The Amityville Horror

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It's a revealing sentiment that no one was too broken up about a remake to THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. While horror purists (including myself) wrung their hands over the prospects of remaking SUSPIRIA and BLACK SUNDAY, AMITYVILLE was followed with keen interest. One possible reason for this is what the studios have doubtless been waiting for, that we have become used to the idea of old horror films being remade. Indeed, more films are being remade now than ever before, even in the early days of the studio system. While the results have been mixed, they aren't as disastrous as we thought they would be.

Another reason is that in remaking THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, the producers weren't exactly stepping on sacred ground. Let's face it, despite its iconography, Stuart Rosenberg's 1979 AMITYVILLE is just not a very good film. Think about it. We all remember that house with the attic windows that looked like eyes. But what else do we remember? Bits and pieces at best. A case can be made for the effectiveness of the "room of flies" scene and most of us got chills when an otherworldly force shouted "GET OUT!" But the rest of the film was pretty hackneyed. Bad plumbing, overdramatic music, bleeding walls. The film was a poor cousin to better haunted house films like THE HAUNTING or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE.

So when Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes company announced plans to remake THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, everything was okay by this critic. Their first remake, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, is still a controversial film within the genre, generating equal parts praise and disdain. I myself reviewed the film when it came out and had mixed feelings. It was only over a year later, when I saw the film a second time and could judge it on its own merits, without comparing it to the original, that I could truly appreciate it. And you know what? It's a good and gruesome little horror film. The more I look at the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, the more I think of it as the penultimate horror film. Because while films like PSYCHO, THE EXORCIST and DAWN OF THE DEAD are amazingly effective, many filmmakers have managed to emulate their style effectively over the years. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is the one film I can think of where people have tried to match the exact feel of it many times over only to fail miserably. It was lightning in a bottle.

But back to THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, which was not lightning, but a mild drizzle. The source material was Jay Anson's popular book which alleged to be a true story of the Lutz family. Certain facts about the case are incontrovertible. Ronald DeFeo really did murder his parents and siblings in 1974. He really did claim voices told him to do it. The Lutz family really did move in around a year later. And 28 days later, the Lutz family really did flee from the house, citing the repeated hauntings later chronicled in Anson's book as the reason for their hasty departure.

What is not often discussed is that DeFeo has some serious problems, possibly brought on by years of drug abuse, and that the prosecution believed he was trying to cash in on his parents' life insurance policies. The folks on the Amityville gravy train don't discuss how several people involved in the investigation of the Amityville house have confessed to it being a hoax. No one talks about how the key players have changed certain parts of their story over the years, when contradictory evidence is brought to the table. Even the Lutzes have waffled over presenting the story as truth over the years. None of the later residents of the Amityville house have experienced any supernatural activity. If you still believe the hype that this is a true story, I've got a bridge to sell you.

It's a hoax along the same lines of the Shroud of Turin. No matter how many people point out that the emperor has no clothes, people still keep looking. It seems as though the general public wants to believe there were demonic forces at work at 112 Ocean Avenue. Like they said in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALLANCE, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

So while it must be strange for George Lutz to still have films, books, plays and everything else made from his alleged experiences. But while I won't say :Lutz is a liar, it's hard to be too broken up about how much the films have all added their own flourishes. Rosenberg's 1979 AMITYVILLE HORROR had a screenplay rewritten by Sandor Stern which added juicier bits to the screenplay. But if the 1979 film strayed from Anson's book, the 2005 version leaves it in the dust.

The new AMITYVILLE HORROR recounts some of the nastier bits of the Amityville, but adds a truckload of its own material, often cribbed from other well-known horror films. This time, Ryan Reynolds plays George Lutz. He loves his new wife Kathy (Melissa George - DOWN WITH LOVE, MULHOLLAND DR.), but she is a widow with three children from her first marriage. Hence, the children are not so receptive of this new face who seems to be taking their father's place. This is particularly true of eldest son Billy (Jesse James - THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT, FEAR OF THE DARK). When they find the house on Ocean Avenue, they are shocked by what a bargain it is and are only slightly creeped out that it was the site of a multiple homicide a year before.

The family moves in and right away, things seem off. George begins coughing and complaining of the cold and the youngest daughter Chelsea (Chlo� Grace Moretz) gets an imaginary friend who is in actuality the youngest victim of the DeFeo murders. Later on, Kathy begins to see strange things like refrigerator magnets that arrange to form the words "Katch 'Em & Kill Em." George begins acting more and more erratic, but only when on his property. When he's away from the house, he's fine but when he's near the house he becomes abusive and paranoid.

So, why not get out before then? Well, the story of the Lutzes in this film is the story of many American families. When things start getting a little weird, George argues "We have a piece of the American dream here." And that's it exactly. A dream house is seen as the ultimate symbol of the nuclear family, a sign that they have made it, that they can raise a family who will then go off and find their own dream homes. People become so fixated on these status symbols of American society that no one is willing to be the first to walk away, even when the kids complain that daddy enjoys chopping wood a little too much.

Although certainly exaggerated, George's behavior is in tune with many heads of household who found themselves in over their heads. George sinks all his money into the house, he has a mortgage looming overhead, the kids don't like him. Demons aren't necessary for George to take his frustrations out on his loved ones.

When you get right down to it, the "horror" spoken of in Amityville is not even the vengeful spirits, but the stress that consumes and destroys families. The things that go bump in the night are nothing compared to the destruction George's own personal baggage could unleash on his family. The demons are just gravy. In AMITYVILLE, the only freedom from the opression is to put all notions of material success away. The only solution is to get out, get your family to safety and leave all remnants of your past ordeal behind. The message is clear - material things are fleeting nothings that will only drain you, family is forever giving and eternal.

