Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Amityville Horror

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 20, 2005

Directed by Andrew Douglas/written by Scott Kosar, based on the book by Jay Anson/starring Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Rachel Nichols, Phillip Baker Hall/MGM – Dimension Films

Family moves into haunted house in 1975. Bad things happen.

Wow, MGM finally gets their first #1 hit in years – after they’ve been sold to Sony. Nice irony there. But man, talk about going out with a whimper.

This is, of course, the Michael Bay-produced remake of the 1979 horror flick based on the bestselling nonfiction novel based on a story that was revealed to be a complete hoax. Leave it to Hollywood to scam a whole new generation, eh? I only vaguely remember the original, having seen it once on cable several years ago late at night. Mostly I recall the house, and Rod Steiger covered in flies. The sequels were even less memorable. So I didn’t go in completely against the idea of a remake. Except that horror remakes in general tend to, you know, suck.

OK, so let’s take the remake at face value: the movie opens with a rather distasteful (which is not the same as disturbing) sequence in which we see Ronald DeFeo murder his whole family with a shotgun. Thankfully they cut away while he kills his young sister – it’s OK to show the brutal slaughter of adults and teenagers, after all, but not little kids. That would be wrong. I’m not convinced that we actually needed to watch any of this, and any potential hope of subtlety is completely blown right away. Obviously this is not your father’s Amityville Horror – it’s your strange cousin’s Amityville Horror. The one who likes to blow up small animals with firecrackers.

Anyway, cut to a year later and we meet the Lutz family. They’re led by George (Reynolds), a nice guy who married widow Kathy (George) and apparently has adopted her three children. The Lutzes are relatively lower-middle-class, but in searching for a new house they discover one hell of a bargain. The only catch is that it’s the same house where the DeFeo murders took place. Oh well. No big deal, right?

Naturally, once they move in the weird shit starts going down. The young daughter gets a ghostly playmate, letter magnets on the refrigerator get rearranged (oooh, spooky!) and George’s personality starts to change. The local priest (Hall) gets covered in flies (why flies? Who knows?) and warns Kathy to get the family out. But their weirdest thing that happens is the arrival of the most unbelievably bad babysitter (Nichols) in recorded history. She’s scarier than any of the damn ghosts.

The main problem with the remake is that everything happens too quickly. There’s no sense of gradual build-up or even tension. We’re never given enough time to wonder what’s going to happen to the Lutzes or how the house’s demons are going to manifest themselves. As soon as the family moves in, the place starts going apeshit crazy. Then the movie cuts from Day 1 to Day 15 to Day 28, apparently condensing all of the events that happened during their stay in the interest of keeping the running time short. So I guess nothing happened on, say, Day 12 or 23?

A good haunted-house movie needs a strong sense of atmosphere. It should feel like the air is thick with dread and foreboding. Here, the house doesn’t seem to take on any personality or “life” of its own. We’re supposed to think that the house itself is some kind of sentient being, but it never comes across that way. It’s just the house where the ghosts happen to live. Director Douglas spends so much effort on showing us freaky, quick-cut images of the spirits (using effects that were novel when House on Haunted Hill did them – 6 years ago) that the house itself takes a backseat. That’s kind of a shame, because they had a real opportunity here to make a distinctively creepy haunted house, and they blew it.

The remake’s saving grace is the cast, who manage to keep the film grounded even when all the supernatural stuff becomes ludicrous and fairly boring. Reynolds is surprisingly good as both the easygoing George and the angry, paranoid, homicidal dickhead he becomes once possessed. It’s not his fault that there’s no real transition between the two, and that George goes from zero to maniac in what seems like 60 seconds. I’m willing to bet that some of his performance ended up on the cutting room floor. Melissa George is appropriately sympathetic as Kathy, even if she looks way too young (and toned) to be the mother of a teenage child. Phillip Baker Hall is serviceable, if relatively wasted, as the film’s Steiger counterpart, and the child actors are fairly likable and believable. Nichols provides the comic high point of the movie, even if she seems to have been transplanted from an episode of The O.C.

It’s not that this Amityville is a bad film, so much as it seems an unnecessary one. It may have been a bad choice to remake from the beginning, because like the producers’ lackluster Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, there’s really only so much you can do with this material. Since it’s supposedly “based on a true story”, you can’t really change the setting or the time period – it can’t be truly modernized. All they’ve done is essentially made the original movie over again, with updated camera and editing tricks that only serve to make the film less effective and interesting.

I think the best remakes are the ones that take the original concepts and make them relevant to modern times. Carpenter’s The Thing, Cronenberg’s The Fly, both remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – they all took old ideas and made something new and fresh out of them. None of those remakes are stuck in the ‘50’s – they all have something to say about the times in which they were made. Say what you will about it, but the Dawn of the Dead remake was the only recent horror do-over to even attempt this, and that’s why it was such a blast if you were willing to go with it (though it still can’t hold a candle to Romero’s original – did anyone actually think it would?). Whether you liked it or not, at least it felt like a movie about 2004, not a movie about 1979 made in 2004.

The problem with Bay’s remakes is that he and his handpicked directors are simply trying to make the exact same movie again, changing just enough of the details that they can claim they “added something new”. They’re trying to recapture the aesthetic of ‘70’s horror without understanding what made those films work. The great ‘70’s horror flicks came out of a post-Vietnam sensibility that can’t be duplicated in times of political correctness and network-sanitized war. They were made by directors working outside the Hollywood mainstream, with low budgets that forced them to be creative. Guys like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven didn’t have major studios backing them up and giving them anything they wanted back then. But on the plus side, they didn’t have to play by the standard Hollywood rules either. (Yes, this applies to Amityville as well, because the original was made by noted low-budget schlockmeisters American International Pictures.) You just can’t re-create that sensibility by working within the system, with major studios and big budgets and name actors. It was a movement brought to fruition in a specific time and place, and you can’t just bring it back any more than you can bring back blaxploitation or Italian neorealism by simply buying up the titles and doing them all over again.

The effect of these remakes is that they effectively become to the originals what Lenny Kravitz is to John Lennon. Hey, I like Lenny Kravitz, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes I feel like he’s straining so hard to recapture the past that he’s forgotten that there’s a lot to be said for the present. The original Amityville may not hold up so well now, but it’s a name that still means something to people, because it captured people’s imagination. For whatever reason, it got people talking and thinking about the world they lived in. It became part of pop culture because it struck a nerve somewhere in our collective psyche. The possibilities of the supernatural, and the potential existence of evil were impressed upon us through it and other films like it. This was groundbreaking, frightening stuff at the time. For better or worse, it made an impact.

The new Amityville doesn’t try to make that kind of impact on its modern audience. It merely regurgitates what was scary in 1979, rather than redefine the concept to fit what’s scary now. That’s the elemental problem. Yes, these remakes make money, more out of curiosity and name-brand recognition than anything else. But they feel more like relics than the original films. They’re not ‘70’s horror films – they’re modern horror films about the ‘70’s, done with the requisite convenient 20/20 hindsight. Give the guys sideburns, throw flowery dresses on the women, put up a bunch of KISS posters, and wham, you’ve got the ‘70’s! Wrong. There’s so much about that decade that these new movies miss completely. That’s bad enough. But what’s worse is that these films don’t tell us anything about the world we live in today.

Until Hollywood finally figures out what scares people in 2005, they’ll be stuck churning out pale imitations like this one. They’re weak retreads of something that worked a long time ago, and nothing more than that. They say that everything old eventually becomes new again, and that’s obviously true. But they also say that the past can be a nice place to visit. You just can’t live there.

**   4/20/05

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