Monday, January 30, 2017

"A Pyromaniacal Nazi Down the Hall" - Amityville: It's About Time (1992)

Of all the major horror movie “franchises” (a singularly odd word for "series"), only one consists solely of excellent, challenging, brilliantly made masterpieces. Of course, I am referring to the Amityville Horror films, which began in 1979 with the original film, based on a true story. Two of the sequels are based on a book called Amityville: The Evil Escapes; one of these sequels aired on television and the other we shall discuss here: Amityville: It’s About Time (1992), originally known helpfully as Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (1992).

While A:IAT (originally A1992:IAT) is the acknowledged high point of this brilliant series in my universe, it has not received such accolades in your universe. The inimitable Stacie Ponder of Final Girl writes (suspiciously and dismissively), "There is no universe where this movie makes any sense: not our universe, not a parallel universe nor a perpendicular one." On Rotten Tomatoes, Alex Roy writes, "it will bore you like every other entry that has been made since the original feature." Reviewer bh_tafe3 on IMDB writes, "It's lame, pointless and everything about it from the performances, to the dialogue, to the direction is so clich├ęd and unengaging."

We need to dispel these misconceptions immediately and give director Tony Randel’s film the praise it is due.

The film opens on a rainy night in a Southern California housing development. A taxi pulls up in front of a house whose features subtly echo the familiar Amityville house with two windows reminiscent of eyes.

An old woman watches from across the street as a man exits the taxi and carries a large package into the house. He has returned from a business trip to New York. "This is what our house has been missing," he says as he unboxes an ornate clock. "It's ugly as hell," his son says. "I like it."

The man places the clock on the fireplace mantel and starts it by moving its pendulum. It immediately starts playing the film's theme music, though the family members refrain from commenting on the unusual music.

Suddenly, outside, the woman across the street, who has apparently been standing and staring at the house for several minutes in the rain, has a lightning-fueled vision of the house becoming the Amityville house--and not just the Amityville house: a demon-visaged version of the Amityville house.

The woman's purpose for standing in front of the house fulfilled, she shambles away.

Inside the house, the son and daughter go to bed while the man (Jacob) and woman (Andrea) converse, helpfully providing exposition. Jacob's wife has died and Andrea was taking care of the teenage children during Jacob's business trip.

Jacob and Andrea retire to the bedroom to have shockingly sweaty sex, then provide some more exposition. Jacob complains about how loud the clock ticks, which made it hard for him to sleep in his hotel last night. Again, he does not mention the clock's theme music.

Downstairs, the clock is up to something sinister. A mechanical drill emerges from somewhere in the clock mechanism and begins drilling into the mantelpiece.

The film then cuts to the son's room, where he is practicing his guitar, a much louder noise than the clock's ticking but unnoticed by Jacob and Andrea. The son goes downstairs and lets in a neighbor's dog, Peaches, who runs to the living room and starts barking at the clock on the mantel. 

The son then lets the dog out into the rain.

What happens next is nothing short of amazing. The son, Rusty, flicks a light switch on (or off; the film is not clear) and his view of the living room changes to a view of what appears to be a medieval castle chamber, complete with the clock sitting on a shelf. When Rusty flicks the switch again, the room reverts to an ordinary suburban living room.

Rusty tries repeatedly with the switch, flipping the room back and forth between modern and medieval. Then the light in the ceiling shorts out, sparks flying and dropping to the carpet.

Rusty goes upstairs, failing to warn anyone about either the electrical problem or the time-distortion powers of the haunted clock.

More strange occurrences occur. During a morning jog, Jacob is attacked with no provocation by Peaches. The dog digs into Jacob's arm and leg, producing a great deal of blood. Apparently believing he is in a bar fight, Jacob grabs a bottle and smashes it over the dog's head, fighting it off.

The film cuts to a hospital, where a doctor helpfully informs Andrea that Jacob has suffered some discomfort due to the dog attack. The doctor prescribes Percodan for the pain. "Mood swings are a common side effect," he warns Andrea.

As teens are wont to do, Rusty sneaks away from high school to play chess with Iris, the old woman who spent last night standing in front of Rusty's house in the rain. Rusty informs Iris about the ugly clock's time-travel abilities. "Is that all?" Iris says. She appears to know exactly what the clock is and that it traveled a great distance to find a new home.

Andrea and Jacob return home from the hospital. The dog's attack on Jacob's leg has resulted in multicolored bleeding, a serious sign.

The mystery, such as it is, deepens when Rusty visits the owner of the dog, only to find out that the dog attacked nobody and is not even injured, despite Jacob smashing its face with a bottle.