Ryan Reynolds was one of the most annoying personalities to grace the world of horror last year, when he appeared in the lamentable BLADE: TRINITY. He delivered the single worst line of dialogue I had heard all year and it was just one of an arsenal of obnoxious gags and pathetic attempts at a tough guy demeanor. Reynolds was the worst thing in BLADE: TRINITY, but he's the best thing in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. In a complete 180 that I found nothing short of shocking, Ryan Reynolds gives a great, balanced and chilling performance as George Lutz, sole breadwinner of the family and demonic punching bag.

Reynolds is solid as a man who is in love with his wife, but suddenly finds himself in charge of a large family. Remember, this is the 1970s. The idea that the man was bringing home the bacon was almost a given. He starts out as the working man, then starts buckling under stress and finally has a rapid descent into psychosis that is perfectly believable and more than a little chilling.

But if you like your horror a little more supernatural, don't worry because THE AMITYVILLE HORROR supplies plenty of demons as well. The film isn't as gruesome as Platinum Dunes' TEXAS CHAINSAW remake, but it still had a few nasty moments that even took me by surprise. As mentioned before, Jodie plays an important part. I imagine nothing ruins an intimate mood more than seeing a kid in the throes of an agonizing death. And that's not even the nastiest scene involving that character. The film even throws in a backstory in regards to the Amityville home that makes sound business sense. The filmmakers can now do two prequels - a factually-challenged story of the DeFeos like in AMITYVILLE II: THE POSESSION or their own origin story.

In fact, the only thing I wish AMITYVILLE had more of was originality. Much of the film seems cribbed from earlier and frankly better films. The most obvious inspiration is THE SHINING - the house and its history serving as the devil on George's shoulder. When he starts going after the wife and kids with an ax, all that's missing is a catch phrase taken from late night television. The monster in the basement is given considerable weight here, moreso than in the original. And a little bit of it reminded me of earlier films like Fulci's THE BEYOND and HOUSE BEHIND THE CEMETERY. The "evil imaginary friend" theme has been done several times over as well, most recently in this year's very good HIDE AND SEEK. The list goes on and on. It's frustrating because when it does have ideas of its own, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is a good little chiller. Even the blatant SHINING rip is acceptable in that it is handled well and Reynolds gives an admirable performance. Many great horror films borrow from earlier films, and if you're looking at one of the European classics, many of those stole their ideas outright. But there comes a time when enough is enough. There is too much borrowing going on here and it leaves the audience with a cheated feeling of deja vu.

I have mentioned Reynolds' performance, but the others are a mixed bag. Melissa George does a good job as George's better and saner half. Phillip Baker Hall (MAGNOLIA, DOGVILLE) always adds so much class to the proceedings that one wishes his part as the beleaguered priest were larger. Jesse James is becoming one of those child stars to watch. But the other kids, Jimmy Bennett and Chlo� Grace Moretz are horrible. Bennett isn't given much to do and thank God for that, because all he accomplishes with his character is making a nuisance of himself. Moretz has a meatier role and its too bad, because she suffers from the common horror malady Creepy Kid Syndrome. Many children have learned to use the creepiness in their characters as a positive. Haley Joel Osment in THE SIXTH SENSE, Dakota Fanning in HIDE AND SEEK and Brooke Shields in ALICE SWEET ALICE have all been great creepy kids. But David Dorfman from THE RING is egregiously bad. Cameron Bright (GODSEND, BIRTH) looks and sounds like an alien and Macaulay Culkin's career never did recover after THE GOOD SON. Moretz may turn into a fine actress one day, but here she finds herself saddled with a role she is ill-prepared for. Her speech does not sound genuine, it sounds like she is reading lines given to her by adults, which of course she is. But just because you're reading lines doesn't mean you should sound like you're reading lines.

One of the better roles in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is inhabited by Rachel Nichols (Lucky McKee's THE WOODS), playing a babysitter who watches both the Lutzes and the DeFeos. Talk about getting into your part. She enters the room in a midriff-bearing outfit, stretches out on the furniture, smokes pot, asks Billy if he french kisses, tells them all scary stories and then says in a wild bit of understatement, "I suck at babysitting." She could be the world's worst babysitter or the world's best babysitter, depending on your point of view. Truthfully, I've seen babysitters like her before, but not in any film I could review here.

Like Marcus Nispel before him, Platinum Dunes has given Andrew Douglas his first shot at fictitious filmmaking with THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. And for the most part, he does a good job. The 1970s look is rendered subtly but effectively. A smile crept across my face when Billy pours a bowl of Super Sugar Crisp cereal. He handles the domestic drama of the film very well. Unfortunately, he slips into the same trappings that plague many horror films of the day, including pretty much anything released by Dark Castle Productions. There is a lot of quick-cutting effects and anything demonic shakes their head around like Madonna in the "Ray of Light" video. Who came up with the idea that this was scary? And don't say JACOB'S LADDER, since that had context for a slightly different effect.

The new AMITYVILLE HORROR is a far better film than the original, which admittedly isn't saying much. Douglas' film borrows too heavily from other horror films and hip techniques of the day. Still, it's a decent chiller and a fine addition to the Platinum Dunes line. One has to wonder why Platinum Dunes doesn't tackle original material since they seem to have such a keen eye for horror.

I found it amusing to note that the look of the Amityville house is slightly different, having more features and slightly thinner windows serving as the "eyes" of the house. This is a telling statement about the film in general. The house looks better than it has in some time. Still, the house has given itself a facelift and has dropped a few pounds in a sad attempt to endear itself to a general public too hung up on image, rather than what's behind its doors.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis