1980s, Horror/Eerie

Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

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Director: Damiano Damiani

By Roderick Heath

Long my private vote for the best worst film of all time, Amityville 2: The Possession is the sort of film that ought to be utterly humdrum, but proves to be a welter of cinematic putrescence. A sequel to a big hit and a big enough hit itself to justify another sequel (Richard Fleischer’s Amityville 3-D, far better than either precursor), it still managed to be badly acted, tackily directed, photographed with elaborate yet hilariously pointless camerawork, festooned with cheapjack special effects—altogether representative of ’80s horror at its low point. Amityville 2 is for me that mother lode many movie fans search for to speak to some part of us that seeks perfect, laughable shit. Such great crap must be a strange, almost contradictory mixture: it must, obviously, be awful, but it must also be bearable enough to drag you along with its proliferating absurdity. Of late, many have found such a film in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), an interesting choice for being a so-called drama and the Calvary of independent cinema. But for me nothing quite scratches the itch like a truly bad horror movie. I have happy memories of my childhood’s improvised household versions of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, making ruthless fun of this claptrap. And it never disappoints.

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Instead of fashioning a straight sequel to the intriguing, but witless The Amityville Horror (1979), the filmmakers made a prequel purporting to portray the original murders that gave an attractive and surprisingly affordable piece of real estate a bad name. The first film tied itself to a pseudo-factual account of the supposed haunting of a real Long Island house, and as the series’ cred was at least partly staked in that “based on a true story” frisson, a follow-up had to stay within those parameters. The Montelli family moves into the house, which a mover (a black guy—they always sense these things quicker in movies) senses is watching him. The family comprises cranky father Anthony (Burt Young), frayed mother Dolores (Rutanya Alda), hunky teenage son Sonny (Jack Magner), comely daughter Patricia (Diane Franklin), and two younger siblings, Jan and Mark (Erika and Brent Katz).

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Casting Young as anybody’s father is immediately unfair. Young offers a characterisation—frizzy hair, wild eyes, beer gut dangling pendulously against his slob shirts—that resembles less a hardworking, aspiring, middle-class paterfamilias than a wino the filmmakers hired off the street with the offer of fifty bucks and as much sterno as he could drink. All that’s missing is the cloud of flies buzzing about his head. Anthony bellows and barks and threatens his children with his broad leather belt and constantly jams a saliva-sticky cigar between his lips in a caricature of boorish plebeian masculinity. Somehow, he and his wife have produced a young Adonis of a son and a luscious daughter, in whom Damiani subtly suggests latent incestuous tension by having them bicker in a moron’s idea of screwball banter and having Patricia lounge against her brother wearing a skin-tight white woollen sweater. If ever a garment deserved an Oscar, that sweater is it.

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In a night of terror, repetitive knocking at the door brings out Anthony with his favourite rifle, whilst ethereal spooks terrify the younger children by painting a bizarre mural on the wall that suggests that if the house wanted to give up scaring unsuspecting tenants and take up art, it might one day have a fine exhibition at the Tate Modern. Consumed by hysteria, the family bellow and brawl, father slapping younger children and mother until son picks up the rifle and presses it to his father’s jaw. Mother takes the gun from her son’s hands and walks toward the camera to speak the line (honestly): “What’s happening to us?!” Mother attempts to talk their local Catholic priest, Father Adamski (James Olson!) into blessing their house, but another incomprehensible act of spook vandalism sets father off into a rage at his younger children again, causing Adamski to walk out in disgust: the last sane action in the film. When mother insists that father go to the church and apologise, the family dresses up and leave, except for Sonny, who isn’t feeling too hot. Alone in the house (shudder), Sonny is drawn downstairs by eerie noises, and finds a gate into the crawlspace open. And what does he see in there? You don’t want to know! No, really, you don’t want to know, it’s that disappointing!

