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THE AMITYVILLE CURSE (1990)

“There is something evil in this house!”

Director:   Tom Berry

Starring:  Dawna Wightman, Kim Coates, Cassandra Gava, David Stein, Anthony Dean Rubes, Helen Hughes, Norris Domingue, Jan Rubes

Screenplay:  Michael Krueger and Norvell Rose, from an adaptation by Michael Krueger, Doug Olson and Norvell Rose of the book by Hans Holzer

Synopsis:  In Amityville, a priest is murdered in his own confessional. Afterwards, the church is abandoned and its relics stored in the basement of the old house nearby that was used as a rectory. Twelve years later, prospective house-buyers Debbie (Dawna Wightman) and Marvin (David Stein) head for Amityville to inspect a property. Suddenly, Debbie insists upon a different route from the one planned – and the two find themselves outside a huge, long-empty house. As Marvin excitedly calculates the re-sale value once the house is restored, Debbie whispers softly that she knows the place.... Marvin convinces newlyweds Frank (Kim Coates) and Abigail (Cassandra Gava) and restaurateur Bill (Anthony Dean Rubes) to co-invest in the purchase and renovation of the property with himself and Debbie. As Bill and Abigail cross-question Marvin as to how he managed to secure the place at such a low price, Debbie notices a silent, motionless young man standing near the house with his dog. A moment later, the youth has simply disappeared.... The five friends take up residence in their investment, but their first night is spoiled by a series of accidents: the railing of the basement stairs collapses under Frank; Debbie puts her foot through a rotten board in the kitchen and twists her ankle; and when the five are toasting their purchase, Abigail’s glass shatters and cuts her hand. Debbie is on her way to the bathroom when she hears a cat, which she follows to the basement. There, she is convinced that she hears voices coming from behind a wall. Later, Debbie tries to talk to Marvin about her feeling that there is “something else” in the house, but he is sneeringly dismissive. During the night, Debbie dreams that the wall of the basement has been replaced by a door, behind which is a confessional. Strange scratching noises come from within it, and a form suddenly tries to force itself through its barred door, which bends and stretches....and Debbie wakes, screaming, “There is something evil in this house!”.... The five begin their renovations, but are unexpectedly interrupted by an elderly woman who sweeps through the house, peering at its bewildered occupants in turn until she comes upon Debbie, who she assures mysteriously that, “You’ll be all right.” Belatedly, the woman introduces herself as Mrs Moriarty (Helen Hughes). Ignoring Marvin’s broad hints that she should leave, the woman gives Debbie a crucifix. This odd scene is interrupted when, outside the house, Frank barely escapes being savaged by a dog. The others reach the scene as the dog forces its way into the house. As they cower, Debbie suddenly holds up the crucifix. The dog backs away – and a moment later, it has vanished.... Working in the basement, Bill and Marvin find a nailed-up door that has been hidden behind shelving. Over Marvin’s objections, Bill forces his way through, finding a room containing various objects taken from a Catholic church. As he approaches the confessional, something seems to stir within it. Taking up a lance, Bill tries to open the confessional door. At that instant, a gale-force wind rips through the house, hurling open windows and slamming doors, and trapping Bill in the basement....

Comments:  Consensus of opinion seems to be that The Amityville Curse is the weakest of all the Amityville sequels, but I find myself prepared to cut it just a tiny bit of slack. While it is certainly true that this is by no means a good film, I don’t see how it can be considered worse than its immediate predecessor, The Evil Escapes, if only because it never tries to frighten us with a possessed household appliance and a lightly fricasseed parrot.

I believe that’s what’s known as “being damned with faint praise”.

I am not at all up on the Amityville literature, and I have no idea just where Hans Holzer’s book “The Amityville Curse” sits amongst the various branches and time streams of this most bizarre of cottage industries, or for that matter whether it is fact or fiction. (Or perhaps I should say, whether it declares itself to be fact or fiction.) However, given the rather convoluted nature of the writing credits that grace the opening of this film – “screenplay based upon a book adapted by” – no matter how justified such finger-pointing would be in numerous other respects, it would probably be unjust to put the blame for this exceedingly limp entry in the Amityville series on Dr Holzer.

