Patty Duke - Nancy Evans
Jane Wyatt - Alice Leacock
Fredric Lehne - Father Kibbler
Norman Lloyd - Father Manfred
Peggy McCay - Helen Royce
Brandy Gold - Jessica Evans
Zoe Trilling - Amanda Evans
Aron Eisenberg - Brian Evans
Genre - Horror/Supernatural
Running Time - 95 Minutes
The demonic force lurking in Amityville for over 300 years escapes to a remote California mansion. It encounters a struggling family living together by uncertain means. The beast manipulates a little girl (Zoe Trilling) by manifesting itself in the form of her dead father. Soon it will be able to possess her completely… is it too late for a young priest (Fredric Lehne) to defeat the demon and end the curse?
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a film from THE AMITYVILLE HORROR franchise, probably because there’s like 20 of these movies in the series and I’ve only been a fan of the two [of the four] that I’ve watched. I’ve always made it clear that I find the 1979 original to be a dull piece of horror, preferring the 2005 remake over it because it does more with the story. 1982’s AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION is probably the best of the films I’ve watched [and it seems to be the best of all of them, if you believe the consensus], while 1983’s AMITYVILLE 3-D was just a bad flick that existed only for 3-D effects that weren’t great to begin with. So I put the franchise out of sight and out of mind for a while.
Then out of the blue, I stumbled onto Amazon Prime and noticed a bunch of the AMITYVILLE films were free to watch. I read the description for 1989’s AMITYVILLE: THE EVIL ESCAPES [which I’ll call AMITYVILLE 4 for the rest of the review] and I found myself intrigued. Former TV star Patty Duke in a horror film? A lamp that possesses and kills people? A story that doesn’t take place inside the Amityville House? I figured I could at least give another film in this franchise a chance to see why so many of these damn films were made.
So after 90 minutes, I’m still wondering why over 20 of these films have been made, with more probably coming. But while AMITYVILLE 4 isn’t a good movie in the slightest, at least it had me laughing unintentionally - which is more than I could say for the first and third films. I couldn’t help but be entertained by this dumb movie.
AMITYVILLE 4 is a film that was made for television, since the previous installments, besides the first one, didn’t really make that much of a dent at the box office. It’s also apparently the first film in the series that focuses more on an object that was inside of the infamous house instead of the house itself. That makes sense, considering that having families dealing with a possessed house was probably getting old fast. It also helps the television limitations in terms of budget as the scares only need to focus on a single object than a huge house. And despite the high definition of the transfer I watched [the film does look better than it probably ought to], you can definitely tell it was made for TV with its less than stylish direction, cheap special effects and melodramatic acting that won’t wow anyone. It’s not entirely a bad thing, since I personally find charm in things like this. But it’s definitely a step down from the previous installments, as the budget allows more drama but not enough horror to match the earlier films.
AMITYVILLE 4’s issue really stems from the script. It’s honestly just a retread of earlier supernatural movies dealing with demons and possession. A vulnerable child, who is grieving her father’s passing, succumbs to this evil, demonic lamp and becomes possessed by it. The demon possessing the lamp also makes her believe that her father is speaking through the lamp, building her attachment and addiction to it. That’s a perfectly fine setup, but it never goes beyond that. There’s no character study or anything psychologically thrilling about it that’s all that memorable. It doesn’t help that the other characters are oblivious to it, or even oblivious to things that just happened seconds prior before just forgetting they happened and never bringing them back up again. The characters are also pretty forgettable themselves, or just plain unlikable. I honestly couldn’t feel for any one in this film besides Father Kibbler [the only one with a real story arc], which made all the weird stuff happening around these people the more entertaining and laughable.
The film also didn’t have the guts to hurt any of the main cast really, relying on bringing in random people [plumbers, electricians, etc.] to build the film’s body count. These characters die or get hurt in silly ways - like getting a hand mutilated by a possessed garbage disposal or a pipe bursting in cartoonish effect to leak this black goo that drowns a trapped plumber. The only character of note that bites the dust is the housekeeper, who almost gets murdered by a possessed chainsaw handled by the family’s son, but unfortunately meets her fate by being strangled by the possessed lamp’s plug wire in the attic.