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Like too many directors after Jaws (1975), Damiani uses a subjective camera to suggest a roving, malignant presence; Sonny is pursued around the house by an unperceived, but apparently horny apparition, constantly backing off from the approaching camera with a look of vague distress, as if the steadicam operator is giving him weird looks. Yeah, steadicam operators unnerve me, too: they’re always hairy and smell of cheap deodorant. But enough of that. The film turns here into a queasy gay-panic precursor to The Entity: the house wants to have sex with Sonny, as the spirit pinions him on his bed and repeatedly rams against his belly, infesting his hunky young body with mysterious lesions and swellings before the whole house erupts in orgasmic consummation. Rifles in their racks discharge spontaneously, windows and doors open and shut, furniture flies about, the boiler blows off steam, and the furnace spews fire. It’s safe to say the house is definitely a top. Having been perverted by a piece of real estate, Sonny’s new amorality knows no bounds, as he enters his sister’s room, and, in play-acting the fashion photographer with his model, gets her to take her nightgown off, and then pinions her for a night of hot, hot incest love, baby.

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When mother finally gets Adamski to return, he moves about the house shaking holy water around until Sonny and the evil presence conjure another pointless manifestation—the holy water turns to blood, making mother freak out about the cleaning up, and Adamski vomits in the sink. Soon mother perceives the rather too fraught glances between brother and sister, and a suddenly primly dressed and shamed sister goes to confess to Adamski, who soon enough goes off on a fishing trip with another priest with whom he seems very, very friendly, and ignores a worried phone call from Patricia. These damned ministers, who do they think they are, going off to have fun when people are in danger from haunted houses?!

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Unhinged either by having sex with houses or sex with his sister, or perhaps to keep Young from making another Rocky film, Sonny walks into his parents’ bedroom and shoots his father, before deciding to go the whole hog and, in a sequence the whole family can enjoy, executes mother and three siblings. Adamski awakens in a fright to find his friendly fellow priest bent over his bed and smiling, which is a more frightening notion than anything else in the film. “You were dreaming,” the friendly creepy priest says. No, Adamski insists, he felt something. They dash back to Amityville and discover, sure enough, authorities carting away the corpses and a distressed Sonny screaming that he can’t remember killing them. Having at last gotten the familial psychodrama out of the way, Amityville 2 can finally become what it always wanted to be: a really awful The Exorcist knock-off.

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Adamski interviews Sonny in his nuthouse cell and finds he’s possessed, apparently not by Mercedes McCambridge this time, but by Joan Crawford. It’s a pity he didn’t shout before his killings, “Bring me the axe!” Moses Gunn plays…I’m not sure what, but he spends his time looking between Sonny and Adamski like he hasn’t read the script, and is glad he didn’t. Adamski begins to dig into the house’s troubled history, and learns—are you ready, folks?—that the house was built by a Salem witch over an Indian burial ground. Now there’s tempting fate.

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Within all this idiocy might have been an intriguing template for satirising the nuclear family idyll consumed by changing mores and the anxieties of upward mobility, rather than taking refuge in the already exhausted Catholic guilt theme. Sonny keeps a Jim Morrison portrait on his wall, associating his spree with the oedipal massacre at the core of Morrison’s epic song “The End,” whilst his possession leaves him looking like Lou Reed circa Transformer. He hears demonic voices through his headphones (he has a Walkman, despite the fact the film is set in 1974), evoking both the threat of schizophrenic disintegration and furthering the timeless paranoia over the pernicious influence of evil pop music on modern youth. (And, indeed, Fall Out Boy make me think about mass homicide, too.)

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Damiani had been a workhorse director and writer in Italian cinema for many years, but his cheaply cynical approach imbues the film with no more relevance or intensity than a commercial for cornflakes. Sonny soon escapes from hospital and Adamski, to save Sonny from the demon, races to the house to perform an exorcism. When Sonny arrives, he cackles like a drag queen at Adamski, and warns him that his exorcism can’t succeed because he hasn’t been given the church’s authority. The demon then tries to throw off Adamski by morphing into Patricia, wearing slutty eyeliner and red lipstick to suggest the priest had wanted to bed her, before waggling her tongue at him. Unfortunately, this display suggests less the Whore of Babylon than Divine.

