Friday, September 14, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part VI)

Amityville II: The Possession (1982) dir. Damiano Damiani

My affection for The Amityville Horror--a film only remarkable for its window design and that one shot of Margot Kidder--rests on close to nil, so I was persuaded by the notion of watching its first sequel for one reason: that greasy Italian flavor. Though written by American sequel hound Tommy Lee Wallace (Fright Night Part II), this feels way more like it belongs to Italian director Damiano Damiani's geographic cinematic heritage. Let's not mince words: this is gleeful, exploitative, perverse trash--'80s Italian horror to its very foundations--and I adored it. I supposed I knew I was in for something sweet when I saw Burt Young (Rocky I-VI) pop up on screen cast as the patriarch of the new set of Amityville occupants: following the narrative logic of the first film, which featured the affable, mild-mannered James Brolin becoming increasingly unraveled through the haunted house's influence, Young's casting seems particularly nuts considering he has all the charisma of a raging alcoholic. (He's threatening to belt his children at something like the twenty minute mark).

But that winds up being okay, because the narrative decides a more fruitful host for possession is the family's teenaged son, aptly named Sonny. In this tale of repressed teenaged angst, Sonny spends his evenings in bed listening to his demonically inspirational Walkman implore him to murder his family, and his nights either spraying graffiti around the house (with tags like, "dishonor thy father. PIGS!") or stealing his sister's panties ("why do you have my panties?" she asks him, with a certain earnestness). Yeah, so there's a scene in the film wherein Sonny and his sister Patricia play everyone's favorite game to play with a sibling-- "Famous Fashion Photographer and His Model"--and then have sex. Later on, she gives him a really neat sweater for his birthday. This is how we deal with psyche-scarring incest and sexual abuse, I suppose. So besides all of the way-sexually-questionable content, The Possession also features a real downer of a climax (where, in good old Amityville tradition, almost the entire family dies), followed by (heck, why not?) another climax that apes the conclusion of The Exorcist shamelessly. (The Possession here is quite literal, with the demon being represented as less of an essence than a physical entity invading Sonny's body--his flesh often bubbles, writhes, and contorts throughout the film in a swell display of practical visual effects. At one point, he looks almost exactly likely Michael Jackson in Thriller).

At certain moments in Sonny's physical/psychological deterioration, I was also reminded of Bob Clark's Deathdream (1972). Deathdream's expression of the guilt, frustration, and trauma of a young Vietnam War vet manifesting themselves as an external monstrosity is here in The Possession transmuted through Sonny into a monstrosity of the anxieties accompanying puberty and young adulthood. Which is all to say that its concerns are a bit less complex than those of Clark's film, though still of some small interest--the film isn't thoughtful enough to overtly imply that Sonny's sickness sprouted from within the hidden abuse and dysfunction of his family unit, but up until that second climax it's certainly one way to read things.

Besides all this fun/grim stuff, The Possession also a film worth remembering for those small, cockeyed moments, whether cropping up in a stray line of dialogue ("I think Mommy doesn't want to make love to Daddy anymore") or inexplicable action (the two younger children playing a joyous game of "Pull a Plastic Bag Tight Around Your Sibling's Head"; family game night is never innocent in the Amityville house). Off-color bits like those (and yeah, the whole big incest thing) simply scream to me "Eurosleaze," so I must imagine we have our Italian director to blame/thank. As far as I know (and as far as IMDb can tell me), Damiani--a stalwart of Italian crime thrillers (How to Kill a Judge (1974)) and westerns (A Bullet for the General (1966)) --never directed any other major horror films. That's a shame--if Amityville II is any indication, he could have been a delightful purveyor of fine trashy goods.

Amityville 3-D: The Demon (1983) dir. Richard Fleischer

We're certainly back on American soil with Amityville 3-D: The Demon. In many ways, it's a much more conventional, VFX-laden horror show, and that lack of any defining edge leaves it as the sort of sequel you would anticipate, rather than the one that boggles the mind; let's call it the Poltergeist II to The Possession's Poltergeist III. (After all, I don't think any Italian ever had the resources or interest to bite on the early '80s 3-D craze-- it's a shame that Argento's Dracula 3-D is about to rectify that). But who gives because, hey, Amityville 3-D is still pretty good, and if little else is still leaps and bounds beyond its originator. In fact, it's the tension between its ostentatious pandering to its 3-D gimmick and its genuine desire to produce a haunting, melancholic ghost tale that make this an always fascinating, charmingly flawed film.

