THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005)

Houses don't kill people. People kill people.”

Director: Andrew Douglas
Starring:  Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Jesse James, Jimmy Bennett, Chloe Grace Moretz, Rachel Nichols, Philip Baker Hall, Isabel Connor
Screenplay: Scott Kosar, based upon the book by Jay Anson and a screenplay by Sandor Stern

As I said to the other B-Masters before this film was even released – I knew we were in trouble from the moment I saw that it was being advertised not as being “Based on a true story”, but “Based on THE true story”.

While it may seem contradictory, even unreasonable, to demand of a cinematic re-make that it be in some way original, it is a fact that there is a wide variety of attitudes with which a re-make may be undertaken. Perhaps the best genre example of the oxymoronic original re-make is John Carpenter’s interpretation of The Thing, which pays tribute to the wonderful Hawks/Nyby version by being unlike it in almost every way. An alternative but no less valid approach is for a film to alter a single critical aspect of its model – as, for instance (to give for once a non-genre example!), in The Deep End, a re-make of The Reckless Moment, which changes the gender of one of the main characters, and in doing so puts an entirely new spin upon the story. Not surprisingly, neither of these approaches is all that prevalent, given that they require talent, and thought, and effort. Far more common, far easier, particularly in the province of the horror film, is essentially to regurgitate the same film all over again, only with [*cough*] “better” special effects.

And then you get something like the 2005 version of The Amityville Horror, which rather remarkably manages to be entirely unoriginal in an entirely original way. For anyone well versed in the genre, this headache-inducing hodgepodge plays like “The Horror Film 1980-2005: Greatest Hits”. Its most egregious theft is from The Shining; but there’s also a healthy dose of The Sixth Sense, a dash of The Ring, a dollop of Poltergeist, and just a soupçon of The Step-Father, to name only the most obvious sources; while the spook effects are exactly the same ones we’ve seen trotted out in just about every supernatural movie of the past few years, like Gothika and Godsend. In fact, just about the only horror entry of recent times to which The Amityville Horror bears little or no resemblance is the film, the book, the story on which it is supposedly based.

On the other hand, if The Amityville Horror has precious little to do with the James Brolin-Margot Kidder version of the tale, it does exhibit a profound philosophical similarity to that film’s 1982 prequel, Amityville II: The Possession….and this, people, with apologies in advance, is where I pause for a few autobiographical remarks.

I am a fairly omnivorous consumer of films, but one area into which I have seldom ventured is the realm of sleaze. Now, that’s not to say anything against sleaze, per se; hey, some of my best friends are experts in it! It just doesn’t happen to be my thing, that’s all. So I am, granted, speaking from a comparatively limited experience when I say that one of the sleaziest films I have ever seen is Amityville II. Still, I don’t think too many people would seriously argue with my choice of epithet. This ugly, heavily fictionalised account of the events surrounding the DeFeo murders is, as I am fond of saying, the kind of thing that leaves you longing for a disinfectant rub-down. Its only redeeming features are its final third, in which it morphs into an Exorcist rip-off so unabashed and ludicrous that it almost removes some of the bad taste left behind by the unmerciful depiction of abuse that comprises the rest of the film, and the fact that it deigns to change the names of its characters. Whether this last was done out of a fear of lawsuits, or whether (unlikely as it seems) the people involved with the production actually had the grace to feel ashamed of it, I couldn’t tell you. The bottom line, however, is that someone, at some point, actually recognised and reacted to the fact that Amityville II was taking unpardonable liberties with the victims of a real-life tragedy.

Now….I realise that this may not be the impression I tend to give, what with my various rants, and all, but the fact is I am relatively difficult to offend. Oh, sure, I’ll react to a film, or a joke, or a story, with a mental or verbal exclamation of, “Wow….that is really offensive” – but it tends to be an intellectual response, a recognition that there are probably people who would find that material offensive, rather than an admission that I am. I’m more likely to be grossed out, or irritated, or even angered, than actually offended, which to my mind is a term that carries with it a sense of moral judgement. Still – it does happen occasionally.

Which brings us back – finally – to The Amityville Horror.

When I reviewed the original film version of this story last week, I discussed its discreet handling the whole “imaginary friend” subplot, and how the book’s Jodie the pig was transformed into Jodie the indeterminate invisible friend. Well, this version of the story has a Jodie too, but she is anything but indeterminate. She is, in fact, Jodie DeFeo, the youngest sibling of Ronnie DeFeo, who in the film’s brutal opening sequence is found cowering in a closet by her rifle-wielding brother and shot point-blank. She subsequently reappears in spectral form, complete with a bullet hole in her forehead, hanging over the marital bed of George and Kathy Lutz, deliberately driving the children’s babysitter into a complete mental breakdown, and trying to lure the youngest Lutz child into committing suicide.