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The demon then starts to tear its way out of Sonny, splitting him apart with make-up that looks like dried lasagne, before Adamski, knowing how this scene goes, shouts out for the demon to take him instead. Flames explode from the house’s windows, and Adamski is left sprawled in the corner, whilst Sonny floats in a halo of light. He’s been saved by the power of the Lord, only to be hauled away and executed for multiple homicides. “We’ll make them understand,” the friendly priest promises him. Sure. And Adamski is left, the telltale swellings throbbing on his arm, within the house. A chilling…or something…coda shows a “For Sale” sign up outside the house, whilst from someplace deep within, in the shadowy depths of the netherworld, the laughter of Ed Wood echoes from beyond.

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1960s, Horror/Eerie, Italian cinema

Operazione Paura (1966)

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aka Operation Fear ; Kill, Baby…Kill! ; Curse of the Living Dead ; Don’t Walk In The Park

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Director: Mario Bava

By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava was an experienced cinematographer who worked with the likes of De Sica and Raoul Walsh before becoming a features director around the same time as Sergio Leone. Bava’s background is obvious in his films, with their creative camerawork and orchestrated lighting. Bava is still far less famous than Leone, partly because of the genre he worked in, partly because of the vagaries of distribution that made his films hard to see, and because he rarely worked with the same level of acting collaborators (one notable exception being Telly Savalas in Lisa e il Diavolo, 1972). So the realms of artistry found in Mario Bava’s work still rank as hidden treasure to most filmgoers.

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Not that he was without duds. Even Elke Sommer’s miniskirt couldn’t save Baron Blood (Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga, 1972). Scripts usually stank, but in the hands of stylists of the calibre of Bava, this became a plus because they could cut back on dialogue and required acting and concentrate on flights of cinema. Bava contributed to the first film of the ‘50s Horror renaissance, I Vampiri (1956), predating Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein by a year, when director Riccardo Freda walked off the production because of the absurdly tight budget, leaving Bava to get the film finished in four days.

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Freda was a great stylist in his own right. Splendidly morbid images dot his L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hitchcock (1962)—the ghostly brilliance of a funeral procession in a sun shower; the black lace curtains around the bier-like bed that the title character (Robert Flemyng) sweeps aside; Flemyng’s desperate attempts to gain access to a corpse in a clean, white, hospital morgue to satiate his necrophiliac desires; the distant patch of light that steadily grows as the heroine nears the end of the tunnel not knowing what awaits her; the jagged flash edits that reveal a mysterious shroud-wrapped figure playing a harpsichord in a lighting-lit house; and most iconic, gothic muse Barbara Steele’s face screaming in silent anguish through the glass face-plate of a sealed coffin. These survive long after the dumb dialogue and stick-figure dramatics are forgotten.

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Yet Freda never conquered those limitations as effectively as Bava. Bava made the last few great Gothic horror films, including La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Operazione Paura, and helped invent the stalk-and-slash film with Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (1964) and Ecologio del Delitto (1971), cited by John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham as the source for the stylistics of Halloween (1978), and Friday the 13th (1980), making Bava a shibboleth for horror directors at that time. Operazione Paura, probably Bava’s best film, benefits from a tight screenplay (penned by Bava with Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale). In 1900, investigator Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives in the small Mittel Europa village of Kermigen, a very un-Germanic Italian hamlet, with that look of such towns of being both partly organic and partly hewn over centuries out of solid rock. Eswai has been called to this hillbilly realm to perform an autopsy on Irena Hollander, whom we’ve seen in the pre-title scene run screaming across a field, climb some stairs, and throw herself onto a spiked iron fence. Eswai is there at the behest of Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), who had received a letter from Irena raving about danger and evil in the town. Kruger’s having trouble getting anyone to talk.

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Even the town’s Burgomaster, the bald, nervously sweaty, but seemingly sane Karl (Max Lawrence, real name Luciano Catennachi) can’t explain the situation, only give warnings about the grim nearby mansion, the Villa Graps, the name of which elicits a camp gasp of fear from everyone. Whilst Kruger goes to investigate the villa—he’ll be right back—Eswai gets an assistant in the comely form of Monica Shuftan (Erica Blanc), a medical student who has briefly returned to her home town to visit the graves of her parents, and the pair perform the autopsy on Irena. They discover a silver coin buried in the body’s heart. Monica, familiar with local folklore, knows it is a charm designed to save the soul of the deceased from evil spirits. Eswai is soon attacked by villagers, who insist he die for performing the autopsy, but he is saved by the commanding appearance of a black-clad witch named Ruth (Fabienne Dali). She disappears before Eswai can thank her. Later, Eswai spies on her performing a ritual on Nadienne (Micaela Esdra), daughter of the owners of the inn he’s staying at; Nadine has seen the spectral face a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl peering through the window at her, a sure omen of death.