The main problem with The Amityville Curse----

Okay, okay.

One of the main problems with The Amityville Curse is the unmistakable sense that its story has been twisted into being something it was never meant to be, in order to justify its inclusion in the franchise. In truth, this could, and should, have been a halfway decent horror movie. The right elements are here: unresolved tensions, characters with secret histories, the sins of the past erupting violently into the present....and all of it bundled together in a spooky old house with a tragic past. If paranormal elements were required to bolster the story, then Debbie’s psychic abilities, her dreams and visions, her sense of having been drawn to the house to uncover its history and lay its ghosts, would have been enough. However, having gone to the effort and expense of acquiring the rights to the venerable “Amityville” brand-name (and to fair, it was probably necessary in order to get the film made in the first place), the producers obviously felt that they couldn’t afford to leave well enough alone. The end product is a film turned into “a haunted house story” against its will, with some extremely desultory supernatural happenings clumsily grafted onto what is ultimately revealed to be a very human story of wrongdoing, revenge and madness.

Indeed, the events that precipitate the drama, supernatural and otherwise, in The Amityville Curse are about as transgressive as anyone could desire: the murder of a priest, in his own confessional, in his own church – and that’s not even mentioning the motive for the murder, which has to do with a few more transgressions of the priest’s own committing. Unfortunately, none of this has much to do with the supposedly haunted house down the street, which is not only not where the murder was committed, but had not even been occupied long by the priest before his killer tracked him down. It isn’t even a house with a history: just an ordinary house whose owner happened to get murdered. To get around this, the writers have the church closed down following the murder, and its artefacts, including the confessional, stored in the basement of the rectory. (Having Marvin & co. buy and remodel the abandoned church doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone, but that would have made more sense. Or perhaps it wasn’t considered Amityville-ish enough.) From the basement, we are supposed to believe, the priest is exerting an influence in order to bring his killer to justice....a situation which raises more than a few questions, not the least being whether that’s the sort of thing a dead priest ought to be doing – particularly given the connection that is finally revealed between killer and victim. On the other hand, I suppose all this might go some way to explaining the extremely half-hearted nature of the phenomena that we witness: demonic manifestations they ain’t. Nevertheless, various occupants have come and gone in the years since the murder, so presumably it’s all been enough to frighten people away. The house, we understand (and there is a continual attempt by the screenplay to be “franchise-like”, by insisting that “the house” is doing everything), is searching for someone that can act as a medium for the forces at work within it. It gets what it wants when Debbie leads Marvin, not to the Amityville property they intended to inspect, but to one that lies a different way, a house that she recognises from her dreams.... But Debbie isn’t the only one upon whom a strange influence is being exerted: as we shall learn, another of the characters is intimately involved with the history of the house....

It is a mark in the favour of The Amityville Curse that its characters are adults with adult concerns – marriage, home ownership, running a business – rather than the usual crowd of moronic teenagers. Granted, none of this is particularly compelling, nor is it particularly well-executed, but at least it makes a change. It is also easier to believe than usual that these particular people might actually be friends, particularly in terms of the lightly touched-in background that implies that Debbie, Abigail and Bill have been close since college, and that Frank and Marvin have married into the situation. The extrovert/introvert pairing of Abigail and Frank is also quite credibly sketched. But the focus is upon Debbie and Marvin, whose co-enabling relationship is easily as disturbing as any of the supernatural goings-on within the house.

