The horrifying murders of the DeFeo clan in 1974 and the strange phenomena experienced by the Lutz family in the same home a year later weren’t done much justice by the 1979 movie made about the events. The original “Amityville Horror” aimed for big thrills, but instead delivered a glacially paced story and wooden performances from pre-Streisand James Brolin and pre-whack job Margot Kidder.
Now we get a new version. Produced by Michael Bay and directed by first-timer Andrew Douglas, “The Amityville Horror” attempts to amp up the fright level for audiences 27 years removed from the original and jaded by almost three decades worth of scarier movies. Does it deliver? To quote Reverend Lovejoy, “Short answer: ‘yes’ with an ‘if.’ Long answer: ‘no’ with a ‘but.’”
First off, I find it a bit disingenuous that the studio is advertising this as “from the producers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Bay produced the mediocre remake, so to try and somehow tie “Amityville” in with Tobe Hooper and one of the greatest horror movies ever made is pretty cheap. Then again, what does MGM have to lose?
“Amityville” opens with a bang…several, in fact, as Ronnie DeFeo – finally succumbing to the voices in his head – calmly walks from room to room and shoots his parents and four siblings. The murders themselves aren’t depicted too graphically, though the grand finale, where he kills his youngest sister as she cowers in the closet, is refreshingly disconcerting. The opening credits roll over footage of DeFeo’s arrest and subsequent insanity plea, courtesy of the alleged demonic possession he claims compelled him to commit the crimes.
Fast forward a year, and George and Kathy Lutz are taking a tour through their dream house, a 17th century Dutch colonial with great flow and a boathouse, even. The catch? It’s the DeFeo house, of course. For most of us, the fact that one of the previous occupants went bananas and offed his entire family might move the property in question from “unique fixer-upper opportunity” to “not a chance in hell.” The Lutzes, however, aren’t in the position to haggle. George (Ryan Reynolds) is a contractor, trying to support his new family, made up of Kathy (Melissa George) and her three kids from a previous marriage. A deal like this will never come along again, and besides, there are no such things as bad houses, just bad people. Right?
Yeah. Soon enough, George discovers there may be more to the house than he’d preciously suspected. He can never get warm, for starters, and is starting to grow increasingly paranoid and aggressive towards Kathy and the kids. Worse, the youngest daughter Chelsea is having imaginary(?) conversations with Jodie, the little DeFeo daughter, who’s growing more and more eager to have Chelsea join her on the other side.
There are some genuine scares to be had here, and not just of the “Boo!” variety (though there’s plenty of that as well). Ironically, one of the things that works against “The Amityville Horror” is the comparative speed and intensity of the house’s antagonism towards the family. George starts hallucinating almost from day one, and becomes more and more belligerent with each passing hour. The original film was slow, but that made the family’s reluctance to leave a little easier to swallow. In the remake, I can think of at least five instances where I would’ve been out of that damn house like a shot. The babysitter’s ordeal, for example, or Chelsea’s attempt to join Jodie and her father in the afterworld.
Reynolds and George are convincing enough as a couple pushed to the brink by unquiet spirits, even if neither one really looks like they belong in 1975 (Reynolds still has his Hannibal King abs, for starters). My biggest complaint is probably with Douglas’ directing style. Rather than following in Bay’s footsteps, he appears to be emulating Tony Scott in places, and the excessive stylistic touches are unnecessary.
Part of what made the original “Amityville” so popular was the aura of authenticity surrounding it. Who cared that it took 100 minutes for anything to happen? Both it and the Jay Anson book frightened people because, improbable as the events seemed, there was the assumption that something evil was in that house. Whether it was a portal to hell (in the original) or…something else (as in the remake), audiences were genuinely frightened. Now that the Lutz’s stories have been largely shown to be made up, the gild is off that lily. Even so, “The Amityville Horror” is the best horror movie of the year so far. Faint praise, to be sure, but at least it’s R-rated.