Amityville, Hollywood: Looking Back at the ‘Amityville’ Franchise | Part 2

By Sara Century

Amityville movies covered in Part 2: Amityville 3-D (1983), Amityville: The Evil Escapes (1989), and The Amityville Curse (1990)

At first glance, one might assume that the central theme uniting all the Amityville films would be the house that began the series, but that is not the case. While references to the eerie homestead from the first film would continue to appear in most if not all the films that followed, after the third entry in the series, gaining shooting rights would become more complicated. Though the DeFeo family wasn’t around to sue studios for the way they were portrayed in the series, the Lutz family was around, and so their story would mostly disappear from the franchise for the next many several years.

Permission to film at the house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville was repeatedly denied, and indeed none of the Amityville films were shot there. Due to its unique aesthetic, finding an exact duplicate proved essentially impossible, but a substitute house in New Jersey with an added superstructure was used for exterior shots instead. The town in question, Toms River, New Jersey, would ultimately go on to pass one of the strictest filming ordinances in the nation to discourage filmmakers hoping to “return to Amityville.” After the third film, the series would begin to drift away from its attachment to one specific house. Sequels would instead utilize haunted objects and be filmed in new locations.

The Toms River, New Jersey location used for exterior scenes in the first three ‘Amityville’ films, including ‘Amityville 3-D’ (1983).
L: The Wilmington, California location used for exterior shots in ‘Amityville: The Evil Escapes’ (1989). | R: The Saint-André-d’Argenteuil, Quebec, Canada location used for exterior scenes in ‘The Amityville Curse’ (1990).

These location adjustments are intrinsic to the franchise (and movies, in general), as parts of the original films were shot in California. Still, the distancing from the original story is important in understanding how the franchise moved forward. As time passed and the story of the Lutz haunting became generally regarded as a hoax, the film rights also became increasingly complicated considering seemingly endless lawsuits, so the series would have to change if it were going to continue, at all.

Practicality demanded moving away from the initial premise to some extent, but it became equally important due to the changing nature of horror. After all, the first Amityville film was a standard ghost story, the second a full-out plunge into depravity. Indeed, watching the Amityville films in sequence walks the viewer through horror trends of their respective eras. Which is why we perhaps should not be surprised that the next step was a metacommentary on the hoax element of the Lutz story and 3-D technology.

3-D technology predates moving pictures, and indeed most early attempts at creating moving film intended the use of the stereoscopic effect that caused an image to become what we would refer to as 3-D. Many films had already used the effect going back as early as 1922, but the trick had a special place in horror history as the first full-color 3-D movie was House of Wax (1953). It took decades to develop the technology into what we know it as today, but even as recently as Jaws 3-D (1983), released right before Amityville 3-D, it was a beloved horror movie standby.

Lori Loughlin as Susan Baxter and Meg Ryan as Lisa in ‘Amityville 3-D’ (1983).
Robert Joy as Elliot West and Demon in ‘Amityville 3-D’ (1983).

Amityville 3-D is (perhaps justifiably) considered one of the worst horror sequels of all time. It’s true that this is a bit of a dredge through tropes that were already played out by the time of the first film. Its primary character is a loose analog of Steven Kaplan, founder of both the Vampire Research Center and the Parapsychology Institute of America, who at this time was actively attempting to disprove Lutz’s claims of a haunting at Amityville. Here, the Kaplan stand-in shows up at the house at 112 Ocean Avenue to disprove a family of fraudsters, buys it for a cheap price in hopes of finally writing that novel he’s been meaning to get around to, and then staunchly denies the existence of the supernatural forces that plague everyone who steps foot on the premises until he’s literally face-to-face with demons.

3-D is intrinsically a bit ridiculous due to the fact that the 3-D in question is sparse and deeply unnecessary, but it pushes the envelope by centering its narrative around a man who adamantly refuses to believe anything is amiss even as everyone around him suffers. His estranged wife begs him to take heed of what is happening right in front of him, but both his girlfriend and his teen daughter end up dead due to his adamant denial of the paranormal.

