Manor Vellum

Amityville, Hollywood: Looking Back at the ‘Amityville’ Franchise | Part 4

By Sara Century

Amityville films covered in Part 4: Amityville: A New Generation (1993), Amityville Dollhouse (1996), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Amityville: The Awakening (2017)

After several years of sequels that varied wildly in tone and direction, the Amityville franchise’s creative peak had come and gone with It’s About Time (1992). Though the location would continue to change and new haunted items would be introduced, the rest of the films tend to run through tropes already established in previous entries of the franchise. The more Amityville strays from its shaky foundations, for instance into shark horror with Amityville Island (2020) or the realm of porn with The Amityville Vibrator (2020), the more paradoxically evident it becomes that this has always been a series of films relatively low on ideas or innovations. Leaning into gimmicks and increasingly meandering plots, Amityville continues to steer itself further off the rails. Still, some loose connections to the early days remain, and there are some highlights along the way.

Julia Nickson-Soul as Suki and David Naughton as Dick Cutler in ‘Amityville: A New Generation’ (1993).
Ross Partridge as Keyes Terry in ‘Amityville: A New Generation” (1993).

In A New Generation, we meet a young photographer named Keyes (Ross Partridge) who lives in a boarding house alongside other artists, including a sculptor named Pauli (played by exploitation era icon Richard Roundtree) and a painter named Suki (played by the highly charismatic Julia Nickson-Soul). A homeless man (Jack R. Orend) gives Keyes a mirror which we later discover he had taken from the Amityville house. This object allows a demonic presence to occupy the apartment complex. Suki is possessed, kills her violent ex-boyfriend, and quickly meets her end when the demon decides to move on.

We discover that the homeless man was actually Keyes’ father, Richard Bronner, who had lived in the 112 Ocean Avenue house before the DeFeos, and he had committed a similar slaying when he shot his parents and siblings. Years later, when Keyes’ mother took him to a mental institution to visit his father, Richard beat her to death in front of Keyes, which led him to completely bury the event until he came face to face with his father years later. Keyes must confront the forces that are trying to tear him apart the night of his first major art opening.

Starr Andreeff as Claire Martin and Robin Thomas as Bill Martin in ‘Amityville Dollhouse” (1996).
A scene from ‘Amityville Dollhouse’ (1996).

Meanwhile, Dollhouse would be the last Amityville film to appear until the 2005 reboot nine years later, and it might go without saying that the franchise had truly stretched itself about as thin as it could go. This film featured the standard new-family-under-duress, with Bill and Claire Martin (Robin Thomas and Starr Andreeff) attempting to reconcile that their children from other marriages don’t seem to particularly like one another. After accidentally destroying youngest child Jessica’s (Rachel Duncan) birthday present, the struggling couple decides to give her a dollhouse, the exact spitting image of the Amityville house.

The franchise’s tendency to randomly include clairvoyants and psychics (and the horror genre’s overall lack of understanding around what it is spiritualists and occultists actually do) continues here with Bill’s eccentric sister Marla (Lenore Kasdorf) and her lover Tobias (Franc Ross). The two immediately sense something is off with the house, and they urge the clueless Bill to take heed of their warnings. Somehow, this film ends up with Tobias having a D&D battle with a demon in the basement and the house explodes in a hilariously drawn-out montage. Regardless of how silly it is, Dollhouse has its moments, if you can get past the uncomfortable sexual tension Claire feels for her teenage stepson that is apparently a byproduct of living in an evil house.

Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren, Simon McBurney as Maurice Grosse, Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren, and Frances O’Connor as Peggy Hodgson in ‘The Conjuring 2’ (2016).
Madison Wolfe as Janet Hodgson in ‘The Conjuring 2’ (2016).

Religious overtones almost completely disappeared from Amityville stories after the first few entries while families-in-turmoil took the spotlight. However, religious themes would make a major comeback in The Conjuring 2, in which the infamous Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) hold a seance in the Amityville house in 1976, investigating the Lutz haunting and DeFeo murders. During a vision, Lorraine sees a demonic nun, who would later step up as the major antagonist of The Nun (2018).

