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AMITYVILLE 3-D (1983)
[aka Amityville 3: The Demon]

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"Almost every day of the week we get something in here – some situation, or phenomenon – that’s just as strange as this, and in 97% of the cases there turns out to be a perfectly logical explanation."
"And the other 3%?"

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Director: Richard Fleischer

Starring: Tony Roberts, Tess Harper, Candy Clark, Robert Joy, Lori Loughlin, John Harkins, John Beal, Leora Dana

Screenplay: William Wales

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Synopsis: A couple, Melanie (Candy Clark) and John Baxter (Tony Roberts), visits a pair of spiritualists, the Caswells (John Beal, Leora Dana), who operate from a mysterious house in Amityville. A séance is held in an attempt to get in touch with the Baxters’ young son, who died in a fire, and seems to be a success: a child’s voice is heard, and a glowing shape glides across the room. Suddenly, Melanie starts taking photographs, exposing the apparition as a fake, while John tells the horrified "psychics" that he is an investigative journalist and Melanie his photographer. They are joined by a parapsychologist, Elliot West (Robert Joy), who brought John in on the story, and by a representative of the D.A.’s office. The next day, John and Melanie are shown around the house by Clifford Sanders (John Harkins), the real estate agent who leased the house to the Caswells. The three inspect the basement, where Sanders falls through some wooden planks covering a large hole in the floor. John and Melanie pull him to safety, while John expresses his belief that the allegedly haunted house’s "gateway to hell" is really just an abandoned well. Outside, Sanders tries to convince John that he knew nothing of the Caswells’ criminal activities and begs him not to write him into the story, complaining that his purchase of the infamous house, which no-one will buy, has cost him enough already. John asks how much Sanders wants for it. As they drive away, Melanie tries to talk John out of buying the house, but John dismisses its reputation as mere superstition. John visits his wife, Nancy (Tess Harper), from whom he is getting a divorce, and invites his daughter, Susan (Lori Loughlin), to visit the house and choose a room for herself. Sanders goes to the house and, hearing noises, goes upstairs to investigate. He finds a room that is almost full of flies. The door swings shut, trapping him, while the flies swarm all over him, choking him. Melanie develops the photographs she took at the house, and in each of them finds Sanders’ face distorted. When John arrives at the house, he finds Sanders lying on the stairs, dying. Melanie shows John her photographs, but when she is unable to convince him that Sanders’ death is anything but a coincidence, takes them to Elliot West, who agrees to investigate. Melanie goes to the house to wait for John, becoming trapped there when the doors refuse to work. Suddenly, a powerful blast of energy surges up from the basement, blowing open the door and pinning Melanie to a wall. Meanwhile, leaving work, John has become trapped in an elevator that seems to have a will of its own….

Comments: The third installment of the Amityville saga is even stupider than the second one, although a lot more fun and not nearly so offensive. It was part of the early eighties’ 3-D revival, and suffers from the problems that plague nearly all 3-D movies: its characters and its plot are completely subservient to the need to keep tossing things at the spectator. The sheer contrivance of all this is painfully obvious when Amityville 3-D is viewed flat. Hands, lighters, microphones, torches and cameras are shoved at the viewer with ridiculous regularity. The best of these effects occurs during Melanie’s car accident, when long metal pipes on the back of a truck crash through her windshield and head straight for the audience. The worst occurs immediately before this, when Melanie’s doom is signalled by the appearance in her car of one of the house’s demonic flies. As this "insect" buzzes around in close-up, the thin black wire holding it up is ludicrously apparent (if this looks bad on a crappy TV print, can you imagine how it must have looked on the big screen – and in 3-D, yet!?). The ickiest effect is when Mrs Caswell shows her contempt for Melanie’s exposé of her fraudulent conduct by spitting at her – and launches directly into the camera (eewwww!).

The film’s big set-piece involves a demon that suddenly emerges from the portal to hell in the house’s basement, breathing fire and neatly toasting the face of parapsychologist, Elliot West. (There’s a moral here – or, rather, two. The first is, don’t stick your face over a portal to hell! The second is, no-one called "Elliot" is ever going to make it out of a horror film alive.) Whether this worked on the big screen I couldn’t say, but on video it looks really, really silly.