Marvin, in his smug, know-it-all way, is a predator, exploiting Debbie’s lack of self-esteem and her ambivalence about her psychic abilities to keep her in a state of dependence. All this is bad enough – and, sadly, familiar enough – in itself, but it is made infinitely worse by the fact that Marvin is a professional psychologist; and indeed, I’m not sure we’re not supposed to infer that Debbie was once one of his patients. The arrival of the two at their new home brings the situation to a crisis, with Debbie’s dreams and visions escalating to a point where Marvin can neither ignore them nor ridicule his wife out of her belief in them. (“Marvin, you’re not listening to me!” protests Debbie, only to have him respond with a condescending sigh, “The doctor is in.”) That point reached, he does his best instead to drug her out of them: Debbie spends longer and longer under the influence of sleeping pills, a state that results in more and more dreams, which in turn, ironically, drive her further and further from Marvin. (The alacrity with which Marvin dispenses painkillers and sleeping pills to all and sundry is just one of his many sterling qualities.) Still, Debbie isn’t guiltless in all of this. While part of her rightly resents her husband’s behaviour, the other part still needs a crutch – psychological as well as pharmacological. And although she cannot or will not bring herself to stand up to her husband, you get the feeling that one of the main pleasures that Debbie takes in having her friends around is that they say out loud to Marvin all the things that she thinks but doesn’t verbalise. (Another piece of credible characterisation: the film’s depiction of a group of friends dealing with the fact that one of their number has married a jerk.)

While this uncomfortable human interaction is going on, “the house” is also making its presence felt – after a fashion. It is indicative of how little the supernatural aspect of this story has to do with anything, that what ought to be the heart and soul of any Amityville film here feels like tacked-on time-wasting. Most of the film’s lacklustre scare scenes involve the house’s psychic persecution of Debbie: her encounter with something that tries to force its way out of the confessional; her repeated glimpses of a youth, first seen standing silently by the house with his dog, and eventually as a lifeless body hanging from the branch of a tree; the writing that appears in the condensation on her bathroom mirror. Elsewhere, cribbing but inverting the situation in The Amityville Horror, the clocks in the house stick stubbornly at 9.00pm, the time of the original murder; as events in the film reach their climax, they suddenly click back to life. Bill is attacked in his sleep by a tarantula that appears from nowhere (an incident he rather bafflingly fails to mention to his friends, beyond commenting on a “rough night”: perhaps he doesn’t know that tarantulas aren’t native to Long Island). Abigail finds herself bathing in blood; books throw themselves off shelves (all the better to reveal a photograph hidden in one of them); and the latest entries in Debbie’s dream-journal are not in her hand, and are written in Latin. The only group experience comes when Bill interferes with the confessional stored in the basement, and this consists of nothing worse than windows blowing open and doors blowing shut.

These events may leave the viewer entirely unmoved, but they disturb the characters sufficiently that getting out of the house for a while seems like a good idea; and at long last The Amityville Curse gets going. The friends head for a local bar, where we get one of the film’s very few attempts at connecting itself with its franchise brethren as – while Bill, Abby and Debbie bravely tackle The Flattest Beer In The History Of Alcohol – Marvin endears himself to a couple of elderly locals by blithely dismissing Amityville’s record of violence and hauntings as “mass hysteria, pure and simple”. One of the cornered men mutters about, “That kid, killed his family; he was possessed”, while the second one turns a baleful glare upon Marvin and growls, “I’ll tell you one thing plain and simple, mister: you don’t know shit!” – and succeeds, for one brief, glorious moment, in wiping the self-satisfied smirk from Marvin’s face. Meanwhile – death is about to return to the rectory....

We have already met Mrs Moriarty in her original role of church secretary. It was also she who found the priest’s body, after which – as a police detective will soon put it – she “came unscrewed”. If the screenwriters managed to underwrite almost everything in this film, when it came to Mrs Moriarty they made up for their previous restraint by going completely over the top. I mean, I’m sure that they were going for “lovably eccentric” here, but they rather overshot the mark: so broadly drawn is Mrs Moriarty that when she forces herself upon the notice of the new owners of the rectory, you almost expect her (as did Jack Elam in Support Your Local Sheriff!) to introduce herself as “the town character”. Oblivious to Marvin’s hostility, and the not-quite-concealed amusement of the others, Mrs Moriarty sails into the house one afternoon on the pretext of searching for a cat, and makes a bee-line for Debbie, with whom she instantly claims some kind of kinship, and who she presents with a crucifix. Then, the next morning, while all but Debbie are out, and she is still trying to shake off the effects of her latest handful of sleeping pills, Mrs Moriarty wanders in again with a gift of flowers....and ends up sprawled at the bottom of the basement stairs, her neck broken....

