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 ~ Cat’s Eye

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A stray cat is the linking element of three tales of suspense and horror.

Stars: Drew Barrymore, James Woods, Robert Hays, Candy Clark, James Naughton, Alan King

Director: Lewis Teague

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:

Stretching back to The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and even Alfred Hitchcock Presents, anthology series have been a popular medium for bigger name stars to lend their talents without making a huge commitment of a full length series.  As anthology horror moved from the small screen to the big screen, the rules didn’t change but the limitations did.  Now, free from network censors, these anthology series could be bloodier and bolder as they devised new ways of making us scream.

In 1985 there was no horror writer more popular than Stephen King and many of his novels had been turned into films.  For the rest of the decade and onward every inch of King’s horror tomes would be ransacked and produced as feature films, television movies, or the occasional mini-series.  What makes Cat’s Eye unique, then, is that it was written expressly for the screen by King himself.  No writer adapted King’s often complex source novel and made it fit into a traditional cinematic structure so it was up to King to craft tales that would scare us into submission.

The resulting film was not quite what most people had in mind but still is recommended as an interesting product of the time and talent involved.  While none of the tales are particularly scary, King has at least put forth three stories that are watchable and tied together in quaint and clever fashion.  Using a wiley (and well-trained!) cat to weave the various tales together, King and director Lewis Teague (who also helmed King’s Cujo) start things off with several clever nods to previous King films.  No less than five references are made in the opening moments alone and it’s a nice reward for King fans.

As for the tales of semi-terror themselves, well…they are a mixed bag.  The first tale involves Woods as a smoker that finds a new method of quitting isn’t quite what he (or his family) bargained for.  Woods and especially Alan King (no relation) are a hoot here and Woods is suited perfectly to his jittery role.  The second story follows that time-honored plotline of a jealous husband inflicting his rage on his adulterous wife and her lover.  I can’t quite look at Hays without thinking of Airplane!, though.  The last tale features Barrymore and the cat as they battle a nasty creature that lives in her wall.  Barrymore actually is featured in several recurring roles throughout the film…which, like the cat, makes for an unusual through-line.  All are pretty standard fare that is elevated by King’s nice use of wordplay and not relying on monsters and ghouls.  By being grounded in a semi-reality, the unnerving nature of several passages hit their mark and hit them well.

The main drawback to these types of films is that in their efficiency of storytelling, something can be lost.  I never felt truly invested in any story…at least I wasn’t given enough time to feel like I could be drawn in.  I knew the clock was ticking and that a wrap-up was just around the corner.  Nothing really was unexpected because I knew there was no time to throw any major twists in. 

Still, Cat’s Eye was a film I passed up for too long (like Wolfen) and am glad I finally had the chance to see.  It’s a compact movie that provides the entertainment to satiate a rainy day need for light scares but may not be the full meal that gore hounds or rabid King fans crave.