The Warrens’ involvement in the story of Amityville is a major part of what made them as famous as they ultimately became. The Conjuring films glorify their subjects, but the Warrens are generally regarded as frauds, and their presence is considered by many experts to be more exploitative than helpful. Insisting that demonic forces were at play in several cases of murder and abuse caused a public spectacle that led to book and film deals for the Warrens while the victims of these crimes became nothing more than cannon fodder for future stories. For instance, the DeFeos have essentially no voice whatsoever in these films despite their repeat appearances and are often even implicated in their own brutal deaths, while the picture painted by My Amityville Horror documentary (2012) shows that the Lutz children have generally struggled to reconcile with the events of their childhoods with very little in the way of the monetary compensation received by the adults in the situation. Versions of the Warrens have appeared in many horror films, generally in a heroic capacity, but their role in cases like this remains somewhat murky.

For the Amityville franchise, their early presence in the case might partially influence the appearance of religious overtones that have dropped in and out since the first film, but which never quite clicked for the series. Both Lorraine and Ed were devout Roman Catholics, and The Conjuring films bring a theological lean to standard horror tropes. The Warrens additionally believed that those that lacked faith were particularly susceptible to being possessed, an attitude held by many that are reflected in this series.

Bella Thorne as Belle Walker in ‘Amityville: The Awakening’ (2017).
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Joan Walker in ‘Amityville: The Awakening” (2017).

In The Awakening, Joan Walker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) moves her daughters Belle and Juliet (Bella Thorne and Mckenna Grace) to the Amityville house after her husband dies and her son (Bella’s twin) falls into a coma. Bella is teased at school for moving into a murder house, though she meets two friends with an appreciation for local lore. The friends fill her in on the details of the case while another ill-defined demonic presence attempts to possess her brother’s body.

Here, theology is far from the topic at hand, but religious undertones once again return as Joan reveals to her daughter Bella that she believed in God until her husband died of cancer and her son fell into a coma, and that after that she made the decision to move to the Amityville house specifically hoping to harness its demonic energies to restore her son to life. This horrifies Bella, but Joan ultimately pays the price. When her son attacks the family with a shotgun much in the style of Ronald DeFeo Jr, Joan holds up a crucifix, but without her faith, it’s useless. She is brutally slain by her son.

Though there are many other Amityville-themed films that can be loosely related to the series overall, the central story more or less runs its course by the time of The Amityville Murders in 2018 (reviewed in Part 1). In the end, the franchise feels a bit like the case itself; a strange hodgepodge of skepticism and theology, differing opinions on the afterlife, a lack of sympathy for victims of violent crime, and a general uncertainty over whether or not any of it really happened. In many ways, we’re further away from anything even remotely resembling “the truth” now than we’ve ever been, but in the end, this was never going to be a story about truth and there is no need to make it into one. Indeed, the best moments of the franchise are completely divorced from the story of the DeFeos, the Lutzs, and the Warrens.

Over the course of writing this series, Ronald DeFeo passed away after spending his entire life in prison after the brutal murders that, in some ways, began it all. It must be strange for those who knew the DeFeos personally to watch those horrific crimes become a backdrop to a meandering franchise that never quite seems to find its way, but in some ways that is the nature of any film “based on a true story.” The many stories that have made use of the DeFeo tragedy have made their gruesome story more cartoonish than anything, but the moments of truth remain the most gut-wrenching. When Sonny Montelli lusts after his sister in The Possession (1981), when Keyes dreams of shooting his family and girlfriend in A New Generation, when Jason Walker stalks his mother with a shotgun in Awakening, when Ronnie violently attacks his son Bruno in The Amityville Murders, there is no need for a spiritual justification. These are things that happen in this world on a shockingly regular basis with no explanation whatsoever, and perhaps the Amityville movies are just one way of us trying to reconcile with that.

About

Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.

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