There have been an embarrassing number of movies using the fair hamlet of Amityville to get a few views online from unsuspecting horror fans. On the surface Tom Berry’s 1990 direct-to-video entry in the franchise might seem like one of them, perhaps even the first. The house on the poster is certainly not the house we know and love, not even if you squint.
The Amityville Curse is based on the 1981 novel by parapsychologist Hans Holzer. His previous novel, The Amityville Murders, documented the DeFeo murders and subsequent trial of Ronnie Jr. as well as Holzer’s own investigation into the haunting. He claims that Ethel Myers, trance-medium and shawl enthusiast, made contact with the angry Indian spirit that haunts the property. This vengeful chief and the curse he placed on the land is the basis for the story that unfolds. I reread the book, which comes in at just under 200 pages after watching the movie so I could compare them. I’ll post that review later.
After the dismal failure of Amityville 3-D the house on Ocean Avenue and its demons were relegated to low-budget made for television movies. That remained the case for the next 15 years actually. Amityville: The Evil Escapes (or Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes) aired on NBC on May 12, 1989. I was weeks away from graduating high school and you can bet your ass I was parked in front of the television ready for some fly-covered terror.
If the title of this film seems familiar its because its is based on a book by John G Jones, the “official chronologer” of the horror. (I wrote about it here if you are interested.) None of the stories in that collection were used for this film but I suspect CBS and writer/director Sandor Stern were hopeful that this would spawn a series of “Garage Sale Terror” films. Fun fact: Sandor Stern wrote the script for the original Amityville Horror back in 1979.
Also I’m not certain what the story is with the different titles. When it aired the ads read Amityville: The Evil Escapes. When the VHS was released it was called Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes which is also the version in my Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray set. On screen we get yet another version….
Whatever the reason for the title changes this is the fourth film and the evil does indeed escape. I would have had some fun with it. Amityville: High Voltage or Satan’s Yard Sale: An Amityville Story. Or how about The Haunting of Neely O’Hara? And as always, there be spoilers ahead…
The film opens on Ocean Avenue during one of their eternal rain storms as a caravan of holy men in 70s sedans arrive and march crosses and Bibles in hand into the empty house. It is unclear when this is supposed to have taken place in the expansive timeline. Have the Lutzes just moved out? Is this prior to it being rented by the scammers who John Baxter exposed before moving in? Let’s not forget that when we last saw 112 Ocean Avenue on screen in Amityville 3-D the house fucking exploded.
Wherever it falls in the timeline, the demon isn’t happy faced with destruction and nopes into the only suitably evil inanimate object it can find, a lamp that looks like its from the Blair Witch Collection at Sears.
A few days later we meet up with hip 80s grandma Helen Royce and her not quite as hip friend Rhona who are attending a yard sale at the empty house. Helen is rocking a huge headband and what looks like pieces of a staircase railing draped around her neck. Helen finds possessed lamp and buys it as a gift for her sister out in Los Angeles. “She’ll love it!” Helen declares. I mean, who wouldn’t? To be fair I have bought many a hideous thing from a thrift store/yard sale merely because it was hideous so I understand Helen. I think we’d get along. Before Helen can lock up the sale though she cuts her finger on one of the lamp’s razor sharp leaves. As they like to say in Star Wars movies…”I’ve got a baaad feeling about this.”
The story moves out to Los Angeles where Nancy Evans (Patty Duke) is dealing with the death of her husband Frank. She moves her three kids into her mother Alice’s (Jane Wyatt) mansion by the sea. Seriously…check out this house:
The relationship between Alice and Nancy is a bit frosty. I can’t tell if Alice disapproves of Nancy not visiting often enough or if she didn’t like Frank, but she doesn’t come across as especially welcoming to them. She gets noticeably more excited about the mysterious box that just arrived from her sister back east. Jessica, Nancy’s youngest, is also very excited about it. #foreshadowing. She gleefully unwraps Satan’s Night Light and they all marvel at its hideousness. Pepper the cat, notoriously an evil bitch in her own right, wants nothing to do with it and the bird goes batshit crazy. Pay attention to your pets people.
It isn’t long before odd things start happening in the Mansion By the Sea or as I like to call it “Amityville West”. Alice is preoccupied with her shopping and giving Nancy attitude and dismisses all of it as nothing more than drama the kids brought with them. Boomers amiright? She doesn’t notice that little Carol Anne Jessica’s obsession with the lamp is intensifying and the forlorn child believes her dead father is speaking to her through the lamp.
Haunted objects aren’t exactly a new idea. We’ve had haunted video tapes, necklaces, televisions, cars, and especially dolls. We learn over the next decade of films that the Amityville series likes haunted furniture. I suppose that’s because the Lutzes left everything behind and the bank did sell off their belongings in an attempt to recoup some of the losses they incurred when George and Kathy defaulted on the loan. They didn’t even make one payment. There was a yard sale at the house in 2010 or so which drew a lot of attention online. The line ran down the block and if I recall visitors were not allowed to take any photos inside. That sale actually spawned the idea I had that led to me writing my own Amityville story (still in progress) that you’ll probably get to read here on this site one day.