Speaking of this lamp, am I [or anyone else] supposed to be afraid of this thing? It’s an ugly lamp that belongs on the set of 1985’s RETURN TO OZ. When the demon shows his face on the lamp’s huge bulb, it’s more hilarious than frightening. And this lamp can do a whole lot without being plugged in - like hiding telegrams for the rest of the film, making electronically equipment and utilities go crazy, and even telepathically driving an empty car away from the property for some unexplained reason. It also kills people with tetanus, which is a rare way to murder someone in a horror film I guess. At least with a haunted house, you can have the walls bleed and flies appear on windows and stuff. When it shouts “Get out!” at you, being trapped inside is the last thing you want. A lamp is a lesser evil, even if it can do similar things since it came from the possessed house to begin [which wasn’t destroyed, negating the events of AMITYVILLE 3-D]. I feel like this type of story would have lended itself better to an hour-long television series, like a Friday the 13th: The Series or Tales From the Darkside. The story would have moved faster and gotten to the point quicker. Even the film’s conclusion is kind of lame, as things get resolved way too quickly considering everything that happened before the final act. Ninety minutes doesn’t do a whole lot for me, since a lot of it is just uninteresting family drama and filler.
The direction by Sandor Stern, who was a writer on the original 1979 film, is passable. Stern doesn’t provide a ton of style in terms of visuals. AMITYVILLE 4 looks like a TV movie. It feels like a TV movie. You can tell where ad breaks were probably edited in during its presentation on NBC at the time. The only thing flashy about the film are the cheap effects when it comes to the lamp and its powers. You get the standard blood on the walls and floor, flies buzzing around, and usual demonic activity presented in the first film - but on a cheaper budget. From what I read, Stern didn’t shoot the gorier scenes in the home video release, as NBC wouldn’t allow that stuff at the time. It’s funny because those moments actually help AMITYVILLE 4 be more entertaining than it has any right to. So thanks for the secret NBC Studios director who added those scenes in! It was appreciated. But there’s nothing terrible about Stern’s direction, but it’s not spectacular either. It’s exactly what you would expect.
The acting isn’t spectacular either. Patty Duke is an odd choice to star in an AMITYVILLE film. She’s in a horror film but she’s acting as if she’s in a dramatic Lifetime movie. Jane Wyatt seems to be having a bit more fun as a snooty grandmother who plays it passive aggressively against her on-screen daughter Duke. Brandy Gold just screams, sulks and tries to act evil as youngest daughter Jessica. Zoe Trilling and Aron Eisenberg don’t get to do a whole lot but play confused and concerned children. Fredric Lehne is the only one who gets the real good dialogue and handles it better than he should, considering the ridiculous things he has to say. It’s not the worst cast and they all have memorable things in the film worth a laugh or two during the movie’s runtime. A better script would have brought out more, but I’m not expecting that from an AMITYVILLE sequel.
THE FINAL HOWL
AMITYVILLE: THE EVIL ESCAPES is the first sequel in the series to go straight to television and it shows. The film doesn’t hide it budgetary limitations, looking and feeling like a TV movie with cheap special effects that are more funny than scary. The story is nothing original, pretty much rehashing elements of the previous installments with the only difference is that a lamp is possessing people and causing havoc rather than a haunted house. Sandor Stern, a writer for the original THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, does a passable job visualizing and directing the narrative within a made-for-TV format, while the actors [led by Patty Duke and Jane Wyman] do the best they can with the material they’re given. To be honest, this story would have lent itself better to a television anthology format - like a Friday the 13th: The Series, Tales From the Darkside or something like that. All in all, it’s not a good film but it had unintentionally funny moments that entertained me more than I thought it would. Definitely more fun to watch than AMITYVILLE 3-D, but nowhere the level of AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION. I’ll continue through this series to see if there are any surprise gems within, or to be possessed by masochism if they just go downhill from here.