For six long years, the Amityville film series rested. And why shouldn't it? Amityville 3-D was a big fat fucking flop in 1983, and the horror film marketplace started to soften right around the same time. But truly evil things, as we've learned from the movies, have a way of forcing themselves back into the world, and so, in 1989, the film I suppose somebody must have been asking for finally saw the light of day: may I present, ladies and gentlemen, the made-for-TV return of that great haunted house epic, Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes.

Or maybe there's no number, and it's just Amityville: The Evil Escapes. Or perhaps Amityville Horror: The Evil Escapes. That kind of slight, irritating confusion over what exactly the movie is a sign of the movie that it is, a worn-out, addle-minded piece of crap. As if being made for television - NBC, to be exact - wasn't proof enough that this was the point at which whatever inspiration had powered the first three films, however feebly in the case of the third, had finally run out. Every franchise that runs on long enough will eventually hit that point, of course, the point where they've just completely given up. But Amityville 4 hit that point like a car driving into a brick wall at speed.

Haunted lamp. This is the Amityville movie with a fucking haunted lamp. I am committed to the belief that there is no such thing as a bad idea for a movie, only bad execution, but sometimes that belief is just plan damn wrong. "The floor lamp that was possessed by a demon", now there's a concept that absolutely nobody could have made work. Who's the best at extracting a sense of terror from the most quotidian banal domestic objects - David Lynch, probably? Maybe Lynch could have done something with this. But I doubt it, I love Lynch a lot, but he's a flesh-and-blood human, and some things are simply beyond what a flesh-and-blood human can possibly achieve,. "Make the haunted lamp scary" is surely somewhere on that list.

Anyway, the concept comes at us through a really weird channel. Recall that Amityville mania started with the 1977 book The Amityville Horror, written by Jay Anson from notes given to him by George and Kathy Lutz, the charlatans poor innocents who had the misfortune to buy a spectacularly haunted house at 112 Ocean Ave, Amityville, NY. The book was a bestseller, and it was made into a blockbuster movie in 1979. George Lutz was no idiot: he knew that being the victim of floridly-written ghosts was his meal ticket, and so he contracted with John G. Jones to write, I don't even know how we should describe, some kind of officially sanctioned biographical fiction. This book, titled The Amityville Horror: Part II, came out in 1982, the same year as the movie Amityville II: The Possession, based on Hans Holzer's 1979 book Murder in Amityville, which had nothing to do with the Lutzes at all. This scuttled George Lutz's movie franchise plans, but not his literary aspirations: in 1985, Jones wrote Amityville: The Final Chapter, "based on the 7-year ordeal of George and Kathleen Lutz". I hate these people. Can I say that I hate these people? I hate these people.

After this second book, Lutz and Jones parted ways, and for the final chapter plus one, Jones went into the realm of pure, unabashed fiction, with 1988's Amityville: The Evil Escapes. And that is where we arrive now. If I can push forward a bit, not only did 1989 witness the release of a telefilm based on Jones's book, it also saw him write a fourth book, once again starring fictional versions of the Lutzes, Amityville: The Horror Returns. If we are to trust Wikipedia (I have not been able, in the scant time available, been able to lay hands on a physical copy of The Horror Returns), the first printing promised "Soon to be an NBC movie", perhaps hoping that Amityville 4 would be a huge big hit, perhaps conflating the two. Jones left the town of Amityville behind for a time, but in the 2010s returned (via vanity press) to the series exclusively responsible for any prominence he ever enjoyed, most recently churning out 2015's Amityville Now: The Jones Journal, the almost certainly inevitable fictional autobiography; a year prior to that, he wrote Amityville Horror Christmas: Silent Night. I cannot lie, the idea of a Christmas-themed Amityville story captures my attention, in the way that despite our better judgment, we cannot persuade ourselves to say "no" to hearing the details of a gruesome murder. And that, of course, is the whole entire appeal of the Amityville matter in the first place.

Good golly, I will try to put off talking about the killer lamp movie, won't I?

Alright, so here's the deal: the Amityville house is for sale, but so infamously evil that nobody is interested (this is as close to reality as the story gets: in the late 1980s, the house was on the market. The Cromarty family, who moved into the house in 1977, sold it after ten uneventful years to the O'Neills, who lived there for another ten years). So a troupe of Catholic priests have come to exorcise it, floor to ceiling, under the leadership of Father Manfred (Norman Lloyd). They encounter there the rinky-dinkiest haunted house you ever could hope to see, with a flurry of paranormal activities that suggests the house is a three-year-old who does not want to go bed (best moment, by which I of course mean "most stupid": the priest who gets a rocking chair thrown at his face). The youngest-looking priest, Father Kibbler (Frederic Lehne), heads up to the bedroom, the one on the third floor where the evil is most concentrated, and while he blesses the room, a demonic forces exits the wall through... a power outlet... and moves through a... power cord... as a big bubble in the cord... like a motherfucking Looney Tune gag. The power cord leads to a hideously ornate floor lamp, and right before Father Kibbler's aghast eyes, the face of the demon briefly appears in the large globe of the lamp, knocking the priest senseless.