Perhaps the most genuinely chilling scene in the film occurs at dinner with Andrea, Rusty, and Lisa. Andrea asks where the phone book is and in an uninterrupted shot Rusty walks to the living room to retrieve it, pausing to look at the mysterious clock, then returning immediately to the kitchen. He finds that hours have passed and dinner is over. The scene has the simple power of a Twilight Zone segment, and it is only slightly mitigated by the revelation that Andrea needed the yellow pages to call her boyfriend for some unexplained reason.

Lisa makes the unwise decision to sleep in the living room, giving her bedroom to Andrea. She has trouble sleeping, in part due to the loud ticking of the clock and in larger part due to the unacknowledged fact that the room is as bright as daytime. 

When she tries to leave the room, the door slams shut and Lisa is trapped inside the living room. We watch for several minutes as she pounds on the inside of the door, but her loud pounding goes unheard throughout the house.

At the same time, Andrea experiences a supernatural inconvenience as something crawls into her bed. When she reaches over, she finds some kind of black oil beside her. 

Rushing downstairs, Andrea is now able to hear Lisa pounding on the living room door. She rescues the traumatized Lisa by pulling open the door. In a disturbing twist, the film refuses to explain why Lisa is more traumatized by being temporarily stuck in a comfortable living room than Andrea is by being attacked by an oil-monster.

The film begins ratcheting up the supernatural occurrences. The dog that attacked Jacob is found stuffed into a swimming pool filter. A swastika has been painted on a garage door across the street. And Jacob, trying to design homes for a new housing tract, keeps sweatily drawing the familiar facade of the Amityville house. "It's not the right concept," he says, frustrated. "Timeless."

Andrea calls her quirky professor boyfriend Lenny to come help her. As they eat in the backyard in the middle of the night, she sees the side of the house catch fire. They run to investigate, only to find that the hedges beside the house are on fire. This scene allows for a cameo by the great Dick Miller as a concerned neighbor.

Lisa returns home from a date to see the fire endangering her house. She climbs out of her boyfriend's car. "What, no goodnight kiss?" he asks as she rushes to see why her house is burning.

The narrative, somewhat obtusely, attempts to lay blame for various occurrences--the swastika, the fire--on Rusty, but he knows there is an evil force in the house.

Andrea's shouty professor boyfriend is unsympathetic. "You have a pyromaniacal Nazi down the hall, you've got a toxic lunatic in the master bedroom, the only one around here who seems normal is Lisa and that's because I haven't met her yet. I wonder what kind of secrets she has in her closet. You know, Barbie doll vivisection, pagan rituals..."

He challenges her: "You tell me I'm wrong! You tell me I'm wrong!"

"You're wrong," she says.

"I'm wrong?"

Then he makes his move on her, and they sleep together in Lisa's bed.

After the deed is done, Andrea's professor boyfriend Lenny wears a short green robe to the kitchen to microwave a snack. He is interrupted by Jacob, who brandishes a pistol.

This breakfast nook scene is a masterpiece of skillfully performed awkwardness, rivalling the work of the Duplass brothers or early David O. Russell. Jacob accuses the boyfriend of sleeping with Andrea. At first he denies it, but then he admits it. Jacob points the gun at his head and pulls the trigger--

--but it turns out the boyfriend was alone the entire time. The incident was a figment of the haunted clock's imagination.

Back in the living room, the aforementioned haunted clock still ticks loudly while Lisa tries to sleep. She gets off the couch and has an awkward vision in which her own reflection in a full-length mirror reaches out to fondle her breasts--after which a small amount of black oil drips down the mirror.

Rusty is convinced that his family needs to get out of the house to escape the evil presence.

The masterfully presented awkwardness builds and builds. Lisa, previously a shy teenager, wears slightly revealing clothes, bites into an apple at breakfast--breakfast!--and tells Andrea she will be going on a date tonight and not to wait up.

Rusty is determined to get to the bottom of the awkwardness-inducing happenings. He visits the old woman and finds that she coincidentally has a book with a picture of the ancient torture chamber from his earlier vision.

She explains the room belonged to Jean du Rey, a necromancer, child killer, and cannibal from fifteenth century France. Rusty informs her that his father recently returned from "Amitysville" on Long Island, which is when the occurrences began. She sends him away, saying she needs to process this information.

After he leaves, the woman pores over her books full of pictures of the Amityville house and the cursed clock. She is able to put one and one together, but it does little good. The clock is able to arrange an elaborate death for the old woman that involves a crack in the street, black oil, a runaway diaper delivery van, and a sharp but un-storklike stork mascot atop said diaper delivery van.


