I'm going to chalk it up to some movie-watching form of Stockholm syndrome, or maybe just having my quality needle wrenched out of alignment by the series, but Amityville: A New Generation, struck me as astonishingly close to not completely terrible. The 1993 film brings us to the end of the John G. Jones era of Amityville pictures, in which Jones served as co-producer on films "inspired by" his 1988 book Amityville: The Evil Escapes, and whatever else we can say or think about it, A New Generation is an extraordinary improvement over Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes and Amityville 1992: It's About Time. It does not, for one important thing, subscribe the exact same formula as those two films, but takes their idea of a demonically possessed objected, recovered from the Amityville house, that ends up on the West Coast, and goes into at least slightly more interesting direction than simply picking a new family to haunt. A second important thing is that it ends up having a more than skin-deep connection to the Amityville mythology writ large, albeit a brand new version of the Amityville mythology. Mind you, the film still gives off the odor of a project that should probably have been left as a stand-alone project that didn't have to shoe-horn Amityville into its story at all. But we can't have everything.

The story this time hovers around an artist loft commune of sorts, in a city that has no name but is played by Los Angeles. Here we find photographer Keyes Terry (Ross Partridge), who'll turn out to be a relatively sturdy and appealing protagonist by the standards of direct-to-video horror, but has to enormous shortcomings to overcome first: one is that his given name is "Keyes", which is made up screenwriter bullshit (actually, I half-wonder if his name was meant to be Terry Keyes, and nobody noticed, somehow), and the other is that he has the worst goddamn hair, a floppy, flouncy bit of nonsense that could only have come when the '90s were still trying to get over the hangover from the '80s. The other artists with studios in the same loft are Suki (Julia Nickson-Soul), a painter, and Pauli (Richard Roundtree, whom I'm afraid is much more in "needed the money" mode than "big name having fun slumming in DTV-land" mode), a sculptor, and their decidedly scummy landlord is a fella named Dick Cutler (David Naughton), whose wife Janet (Barbara Howard) is possibly also an artist, it's hard to say. Keyes, for his part, is also dating a non-artist, Llanie (Lala Sloatman).

It happens one afternoon that Keyes notices an old homeless man (Jack R. Orend) arguing with somebody who isn't there, and for some reason this strikes a chord within him. He takes photos of the man, breaking his "no pictures of humans" rule, and then pays him for this invasion of privacy. And this act of something close enough to kindness apparently moves the old man, for he gives Keyes a gift right then and there, of a hideous old mirror with ugly faces and bright red eyes carved into the frame. It's haunted, of course, and as the film progresses and we see it start to murder people, it's specifically haunted by the spirit of the house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. For obviously, that's where it used to hang, and it was hanging there on the very day in 1966 when Franklin Bonner killed his whole family with a shotgun over Thanksgiving dinner.

So, another film, another incompatible story of what exactly happened in Amityville. But at least it's not the ghost of Gilles de Rais haunting an ancient clock, so I'm content enough. Anyway, the film at this point tries to do two substantially different things, and either one of them alone would probably have worked better than both of them together. What this means, in practice, is that the first half of the 91-minute film feels like it's spinning its wheels until the second half can get going, and that's not a very great feeling. The haunted mirror shows people their reflection dying in exactly the way they then end up dying, and there's some vague indication that it chooses a means of killing them that specifically exploits their greatest fears (that it "reflects" them, ha ha). There's something to that, no doubt, and if writers Christopher DeFaria & Antonio Toro (their second and final Amityville, after Amityville 1992, and for both men their second and final produced screenplay overall) had leaned into that more, there could have been something to it. But the film ends up going in a completely different direction (a better one, I'd say) that leaves the opening with almost no actual purpose. The mirror's goals in the second half - "the mirror's goals", Christ, what a world - seem largely incompatible with killing random bystanders in the first half.

The second half, then, turns into the story of a familiar curse: Keyes discovers that the homeless man with the mirror was his father, who abandoned him many long years ago. And his father was none other than that Ronald DeFeo, Jr. stand-in, Frank Bronner. And this discovery pitches him into a fit of psychological panic, as we learn what his biggest fear is: losing his mind just the same way his dad did. Quite unexpectedly, this turns out to be almost good. Trite, surely, and I would give a lot for the line "Amityville is in your blood" to have neither been written down nor ever imagined. But the shift from supernatural horror to psychological thriller works so much better here than the half-assed attempt to do domestic drama in the other two legs of the Jones trilogy of Amityville films (undoubtedly because psychological thrillers are already more closely related to horror in the first place).

And it's even a pretty solid psychological thriller, if you make allowances. Partridge isn't much of an actor, but director Murlowski manages to compensate somewhat by pairing him with a great ringer in the form of Terry O'Quinn, who plays the cop uncovering the mysteries of Keyes's past much in parallel with Keyes's own discoveries. That O'Quinn can do more with a crap part in a crap genre film than would seem possible is, obviously, no surprise - that is very much the heart and soul of O'Quinn's career. So I won't say that he's up to anything "surprising" in A New Generation, though he plays the role with more warmth and concern than one expects from O'Quinn. Or from cops in horror movies. And it adds a human interest to the material that the franchise has frankly lacked entirely since the first Amityville Horror.

The other important thing Murlowski manages is to ramp up an uncanny atmosphere that mimics the inside of Keyes's head.The film has a sequence that finds him in the asylum where he last saw his father as a child, and it's honest-to-God great: for a few perfect minutes, the bottom drops out of reality, and it becomes hard to tell where the line falls between what's actually happening and what Keyes remembers and what he's having nightmares about happening in the future, all captured in a ghostly soft glow of unnatural white. The film was shot by Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan's future go-to cinematographer, and while I'm not going to lie and say that you can see a premonition of Batman Begins anywhere outside of urban browns of the color palette, it's very clearly the work of a better cinematographer than the material would apparently call for. Not just in the lighting, and not just in this moment; the use of a telephoto lens in the scene where Suki is being hunted by the mirror demon, scrambling on her hands and feet in the tunnel created by her falling canvases, gives that scene a queasy tension through the exaggerated foreground which makes it rather scarier than anything intrinsic in the content.

Anyway, these unexpected grace notes aside, A New Generation is still a pretty lousy, badly-made DTV horror movie. The acting ranges from "not very good" to "still not very good", with only O'Quinn rising anywhere above that, along with a splendid one-scene appearance by Lin Shaye, later of the Insidious franchise, who plays a flighty, babbly nurse at a not-quite-closed-yet asylum who gets the film's best lines and creates probably its most distinct character as a nervous woman who plainly never gets to talk to people.

Beyond the cast, the film suffers mightily from its low-budget production: the effects are embarrassingly bad, the more so because of how very much they're trying to show. We've got a killer mirror frame that looks like it was made of plastic, a bunch of demonic reflections that look like Halloween masks, and a particularly awful demon effect stalking Suki through her studio.  The music is similarly bad, sounding like a crummy romantic comedy before it settles into sounding like rights-free collection of spooky music cues.

And even at its very best, the film's story never rises above the generic. The art studio setting is a neat twist, and the staging of the climax as part of a performance art piece accordingly gets points for being weird, but there's not much in the way of creativity here. The seventh Amityville film, and the third based on the same damn book, obviously had a hard road to get past "hugely mediocre", and that's where A New Generation stops. But given the bar set by its predecessors "hugely mediocre" is actually an impressive feat. I'm not sure that I have it in my heart to ever recommend this movie to another human soul, but at least it's good to know that the Amityville series isn't all barrel-scraping junk.

Speaking of which, we've got a haunted dollhouse coming up next time.

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)