In Defense of the ‘Amityville Horror’ Sequels
Once upon a time there was a house at 112 Ocean Avenue, in Amityville, New York. The house looked evil—those front windows looked almost like eyes—and sure enough, evil things happened there. Horrific things, murderous things, threatened that most beloved of Western institutions: the nuclear family. People wrote books about that house, and about the demonic patriarchs of the families who lived there, and over time, the haunting of the Amityville house passed into American myth.
And once upon a time, as people made those books into movies, and kept making movies, things got a little silly. Both video stores and the franchise mania of 1980s Hollywood increased the desire for more familiar titles. So the Amityville Horror sequels shifted course. Instead of focusing on a single haunted home, the films became about the cursed objects that originated there and spread across America.
An evil lamp is the villain of Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes; a deadly clock terrorizes a family in Amityville 1992: It’s About Time; and in Amityville: A New Generation, the characters are tormented by a murderous mirror. And it’s so much fun.
The important thing to know about the Amityville Horror sequels—even back when the films were actually set in Amityville—is that American masculinity is always in crisis. On November 13th, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. killed his father, mother, and four siblings, shooting them in the head as they slept. The following year, George and Kathy Lutz moved their family into the home; less than a month later they fled in terror, having been driven out by something within those walls.
In The Amityville Horror, George Lutz is losing his grip on sanity, afraid he is going to repeat the previous murders. The Amityville Horror, then, is about the horrors of unchecked masculinity, and a family being destroyed – not by external evil, but from within.
By the time the titular evil escapes in The Evil Escapes, though, the masculine figurehead has been sidelined completely. This one opens with a team of priests exorcising the infamous home, apparently defeating whatever evil lived there; soon the objects within the house are sold at an estate sale.
It’s almost as though the film is stripping the myth of The Amityville Horror itself for parts, mailing out a theme here, packaging up a different trope for a later movie there. In this case, a lamp is bought at the sale and mailed to a woman in California. She has become caretaker for her daughter’s family after the sudden death of her son-in-law.
There is no patriarch in this family, no dangerous masculinity threatening their lives. Instead, Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes is about a home containing three generations of women. Jane Wyatt plays Alice, the matriarch, and Patty Duke is her daughter Nancy.
Nancy has daughters, too; the teenaged Amanda (Zoe Trilling) is a bit boy-crazy, whereas the much younger girl Jessica (Brandy Gold) is a perfectly creepy horror film kid. Most of the family isn’t interested in the lamp, putting it right up in the attic; Jessica, though, believes that the spirit of her father inhabits the lamp, and she sits talking to it for hours.
There are stand-ins for masculinity here, to be sure. The lamp is one; taking the place of the absent father, it looks almost human. Nancy has a son, too, named Brian (Aron Eisenberg); at one point, as the lamp begins infecting and possessing other household objects, the chainsaw that Brian is holding goes haywire. It’s a comically phallic, yet impotent moment, like Leatherface dancing in the sunrise at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Later, another boy tapes a lightswitch in place so that it won’t activate the garbage disposal he has his arm down. Of course, he’s unable to make the light switch stand up, and he is mutilated.
Amityville 1992: It’s About Time sidelines its patriarch, too, although he is more of a presence than the dead father of The Evil Escapes. Here, after bringing home a clock after a trip to a certain town on Long Island, Jacob (Stephen Macht) is attacked by a dog and left bed-bound as his body breaks down from infection. His children are left in the care of his ex-girlfriend Andrea (Shawn Weatherly).
Over the course of the movie Jacob goes mad, not (just) because of the evil clock holding court in his living room, but because he is rendered inert by the manifestation of evil in the form of infection. As a result, he is unable to lead his family.
The evil clock is more on-its-face (sorry) ridiculous than the evil mirror or the evil lamp, and the intensity of the movie is ratcheted up to match. This is the most fun of these cursed-object sequels, featuring a number of gonzo practical effect gore shots tailor-made for the lawless world of the video rental store.
There’s a Final Destination-esque madcap death sequence involving an ice cream truck. Time goes wonky and people become babies. In the film’s best sequence, someone even melts into a horrific puddle of basement goo. And through it all, there’s the sweaty, evil father in the bedroom on the upper floor, watching as his wounds fester.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King posits that the real animus for George Lutz’s descent into madness in the original Amityville Horror is the economic peril looming over the family. Six movies later, Amityville 1992: It’s About Time literalizes that anxiety, becoming a film about the physical degradation of the father-figure in American life.
This movie is a glorious mess, but there is something elementally unsettling – something primally destabilizing to American masculinity – about that image of the father in his sick bed. His body decays as his family finds new ways to reorganize itself without him.
Themes come full circle in the Amityville: A New Generation. This time it’s a mirror that haunts the characters, transplanted from the previous film’s suburban setting to a city. A bohemian photographer named Keyes Terry (Ross Partridge) receives the mirror from a homeless man on the street. Terry is a young man who lives in an apartment building full of young artists; soon after he hangs the mirror in his loft, however, people start turning up dead.
Things are more metaphorical again; Terry comes to find out that not only was it his father’s mirror, but he fears he may have also inherited his father’s mental illness. Furthermore, in an echo of the original Amityville myth, that mental illness led his father to a family-murder spree of which Terry was the only survivor.
Horrified that he might be doomed to repeat his father’s crime—as George Lutz once feared he would be forced by fate to mimic the DeFeo murders—the photographer ends up staging an art piece where he limply re-enacts the horror of his youth for a confused crowd. “Terror Has A Reflection All Its Own,” proclaims the VHS cover; indeed, this is the terror of the original Amityville Horror, reflected and refracted down through the endlessly repetitive demands of horror franchising.
Though still fun in a delightfully ‘90s-in-the-city kind of way, the Amityville Horror sequels offer a surprising amount of thematic richness. For all their flaws, these films demonstrate the best understanding of Amityville as a foundational, folkloric tale about dangerous American masculinity and the destruction of the family unit. They grapple directly with the resonance of the Amityville myth, and explore stories of fathers and sons and inherited trauma. And really, what more could you ask for from a sequel than that?