner, a perfect vessel for the evil that lurks within the house to prey upon.  It isn’t long before Sonny’s demeanor changes and he becomes more physically hostile to his father and sexually predatory with his sister, both unfortunately icky subplots that just don’t feel good.  The more the family fights to save Sonny’s soul, the deeper the possession becomes.  If you’ve seen the opening of The Conjuring 2, you’ll know what happens next…if you haven’t, well, it doesn’t end well.

Though operating on a small budget, Damiani makes his film effectively creepy and often downright frightening as Sonny begins to show outwardly the possession going on within.  There’s good use of lighting to keep figures in the dark so that they can be discovered at precisely the right moment and the tension builds slowly but aggressively.  Performances are uniformly good and, gross incest plotline aside, Wallace’s script goes for realism instead of hyperactive hysteria.  The film has several climaxes, and each arrive with an assured flair for intensity.

Far less successful than its predecessor, Amityville II: The Possession still gives me the chills all these years and multiple viewings later.  It’s a dark movie though, filled with some hard to watch sequences of physical abuse and inappropriate conduct that’s in no way glorified or excused.  The focus of the horror is on the house but it’s tenants might not have been all that good to begin with.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)


The Facts:

Synopsis: A Texas Ranger hunts for a hooded serial killer terrorizing the residents of a small town, set in 1946 Arkansas. Loosely based on a true story.

Stars: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells

Director: Charles B. Pierce

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Original Release Date: December 24, 1976

Review: In all my visits to the horror section at my local video store I never got around to toting the clamshell package for The Town That Dreaded Sundown up to the counter for a check-out.  Not that the box art didn’t make a large impression on me, with that scary masked man peeking out from a lone eyehole popping up once or twice in nightmares brought on by my impressionable imagination.  Up until earlier this week, I actually though I’d seen it at some point over the years but when the trailer for the remake of this came out I realized that I had yet to make a visit to this terror town.

Turns out, some childhood memories are better left to staying put as hazy recollections because after trudging through all 86 very long minutes of this cheap-o 1976 horror film on Amazon Prime (nicely remastered in HD, by the way) I just don’t get why it’s remembered at all, let alone remembered fondly.

Playing like an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard with a Zodiac plotline, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is light on the scares and heavy on seemingly endless scenes of exposition that are more likely to lull you to sleep instead of keep you up at night.  There’s probably a total of 10 minutes where anything actually happens and the rest is comprised of hokey acting and comedic moments (intentional and otherwise) that take you completely out of whatever momentum director Charles B. Pierce was trying to build.

To its credit, the film does take a page from actual history by documenting the bizarre murders of five people over the course of several months in a tiny town on the border between Arkansas and Texas.  The crimes were grisly and the murders were never solved…all this should have provided the basis for something very eerie and unsettling but I was never engaged in the goings-on to much care what happened next.

While the murder scenes have a certain creepy frankness to them (and boy can some of those ladies scream!), the low-budget affords no style or imagination to be employed.  As a respected Texas Ranger, Ben Johnson makes convincing work of his character but is weighed down by being involved in the aforementioned comedic moments.  Escaped from Gilligan’s Island, Mary Ann herself (Dawn Wells) filmed her scenes in a day and a half and didn’t read the script before shooting her scenes…and it shows because Wells acts like she’s wandered into a Tennessee Williams play instead of a budget-less horror film.

Though attempts at atmosphere are admirable, it’s not enough to save the film from striking out when compared to other thrillers of the era.  I don’t need blood and guts to call a horror movie a classic…but it needs to be interesting and this film is a huge bore.  The remake has it easy, actually, because it can improve upon its source material with little effort.

Don’t visit this town.