(To those that accuse The Amityville Curse of being without any virtues, I say – behold! A film that kills off its Odious Comic Relief! And only two-thirds through its running-time, too!)

If one aspect of The Amityville Curse sums the film up more than any other, it is the death of Mrs Moriarty, which is due not to any supernatural agency, but to a good old-fashioned human shove. This is revealed to the police via Marvin’s accidentally-started camcorder (and how is this film dated by the fact that Marvin’s obsessive filming is meant to be obnoxious, not normal?), and sends the detective speeding back to the house just as the characters have finally had enough and are trying to leave. But certain elements inside the house, human and otherwise, aren’t having any of that....

The Amityville Curse as much a murder mystery as it is a haunted house story. Its supernatural events, such as they are, are all geared towards revealing the identity of the priest’s killer, something that the screenwriters evidently felt was not made sufficiently obvious to the audience via the clues planted in the script. In this they were, to put it mildly, mistaken. The one truly remarkable thing about The Amityville Curse is that the identity of its human villain is SO VERY FRICKIN’ OBVIOUS. Indeed, SO VERY FRICKIN’ OBVIOUS is it, that for most of the film it functions as an elaborate double bluff: the audience is, naturally, so unable to believe that any film could make its “secret villain” SO VERY FRICKIN’ OBVIOUS, that it assumes that all the apparent evidence of the villain’s identity could only be a red herring. Thus, when the killer is at length revealed to be THE ONE PERSON WE SUSPECTED ALL ALONG, it actually functions as a perverse kind of plot twist.

However, apparently suffering under the delusion that he had in fact managed to conceal the killer’s identity, director Tom Berry decided to cross all his ‘t’-s and dot all his ‘i’-s by adding one more dream sequence for Debbie, in which she relives the murder – including the entire five-minute conversation between the priest and his killer that led up to it. Waking in full possession of the facts – and hence finally catching up to the impatient viewer – Debbie heads down to the confessional, where the killer is waiting.

The final ten minutes or so of The Amityville Curse have so much more energy and conviction about them than the rest of the film, you can’t help suspecting that this is the film that its creators actually wanted to make, before the project was hijacked by the demands of its franchise. In any case, at the moment when Debbie steps into the basement of the rectory, The Amityville Curse stops being a haunted house story. It even stops being a murder mystery. It becomes, instead, a slasher film.

One of the more pleasant aspects of The Amityville Curse is the performance of Dawna Wightman as Debbie. The character is sometimes a bit of a problem, given how much time she spends panicking or whimpering or snivelling – understandably, but it still grates – but when she isn’t doing any of those things, Debbie is quite sweetly likeable. We don’t necessarily suspect her of having backbone, however; but when this worm turns, she turns with a vengeance. Defending herself against an implacable adversary, Debbie doesn’t muck around: paint thinner to the face, a saw-blade to the leg, a nail gun everywhere....and when her opponent goes down for the first time, she doesn’t put her weapon down!! YES!!

By the time the police arrive at the rectory, the battle is all over; and as is usually the case in slasher films, it is the ladies who emerge victorious – although not before the traditional Amityville front-door-blown-off-its-hinges-by-supernatural-forces. Debbie and Abigail then come staggering down the stairs, the two new widows exhausted, bloody and battered, and with their arms tight around one another....and never mind that one of them has just widowed the other by driving something pointy through her husband’s body. There is one more vague attempt here to posit “the house” as an entity with its own inhabiting spirit, but the words that linger come from the police detective, as he reacts in disgust to a photographer’s lunge at the two survivors. “Ah, Christ,” he mutters, “it’s starting up all over again – and just when the tourists were starting to come back.”

Which, considering the nature of most of the “tourism” that these films have brought to the unfortunate community of Amityville, and the reaction of the residents to it, might be sarcasm, or irony, or just plain disingenuity. For the first and only time in The Amityville Curse, here the film-makers’ intentions aren’t perfectly clear....

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