I'm torn. On the one hand, Amityville Dollhouse is the worst motherfucking thing ever. On the other, it's the first entry in the barely-connected Amityville franchise to have a Dutch Colonial house prominently figure into the plot since Amityville 3-D, 13 years earlier, back when they were still getting theatrical releases. Back to the first hand that house is... I mean, look at the title, why don't you? There's only one plot that title could attach itself to - two, if somebody decided to update the Ibsen play by adding demons to it - and there's no meaningful way for that plot to be any damn good.

It's a peculiar beast, Amityville Dollhouse. It is the Amityville sequel to most directly take its cues from the original The Amityville Horror, which mostly speaks to how wildly far afield the various why-not-call-them-sequels have gotten from that model. It's also the most un-Amityville-feeling, and if I'm not mistaken, it's the only one that completely fails to mention the word "Amityville", or even the word "New York" anywhere outside of its title. So if I can just plunge into it: we've got a blended family so very new that godawful tween Jimmy (Jarrett Lennon) still calls his godawful stepfather Bill (Robin Thomas) "Mr. Martin". Though from the way he drips out the syllables as a hyper-enunciated "Miss Ter Mar Tin", in the middle of insulting Bill's failures as a contractor, there's also the possibility that he's just being a passive-aggressive dick. Bill has just put the finishing touches on a house he's been building for ten months for his new wife, Claire (Starr Andreef), and their toxic, hostile children: Bill's kids by a mother who abandoned them all,* crude asshole bro teenager Todd (Allen Cutler) and 10-ish Jessica (Rachel Duncan), the solitary member of this household with no crippling personality flaws, as well as Claire's chilly braniac son Jimmy, who hasn't gotten over his father's death in some unspecified military engagement, and who has been cursed by the make-up department with dark rings around his eyes that suggest he spends his days as a 1980s New York financial analyst with more cocaine than blood in his veins.

It's astonishing, given that we're supposed to feel sorry for these people when demons start lazily fucking up their nights, how beyond repulsive they all are. In big ways as well as small: "I miss it when it was just you and me", says Todd to Bill at one point, in an apparently unconscious act of writing his sister out of existence. Unconscious to screenwriter Joshua Michael Stern as well as to the character. Todd also views his sister and stepbrother with bored contempt right up till the pre-determined "and now that they've survived this death house, the family unit is healed" finale, but he's still my favorite of the boychildren; Jimmy is such a snotty little shit, smugly insulting everyone he can, and responding with substantially too much glee to the demon's trick of bringing back his father (Clayton Murray) as a damp zombie to offer suggestions of murdering Bill and his children.

Anyway, the house that Bill built was on the site of a different house that burned to the ground some years ago, leaving only the fireplace and chimney, and a locked shed. Apparently, Bill though that not opening the shed until move-in day would be a fun family activity, because he enthusiastically asks Todd to join him, though Todd would rather go off with his girlfriend Dana (Lisa Robin Kelly), so nobody but him is there to see the dollhouse modeled after a certain Dutch Colonial with quarter-moon windows like angry eyes near the top of its gambrel roof, sitting right there in the shed. With impressively little emotional reaction, he takes it, and fails to notice the newspaper clipping about the fire that destroyed the house and killed the family there, and thus has no chance to ask questions. Questions such as "who the hell put up the clippings, if the owners of the property were all dead?"

Needless to say the, dollhouse is haunted, though I couldn't begin to say why. Is it the actual Amityville house, shrunk down? Does constructing an object in the shape of that accurst place imbue it with the Amityville demon's spirit? Did the demon simply hit upon the idea that by tossing the Amityville house into its routine hauntings, it would get more play time for its painfully unoriginal story? There is simply no way to know. All I can say for sure is that the dollhouse is very nearly the solitary thing standing between Amityville Dollhouse and the edge of oblivion: firstly, because it is awesome to look at. Secondly, because every one of the small number of halfway decent moments in the film are a direct result of the dollhouse's existence; among the symptoms of the haunting, things that happen inside the dollhouse also happen in the Martin home. So when, for example, Jessica puts her hand through the door of the room analogous to her bedroom, she can look up to see her own giant fist coming at her. "Whoa", says Jessica, with a nice mixture of fear, confusion, and scientific interest, right before jotting down this manifestation in the journal where she keeps notes on the dollhouse's evil. God bless Jessica, the film's only good character, and Duncan, the film's only good performer.

Otherwise, this is paint-by-numbers tedium, mixing up most of the ingredients of the previous Amityville pictures into a grey swill, and adding a few terrible ones of its own. The bouncy little demons who show up at the end are probably the worst of these additions, proudly revealing the extreme impoverishment of the production (there's also a red devil costume that looks pretty good for a flash, but which gets a little bit too much screentime when all is said and done). That good old touch of sleazy sexuality comes in the form of Claire staring at photographs of Todd, shirtless, while having sex with Bill (why precisely Bill's nightstand is bedecked with shirtless photos of his son is a question left to the empty sky), and this excites her enough to stare at him hungrily while washing dishes - yes, in fact, she does massage the soapy plate with languidly erotic strokes, however did you guess? - or just straight-up masturbating when she sees a demonically-placed vision of him. There's some hokey spirituality delivered by Bill's sister Marla (Lenore Kasdorf) and her husband Tobias (Franc Ross), the closest we get to terrified Catholic priests this time around.

For all the film's myriad failures as a piece of storytelling, though, what really gets my goat is how utterly incompetent it is. The kind of incompetent where you can have three out of five consecutive shots showing Todd lying on his left side, cradling his right ear, where an undead wasp just flew in to eat his brain, or whatever, and have a fourth shot show a huge close-up of what is unmistakably his left ear. Or show Claire stiffly holding her sexy, soapy plate out in front of her (seriously, from the weird close-up we get, she must have her arms almost perfectly straight in front of her as she strokes the dishes), and when she's startled into dropping them, Foley in a loud breaking dish noise as we very clearly see the dish remain quite intact. My favorite bad moment is probably when Bill enters the shed, and director Steve White intensely pushes into a close-up of his face; but since we're inside the shed and he's backlit by outside, we just see this big black silhouette of a head, and there's absolutely no way to tell what he's looking at or thinking about. My second-favorite is at the end of the same scene, when Bill walks away from the newspaper clipping for much, much longer than it takes to read the headlines, and then shuts the door, casting the newspaper into shadow, except for a little blotch of light centered on nothing of consequence. And this holds for a full second - 24 frames, and we're just looking at literally, actually nothing.

It makes sense that, given the outstandingly bad directing, the rest of the project would be slipshod crap. And sure enough everything is, from Ray Colcord's tinny music (shamelessly aping Danny Elfman's horror-fantasy scores for Tim Burton during the opening credits, with a corny little sting when the title appears), to those gaudy demon costumes. And oh, sweet mercy, the acting! Thomas's mealy-mouthed line readings on one hand and Lennon's clipped, overly sharp line readings on the other; Andreef's general invisibility when she's not play-acting sex; Cutler's thrillingly bad, hammy facial expressions. It's all terrible, and all in unique and different ways. There's virtually nothing in Amityville Dollhouse that's not spectacularly bad, but I think, ultimately, that it's the hateful characters, ineptly played, that is the most lingering symptom of the film's all-encompassing, goddamn near awe-inspiring lousiness. I have no idea if the people at Republic who'd been signing off on these DTV shit heaps for so long intended for Amityville Dollhouse to close off that company's relationship with the brand, but they could hardly have come up with a more inauspicious finale, or found a film that more deserved burial in the face of near-complete audience disinterest.

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)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)





*The more we get to know the family she left behind, the more this seems like the only sensible choice.