Now – let me pause here for just a moment, in order to point out a tiny detail that seems to have escaped the makers of this motion picture.

THAT IS A REAL MURDERED CHILD YOU ARE SCREWING AROUND WITH, YOU SICK BUNCH OF SHITS!!

Like I said, I’m hard to offend, but this--- Honest to God, what were they thinking!? To take the real victim of a real murder and turn her into some pathetic clichéd movie spook - !? The only possible defence I can come up with, if you could even call it a defence, is that no-one connected with this production had sufficient intelligence to actually think through the implications of what they were doing.

And just to add even more insult to even more injury….the film can’t even exploit the poor child consistently, vacillating between depicting her as herself a victim of the house, and as a manifestation of evil. Nor does it ever bother to explain why only she is haunting this house….

(By the way, Ronnie having to hunt down his last victim is a direct steal from Amityville II: it never happened. The youngest DeFeo was killed in bed like all the others – and he was a boy, not a girl. But as any watcher of recent horror films could tell you, spectral little girls have much more clout than spectral little boys.)

Just to show that I can, so to speak, give the devil his due, I must confess that this version of The Amityville Horror doesn’t start out too badly. The reality of the DeFeo murders legitimises the blunt and bloody depiction of them that opens the film – although with the murder of “Jodie”, the line is certainly crossed. Still, our introduction to this film’s take on the Lutz family does initially raise our hopes. All the elements that ought to be important are in place, occasionally with pleasing subtlety. We are made aware of the newness of George and Kathy’s marriage; the disapproval of Kathy’s mother (to which George reacts with good-natured ruefulness); George’s feelings of awkwardness in his unaccustomed role of “father”; the hostility of Billy, the eldest child, who remembers his deceased father all too clearly; and most of all the extent to which George is over-committing himself financially in the purchase of the house, and the accompanying inference that George is trying to buy the affections of his new family, winning his way to acceptance with one gigantically extravagant gesture. All of this is right, and all of it is good; this is where the focus of the story should be, with the pre-existing tensions between the various individuals played upon and exacerbated, the family attacked from within. Unfortunately, even while this is unspooling before us we are bluntly made aware that it is not going to last. We are instead confronted with a house unambiguously haunted from the first moment the Lutzes see it, with George and Kathy’s real estate agent looking determinedly in the other direction as something scuttles down a nearby corridor. (The impression that this ridiculous sequence gives is that the agent has done a deal with whatever is in the house, which has obligingly toned down its non-stop manifestations for the moment in return for being served up a new bunch of victims. [A real estate agent in league with demonic forces? Getouttahere!])

Actually, I’m prepared to give screenwriter Scott Kosar some benefit of the doubt here, and suggest that he originally submitted a longer and more textured story that was ruthlessly pruned into the sledgehammer effort that made it onto the screen. If the film’s brief (but still wearying) running-time wasn’t indication enough that some savage cutting had been done during production, its abrupt leaps from Day 1 to Day 15 (!) to Day 28 (!!) are a frank admission that this rendering is the shorthand version of the tale, bereft of all opportunities for ambiguity and subtext. One is forced, sadly, to interpret this as contempt for the audience….or perhaps, even more sadly, it’s simply realistic. Perhaps today’s horror audience cannot, or will not, deal with a film that takes its time to build to its scares. (Consider Bart Simpson in the same situation: “Come on, man, do it. Do the blood thing! Do it, do it, do it!” Also – not to harp, or anything – but this “instant manifestation” mindset is yet another steal from the thunderously unsubtle Amityville II, in which the family has barely been in the house five minutes before they are experiencing ghostly touches and blood running from the taps.) In any case, once the Lutzes are in the house there’s hardly a quiet moment. On the very first night, things lurk, windows open, light switches bleed, and Kathy and George’s lovemaking comes to an abrupt and unsatisfactory end when George glimpses Jodie hanging by her neck above the bed. (Wait a minute – hanging!? Why would she be hanging? Oh, gee, it wouldn’t be because Haley Joel Osment used to see people hanging around, would it? Or because of that spectral little girl in Ghost Ship? Or….)

Perhaps this film as a whole is best summed up by the way in which it re-tools the babysitting episode. I praised the original film’s handling of this sequence, which is notable for its beautiful simplicity: it works because nothing overt happens in it. Here, it goes horribly wrong from the moment we first set eyes on the babysitter herself, no longer an ordinary neighbourhood teen, but Queen Skank of Skank City. (We don’t believe for a second that Kathy would leave her kids with someone like this – even were this scene not juxtaposed with a Chelsea-in-peril, somebody-should-have-been-watching-her! spat between Kathy and George.) After a skin-crawling bit in which she makes a play for the twelve-year-old Billy, the sitter amuses herself by telling her young victims the history of the DeFeos, for whom she also used to sit. (And we get to see the murders one more time – oh, goody.) None of this sits well with the – in this instance – vengeful Jodie, who traps the sitter in the closet and punishes her by--- Well, never mind. Ick, that’s all. (And there is an even worse implication that can be put upon this scene, but I’ll leave it to Will Laughlin to bother your dreams with that.) The scene ends with the sitter, now a shattered mental wreck, being carted off in an ambulance. In other words, a rotten person we know little about and care nothing for has been set up and shot down – a cheap, nasty thrill. Big deal.

