“Amityville: the Evil Escapes” (1989)

Amityville! We still love that bullshit, right? All that nonsense about red rooms and ghost pigs and Indian burial grounds, even forty years later, we’re still eating it up. If you don’t believe me, check what’s coming to a theater near you in 2016: why, it’s Amityville: the Awakening, which appears to be starting the whole goddamn thing over again. There has never been a movie in this entire series that has been anything more than mediocre, and yet Hollywood still keeps churning them out, still using imagery of that imposing house with the gabled roof and ominous, glowing “eye” windows, even if the movie itself doesn’t take place there (and ignoring the fact that neither the real Amityville house, nor the house in Toms River, New Jersey, where the exterior shots in the original Amityville Horror were filmed, look like that anymore).

After two theatrical sequels, one unpleasant (Amityville II: the Possession) and one so goofy it was almost charming (Amityville 3D), tanked at the box office, the series switched over to the lower budget/higher return made for TV and/or direct to video route. The plots focused not on the house, but on items that had been in the house and were thus “cursed.” You see, whatever evil dwelling at 112 Ocean Avenue that caused green slime to ooze out of the walls and Rod Steiger to overact like someone was threatening to murder his children off-camera was so powerful, so infernal, that it even possessed inanimate objects.

The first of these was Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes, which aired on NBC in 1989, and the cursed object in question is a hideous floor lamp. The movie opens, presumably after the events of parts one and two but before part three (the house explodes at the end of that one), with the Amityville house abandoned with the belongings of the last residents left behind. It’s unclear who the last residents were, as there’s no mention at all of the Lutzes from the original story (by this point the real George Lutz, determined to ride that money train all by himself, was starting to sue anyone who tried to cash in on the Amityville hoax without his input), and only a passing mention of the real life murders that took place in the house. A group of priests, led by Father Manfred (Norman Lloyd), enter the house to perform an exorcism, and one of them, Father Kibbler (Frederic Lehne), literally sees the face of Evil just before it enters a lamp. We later learn that, while the house itself is now “clean,” everything that had been inside it is tainted.

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Now, I’m not sure how that works, considering there are several movies in which people acquire cursed objects that had once been inside the Amityville house. Is the Amityville evil a singular being that splits itself into various items, or is there an evil committee, where everyone draws straws to see what objects they enter? “Larry, you get the television, that’s going to some place called Cuesta Verde, Ray, you get the creepy doll, Greg, you get the rocking chair, Eddie, you get the can opener…” “Wait, why do I get the can opener? What am I supposed to do inside a can opener?” “I don’t know, you’ll think of something. Maybe make it so can lids never fully come off and they have to risk cutting themselves while prying it open. You’re evil, improvise!”

See that? That was comedy. Anyway, the objects inside the house show up at a yard sale, pored over by people who don’t mind buying things from a house in which an entire family was murdered. One of them, Helen Royce (Peggy McCay), declares that the lamp, which is shaped like a gnarled tree with an enormous white globe stuck on top, and looks like it weighs 400 pounds, would be the perfect gift for her sister, whom she evidently despises. While admiring the lamp, she cuts her finger on it, and when next we see her, her finger has swollen to the size of a bratwurst and looks like gangrene is setting in. You can probably guess where that’s going.

The lamp is shipped to Alice Leacock (Jane Wyatt), Helen’s sister, who lives in a seaside house in California. It arrives the same day as Alice’s daughter, Nancy (Patty Duke, absolutely convincing as a woman whose family is terrorized by a lamp), a recent widow who moves back home with her 25 year-old teenage daughter Amanda (Zoe Trilling), dorky adolescent son Brian (Aron Eisenberg), and emotionally troubled youngest child Jessica (Brandy Gold). The lamp is in the house barely a day before all sortsa weird shit starts happening. Alice’s pet bird ends up dead in the toaster oven. An electric kettle overheats and burns Alice’s hand. In probably the best scene in the whole movie, a chainsaw that Brian is playing around with (why an elderly woman has a chainsaw just laying out on a table is anyone’s guess) goes on by itself, nearly destroying the entire basement, which is stocked with enough potatoes and canned goods to feed an entire Eastern European village.