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Ruth, despite her cruel exorcism practices (whipping the girl’s back with a branch and forcing her to wear a girdle of thorns) and somber demeanour, comes across as the most pleasant person in town, with her throaty, sorrowful voice and calm, protective attitude. It’s no wonder she’s getting it on with Burgomaster Karl, who ruins the mood of their tete-a-tete by delivering the body of Kruger for Ruth to perform her solemn duty for the town’s dead—putting that coin in the heart. Eswai, still looking for the Inspector, ventures into the Villa Graps,and find a lone occupant, the crazed-looking old Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi), who, when alone, sweats and suffers as swelling voices suggest tormenting ghostly presences, tying her to the sleeping Monica’s nightmare involving freaky dolls (one of the many horror visual clichés that Bava invented) and dark tombs. Eswai encounters the blonde girl in the halls of Villa. She says her name is Melissa, and behind Eswai on the wall, unnoticed, is her portrait, which sports the dates of her birth and death.

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Melissa’s a ghost, raining sorrow and bloodshed on the village, forcing people to commit suicide by sheer will. Why? Years before, during a feast, someone knocked her down with a horse, and the villagers, who loathed the Graps family, ignored her as she bled to death. Since then, the embittered Baroness, gifted with mediumistic powers, has been the conduit by which Melissa maintains her vengeful presence. Monica is revealed to be Melissa’s sister; the Shuftans, the Graps’ former servants, had rescued her as a baby from the villa. Karl gives his life to reveal this secret, prompting Ruth to finally defy the prophecy that she will die in the villa and confront the Baroness. Ruth strangles the Baroness, though the old bat has lanced Ruth through the chest with a poker, and the two women fall dead. Operazione Paura stumbles in points, especially in Paul’s throwaway rescue of Monica from a cardboard balcony. The film also suffers at the hands of its lead, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, whose emoting consists of narrowing his eyes and bending his limbs at angles resembling a Ken doll. Bava was at his best in keeping a stately tempo of mystery and atmosphere. Action is virtually perfunctory in his work (as are traditional heroics). In Operazione Paura his slow-build mastery is in full evidence.

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The film takes across the course of one night. Eswai arrives at dusk, the sun still giving a watery glow across the flat, bare plains around the town, which is anxiously closing up for the night. The dead woman’s coffin is being hurried through the narrow, crumbling streets. Once darkness has fallen, Melissa is introduced in a POV shot; the camera, accompanied by rusty, yawing sounds, is swinging back and forth looking out upon a cemetery. Then the camera ceases swinging and drops down, and a child’s stockinged legs and trailing dress sweep into view from their place on the swing, and the amused giggle of Melissa’s that punctuates appearances and murders is heard. Melissa stalks the Kermigen night, the shadows of her hands reaching up to windows, then her gliding form forming in view (ironically, Melissa is played by a boy in a wig). That Melissa’s appearances are usually clearly foreshadowed by such flourishes clears the way for the film’s best shock, when Karl ascends to his attic to fetch a letter for Monica; opening a locked cupboard, he screams as Melissa is revealed hiding inside, clutching the letter and smiling with sublime menace.

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Probably my favorite scene involves nothing; when Eswai and Monica are locked outside by the innkeeper for causing Nadienne’s death, they are left despairingly tolling a bell for non-existent help. Bava cuts through the deserted town, which quivers with shadow and unnameable menace, as composer Carlo Rusticheri’s eerie music composed of unusual, sonorous instrumentation tickles the backbone. Equally memorable for sheer style is Monica’s prophetic nightmare—Monica pleads and moans as the menacing doll advances on her from behind, a shot that perfectly evokes the aware-but-helpless sensations of a bad dream.