For mine, the only sequence in The Amityville Horror that hits just the right note is that in which the middle child, Michael, has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Like the hand from under bed in The Sixth Sense, there is a primal quality, a universality, about this that makes it almost impossible for the viewer not to respond. (And I must say, I’m impressed with the upbringing that Kathy Lutz seems to have given these kids. I’m reasonably sure that under the same circumstances, I wouldn’t have stuck around to wash my hands.) Otherwise, the single moment in the whole film that got that soft, satisfied Yesss…. out of my inner critic is that in which George wakes from a troubled sleep grumbling at Harry the dog for barking too much – temporarily forgetting that due to an earlier contretemps involving George’s beloved axe and a case of mistaken identity, Harry couldn’t be barking….

(The actual killing of the dog is, however, another matter. It seems to be there chiefly because – rather late in the proceedings, one suspects – it finally dawned on the film-makers that having committed themselves to telling “THE true story” – they couldn’t kill off any of their characters. Consequently, the film positively seethes with horrible events that turn out to be happening only in flashbacks or dreams….while poor Harry, the one expendable Lutz, bites the big one.)

The scares in this film are for the most part tiresomely over-familiar. Oh, sure, they work, I suppose; but then, so does sneaking up behind someone and yelling BOO! Just don’t be surprised when the person you do that to turns around and punches you in the face. I know I felt like punching The Amityville Horror – or maybe just Michael Bay – after I’d seen it. If there are two things I am sick, sick, sick of in the modern horror film, they are the relentless use of that flash-shot-shock-cut editing, and the fact that every single fright scene is accompanied by a REALLY!! LOUD!! NOISE!! Aside from its other shortcomings, this film is guilty of horribly telegraphing its scares; so much so that at one point, knowing full well one was coming, I conducted a little experiment: I shut my eyes and just listened. Man, oh, man – talk about laying it on with a shovel! The upshot of this is that I came away from The Amityville Horror, as, alas, I have come away from all too many recent horror films, not shaken up, but annoyed. Now, writing this just a few days later, I’m actually having trouble remembering its content in any detail. I’m certainly not lingeringly bothered by it, as tends to happen to me with a better class of horror film. In fact--- As I have confessed before, I’m really not a difficult person to frighten….but you know what? After I’d seen The Amityville Horror, I missed the bus on the way home, so I walked from the station: a fairly long and often very dark walk….yet I was never even spooked. Nor was I when I went up the darkened staircase to my room at the top of the house – or even into the bathroom. Honestly, if a film can’t throw a scare into a constitutional Nervous Nelly and unregenerate caffeine addict like me….give it up, people!

(Okay, I confess: I was mildly spooked while having my shower the next morning, but only mildly, because I was careful not to wipe the condensation from my mirror, and everyone knows that nothing really nasty can happen to you in a bathroom unless you wipe the condensation from your mirror.)

The Amityville Horror may not be scary, but it is frequently disturbing, chiefly in its handling of its children – human and ghostly. I was taken aback last year by the amount of abuse heaped on the young characters in The Butterfly Effect, and suggested that the film-makers got away with it by implying that the worst of it never really happened. Here, the makers of The Amityville Horror seem to be pulling something similar. Finding justification in, on one hand, the audience’s awareness of the DeFeo murders, and on the other, its equal fore-knowledge that none of the Lutzes died as a result of their experiences, they blithely serve up scene after scene in which children are murdered, terrorised, threatened and/or abused. I’m certainly not one of those who consider that children should be cinematically inviolate, but there are ways and ways of doing everything, and most of this isn’t frightening – it’s just plain unpleasant.

