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The 'Amityville' horrors keep coming

There are at least 45 sequels to Stuart Rosenberg's 1979 horror drama about a family under siege by supernatural forces inside their home in suburban Amityville, New York (on Long Island).
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 11:35 IST
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 11:35 IST

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When it comes to large film franchises, a few titans emerge: Godzilla, James Bond, Spider-Man.

But there's one movie with so many offspring, it's giving those big boys a run for their money - The Amityville Horror.

There are at least 45 sequels to Stuart Rosenberg's 1979 horror drama about a family under siege by supernatural forces inside their home in suburban Amityville, New York (on Long Island). That's more than the Star Wars, Fast and Furious and X-Men franchises combined.

So many Amityville movies are being cranked out - at least four this year - that horror magazine Fangoria added Best Amityville Film as a category in its annual awards last year.

"There's a built-in marketplace for the Amityville franchise," said Director Shawn C Phillips, whose films include Amityville Karen and the new Amityville Bigfoot with Eric Roberts.

"There are people out there that will literally watch every single Amityville film they make. It's kind of gotten to the point where filmmakers are trying to top one another."

To be fair, "sequel" and "franchise" are being used generously. Fewer than 10 films make up the legit Amityville Horror canon, and even that number is up for debate.

Like the word "paranormal", "Amityville" has become more of a low-effort synecdoche for generic possessions of things (Amityville Vibrator), holidays (Amityville Christmas Vacation) or locations (Amityville in Space). The films are mostly comedic, have microbudgets and have little continuity with the original.

As for quality, they aren't just eh, they're mostly ugh, ranging from satisfyingly entertaining to soul-suckingly terrible. But they keep being made.

"A bunch are unwatchable, although some people may say that about my films," said director Thomas J Churchill, whose Amityville trilogy is streaming on Starz.

"My films are designed to help you forget two hours of life and be entertained."

Mike Stone, a YouTube horror movie critic, reviewed 42 Amityville films before calling it quits. He said that in some die-hard corners of horror fandom, watching anything Amityville - there are probably 54, by his count - confers bragging rights.

"It requires commitment to seeing how much this is going to hurt," he said - a kind of "cinematic masochism."

Joe Lipsett, who is reviewing many of the new films for the horror website Bloody Disgusting, said that a big driver behind them is money.

"Being able to sell it and get a viewership even if it's not super lucrative is probably enough so that people are going to pay attention to it, as opposed to some other schlocky title," he said.

Unlike Hollywood franchises, Amityville - the word and setting - are free to use without litigious repercussions as long as the film doesn't too closely mirror the original.

A similar grab is happening with Winnie the Pooh, already the subject of two slasher films now that the copyright to A A Milne's 1926 book Winnie-the-Pooh has expired.

The public domain is a gift for low-budget horror filmmakers who may never make a Saw film but who still want to toy with a recognisable horror brand, the better to attract eyeballs on catchall streaming platforms like Tubi.

"If you can't afford an IP, Amityville is a name you can get for free," said Jacob Oller, the movies editor at Paste magazine who has written about the "Amityville" universe. "Slap anything on the end of it - just grab a theme out of the ether - and someone will stream it."

The Amityville Horror was a box-office hit and became a touchstone of modern house-possessed horror movies, inspiring the Conjuring and other franchises. (The original is streaming on Max.)

It was based on a real tragedy from 1974, when Ronald DeFeo Jr murdered his family - his parents, Ronald and Louise, and his four siblings, Dawn, Allison, Mark and John Matthew - at his family's home on Ocean Avenue in Amityville, on Long Island's South Shore.

DeFeo claimed he heard voices telling him to kill, but he eventually confessed to the murders, and was convicted in 1975 on six counts of second-degree murder. He died in 2021 while serving 25 years to life in prison.

A year after the murders, the Lutz family - George, Kathy and their three kids - moved into the house and claimed to experience sinister supernatural forces, fleeing less than a month later.

Their ordeal - or hoax, to skeptics - inspired a 1977 bestselling book and the first film, which starred James Brolin and Margot Kidder.

According to a spokesperson for the United States Patent and Trademark Office, in 2002 the trademark The Amityville Horror was federally registered by George Lutz for a series of nonfiction books about the paranormal, but the registration was canceled in 2008.

In 2023, the trademark The Amityville Horror was federally registered for a series of horror films and TV shows, as well as horror film production and distribution, by MGM, and remains active.

Since the first film, the Amityville house has been renovated and its address changed. It's occupied and still attracts curious visitors, but its Street View image on Google Maps is blurred out.

A spokesperson for Google Maps declined to provide details about why or who requested it, citing privacy concerns.

Not everyone is thrilled with the expanding Amityville galaxy. In response to an email saying this story was happening, and seeking comment, Dennis M Siry, the Amityville mayor, wrote, "Please don't".

Film historian Bryan Thomas Norton is no fan of the new movies.

"Amityville is basically worth bupkis as far as credible horror movie currency goes," said Norton, whose book For God's Sake, Get Out!, about the canonical Amityville films, comes out this fall.

Paula M Uruburu, a professor emeritus in literature and film at Hofstra University, grew up near the Amityville house, and as a teenager was friends with Dawn DeFeo.

A fan of the original film, she hopes the seemingly unquenchable thirst for "Amityville" movies doesn't overshadow the tragedy behind it.

"The real horror was the murder of the family and going to the funeral and seeing six coffins at the church," she said.

Like it or not, she added, a lovely Long Island village may forever be an indelible shorthand.

"Amityville," she said, "means horror".

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Published 20 April 2024, 11:35 IST

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