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Bava’s sense of symmetry is crucial, and it drives the whole narrative of many of his films, which usually end by closing a circle. His characters often find themselves trapped in cycles of behaviour and fate (incest is the grim heart of many of his films). “The circle of death is finally broken,” Ruth gasps in her last breath. In Operazione Paura, this circularity is even visualised when, after Monica has vanished with a scream, Eswai chases a mysterious intruder through the Villa Graps, through identical rooms, catching up gradually until he grips the figure’s shoulder and spins it around to find he has been chasing himself.

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Bava’s women are often avatars for condensed pathologies in the Western psyche over female sexuality. Bava invented the stalk-and-slash horror film that became epidemic in the ’80s with Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (Seven Women for the Killer), a title that says it all. This film that lays down a familiar blueprint; Cameron Mitchell’s psycho killer struggles vainly to exterminate female sexuality whilst nominally pursuing a fiscal motive, a viewpoint usually radically missed by the sadistic spectacles of its legion of imitators. Bava’s women usually inhabit multiple, contradictory roles, toying with familiar Western/Christian stereotypes; Asa/Katia in La Maschera del Demonio, who threatens to become both sexual predator and victim; Daliah Lavi’s Nevenka In La Frusta e il Corpo (1963), both submissive and murderer; Daria Nicolodi’s Dora in Shock (1977), who is both mother and lover of her possessed son; Lisa (Elke Sommer) in Lisa e il Diavolo, who finds herself bound eternally to the identity of a dead woman.

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Operazione Paura is cited as slightly weaker than La Maschera because it splits its pathological women into multiple parts, yet with characteristic awareness, Bava inverts the usual imagery by making the image of evil the blonde little girl and the force of good the black-haired witch. Although the structure puts Eswai front and centre, he is actually a useless representative of male arrogance; his “sensible” intervention with Nadienne, stripping her of Ruth’s barbed protection, results in Nadienne’s terrible death. When he catches himself trying to rescue the girl, it’s the logical end for Eswai, confronted by his own egotism.

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In Kermigen, the patriarchy of the village has been punished by the matriarchal rage of the Baroness, which has become so crazed it blights everything in reach, even the Baroness’s remaining daughter. The only person free to do anything, though she knows it will spell her end, is Ruth, who inhabits the guise of the most threatening form of female sexuality, the “dark” woman, familiar literary twin of the pristine “fair” woman (here, Monica)—single, mysterious, engaging in S&M-like “exorcism” practises on young women. Usually she’d be burnt at the stake, but now she’s the saviour. The film’s finale, dark woman and warped mother die in each other’s arms, one choked and the other fatally penetrated, in a potent image loaded with erotic and symbolic import, leaving virginal beauty Monica safe and sound.

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Despite his status as an Italian horror maestro, Bava rarely indulged in gore for its own sake, though his early films are violent in a way that would not be permissible in British and American horror for some time. The opening of his first full feature, La Maschera del Demonio, is one of the most brutal in all of cinema, and the end of his last film, Shock, has one of the most wince-worthy, yet oddly pretty throat slashings ever filmed. His jolts of violence are always pungent, effective moments, with a certain horrible beauty.

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The quagmire of financing in the ’70s killed the European genre cinema traditions and institutions within whichBava worked. The technical and artistic fluency he strived for was degraded by a forced reliance on time-and-money saving devices, such as zoom lens shots. Signing on with Spanish filibuster Alfred Leone didn’t help; Lisa e il Diavolo, a dark, suffocating dream of a film, was butchered, and 20-odd minutes of unrelated footage featuring Robert Alda as a priest was inserted. The film was released as Beyond the Door II (the original film, long a virtual myth known only to Spanish critics, is, thankfully, available today on DVD and video). Bava’s influence has been undeniable, and even if his best characteristics—his intelligence, his sense of cinema as a plastic medium, and his richly artful eye—are sadly lacking in a lot of contemporary horror, today they’re becoming better and better appreciated in themselves. Bava’s son Lamberto, an assistant director on Operazione Paura, became a successful horror director in the ’80s.

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