The tantalizing ghost story in The Demon revolves around the old DeFeo homestead (of course) and its ghostly/demonic inhabitants' resolve to claim the life of the new young girl living in the house with her reporter father. This central story arc leads to a handful of super creepy moments, including instances of the demon's soon-to-be victims showing up in photographs with monstrously distorted faces (a semi-frequent horror convention most recently used to great effect in the decent found footage film Skew (2011)) and a scene capturing the momentary appearance of a soaking wet doppelganger. To avoid spoiling the goods, this latter scene is the most effective moment of creeping dread produced during the entirety of this marathon-- I would have vocally upheld my conviction that something of the sort couldn't be found in a 3-D shock fest, so there's my foot in my mouth. This scene, and its correspondent plot turn, brings the film into some quite dark and despondent territory, dwelling on the tragedy of a lost child, the delusion of bringing her back from the dead, and the taunting of an evil spirit. (The rather grim fates of the characters in both of these Amityville sequels make them a fine counterpoint to the mushy "family love conquers all" theme of the Poltergeist sequels-- in an Amityville film, your family members are more likely to kill or sexually abuse you. C'est la vie). Also prominently featured in this aspect of the film are two requisite ghost story staples: a seance and a bout of Ouija boarding. Few things are more comforting for the horror fan than a coupling of the two.

But to no surprise at all, the 3-D stuff is super cheesy. Undoubtedly, I'd derive some sick sense of enjoyment from all its many pop-out moments--a frisbee throw, a wave of flies, and a climax full of flying doors, flying people, and ten seconds of shattered glass being thrown in the audience's direction--if I were indeed able to watch it in its native 3-D. In two lowly dimensions, a sequence like the one in the final act--wherein a fire-spitting-well-demon-swirly-purple-ghost-thing starts decimating a team of paranormal investigators stationed in the house-- feels (ahem) flat, though certainly full of energy. One has to assume the 3-D would obscure, or at least make hazy, some of the sketchier optical effects. But in any case it's these go-for-broke moments that partially devalue the otherwise strong atmosphere. A haunted mood isn't exactly going to be preserved for very long if in the next act you blow up the house. (And for the record, the house "blew up" in The Possession as well, but I guess that didn't cause enough structural damage. It's decimated here, leaving only a single 3-D fly remaining to buzz over the ashes-- not that this stopped the production of five additional sequels).

The film boasts some low-level star power: a post-Woody Allen Tony Roberts is our investigative journalist hero who buys the Amityville house in order to debunk its nasty legend, and he's accompanied by a pre-fame Lori Loughlin (from television's Full House) as his daughter and a wild, giddy Meg Ryan as her best friend (one would almost swear that Ryan is playing the same character she'd play three years later, in Tony Scott's Top Gun (1986)). Roberts is a decent enough hero, but he gives off that unmistakable aura of a middle-aged actor who is just a little too well-known in Hollywood to be relegated to starring in the second sequel of an also-ran horror franchise (see: Tom Skerrit in Poltergeist III, and (minus the also-ran part) George C. Scott in Exorcist III).

Director Richard Fleischer had a long and inordinately diverse career in Hollywood, directing fondly-remembered classics (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)), beguiling oddities (Mandingo (1975), The Boston Strangler (1968), Ashanti (1979)) and the occasional horror film (See No Evil (1971), Soylent Green (1973)). Amityville 3-D was one of his last films-- he'd go on to direct the sequel Conan the Destroyer (1984), the spinoff Red Sonja (1985), and a mystery/adventure film that existed solely for the purpose of being a promotional piece for Glad-Lock bags before giving it up in the late '80s and enjoying a nice long retirement until his death in 2006. I suppose that on the surface Amityville 3-D isn't all that different from those other examples of Fleischer's late-career decline, but there's that subtle, haunting quality to the film beneath all the bombast that I'm guessing will linger long in my memory.

