("Increasingly degraded", I said, but that's just letting a turn of phrase get away from me. In fact, whatever horrible things one could say about Amityville 3-D - see below for some examples - it at least has significantly less idiotic & poorly-executed 3-D effects than Jaws 3-D).
Amityville 3-D is a milestone in the series for two reasons. One of these is that it was the last film in what I am to call the "Amityville franchise", in defiance of all appreciation for what words mean, to be given a theatrical release for over twenty years, followed only by the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror, and
So it is here that we reach the end of the "official" Amityville films - "official" being a slipshod word indeed in this case, but I'd say there are sufficient continuities, among them the same house in Toms River, New Jersey serving as the main location, to consider them a trilogy-like thing - while simultaneously entering the wilderness of the made-up, bullshit fantasy Amityville films. "Made-up" and "bullshit" both also being slipshod in this case. The thing is, as I'll have plenty of occasion to bemoan later on, while you can absolutely sue for defamation of name or infringement on life rights, and George Lutz was happy to do so when necessary to maintain his ownership over the Amityville Horror pictures, you can't copyright or trademark a real-world place name. Which means anybody can write a film titled The Amityville Demonification or Amityville: Murdertown USA, or my own screenplay-in-progress, The Amityville Whorehouse, slap it together for the lowest budget you dare assemble, and be damn well guaranteed that at least some dumbass horror fans, possibly ones prone to over-committing to summertime movie review marathons, will sigh and say "oh holy shit, there's another Amityville picture" and go ahead and watch the damn thing.
Alright, so here we are in good ol' Amityville, where the notorious house is being used in the most natural way possible: for gaudy rubberneckers to hold a séance. Not even dipshit horny teens, mind you, but full-on adults: the spiritualists hosting the séance are very grave grey-haired couple Emma (Leora Dana) and Harold Caswell (John Beal), and they're working to contact the dead child of Melanie (Candy Clark) and John Baxter (Tony Roberts). Things go swimmingly - glowing green orbs, disembodied voices, the whole nine yards - except as turns out, Melanie and John have no child and have never been married; instead, the couple are a photographer and writer, respectively, for Reveal magazine, which appears to be the nation's pre-eminent publication dedicated to debunking the claims of greedy local hucksters using the paranormal to squeeze a buck out of their marks. There's apparently a lot of money in this; when we see the Reveal offices, they appear to be substantially larger then the facilities according to the paper of record in many a midsize American city.
Melanie and John are happy enough to have gotten their scoop, and Dr. Elliot West (Robert Joy), their paranormal expert, is happy enough to have gotten himself into the Amityville house, but you know who isn't happy? Clifford Sanders (John Harkins), the owner or property manager or summat, who rented the house to the Caswells, and probably knew what they were up to, and definitely is concerned that he'll end up roped in with them in the likely event of fraud charges. He bemoans his current state of affairs to John, who just so happens to be in the market for a piece of gorgeous Long Island waterfront property whose notorious history has slashed its natural market value. John, y'see, is on the backside of an only slightly acrimonious divorce, probably having something to do with his constant smug dickhole attitude, so tangible that it's almost another protagonist. At least in part to prove to the world what a stone-cold rationalist he is, he buys up the house at 112 Ocean Ave.
The house, naturally, is haunted; naturally, it has something to do with the bottomless well in the basement, with a few rotten boards set atop it to prevent people from falling in (even a stone-cold rationalist, I think, would be aware that having a hole dozens of feet deep in your basement large enough for a human adult to fall into is dangerous regardless of whether it is a hellmouth or not, but this seems to perturb John not even slightly). Naturally, it most effects John's teenage daughter Susan (Lori Loughlin), who naturally chooses the attic room with the quarter-moon windows that are the most profoundly evil in the house. Naturally, Susan's mother Nancy (Tess Harper) immediately demands that John fuck off and die if he expects their child to gallivant around this demonic death house, and naturally nobody gives a shit - not even the movie, which of course knows that she's quite correct from the start. Not naturally at all, because it is precisely opposed to everything established in the earlier movies, the presence in the house follows its victims outside of the property, sometimes traveling miles away to start a car fire that burns poor Melanie alive. But it is natural, if you remembered the "3-D" in the title, that her charred corpse lunges at the camera for no good goddamn reason.
