The latest horror remake to signal the end of original ideas in Hollywood, there is, indeed, room for improvement where 1979's "The Amityville Horror" is concerned, but this shallow, empty-headed 2005 revamping misses that boat by a mile. The original, while deliberately paced in places, slowly but surely built a thick layer of dread over its story of a happy-go-lucky family that makes the wrong decision in buying a house where a family was once murdered and are subsequently terrorized by supernatural forces. While the DeFeo family murders really did occur, gruesomely carried out by the eldest son who claimed demonic voices told him to do it, the central premise of "The Amityville Horror" concerns a more allegedly true (read: likely hoax) case in which a family moved into the house and fled twenty-eight days later, claiming the place was haunted.
Whether the story really is true or not makes no difference; screenwriter Scott Kosar (2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
") and novice feature director Andrew Douglas have deviated so far from the "facts" depicted in Jay Anson's book that the film doesn't so much seem like "The Amityville Horror" as it does a tedious, heartless retread of 1999's "The Sixth Sense
" and every other ghost movie made since that breakthrough modern classic. Instead of getting to meet and care about the terrorized family proper, and instead of getting involved in a classy buildup of suspense, director Douglas has opted to bombard the viewer with breakneck editing too flashy for its own good and a flurry of schizophrenic ghostly images that are more senseless than scary. It all adds up to a cheap smoke and mirrors trick, with nothing memorable or particularly unsettling to take away with you.
The picture opens with a prologue in which possessed Ronnie DeFeo goes on a killing spree and guns down his entire family, annoyingly lit only by the lightning flashes taking place outside. It all is highly reminiscent and not even a quarter as effective or realistic as a similar sequence in 1982's superior "Amityville II: The Possession." Switch forward one year, and content couple George (Ryan Reynolds) and Kathy Lutz (Melissa George) are flabbergasted by the great deal they receive from the Realtor to purchase the gothic lakeside mansion. Although briefly hesitant once they learn of the property's dark history, George and Kathy find the bargain too good to pass up. Almost immediately after the Lutz'sincluding Kathy's three children, Billy (Jesse James), Michael (Jimmy Bennett), and Chelsea (Chloe Grace Moretz)move in, they begin experiencing frightening otherworldly phenomena. Chelsea's new imaginary friend may not be so friendly or imaginary, the sexy babysitter (Rachel Nichols) is taken away on a stretcher after being attacked in the closet, and Kathy fearfully watches as congenial husband George gradually transforms into a raving psychopath.
The basic plot trajectory of "The Amityville Horror" is the same as its predecessorfamily moves into dream home, are terrorized for 28 days, and barely escape with their lives and sanitybut the details waver so far from the book and noted events that it might have been smart had the writer and director put a fresh spin on the ending. For a minute, it seems like this might be the case, suggesting a far darker possible conclusion before the rug is pulled out from the viewer and the film moves back toward the predictable, safe finale everyone who knows the story will be expecting.
Besides lacking much tension, "The Amityville Horror" ultimately destroys itself by over-literalizing its haunted plot. While the original flick relied on creepy psychological scares to weave its human tale, this new incantation feels the need to go the way of all other 21st-century supernatural films, frequently showing every ghostly manifestation it possibly can. Why bother ratcheting up suspense with unseen forces and horrors of the psyche, director Andrew Douglas decides, when he can show you what never appears to be anything but actors in makeup instructed to look spooooooky? And instead of embracing the unknown, which often makes for a more ominous atmosphere, screenwriter Scott Kosar has also felt the need to overexplain the haunted history of the house. It's all terribly ham-fisted, coming off as a rip-off of a lot of better movies that did the same thing with more flair when it still felt like a novelty.
As for the Lutz family, their individual development and their relationships with each other are so glossed over and negligently written that they don't have anything to do but stand around in the house waiting for the next specter to pop out at them. The children, apparently, don't have school to attend, and the parents seem to be lucky enough to not need jobs to go to, even though it is passingly mentioned they are hard-up financially. Head-of-the-family George goes cuckoo so quickly once in the house that it's difficult to see him as a sympathetic character, while Kathy is mostly asked to look worried.
Ryan Reynolds (2004's "Blade: Trinity
") and Melissa George (2001's "Mulholland Drive
") are unlikely cast as parents George and Kathy, looking young enough to be playing teenage siblings themselves even with Reynolds' facial hair. Reynolds, most known for his comedic work in 2002's "National Lampoon's Van Wilder
" and the like, is nonetheless quite committed to the role and, with the help of his bloodshot contact lenses, does a plausible job looking threatening. As Kathy, George shows some dramatic sparks herselfshe is also something of a dead-ringer for Margot Kidder, who played the part twenty-six years agobut is let down by the paperweight writing. The younger actors filling out the rest of the Lutz clan are also just fine, while Rachel Nichols (2003's "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd
") is bewitching in her brief screen time as the unfortunate babysitter. Philip Baker Hall (1999's "Magnolia
"), however, is wasted as Father Callaway, whom Kathy visits for advice.
Whereas 2004's grisly, no-holds-barred "Dawn of the Dead
" remake was a surprising improvement over the George Romero original, and 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
" was respectable, if inferior, to its source, "The Amityville Horror" is just a plain, old dud. Even forgetting that it pales enormously next to the 1979 film (and its 1982 first sequel), it simply isn't a well-made motion picture. The pace may be quick, but it is also rushed (the entire running time clocks in at less than 90 minutes sans credits), and the fear factor is alarmingly low for such a high-profile shocker. Always in a race to get to the next lame jump moment, "The Amityville Horror" forgets that the best genre pics require characters the viewer can get to know and then care about once their lives are put into jeopardy. Without this, there simply isn't a threat.
Perhaps most telling of the ultimate experience of this new, but not improved, remake is the iconic house itself, which the filmmakers couldn't even get right. Instead of a normal-looking suburban house that just so happens to have eerie windows in the attic and a hellish interior, we get looming, gothic exterior architecture that makes it look like a house one wouldn't even want to consider stepping into in the first place. The production designer, like "The Amityville Horror" itself, has tried too hard and come up with something much less than was probably intended. On second thought, maybe no one tried at all.