With so much (wasted) effort going into the special effects, it is little wonder that the characters are a bunch of walking cliches. We’ve got the Hard-Headed Sceptic, who refuses to believe even when the body-count starts rising; the Doomed Companion who can’t get anyone to listen; the investigator who will Give His Life In The Name Of Science; and a bunch of Faceless Extras whose mission is to die in various nasty ways. There’s another cliché, too, but here screenwriter William Wales outsmarted himself. Tess Harper’s Nancy is the Bitchy Ex-Wife, and we are clearly meant to side with John Baxter against her. However, it is Nancy who behaves more like a real person than anyone else in the film, and wins some sympathy in spite of the best efforts of the script. The problem with films such as this is that for dramatic effect they need a central character who will not believe, and must learn the hard way. My experience, however, is that real people are not nearly so sceptical as characters in movies. Most of them, in fact, react to stories of the supernatural exactly as Nancy Baxter does: expressed disbelief tempered with the feeling that, well, maybe…. When Nancy admits that her fears aren’t logical, but that she nevertheless doesn’t want her daughter in that house, she strikes a note of naturalness totally missing from the rest of the film.

Perversely, the best part of Amityville 3-D is probably the opening sequence involving the phony spiritualists, which sucks the audience into groaning, "Jeez, this is so fake" – and then reveals that it is, too. Beyond that point, it is quite obvious that the ideas people were really starting to stretch (although, God help us, that hasn’t stopped the franchise from extending into another five films….). This is most apparent in the sudden extension of the house’s malignant powers. After bleeding walls, invisible friends, self-moving windows, fly infestations, demonic possession and mass murder, it seems that they were having a tough time coming up with some original domestic nightmares. Thus, many of the film’s incidents occur well away from the house itself: Susan drowns in the lake, Melanie’s car accident happens in the city, and – in a scene of completely unintentional comedy – the elevator in John’s office building suddenly starts doing the Macarana. Even the tacky Amityville II knew enough to keep its horrors close to home; this movement away from the house robs the film of any chance of building real tension.

Still, Part III uses the image of the house much better than Part II: the film is full of long, lingering shots of it, with those eye-like windows overlooking all the mayhem (say what you like about the films, that house is scary!). Speaking of the house, people watching the first three Amityville films in rapid succession, as I did (masochists of the world, unite!), may wish to amuse themselves with the shifting geography of the dreaded basement. In Part II (chronologically, the beginning of the story), the basement contained a hidden room boarded off from the rest, with the wooden staircase to its left. In Part I (the second story), the hidden room had been bricked up, and the staircase was situated directly opposite. By Part III, someone has thoughtfully cleared away the bricks, turning the dark, cramped basement into a comparatively well-lit and spacious apartment, and leaving the portal to hell right out there in the open. This architectural confusion extends to the three films’ accounts of what actually happened in the house. In Part I, the house was haunted because a family was murdered there. In Part II, a family was murdered there because the house was haunted. The source of the evil was supposed to be a desecrated Ancient Indian Burial Ground, something Part III agreed with but was not content with, adding in a portal to hell as well (what was I saying about stretching…?). As far as I can see, this means that the Ancient Indians built their Burial Ground directly over a portal to hell (hmm – that might explain quite a lot!). Anyway, these deep theological and supernatural mysteries are brought to an abrupt conclusion when the house chooses to blow itself up. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, but it looks impressive, and I guess that’s what counts.

The performances in Amityville 3-D are no more than competent. Candy Clark adds a welcome note of acerbity as Melanie, but we know she’s not going to live through the film (I mean, she’s a photographer, for heaven’s sake!). Tony Roberts’ John Baxter is convincing inasmuch as he is insufferably smug and pig-headed; it is a great disappointment when he escapes the house at the end. Robert Joy might as well have "demon-bait" stamped on his forehead. There is one other noteworthy thing about the cast of Amityville 3-D, but I’ll have more to say on that subject in the site’s new section, "Skeletons Out Of The Closet".