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) dir. Brian Yuzna

If absolutely nothing else, Brian Yuzna's entry in the Return of the Living Dead series at least captures the general spirit that's required in this sort of thing. By that I mean that the original Return of the Living Dead (1985) established its own niche--the uniquely horrifying zombie comedy-- and to betray that notion in future installments would raise into question the point of those films' existences: if a Return of the Living Dead film was produced to be "just another zombie movie," wouldn't that be missing the point? Writer/director Dan O'Bannon's treatment of the material is markedly satirical, of both genre conventions and governmental bureaucracy, and is often as gut-busting (figuratively) as it is gut-munching (literally). The second entry in the series, Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) directed by Ken Wierderhorn (helmer of Shock Waves (1977), a rather bland island Nazi zombie movie that's gathered a bewildering number of admirers), is a child-proofed disaster, bloated with humorless jokes, child leads, and toothless zombies-- the sort of film whose IMDb trivia page tells you all you need to know: "The blue electrocution lines in the final sequence were all hand-drawn frame by frame and cost over $50,000." Yuzna, the director of many fine, queasy horror films (Society (1989), Bride of Re-Animator (1990), The Dentist (1996)), makes the basic content of the first film his own while still hewing close enough to the general tone and feeling that worked so well in the original. This second sequel isn't very funny, nor is it particularly goopy (and never frightening), but it is satirical, perverse, and more than a little romantic, making it a welcome addition to the series

The film's most interesting decision is to beef up the involvement of the military in the overarching story. The characters make checkpoint stops at a secret, underground military science complex throughout the film, and there we witness bizarre experiments enacted upon the barreled Trioxin zombies. There's some disagreement about how to weaponize them (one scientist wants to freeze their brains (and thus inhibit mobility) with darts from some sort of gun stolen from Mr. Freeze's closet, while another wants to drill their corpsey bodies into mechanical exoskeletons), but naturally there's little reflection over whether or not the government should be weaponizing nearly indestructible zombies. Fittingly, the reckless staff of the military complex receive their comeuppance in a wonderfully corny and chaotic finale, one that like The Howling III and (to a more explicit extent) Romero's Day of the Dead (1985) actively encourages us to feel sympathy for its monsters. (A finale that inspired me to note a possible alternative title for the film-- Pay It Forward: A Zombie Romance).

But while most of the sympathy-building in the finale feels a little forced and perhaps intentionally silly, there is a genuine sense of pathos built for our main characters, a pair of doomed lovers. When Curt's girlfriend Julie dies in a motorcycle accident (inconveniently right as they are planning to run away from town and Curt's overbearing Colonel of a father), Curt sticks it to the man one final time by breaking into the country's least well protected secret military installation and dousing her with a whiff of the reanimating trioxin. Julie is resurrected and because she's so freshly dead she's a good deal more cogent than the normal zombie, which makes her slow descent into brain-munching harder than usual to watch. Regardless, her affection for Curt remains locked in her zombie brain, and after making the discovery that physical pain lessens the urge to consume the neurons in living brains, she enacts a quite extensive regimen of body modification in order to avoid chowing down on her beau (see the above poster for a hint of the finer details of her work). I suppose one could read this almost Cenobite-esque pleasure from pain as the expression of Julie's burgeoning masochistic tendencies (especially in contrast to the faint enjoyment she seems to take from the rather lifeless love scene she has with Curt earlier in the film), but maybe that's stretching an interpretation farther that it can go. In any case, after Curt gets nipped by a zombie in the finale, the two lovers/zombies/sexual deviants have no choice but to throw themselves, embracing, into an incinerator. At the end of three days and eighteen sequels, pardon me if I do the same. But, like Curt and Julie, I'll be jumping into the flames embracing these eighteen troubled joys.

This is the end of the moviethon proper, but wait! There's more: a post on Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990), Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (1992), and Night of the Demons 3 (1997) will hit this spot soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment