Don't Go In The House Triple Feature : The Amityville Horror, The Legend of Hell House, Poltergeist II & III:
Here's a curious idea, repackage a bunch of orphaned horror movies, give them a mathematically incorrect title, and charge about a nickel. I'm curious to see how it all works out. From a money angle, 12 bucks at Wal-Mart for four movies (retail value: 32 dollars) seems good. But with folks who'll bill this four-movie set as a triple-feature - how good with money can they be?
The Amityville Horror (2005)
You readers seem to demand full disclosure, so I'll admit I'm too lazy to figure out where the Amityville remake falls in the cycle of unneeded remakes of '70s (and now '80s) classics. Regardless, this remake seemed to reap more than its share of venom - I know my local video store is still trying to unload numerous DVD copies at 5 dollars a pop, two years after they ordered dozens for the rental crowd. Even though the original movie is no great shakes either, somehow fond memories of shaggy old James Brolin staggering around with an axe seem inviolate.
So, among the perceived ignominies heaped upon the franchise in 2005, we must deal with Ryan Reynolds as the male lead, a music video and commercial director (yup) at the helm, and a grip of Jacob's Ladder-style head-wiggling ghosts popping up at all the wrong moments. Though it's a movie that seems all too aware of the conventions of the horror film, and displays a somewhat lumpen aptitude to make those scares obvious and a little tedious, The Amityville Horror (2005) ain't all that bad!
Stroboscopic, sepia-toned shots nicely set up the 'based on true events' story - as a troubled young man manages to slaughter his entire family with a rifle, seemingly without any of them hearing anything during the chaos. Soon enough Reynolds, his ultra-hot new wife, and her kids move in to the cursed house and the fun really begins. Fun, that is, if you like swarms of flies, drooling phantoms, spouts of blood and Reynolds pacing back and forth in a suede sport coat while cursing his kids. While the scares seem coolly calculated for maximum effect with minimum innovation, and Reynolds struggles mightily to shed his sit-com-nice-guy image, Amityville actually provides a decent amount of thrills in no-brainer fashion. Check out a tense set piece with the adorably haunted moppet playing balance beam four stories up, for starters. And Reynolds ultimately pulls off a few seriously tense moments, barely restraining himself from turning his step-kids into cordwood, even if the muddled, abrupt ending leaves you reaching for Anson's titular best-seller for more depth. Hey, at least this remake is rated R, and with a nice selection of extras, that's R for Rent It.
The Legend Of Hell House
Based on Richard Matheson's novel Hell House, this movie and the original article are really just super-charged versions of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House, and if we could just nominate The Legend Of Hell House as the remake of The Haunting, and forget that awful 1999 version (is that where things began to go wrong?) then we'd all be better off. Containing numerous stylish, spooky set-pieces, this movie is solid meat-and-potatoes horror, one with which you could indoctrinate your horror-shy friends into the fine world of fear.
Three intrepid mediums and a tag-along wife are sent to Hell House with the promise of cash if they solve the riddle of its curse. Twitchy, avian Roddy McDowell is Ben, the medium who almost got squashed by the house before, Clive Revill is Mr. Barrett, the spook-buster who aims to clean the house scientifically, Gail Hunnicutt is Ann, his delicious wife, and Pamela Franklin is the equally delicious Florence, young up-and-coming medium who's so sensitive she starts the house bumping from minute one. Those bumps involve sequence after sequence of sturdy scares and tension-filled moments playing on fears real and imagined, solid psychological shenanigans and (the only dim spot) scientific ghost hunting hokum.
The brilliance of Hell House lies in a 'veddy British' attitude; matter-of-fact, proper and unwavering. Spectral antics aren't dolled up in splashy effects or arch trappings, just laid out with straight-forward earnestness; no-one in the house displays more attitude than they would on any other day at work. This coolness brings the fear right into the real world, giving Hell House more than the usual share of scares. Chillingly delightful is the way characters will become aware of something sinister, staring into an empty space while no more than hushed whispers and choked atmosphere telegraph the trauma.
This is not to say that Hell House isn't dramatic; plates fly, tables shake, heavy things crash to the ground, ectoplasm convincingly floats and sexual tension is cranked to ten. When's the last time you saw a horror movie that tackled British Male frigidity for instance? Each actor in turn gives a solid, mesmerizing performance, with enough awesome sound bites to fill a dozen scary techno songs (glad to finally place some stuff from Skinny Puppy Bites, personally). Bows tied too neatly at the end represent the only real demerit for this movie that scared the bejesus out of me when it aired on telly in the mid-seventies. Gorgeously evil rococo set-design, a fabulously evocative minimalist score, spare plotting that hits the ground running, four super performances, and no filler: sure there are scarier films out there, but The Legend Of Hell House represents a clinic on how to do a haunted house movie right. Of itself, it's Highly Recommended.
It's not hard to tell where Poltergeist II goes wrong, the weird thing is it's so transparent it's laughable. Overall an easy, entertaining movie, Poltergeist II flops because it's actually an easy, entertaining four or five movies, some of which really stink.
Taking up a few years after the Freeling family's initial spectral run-in, we find our heroes living with Diane Freeling's mom in what looks to be a multi-million dollar home in Pasadena. That doesn't stop (with all due respect) creepy moppet Carol Anne from picking up the toy phone one night (during an extremely localized storm) to announce "they're back!"
That wicked tag line must have had greedy studios drooling, as four producers then sweep in to make four apparently different movies. We get low-ball horror for the teenie-bopper set, stilted comedy for the chickens in the audience, wretched new-age mysticism for who-knows-who exactly, and Rubenstein, Sampson and Beck.
For the most part, nothing gels, with once-realistic characters stiffening into cardboard. Aside from a scary possession scene, Craig T. Nelson's Steve is even more dopey, bumbling and prone to drug abuse than ever before; Diane goes on an annoying Ramtha-trip, and the kids are just conduits to the Other Side. On the mystical side, Rubinstein returns as misused audience favorite Tangina, the formidable Julian Beck steals (if not obliterates) the show as skeletal villain Kane, and Will Sampson (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) chews up and spits out his clichéd character while suffering through too many stilted comedy bits.
From Vomit Monsters and desiccated corpses springing up ala Michael Jackson's Thriller through cheesy comic-relief and finally to horrible 'golden light and angels' B.S. that leaves a bad taste, Poltergeist II runs all over the map. Some really great acting (the stunning Beck Vs. Nelson grudge match on the porch, for instance) combines with some really poor acting and writing - with most of the principals contributing both good and bad - making this hodgepodge an ultimately disappointing, herky-jerky affair. I guess you gotta take the good with the bad, and not feel too bad if you Rent It.
There have certainly been equally vertiginous collapses for other movie franchises, but none seemingly so damning as that which happened to the Poltergeist series. Damning, that is, if you place credence in the 'Poltergeist Curse.' But while one can't argue that many Poltergeist principals died tragically and some too young, one would be a buffoon to dispute the claim that by Poltergeist III the franchise concept was sucking like an Electrolux.
Part three finds ghost-magnet Carol Anne fobbed off on her Aunt and Uncle (Nancy Allen and Tom Skerritt) in Chicago. Way to go, parents! Can't handle your demon-prone daughter? Just force her on your relatives! That way, everyone living and dead will hate you.
In this flabby, poorly defined vehicle, constructed for a few lame set pieces, there's more than enough hate to go around. Not the least of which should be directed at the screenwriters who had the brilliant idea to meld Poltergeist with The Towering Inferno.
We find Skerritt and Allen attempting to inaugurate (I think) a new high-rise condominium and launch (I think) Allen's art career while caring for their misfit niece. Private school shrinks are brought in to poorly and self-consciously figure things out (while dumfounding audiences with weird acting). Problem is, Carol Anne's demon, Kane (manifested mostly by an ugly stand-in for the late Julian Beck) won't leave her alone: he appears in multiples wherever a mirror is available, and decides to freeze the entire skyscraper they live in, resulting in a bit of fake-ice-smash-up-derby involving some K-Cars in the parking lot. Whoop-dee-do!
Seriously, the only magic demonstrated here is the appearance of a preternaturally young Lara Flynn Boyle as Carol Anne's cousin. Otherwise, huge goose eggs from the scare department, wretched editing, and a TV Movie vibe so devoid of confidence that Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) is dragged out yet again to curry audience favor, means you'll be shutting off your set with an angry sigh. (Masochists might give it another go to see if the movie is really as bad as it seems, though with so much out there to see, realists will want to Skip It.)
Amityville comes in 2.35:1 widescreen presentation, looking the best of the bunch. Colors are dialed-in, (stylistic touches abound; sepia-tone sequences, sickly greens and garish reds, for instance) details are sharp and blacks are deep. It's your basic quality DVD.
The Legend Of Hell House, being the oldest, shows its age the most, with film damage cropping up occasionally, and some weird vertical bands of fading color on the right side of the screen for the final ten minutes or so, something that had me panicking that my set had gone belly up (tests with broadcast and another DVD eased my fears). Otherwise, Hell House comes in 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, with a pretty nice, decently sharp image and great, rich colors and black levels.
Poltergeist II also gets the 2.35:1 presentation, though at 19-years older than Amityville, shows some age. The image is a bit soft (sometimes to a degree that it may very well have been a deliberate choice) but detail levels are good and colors naturalistic.
Poltergeist III comes in a haunting 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, and otherwise looks about as good as number II - though the image is not as soft, and colors are not quite as saturated. It's a decent but not exceptional presentation.
These discs are all simply repackaged from their previous incarnations, with no changes made, none of the discs sport any unwanted compression artifacts.
Amityville sports English 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, and likewise with French Audio. It has the best treatment of the bunch, good dynamic range, an active mix, and a fine balance between dialog and soundtrack - look out for those super-loud jump-scare sound effects, though.
The Legend Of Hell House has an English 4.0 Dolby Surround Audio track, and English and French Mono Audio. The 4.0 track does a nice job of pumping up the scare factor for those creepy whispered ghostly sounds, and treats the great soundtrack nicely. The excellent dialog is mixed well and easy to hear when it wants to be.
Both Poltergeist movies have English and French Dolby Surround and Spanish Mono Audio tracks, which are fine, if unremarkable.
Again, these are all just repackaged discs from previous incarnations, with no additional features. Amityville has a grip of them, though - from a fun and informative Commentary Track with Reynolds and a couple producers. They make the film out to seem better and more important than it is, but give some interesting tidbits, and Reynolds gets in a number of funny laugh lines that had me chuckling. Seven minutes of Deleted Scenes (with Commentary) aren't exactly earth shattering, a 26-minute Making Of Featurette is relatively fun; a bulked up (like Reynolds' bod) EPK, generally. Also, a 17-minute True Story featurette sets up a sort of 'he said/ she said' dynamic - a nice nod to the fact that other than the DeFeo murders, the whole shebang may very well be a hoax. A handful of Behind The Scenes Peeks can be accessed as you watch the film: watch the scene and then see how they filmed it before jumping back into the story. Plenty of Trailers round out the collection.
The Legend Of Hell House delivers only a few Trailers, four for other movies, and one for Hell House.
The Poltergeist movies deliver pretty much bupkiss in terms of extras - Theatrical Trailers for both features are it.
All four movies also have English, Spanish and French Subtitles except for Hell House, which drops the French subtitles.
So, we get two 'renters' one 'highly recommended' and one 'skip it' from this 'triple feature.' At the easily attainable retail price of twelve bucks, the deal absolutely pencils out, and with Amityville's special features there's a little value added. The question is, how many of these do you already own? Horror fans who like to have a bunch of standbys hanging around for those nights when you just don't know what to watch would do well to pick this up. It's a bargain, with at least two you'll watch more than once. But if you're tired of the repackaging game you might have to pass on moral grounds. Up to you, kids - but for the mighty ratings gods I guess I'll say it's Recommended, if only because at this price you might as well buy. (Am I wishy-washy or what?)
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com