If 3-D is worth watching, it’s for the interesting performance by Tess Harper, who plays the hackneyed “hysterical mother” role with impressive vigor, and, of course, the surprise appearance of a very young Meg Ryan. Even as she’s delivering flatly written horror cliches, Ryan’s star power is immediately obvious, and it won’t come as much of a surprise that her star-making role in Top Gun (1986) was right around the corner.

3-D somewhat comically ends with the absolute destruction of the house via a wildly over-the-top explosion. One might think this would put an end to the series, but the Amityville movies were never particularly beholden to continuity, even on their best day. Still, with the critical and financial disappointment of 3-D, there would be no further theatrical releases of any film within the loosely affiliated Amityville franchise. Not until the remake of The Amityville Horror in 2005 would we see Amityville back in theaters, but there were plenty of movies made in the interim.

Brandy Gold as Jessica Evans and Patty Duke as Nancy Evans in ‘Amityville: The Evil Escapes’ (1989).
The Evil in ‘Amityville: The Evil Escapes’ (1989).

With The Evil Escapes, the series thankfully moves away from the house that has defined the last three films by attaching an ominous spirit to a spectacularly ugly lamp and sending it out into the world via an innocent-looking garage sale. The original murders are only mentioned in passing, which frees the film up to do some exploration within its very specific subgenre of horror.

Focusing on a single mom who is forced to move back in with her wealthy mother when her husband passes away and leaves her with a mountain of debt, this entry may come as a bit of a surprise due to its change of direction and mood. The Evil Escapes is a genuinely entertaining (if schlocky) ’80s B-Movie, and it thankfully takes a step back from the sheer gore factor of the last two films to focus on the interpersonal dynamics among the family at its core. Haunted children, rowdy teenagers, and a frazzled mother aren’t exactly unheard-of elements in horror, but there is something heartwarming about the movie-of-the-week feel that The Evil Escapes brings to the table. No part of it is unpredictable, but it still manages some surprisingly wholesome scares.

Kim Coates as Frank in ‘The Amityville Curse’ (1990).
Ted A. Bohus as Ghoul and Dawna Wightman as Debbie in ‘The Amityville Curse’ (1990).

The Amityville Curse, on the other hand, is almost entirely forgettable. Divorced entirely from the other films, it is not filmed in the same house. Beyond a brief mention of the DeFeo murders, there is no connection to the rest of the franchise. A couple impulse-buys a house and invites some friends to renovate it with them, but an evil entity immediately begins influencing them. Tropes overwhelm the plot, and the characterization is nonexistent. Even among horror sequels, this one stands out as being particularly soulless. There are a handful of recurring themes, such as the directionless religious imagery of the first couple of films, and the gore factor is amped back up, but the end result is a bit of a mess.

With these entries, it could be said that the Amityville movies had drifted away from their core concept, but the fact is that the groundwork for this franchise had never been particularly strong. At its best, getting away from the original house gave us The Evil Escapes, which might count as the best-made among the Amityville movies so far due to its commitment to embracing its own cliches and injecting some much-needed fun into the series. Indeed, it is among the Amityville films recently chosen for redistribution through Vinegar Syndrome in their “Cursed Collection.”

Detaching from the house and distancing itself from any connection to reality was a practical choice for the franchise, but it had the bonus of divorcing us from the questionable ethics of basing several movies around a tragedy borne by a family that could no longer speak in their own defense. Moving forward, the DeFeos would fade almost entirely into the background, and the Amityville films would fly even further off the rails.

About

Sara Century is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. She is a writer of short stories, articles about comics and film, and many, many zines. She is also an artist, comic creator, filmmaker, and podcaster, and she used to be a musician. She’s written for SyFy.com, StarTrek.com, Bustle, Gayly Dreadful, and many more. Visit her website at SaraCentury.com. Find Sara’s webcomic with Tana Thornock and her podcast about comics with SE Fleenor. Follow her on Twitter @SaraCentury.

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