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Most disturbingly, young Jessica thinks that the lamp is her deceased father, and starts talking to it. One can assume that a little girl pointing at a lamp and saying “Look, it’s Daddy!” is supposed to be creepy, but here it’s hilarious. Seriously, readers with young children, just picture them wandering around the house, pointing at various objects, like a coat rack or an ottoman, and proclaiming “Look, it’s Daddy!”

Alice, a bit icy at their arrival in the first place, not so subtly implies that she thinks it’s her grandchildren who are behind these shenanigans. Nancy is distracted by Jessica’s increasingly upsetting behavior, which includes throwing violent tantrums and creating adorable crayon drawings of knives dripping blood. Meanwhile, Evil doubles down, shredding an electrician’s hand in a garbage disposal, drowning a plumber in black goo, and strangling Alice’s kindly housekeeper with its own cord (Evil really seems to have it in for helpless old ladies and blue collar workers). Oh, and somehow Evil, still in the form of a floor lamp, let me remind you, can also make telephone calls and remotely drive cars.

After Alice’s sister dies of tetanus, Father Kibbler realizes that Evil has escaped, and is living the good life in California. He meets with Nancy, and warns her that Evil will possess “the most vulnerable member of the household,” in this case, little Jessica. Why it would choose an 8 year-old girl as opposed to the teenage boy or two adult women also living in the house is unknown; evidently Evil doesn’t really like a good fight. It takes startlingly little to convince Nancy that it’s a lamp that’s responsible for all the mishaps and tragedies in the house, and she teams up with Father Kibbler and Alice to destroy it once and for all.

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And how do they destroy it? Well, they throw it out a window. That’s it.

The story concludes with Nancy and oldest daughter Amanda smiling with relief outside the house. “It’s really over, isn’t it, Mom?” Amanda asks, to which Nancy replies “It’s really over.” Now, with dialogue like that, certainly the movie can end in one of only three ways:

a.) They return to the house and find the lamp back in the living room, fully intact.

b.) The family cat, Pepper, sniffs at the broken pieces of the lamp and then meows menacingly as her eyes glow yellow, suggesting that she is Evil’s newest conduit.

c.) Jessica, seemingly returned to normal, looks at the camera and smirks, suggesting that she is still possessed.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which one they went with.

I mentioned in my review of Don’t Go to Sleep that TV horror of the 70s and 80s often struggled with the restrictions that primetime required, and so is the case with Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes. Despite the surprising body count (considering the number for the original Amityville Horror was zero), it’s just not scary. Even if it wasn’t a made for TV movie, it still wouldn’t be scary, because the villain is a fucking lamp. I’ve seen some ugly, even imposing lamps in my life, but I’ve never seen one that made me think “Wow, now that’s a terrifying lamp.” Lamps don’t move. Lamps don’t make noise. Except for strangling the housekeeper and giving someone tetanus, it doesn’t even do its own dirty work, instead somehow controlling the other appliances in the house (and forcing a bird to fly itself into a toaster oven, I guess?). To be fair, if the lamp moved around and interacted with people like a satanic Pee Wee’s Playhouse prop, it’d be even sillier.

Shockingly, this is not the silliest of the “possessed objects from the Amityville house” movies. No, that would have to be the next one, Amityville: It’s About Time, which, as you probably could surmise, is about an evil clock, and boasts an exhaustively detailed, yet still incompetently written plot description on Wikipedia. Following that was one about a mirror, which I didn’t see, and then one about a dollhouse, which nobody saw. Since then, other than a straight, equally mediocre remake of the original starring Ryan Reynolds and his ridiculous abs, the newer movies have moved further and further away from the source material, using “Amityville” for little more than name recognition (not unlike naming an anthology TV series Friday the 13th, even though it has nothing to do with summer camps or masked serial killers). Going by the brief description, it would appear that the upcoming Amityville: the Awakening returns to the old house (which, again, exploded in part 3, but hey, who’s counting at this point). Perhaps they should consider using flashlights, just to be safe.

Original airdate: May 12, 1989 (not currently available in full online–boo!–but here’s a clip of that fantastic chainsaw scene)

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