Fleischer: Amityville 3D (1983)

At one point in Amityville 3D, the third film in the Amityville cycle, a character observes that “reality is the only word in the language that should always be placed in inverted commas.” That’s an apt motto for the film as a whole, which uses 3D technology to augment reality with dazzling flair. We start with a group of people attending a séance at the Amityville house, only to reveal that it is a hoax. In fact, the group, headed by journalists John (Tony Roberts) and Melanie (Candy Clark) are professional debunkers, and work for a publication called Reveal. However, no sooner have they debunked the séance, and departed the house, than a new kind of technology comes into play – that of 3D cinema. While the opening scene has all been rendered in 3D, director Richard Fleischer saves the most breathtaking effects for the moment that we’re left alone in the house, at which point the camera pans slowly back from the door, and then into a window on the second floor, that offers a vantage point on the journalists departing outside. As the breath of an unseen figure (or the camera) fogs the glass, the stage is set for a film that feels conceived in 3D from its very outset – a film that uses 3D for both shock and suspense, for jump scares but also as an integral part of its mise-en-scenes.  

These mise-en-scenes tend to be scrupulously orchestrated around deep-focus compositions that are every bit as lovingly curated as those in Welles or Renoir. Not only does this bring a new intensity to the contours of the Amityville house – which feels for the first time like a “real Long Island antique” – but they evoke the sentience, agency and gaze of the house itself. In the process, Flesicher converges slasher and haunted house horror, as the Amityville manse starts to feel like a slasher in and of itself, especially with the aid of lingering establishing shots that facefy it just enough to appear like a slasher’s mask – mute and opaque apart from the eerie prescience that emanates from its eye-like attic windows. More than ever before, the Amityville house is a Hitchcockian object that looks back at the viewer, and so Howard Blake’s score cites Bernard Herrmann too, with motifs redolent of Psycho and Vertigo in particular.  

Flesicher quickly directs these deep-focus compositions towards vertical space, and aims to make horizontal space feel as vertiginous as vertical space. The supernatural happenings draw people to the top and bottom of the house, and virtually all the significant action takes place in the attic and the basement. Similarly, the supernatural entity initially appears as a swarm of flies that originate in the attic, and make their first foray into the external world to cause havoc in an elevator that John is riding on his way home from work. Over and again, they make the elevator ascend rapidly to the top floor, and fall to the bottom, in an intensified and abstracted version of the trajectories that take the characters up and down the house. Meanwhile, the most dizzying 3D so far is reserved for the shots of the elevator well, and equated with the motor engine of the house’s vertiginous pull. The climax of the film arrives when John’s daughter Susan (Lori Loughlin) seems to be inhabiting the highest and lowest points on the property at once – the attic, where John’s wife Nancy (Tess Harper) has a vision of her, and the jetty, where she simultaneously seems to have drowned in a boating accident.  

This new vertiginous space also presages digital horror in quite a magisterial way. As John hangs in the elevator, pinned in perpetual freefall, 3D gives us access to a strange new zone, mobile, spaceless and abstracted – what Manuel Castells might describe as a space of flows. Detached from the regular spatial and temporal coordinates of 2D cinema, this space of flows also bridges our visual and haptic experience of the film, not unlike the swarm of flies with which the entity manifests itself – a tactile image that seems to kill its first victim simply by swarming all over her. From there, the entity becomes ever more aerosolised, manifesting as steam, smoke and fog – a jet of fog that streams out of the basement, a hot tap that won’t turn off and so floods a bathroom with steam, and a car accident that suffuses a vehicle with enough smoke to entirely cook the victim’s body. The entity’s only tangible traces beyond this are the mist that it leaves on mirrors and glass surfaces, like the window in the opening scene.  

By the third act, then, the entity has moved away from the monstrous happenings of the first two films and become more of a mobile glitch or staticky break in everyday experience, producing two narrative threads that are remarkably prophetic of modern digital horror. In the first, Melanie, John’s colleague, notes a series of discrepancies in photographs she took of the house, and sets about examining them more closely to figure out what they might mean. In the second, John commandeers a crew of paranormal investigators to set up their equipment in the house, and film his wife in their bedroom in the midst of a supernaturally induced daze following their daughter’s apparent death. While Nancy isn’t asleep here, she’s not quite awake either, and so there’s a strong flavour of Paranormal Activity as the crew watch her on the bed, and then follow her as she walks, entranced, from the attic down to the basement, where the aerosolised entity intensifies into a pillar of ice, then a pillar of fire.  

In other words, the final act attempts to hypermediate access to the entity in the same way as the 3D technology of the film itself. As the paranormal crew pack banks of television and recording booths into every available space, we seem to be seeing 3D’s insatiable drive to colonise parts of the mise-en-scene that remain unavailable in two dimensions. In both cases, we’re moving closer to a digital worldview, and yet it remains elusive and elliptical to the last, as the pillar of icefire consumes the house and all the equipment in it. Yet the final shot still holds out hope for 3D as the harbinger of a new revolution in deep-focus, as the camera tracks over the detritus and ends with flame, in a flashback to the closing sequence of Citizen Kane. And Amityville 3D does genuinely believe that 3D can usher in a perceptual shift equivalent to that of Welles and Renoir, along with a new era in immersive mise-en-scene. Even more extraordinarily, it succeeds in its mission, in one of the most quietly brilliant 3D films I’ve seen.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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