The wise old woman is out of the picture.

After the police arrest Rusty for suspected involvement in the woman's death, Jacob attempts to strangle Andrea with a telephone cord. Sensibly, Andrea and her professor boyfriend Lenny tie Jacob to his bed with sheets and garden hoses, then administer thorazine to put him to sleep for a day or two.

"Is it dangerous?" Andrea asks.

"I hope so," Lenny replies. 

Later, Lisa and her boyfriend conduct typical teenage foreplay, which includes Lisa sitting on top of a toy train table in her underwear (underwear which appears to be borrowed from an elderly grandmother).

Lisa invites her boyfriend to join her on the train table, but when he takes a step he starts sinking into some bubbly oil on the floor. The oil dissolves him and drains through a grill on the floor.

For no observable reason, Andrea's professor boyfriend Lenny takes a bubble bath in the house, but he is startled by clumps of oil in the water and a hand emerging from the bubbles. 

In another of the film's creepy highlights, Andrea stumbles into Jacob's study while Jacob is still tied to his bed in the bedroom. Jacob has graduated from sketching the Amityville house to building a tiny scale model of a housing development populated with tiny models of that house, lights glowing in the windows beside the chimney. There is even a model of the house with miniature graves marked "Lisa," "Jacob," etc.


In the model, a tiny man's figure hangs from a tree. Andrea explores the house, opens a window shutter, and finds that Lenny has been hanged from a tree outside.

The final act begins. Only Andrea and Rusty remain normal. Rusty explains that the clock makes people evil.

They must escape the house. They reach the front door but it won't open. The doorknob comes off in Andrea's hand and starts spouting blood. 

Even more disturbingly, Rusty finds his sister Lisa watching a music video in her room, the walls of which are spattered with blood. Lisa tries to seduce Rusty, but he manages to kill her by jamming an audio cable into her mouth and turning the volume up to 3. Of course, this works marvelously.

Meanwhile, a possessed Jacob attacks Andrea with an architect's T-square, which makes a very powerful weapon.

Andrea can only stop him by stabbing him in the gangrenous leg with a large drafting compass.

"My time," Jacob begs. "Clock! More time!" But the wound from the drawing tool proves fatal. Jacob's last words, for no apparent reason, are "Stay the night. I'll be a gentleman. I promise."

Andrea looks over to the living room to find that Rusty has become a toddler. This does not faze her. She tells the demonic clock to let him go, and toddler Rusty wanders out the front door.

"It's time," Andrea says, attacking the clock with the draftsman's T-square. But her aim is off. She hits the wall behind the clock. The wall tears away, revealing massive clockwork gears behind the drywall. The clock's hands move faster and faster, and Andrea becomes an elderly woman. She can only use a lighter and the gas fireplace to cause an explosion that, of course, sends the clock into a smoky interdimensional portal.

Then Andrea wakes up in the living room, still holding the T-square.

The doorbell rings. It is Jacob outside, dressed in a suit. He has returned from his trip to New York with a package.

When he reveals the package to be the demonic clock, Andrea in a rage smashes it to bits with her T-square.

"What the hell was that all about?" Jacob asks as she leaves the house.

"It's about time, that's what." Andrea leaves, presumably forever.

This film’s genius is in transferring supernatural horror into a banal suburban setting. The typical props of everyday life—clocks, dogs, oil, light switches, T-squares, plastic storks—are used to terrify the characters and the audience. The Amityville clock somehow turns everything in the house against some of the family members while leaving the others alone. (It is not clear why the clock is able to drive Jacob and Lisa toward insanity and promiscuity, respectively, while Andrea and Rusty are unaffected. Perhaps such details are clarified in the original book.)

If this film has a flaw, it is that there is no sequel, so we are not able to spend more time with Jacob, Andrea, Lisa, Rusty, and the others. It would be fascinating to expand on the story of the demonic clock that can not only move its surroundings through time, but can unleash deadly oil and provoke dogs and diaper service mascots to attack the innocent. What if Jacob’s housing development full of Amityville houses were built? Such a setting would be marvelous for a horror movie. And perhaps each house could have a haunted clock in the living room, its demonic gears and mechanisms working their way into the structure of every house to build one giant haunted clock, possibly bent on world domination or some other evil goal we cannot fathom.

But I digress in my fantasies about what might have been. A:IAT (originally known as A1992:IAT) is truly the high point of horror’s most high-quality franchise, and for that we should all be thankful.