God Almighty, what a dreary experience Amityville 3-D is. It's not simply that it resolutely does not play fair, though that's annoying, for it means that this is no longer a haunted house movie at all, but simply a collection of crummy shock scenes with absolutely no shock. I noted with surprise and even a bit of pleasure that under the guidance of producer Dino De Laurentiis and his Italian crew heads, Amityville II adopted a certain European flavor to its schlock, and in my innocence I hoped that Amityville 3-D might copy some of that; alas, while De Laurentiis stuck around, his countrymen did not. The result is a film that feels all-American, and the state of American horror in 1983 wasn't at all good: it was an era of cheaply shat-out projects that would sweep up a bucketful or two of bored, horny teenagers who'd been trained to expect nothing in the way of artistry by a glut of crappy slasher movies.
Amityville 3-D can't even rise up to that level. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, son of the great animation producer Max Fleischer, and the director of many an important film over the years (though not very often a genuinely great one). Fleischer, whatever else we can say, was by no means a horror direction; just three years before Amityville 3-D, he was busy with your favorite Neil Diamond vehicle and mine, The Jazz Singer. I will not be so mean as to say that this feels like what you'd expect from a horror film made in the style of The Jazz Singer, but it does feel like a horror film made by a director primarily noted for his fantasy and imaginative sci-fi pictures (such as Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or 20th Century Fox's Fantastic Voyage). There's just no tension at all, and the few feeble attempts at foreshadowing the manifestation of the evil whatsit in the house - frost mysteriously fogging up the windows, or, um, frost mysteriously fogging up the windows - are undercut by Fleischer's natural tendency to treat visual effects as a magical spectacle, something to gawk at stiffly, like an arthritic Spielberg. I don't even know what to say about his staging of Dr. West's laboratory: somehow every level of the production, from the storyboards up through the set builders and cinematography and editing and all, saw fit to pass through the conceit that we could look past the important expository conversations, through a glass window in the next room, where weird and manic audio experiments were being conducted in pantomime. It is one of the most unnecessarily distracting bits of background business that I have ever seen in a movie.
A complete washout as horror, and mildly diverting as a collection of gaudy 3-D effects (particularly when it decides to blow up the house in the third act - yes, blow the house right the hell up), Amityville 3-D does end up having a couple things to recommend it. One is the crude shift to character drama in the third act; after having been relegated to nattering shrew status for most of the movie, Nancy is traumatised into something halfway between Greek oracle and shell-shock victim, and it adds a surprising layer of adult depth to the material, even if Harper's not quite up to the task of playing it. Not many people are all that good, really; Roberts is probably the most consistently reliable actor in the cast, and he makes the fatal choice to latch onto the smug, patronising elements of John so early and so fully that we're left with a main character it's almost impossible to root for. Loughlin is just a wet noodle altogether, and she gets completely shown up by the actor playing her snotty best friend Lisa. For Lisa is played by Meg Ryan, in only her second film role (Ryan, incidentally, looks exactly as she would through at least the end of the '90s). Not that Ryan is a great performer or one of the most timeless of all movie stars, but she was at least some kind of movie star for many years, and that star quality is on display for all the world to see. She's limber and comfortable with the camera, gliding unharmed through terrible dialogue and situations with a breezy attitude that elevates the whole movie for here too-brief scenes. If you were to be told in 1983, watching Ryan and Loughlin's scenes together, that one of them would go on to be the one of the most beloved romantic comedy stars of the next 20 years, and the other would end up a sidekick on the drippy family sitcom Full House, I think there's a close to 100% chance that you'd guess correctly which was which.
Anyway, Ryan salvages at least five or seven minutes of the movie, and the rest is just so lousy. Unspeakably bad visual effects - the Caswell's deliberately hokey haunting equipment is the best in the whole movie - nothing but contrived situations in the script, and a haunting that follows no rules; it all adds up to one of the most lifeless, boring haunted house movies I've ever seen. The haunting isn't scary, the whole thing isn't incompetent enough to be kitschy or campy. It's little wonder that Amityville 3-D effectively managed to kill a franchise and the 3-D fad in one blow.
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 Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)
The Amityville Haunting (Meed, 2011)
My Amityville Horror (Walter, 2012)
The Amityville Asylum (Jones, 2013)
The Amityville Playhouse (Walker, 2015)
Amityville: Vanishing Point (Greenberg, 2016)
The Amityville Terror (Angelo, 2016)
Amityville: No Escape (Couto, 2016)
Amityville Exorcism (Polonia, 2017)
Amityville: The Awakening (Khalfoun, 2017)
Not reviewed at this time
Amityville Death House (Polonia, 2015)
The Amityville Legacy (Ferguson and Johnson, 2016)
Amityville: Evil Never Dies (Ferguson, 2017)