Credit where credit's due: it most have taken some work to make "floor lamp possessed by demons" even more ridiculous-looking than it sounds.

Sometime later, all is well in the house, and Father Manfred gives it clean bill of health. Meanwhile, on the front lawn, the Demon Lamp is being sold at a tag sale. The hideous thing - it is truly wretched lamp, looking like a gnarled dead tree with a gazing ball glued to the top of it - is purchased by one Helen Royce (Peggy McKay), who thinks it will be the perfect gag gift for her sister. And apparently, they have one hell of a great sisterly relationship, because when it arrives in California a week later, Helen's sister, Alice Leacock (Jane Wyatt) is absolutely delighted by it. She's much less delighted by the other arrival that shows up the same day: her newly-widowed daughter, Nancy Evans (Patty Duke), no longer able to cope emotionally with her husband's death while also running a household, has decided to move in with Mom for a while, bringing with her three children, Amanda (Zoe Trilling, then still acting under her birth name, Geri Betzler), Brian (Aron Eisenberg), and little Jessica (Brandy Gold). The last of these has been suffering a peculiarly strong emotional disorder since her dad died, and it rather seems like this was a big part of what drove Nancy to move in with her mother.

I won't belabor the plot any more, except to state the obvious: Jessica is a prime target for the malice of the lamp, and grows steadily more erratic as it begins to use her as a cat's paw. But since haunted lamps cost money, Amityville 4 mostly spends its attention on the tense mother-daughter relationship between Alice and Nancy. I will say this in the film's defense: that could have been a fruitful choice, if it were well-executed. It's not. But it could have been.

At the very least, if there is any meager scrap of aesthetic pleasure to be wrenched out of Amityville 4, it comes from the domestic drama. Wyatt and Duke are, if nothing else, hardly untalented actors, and they imbue the subdued battle of wills between their characters with a realistic understanding of the exhaustion of a fraught family relationship. Wyatt is particularly good, avoiding the one-note version of her character; you can tell she genuinely, even deeply loves her daughter and granchildren. She'd just love them more if they were not here.

On the other hand, Wyatt goes ice-cold when the movie turns even slightly towards horror, and since it is a horror film... It's just plain shitty, altogether. Wyatt's palpable dislike of the material isn't even the worst of it; the worst of it is that writer-director Sandor Stern (who wrote the screenplay for the 1979 The Amityville Horror, making him one of the vanishingly small number of people who had anything to do with multiple Amityville films, in any capacity) is so idly content to let the film start off slack and remain that way. The opening sequence with the priests is frankly more comic than anything else; the concluding battle with the demon over Jessica's soul is one of the least-atmospheric, slapdash exorcisms on the books. In between, there's no urgency at all: the interpersonal drama scenes crawl by, the horror scenes (of which there aren't many) have the impact of a soap bubble popped by the breeze of a sparrow's wings. Even a can't-miss gross-out moment like a dead bird showing up in the toaster oven is so hastily passed by that it has virtually no emotional impact, no matter how much special pleading Rick Conrad's score offers up, and how intently horrified Eisenberg and Trilling are in their facial expressions (say what one will, those two young actors are frequently the only people onscreen who seem to take the project at all seriously).

But then, taking Amityville 4 seriously is a sucker's game. This is a film with a screenplay content to perpetrate the hall-of-fame bad dialogue, "Now I believe that the evil in that house could transmigrate into that lamp. That it can and will transmigrate into another object, or another house, or another person, at the earliest opportunity." It is a film that makes a big deal of how a cat freaks out with the most feline rage at the lamp, and then in the next scene stare at its unholy light with an expression of pure feline boredom. Or, for that matter, a film whose ending, unpredictable only because you would hope that they wouldn't be so goddamn corny, paints over the same cat's eyes with cherry red light, using an optical effect that would have embarrassed third-season  Star Trek.

This is, basically, the worst case possible for "made-for-TV Amityville": it's too bright and bland to be at all scary, it's too cheap to be scary, it's too third-string-crew-with-former-stars-who-needed-a-quick-paycheck to be scary. I cannot think of another time in all of film history where the phrase "thank God the franchise went direct-to-video after this" applies, but at least they didn't have to bow to network TV standards and practices at that point.

Reviews in this series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)