Back to Alice Leacock and her good for nothing family.
Father Kibbler makes his way to Amityville West after Aunt Helen dies and the final showdown takes place in attic between a levitating Jessica and the sexy priest. In the end its Grandma Alice who saves the day. As they often do, our elders usually have the answers and very little patience for shenanigans, especially of the demonic kind.
Amityville: The Evil Escapes isn’t scary at all. Stern and cinematographer Tom Richmond tried to make that lamp seem ominous and evil but every time it was on screen I just groaned. Granted, this was made for television and there were some limits on what they could do, but so was the original Stephen King’s IT starring Tim Curry and that was scary as hell. I’ll admit the scene with the kid getting his hand chewed up in the garbage disposal is the reason I have a fear of them to this day.
In contrast the acting is mostly great. Duke, Wyatt and Lehne did a lot with the material they were given and Norman Lloyd is always a delight to see. But I had a very hard time suspending disbelief long enough to buy into any of the nonsense happening on screen. Stern says in an interview included as one of the special features that his only rule for this movie was that “the evil was powerful, but always chose the most vulnerable person to possess” which basically means we have a lazy demon.
The movie ended on a weird note, at least I thought it was weird. It was established early that Nancy and Alice had a “frosty” relationship. By the end things are going better and it feels like mother and daughter might just make it after all. Then when Nancy tells her mother, who just defeated a literal demon and saved her children from gruesome deaths that she loves her…Alice stares at her like she’d just been slapped. Then she smiles awkwardly and walks away. Frosty indeed.
The horror is over for Alice and Nancy and those crazy kids, but was the demon defeated? Was it cast into the fiery pit when the lamp exploded in a ball of flame on those rocks? There are dozens of films after this one so I’ll bet you can guess the answer to that, but just in case the answer eludes you…Sandor Stern left us with a clue.
(I promise this is the final shot of the film.)
This led me to start thinking about the problems I have with the Amityville franchise and haunted house films in general. I get bored with slashers and torture porn makes me angry. Blood for the sake of blood is lazy in my eyes. There are a few exceptions like Suspiria and the original A Nightmare on Elm Street but overall I just don’t want to see it. I also have issues with movies that try to cash in on name recognition but don’t add anything to the lore. Don’t get me started on some of the films I have found on Amazon Prime with the word Amityville in the title. I haven’t worked through all of that anger yet, so that’s a discussion for a future post and maybe for my therapist.
I can’t sign off without discussing the “house”, or rather the lack of it in this movie. Due to the low budget the production was not able to film back in Tom’s River where the house used in the first three movies was located. Instead they used a house in Los Angeles that they could easily slap a facade onto, smear some jelly on the lens and hope you weren’t paying too much attention.
Narrator: He was paying attention.
They settled this nice colonial at 402 East Main Street in Wilmington, California. But after the yard sale we never go back there again. Maybe in the timeline the house had just exploded after John Baxter ruined everything by being too skeptical. We’ll never know.
The exteriors for Grandma Alice’s mansion by the sea were filmed at the Sharp House a few hours north of LA in Santa Paula, and it was not actually by the sea. Stern revealed in the special features that they built a facade at the edge of a trailer park that overlooked the sea to stand in for the back of the house and provide Alice a suitable cliff to from which to toss the lamp into the sea. MOVIE MAGIC!
For me, it just isn’t an Amityville movie unless it takes place in Amityville. The films release from 1989 until the remake in 2005 were Amityville in name only. The Lutzes were no longer interested in licensing their story to anyone and Amityville wanted no part of any film business whatsoever. That left very little material for the studios to work with. But since when has that stopped them?
In February of 1976, mere weeks after they fled the house in Amityville the Lutzs contacted the Parapsychology Institute of America and spoke to their director Stephen Kaplan. According to Kaplan they requested an investigation of the house to prove their claims that demonic forces infested the place. Kaplan was happy to oblige free of charge, but reminded George Lutz that if he found their story to be a hoax…he would make that information public. Lutz cancelled the investigation shortly thereafter.
The Lutzs ended up famously calling Ed and Lorraine Warren which led to a highly dramatic televised seance in the dining room of the house. Kaplan went on to be one of the Lutzs biggest critics. He wrote a book in 1995 called The Amityville Horror Conspiracy that claims the entire story was nothing but a money grab. I mention all of this feuding and drama because after watching 1983’s stinker Amityville 3-D I realized that its very possible David Ambrose had Kaplan in mind when he penned this script.
It seems strange to admit that I am obsessed with a particular crime, especially one so senseless and brutal. I realize now that I am not alone in this. Since podcasts became a thing in the early 2000s it seems like the main thing anyone listens to is true crime related. (#AdnanDidIt) The stories are compelling with twists and turns and I’ve spent countless hours in the car listening to stories of murder and mayhem. Give S-Town a listen if you have time. It’s a real gem and I really did not see the turn coming.