The late Richard Fleischer, whose father Max produced the Betty Boop films (see again Vanneman, below), was a highly visual filmmaker who thrived on technical challenges. He directed the second Cinemascope film ever made (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), one of the first 3-D films (1953’s Arena, about a rodeo), and one of the few narrative films to make use of the multi-screen technique (1968’s The Boston Strangler) that Fleischer had first seen at New York’s 1964 World’s Fair. Almost all of his films, including Amityville 3-D, are shot in the widescreen format that he helped to pioneer. Among the first generation of 3-D filmmakers (notably Fleischer, Jack Arnold, and Andre De Toth), Fleischer was the only one to return to 3-D, thirty years later, during the second 3-D wave of the 1980s. He considered Amityville 3-D to be a vast improvement over his earlier Arena, and it is.
Amityville 3-D‘s story isn’t particularly original. It owes as much to Poltergeist as to the earlier Amityville films, and also borrows the gateway-to-hell-in-your-basement idea from Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. Fleischer’s interest was clearly focused on the formal use of 3-D (he had 30 years to think about it) and getting good realistic performances out of a superior cast that included Tony Roberts, Tess Harper, Candy Clark, Lori Loughlin, and a hellaciously cute pre-stardom Meg Ryan. Fleischer and De Laurentiis must have thought that the 3-D effects were what the audience came to see. Ergo, the more of them, the better.
This year’s Monster House, though not as grisly as Amityville 3-D, surpasses it in terms of vivid spatiality. Judged apart from its 3-D innovations, Monster House is not what I would call a great example of feature-length children’s animation – Heck, I preferred Robots – but it’s certainly good enough, and, as a bonus, has a very interesting subtext. The house (whose “facial” expressions were modeled on a game Kathleen Turner) turns out to be the wife of its owner, played by Steve Buscemi. Not symbolically – actually. Seems that the Buscemi character’s wife was once a circus Fat Lady (again played by Turner) abused, tormented, and caged as if she was the mother of Dumbo (a genuinely great animated film). Buscemi’s character is the only one who ever loved her. He marries her, but alas, something terrible happens, and her soul becomes fused with the home that was originally intended to be their love nest. So, the “monster house,” aged, dilapidated and feared, becomes a metaphor for the despised body.
And becomes – ultimately – sympathetic. Per Robin Wood (American Nightmare), the difference between a “reactionary” and a “progressive” horror film is that in the progressive horror film, one eventually comes to feel sympathy for the monstrous “other.” Monster House is thus a progressive horror film, while Amityville 3-D, in which the house is simply evil, falls into the reactionary category.
Regardless, Fleischer’s film is a must-see for anyone interested in the 3-D process, and given the current audience enthusiasm for 3-D, ought to be revived.