AMITYVILLE 4:THE EVIL ESCAPES
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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
By 1989, it was clear that anyone could make an AMITYVILLE Horror movie without owing anyone anything. Afterall, it just had to be about a scary house where Ronald DeFeo murdered his family. Since the DeFeo family was real and part of history, voila! No one can own history.
So Sandor Stern, Screenwriter of the original THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, decided to write a television story based on the novel by John G. Jones. Sandor wrote the television story, the screenplay, and co-executive produced it along with his partner, Steve White (THE PENTHOUSE). Sandor and White were both newbies to producing and Sandor was a newbie to directing, but this was a network TV movie (NBC) and nobody was expecting much.
Yes, this was the start of the slide. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR movies went to TV or direct to video and, except for a lone, superior remake, have never come back since.
The movie begins on a dark and stormy night. A clown car of Catholic clergy drives up and dumps its passengers. A waddle of white collared penguins on a mission from God, they scuttle up to the house en masse. Soon they are inside, holding high their crosses, shaking holy water all over the place, and reading passages from their Bibles (honestly, you'd think that in preparation, they'd at least have memorized those passages. They're priests after all!).
To all appearances, they seem bested and hurry back out, carrying their wounded. Young Father Kibbler (Fredric Lehne: MEN IN BLACK, LOST [TV]), in particular, was beat by a magic lamp.
The next day, the real estate agent asks the Priest in charge, Father Manfred (Horror Thriller veteran Actor, Director, and Producer, Norman Lloyd: THE UNSEEN, Alfred Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND, REIGN OF TERROR, M, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS [TV], THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR [TV], JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN [TV], AUDREY ROSE, KING COBRA) if the house is free from the evil presence.
So the agent has a yard sale to get rid of all of the furniture and crap and that includes the magic lamp that crippled Kibbler.
At the sale, Helen (Peggy McCay: THE IRISH VAMPIRE GOES WEST) takes one look at the twisted, weird looking lamp and decides it's just so funky that she should get it the hell out of her town and send it to her sister in California. She should have looked at it with her eyes and not her hands because she gets a nasty cut from touching it. All the more reason to buy it and send it to her sister (whom she apparently hates).
On the same day that old lady Alice Leacock (3 time Emmy Award winner Jane Wyatt: Spock's Mom, yo!) gets the lamp delivered, her recently widowed daughter, Nancy Evans (Oscar Winner and 3 time Emmy Award winner Patty Duke: 4D MAN, SHE WAITS, YOU'LL LIKE MY MOTHER, LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY, CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW, THE SWARM, GRAVE SECRETS) with grandchildren in tow, come to stay with her. It appears that Nancy was a stay at home Mom, so when Hubby kicked the bucket, Ma had no job skills and needs HER Momma's charity.
Alice isn't entirely happy with this arrangement, and it's been two years since she saw her daughter or grandchildren. Also, she never liked Nancy's husband anyway, but, sigh, filial duty is filial duty.
Nancy's eldest daughter is Amanda (Zoe Trilling: THE BORROWER, DR. GIGGLES, Tobe Hooper's NIGHT TERRORS, HELLBOUND, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2, LEPRECHAUN 3). The middle child is her son, Brian (Aron Eisenberg: HOUSE III, PLAYROOM, PUPPET MASTER III: TOULON'S REVENGE, PTERODACTYL WOMAN FROM BEVERLY HILLS, Nog the Ferengi! DUDE!), and her youngest and skin crawling-est, Jessica (Brandy Gold).
Things start going to hell almost immediately and Grandma Alice suspects the new rugrats. Alice defends her children in the face of her Mom's frosty 'tude, but admittedly can't think of a better reason for what's happening: especially with the way creepy Jessica is behaving. And naturally no one suspects the kitsch-y lamp (Heh! Heh! Heh! No one EVER suspects the lamp!).
The thing is, Sandor's characters and their motivations are all well written and so is the awkward family dynamic. I've no problem with a haunted lamp: stories of ghosts, Jinns, and demons in various bric-a-brac from bottles to portraits have been done before (the television series, FRIDAY THE 13th was all about sundry cursed and haunted appliances and such. Lovecraft had haunted musical instruments, and of course, Stephen King's NEEDFUL THINGS). But Sandor just couldn't bring the scary. There are a couple of scenes that should have been frightening (the scene with the plumber comes to mind), but Sandor couldn't visually create mood, atmosphere, or tension.
In Sandor's hands, AMITYVILLE 4 relies way too much on really cheap SFX (how many times are you going to superimpose a face on that lightbulb, Mister?) to substitute for scares. SFX artist, Richard Stutsman (GREMLINS, THE LOST BOYS, DEEPSTAR SIX, TOTAL RECALL, HOLLOW MAN, THE MATRIX: RELOADED, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, IRON MAN) did far better before this movie and after it. So I'm guessing he only gave them what they paid for, which wasn't much. Not entirely bright to base your movie's scares on the special effects, and then go cheap on those effects.
Also, and this point is crucial, the lamp just isn't scary.
I grant you that it's badly designed and tasteless, and that might frighten set designers and the executive board at Ikea (as if any crap could), but it's not actually scary or even creepy. Truthfully, I can't think of what a scary lamp would look like, but it ain't this. And it isn't going to get any scarier with repeated close-ups of its glass bulb. Sandor does well at writing and directing characters and interactions between people, though neither Wyatt or Duke were going to win any awards for their performance in AMITYVILLE 4: THE EVIL ESCAPES.
Two Shriek Girls.