Conversely, I was cynically amused by the film’s floundering efforts to avoid bringing anything even remotely religious into its story. Kathy’s Catholicism, the Lutzes’ efforts to get help from the church, the implication that whatever is inhabiting the house is demonic in the Judeo-Christian sense – and George’s religious conversion, one more pressure on him amongst so many – are a significant component of the – sorry, I mean THE – true story on which this is supposedly based, but you sure wouldn’t know it here, where this entire aspect is reduced to the small gold cross about Kathy’s neck. Kathy does finally seek help from the local priest, and as Father Callaway, the usually reliable Philip Baker Hall gets to embarrass himself almost as much as Rod Steiger did – in terms of quality, at least, if not quantity. Hall’s participation is brief, but crammed with unforgettably clunky moments, my personal favourite being when he tells Kathy that Ronnie DeFeo had consulted him about voices in the house “weeks before the murders!” – apparently forgetting that in this version of THE true story, the DeFeos had only been living in the house for 28 days when the murders happened! (Okay, I guess technically “28 days” does count as “weeks”. Obviously, The Thing In The Basement didn’t waste any time revealing itself to the DeFeos, either.) The final humiliation comes with the re-working of the infamous Get out! scene, with Callaway getting precisely the same treatment from a swarm of flies that Richard Burton got from a swarm of locusts in The Heretic. The last we see of the Catholic church in The Amityville Horror, it’s almost running down Kathy Lutz in its car in its eagerness to flee the house – and if Father Callaway doesn’t yell, “Lady, you’re on your own!” in passing, well, that was probably only an oversight. It’s left to Kathy to rescue her family, George included, which she does in a sequence that manages the remarkable feat of being even more anti-climactic than the house-fleeing sequence in the original film. The film-makers must have recognised this, too, because instead of just leaving things there, they tacked on – surprise! – a kicker ending featuring one more act of child cruelty. Because nothing says “entertainment” like terrible things happening to small children, right?

But you know what the saddest thing about this version of The Amityville Horror is? The house isn’t scary. How on earth they managed to screw this up I know not, but there wasn’t a single instant when the sheer look of the place bothered me, as it always does in the original film, with that disconcerting contrast between the eerie exterior and the flatly ordinary interior. Actually, I find it rather funny that with all they junked from the story they were supposedly filming, there was still some recognition that you couldn’t have “The Amityville Horror” without “The House”. But this house--- The eyes The Hauntingare wrong, for a start. They’re tall and skinny and not eye-like at all; while the rest of the place is ridiculously over-the-top; it’s a mansion, not a desirable family house. It has the same effect as the house in . It’s just….a movie set. And even as a set it isn’t used properly; everything is exaggerated to the point of absurdity – so that, for instance, instead of a window that won’t stay shut, we have huge banks of windows flying open at the drop of a hat. And you know that hidden room in the basement? Let’s just say that what they serve up here makes the plywood-covered portal to hell in Amityville 3-D look positively sensible by comparison.

The inverted crosses on the door handles are kind of cute, though.

The Amityville Horror’s final failure is as a period film. It does try to invoke the early seventies with a sort of brownish-grittiness to its look, but it’s never convincing; the KISS/Alice Cooper décor could be nineties retro as easily as seventies gen-u-ine. (Personally, I was jolted out of any engagement with the film the moment that Billy looked down at his George-prepared breakfast and announced, “This sucks!” I dunno: maybe that term was just incredibly slow in making it to these shores, but by my memory it didn’t enter the vernacular until many, many years later.) The major problem, though, is in the casting of Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George, who you simply cannot picture as the product of any era but that which spawned them: they are too glossy, too manufactured….and too young, even if this is more a reflection of today’s insistence upon arrested development, rather than an actual phenomenon. (I made mention of Stephen King’s ‘Danse Macabre’ last week, and I’ll do it again here. One bit that always cracks me up is King’s highlighting of The Kid Trick, the soap opera convention of having a child born one minute and eighteen years old the next. They pull the same kind of thing here: the kids are getting older, but the parents are getting younger.) Melissa George isn’t given much to work with, but she is reasonably convincing as a woman caught in a crossfire of tensions. The abbreviated screenplay does her no favours, though: Kathy is so late in reacting to what’s going on around her that she comes across as rather a dim bulb. And while I may be guilty of unforgivable tolerance here….I’m fighting an impulse to cut Ryan Reynolds a little slack for his performance: with the script the way it is, it’s hard to know how or where he could have toned it down. The instantaneous leap into supernatural doings at the beginning of the film leaves no room for subtlety or shading: sane-George becomes nutty-George in almost a blink. Still, once nutty-George arrives….oh, dear. (“Heeeeerrrrre’s Van Wilder!”) It’s difficult to say which is more distracting, the bloodshot contact lenses used – rather unnecessarily – to let us know when nutty-George is in residence, or Ryan Reynolds’ ridiculous plastic inflatable abs, which are without question the film’s Nut O’ Fun©. It’s impossible to take your eyes off the damn things, just on the off-chance that at some point Reynolds will twist too far in one direction or the other and one of those impossible bulges will blow out – I mean, you’d hate to miss it, right? Like I said, there is some attempt made to make this story look like it’s taking place in the seventies, but the effort collapses into futility the first time we see 2005’s version of George Lutz with his shirt off. The Amityville Horror may be a failure in most respects, but it does achieve one thing that no other film ever has: it makes me nostalgic for James Brolin’s podge. 

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