Here's a tough-to-dispute fact: On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr.—"Butch" to his friends—killed his mother, father, and four siblings while they slept in a Dutch colonial house in the upscale Long Island town of Amityville. Here's another: 28 days after moving into the same house, its new owners, the Lutz family, abandoned it. Why? The Lutzes claim they were plagued by supernatural forces that tore doors off hinges, produced strange goop, and made other menacing gestures. Their story became the basis for a bestselling "non-fiction" book and a film. Then there was a movie sequel, and another, then a series of TV movies with names like Amityville 1992, and now a new Michael Bay-produced remake (reviewed in this week's Cinema section). The Lutzes' story not only has no basis in fact, it may have been an intentional money-grabbing hoax. Of course, if it produced even one entertaining film, the chicanery would be forgivable, but based on the evidence found in the four-disc Amityville Horror Collection set (which contains the first three films and a disc of Amityville-themed History Channel specials), the whole crew could easily be convicted of wasting way too much of the world's time over the past 25 years.
A huge hit in 1979, The Amityville Horror puts James Brolin and Margot Kidder into the Lutzes' shoes, then lets a creepy/derivative Lalo Schifrin score do most of the heavy lifting. In happier times, director Stuart Rosenberg confidently helmed Cool Hand Luke. Here, he resorts to one spookhouse cliché after another, and even the original touches are more puzzling than startling. Sure, the bleeding walls stick in the mind, but who's afraid of demon pigs? Released three years later, Amityville II: The Possession takes the prequel route and re-enacts the DeFeo killings, though it sidesteps legal issues by using a different last name. Jack Magner plays a nice young man driven by evil spirits to commit incest with his sister (future Better Off Dead star Diane Franklin) and murder his dad (Burt Young). In his sole venture away from the Italian B-movie circuit, wonderfully named director Damiano Damiani opts for an approach that's simultaneously more shameless, tasteless, and entertaining than the original. If a scene allows even the tiniest opportunity for a swooping camera move or a blasphemous image, he's on it.
The DVD-box sticker reading "Amityville 3-D is not presented in 3-D format: No 3-D glasses needed" pretty much sums up the experience of watching the third film. The comin'-at-ya shots of buzzing flies, rotting corpses, and steel rods don't have quite the same effect in two dimensions. (Although even glasses wouldn't improve the flat performance of erstwhile Woody Allen sidekick Tony Roberts.)
As franchises go, the Amityville series is pretty sorry, but the set has a redeeming facet in the original film's cranky commentary track, provided by "esteemed" parapsychologist Hans Holzer. Holzer dismisses the Lutzes' story of demonic possession as hogwash because, as anyone can see, all the problems can be traced back to the house's placement on an ancient Indian burial ground. Well, duh.