You know, when this prequel starts to fall apart in the last half hour, it’s just a damn shame because until then, it’s surprisingly solid and superior to its popular predecessor. Focusing on the true-life massacre of the DeFeo family at the hands of 23-year-old son Ronald Jr., the movie adapts the events and Defeo’s insanity plea (specifically, his claim that voices told him to carry out the killings) into a cohesive whole. The dynamics among the Montelli family (standing in for the Defeos) are extraordinarily well-established, largely thanks to Tommy Lee Wallace’s remarkably bold screenplay: There’s a bit of everything here, from an abusive, domineering father to an incestuous relationship between siblings, so when the family arrives in the Amityville house with all that psychic baggage, they stir the spirits within. It’s so audacious for a haunted-house flick to just “go there” with difficult subject matter, so kudos to director Damiano Diamiani (what an awesome, rock-star name, eh?) for not shying away from discomforting themes and saying a lot about the corrosive ecosystems created in family units with brutish paternal figures and maternal disempowerment. Diamiani also does a great job with practical effects, sidestepping the rather ludicrous special effects that took away from the original movie’s effect, in particular a nicely done shot involving a mirror (you can’t miss it, it’s up there with the hallway shot in “Beyond the Door II”). Then there’s the terrific, rather overqualified acting, best exemplified by Burt Young and Rutanya Alda as the parents: Both performers are at ease with their mutually unflattering roles, and they tear into them as though this is high drama instead of a shlocky horror prequel, so good on them. But the movie belongs to Jack Magner as Ronald substitute Sonny, whose simmering resentment against his father believably grows into overpowering rage, tackling the role with complete authenticity and believability. Unfortunately, the whole movie falls apart once the family has been dispatched because the plot becomes a plodding, slow-paced rip-off of “The Exorcist” out of nowhere, and the final 30 minutes bring the momentum to a screeching halt. It’s a shame because if Diamiani could have contained the last bit, this would have been a bit of a masterpiece; as it is, it’s a flawed, nasty little number that’s definitely worth watching even if it ends up limping to the finish line in the end.
Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)