Tom Jolliffe looks at the continual fascination with Amityville in horror cinema…
In 1979, Stuart Rosenburg made The Amityville Horror, an adaptation of Jay Anison’s book. Said book was based on the real life case when Ronald Defeo Jr murdered his entirely family at their home in 1974. The book/film takes place a year later with a new (fictional) family moving into the same house. This kicks off a haunted house film that had some degree of notoriety given its initial source (and the relative freshness of the crime itself in the American public eye). Defeo Jr, an Amityville resident, which forever brought a dark associated with the area, compounded by the impending cinema offerings.
Rosenburg’s film, starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, was greeted with mediocre reviews and it’s certainly a film whose reputation outweighs its overall quality. Still, it was a success, leading to a number of sequels. One of the main sources of inspiration aside from the source story and Anison’s book was The Exorcist. The success of William Friedkin’s tale of malevolent spirits would inspire many subsequent films in the coming years as a new type of more gritty and intense takes on ‘ghost’ stories would kick cinema away from the somewhat quaint or folky ghost tales of yesteryear (at least in Hollywood). Films following in its wake over the following decade included The Omen, The Changeling, The Shining and The Poltergeist.
So The Amityville Horror became a franchise beginning with Amityville II: The Possession, which essentially repeated the first film. The third film was more iconic for being 3D, if nothing else. From then on the franchise branched into more fleetingly connected TV movies and straight to video films. Most of these were pretty poor, revolving around more nefarious spirits, tormenting new sets of victims who perennially find their way to that cursed house in Amityville. The fourth film even had the demonic force transferred via magic lamp to a house in California. Inevitably the iconic if flawed original was perfect fodder for a remake, which came in 2005, the Ryan Reynolds headliner, which followed a similar path as the original. It was critically panned but financially successful.
There has certainly been a long standing interest in the Amityville concept, but in the wake of the Reynolds remake and a more recent reboot from Blumhouse (which was also one of the last to be associated with the Weinsteins) there has been a sudden surge in Amityville themed films. These can extend to other demonic spirit/haunted house films, or to other plots entirely. Among a litany of titles that use ‘Amityville’ we have gems like Amityville Poltergeist, The Amityville Murders (which focused on the original murders), Amityville Scarecrow, The Amityville Terror, Amityville Vampire, The Amityville Moon, Amityville Vibrator (nope, I didn’t make that up, and yes, it sounds great), Amityville Cult, Amityville Island (kind of doesn’t make sense as a title), Amityville Exorcism, Amityville Cop, Amityville Clown, Amityville Hex, Amityville in the Hood, Amityville Shark House, Amityville Clownhouse, [takes a deep breath…] Amityville Germany (wut?), Amityville Playhouse and Amityville Karen (which actually sounds like a brilliantly cheesy concept, for which I’m sold).
Somewhere through nearly 50 years of history, legacy and film riffs, Amityville the place, or even just the word itself, has spawn into an ever flexible, interchangeable meaning. Some of these aren’t even set in Amityville and many have gone way beyond the simple realms of hauntings and demonic entities. Small town American places with so distinct an association with murder also begin to attain a different mythology. If Defeo Jr might have claimed voices made him murder his family, and the associated spin off books taking his real story and running with it, toy on the idea of malevolence associated with that house, it would of course come to pass that the association went beyond just one house and at least in cinema terms, Amityville is suddenly one of the most demonically associated places on Earth, bringing associations even Salem could only dream of. Ultimately though, what Amityville has become is something as mundanely marketable a term as Cola. Sure Coca Cola is the big cahoona, the original. You have Pepsi too, it’s not too shabby. Like George Costanza said, Pepsi is better than wine. Then there’s many small brands, own brands and cheap rip offs and of course your cola options are almost innumerable. Some might taste like a tramps piss, but still, the option to drink is there.
Here’s where I have to hold up my hand and admit something. I’ve written an Amityville themed film. To many a horror blogger the repetitive use of the Amityville moniker has become a point of contention, even frustration, which I understand. To distributors it’s a form of simple attention grabbing. My film, The Witches of Amityville (or Amityville Witches) focused on three white witches having to train a young descendent of their line against a witch obsessed in the black arts and demonology. So far, so not very Amityville-y. Here’s the thing though…myself and the producers never set out to write a film associated with Amityville. It was added well into the writing phase as a distributors afterthought. You know the kind of thing… ‘Can this be set in Amityville?’ Gone was a tale set in a small English village with shades of Wicker Man and a quaint backwater area turning a blind eye to Witchy goings on, and then suddenly the film takes place in Amityville. Given this was a British made film, shot in and around small villages (which clearly look so) the Amityville angle doesn’t make sense at all, but hey, maybe it shifted more copies than it might have. It cranked almost half a million views on V Horror’s YouTube channel. Not the greatest film you’ll ever see, but it’s a bit of cheesy fun and I loved the cast. Indeed it’s not alone on the channel as far as Amityville themed content, so the interest does appear to be there for the VOD/DVD horror market. The meaning and connection to the place itself is becoming increasingly thin if non-existent in most cases but there’s no danger of the trend slowing down as the Indie horror market continues to relentlessly fire out content (particularly with so many indie companies working non-stop in the US and UK). As Halloween approaches, I find myself compelled to do a run of Amityville themed films, and not necessarily from the more iconic core franchise which laid the groundwork for this current fascination.
What is your favourite Amityville themed film? What is the most ludicrous Amityville themed film title you’ve heard? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth….
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.