“The Amityville Horror” was always a rather strange choice of films to revisit, given that it lacks the instant recognition and built-in fan bases of other recent remakes such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Dawn of the Dead”. In fact, the original film is not particularly well thought of, even by the most diehard of genre fans, possibly as a result of having inspired an astoundingly gratuitous and unwanted franchise, which to date has included no less than seven sequels of unwaveringly poor quality.
This new version returns to the original source material, proudly bearing the ‘Based on a True Story’ tag, a fact which has supposedly incensed the real life Lutz family. Of course, any debate over factual accuracy is likely to be of little interest to the average horror fan, which has left the film makers free to let their creative imaginations run riot and to include all manner of ghoulish goings on which have only a passing resemblance to the actual events. Fortunately, this undeniably exploitative approach serves the film well, and allows for a great deal more action and scares than the original, which was hamstrung by being slow, dull and episodic. As a result, the 2005 incarnation of “The Amityville Horror”, whilst by no means a great film, is that rare beast — a remake which actually improves upon its inspiration.
The film takes place in an old Dutch colonial style house in Long Island, New York, where in 1974 a young man named Ronald DeFeo went insane and killed his family as they slept, claiming to have been tormented by demonic ‘voices’. One year later, the Lutz family moves into the same house, thinking to have found their dream home. Before long, father George (Ryan Reynolds, “Blade III”) is acting strangely, haunted by ghastly visions, and the youngest daughter has a mysterious playmate that only she can see. Over the next twenty eight days, the family is put through hell, as George goes slowly insane, driven by the ghosts of the past to ill temper, violence, and finally, homicidal mania.
Although ostensibly based on the actual events which befell the Lutz family, “The Amityville Horror” plays more like a suburban retelling of “The Shining” than a remake of the original film. Rather than cataloguing the strange occurrences in the house, it chooses instead to focus mainly upon George Lutz, and attempts to draw tension from his transformation into a red-eyed, sweaty maniac. There are a few minor subplots, one involving an incompetent babysitter, and the other the ghost of the original mass murder’s youngest victim, though these are included solely for a few cheap scares. This approach is actually quite successful, and despite never really fleshing out the character of George, his growing violence is quite engaging, and makes for a number of effectively threatening scenes.
The main source of the horror comes through George’s visions, a rather shameless device which allows director Andrew Douglas to throw in all manner of grotesque spirits and demons. Although this move seriously undermines any pretences to realism, it does mean that the film is considerably less boring than its predecessor, and the frequent flashes of bloody special effects means that it moves along at a relatively fast pace. The film also benefits from a hackneyed piece of exposition towards the end, which serves not so much to explain the source of the haunting as to provide an excuse for a montage of gore and torture.
The film’s main failing comes from the fact that director Douglas too often reverts to employing the tired cliché of the modern horror film, including mysterious figures with shaking faces, and the current bane of the genre, the omnipresent creepy little girl ghost. Almost every scare scene in the film is clearly telegraphed, and the moments of horror, when they finally arrive, are inevitably accompanied by loud crashes on the soundtrack. This over reliance on such overused techniques is rather depressing, and suggests a complete lack of ambition and imagination. The film would have benefited from a more subtle approach, and had Douglas taken a less obvious route, the eventual descent into madness of the father would have been far more terrifying.
Still, although over-familiar and tacky in many ways, “The Amityville Horror” is generally quite agreeable, and provides a reasonable number of atmospheric thrills. As well as improving upon a sterile and overly earnest original, the 2005 remake offers a genuine alternative to the vacuous ‘teens in peril’ genre films which sadly still dominate Hollywood’s horror output.
Andrew Douglas (director) / Jay Anson (novel), Sandor Stern (earlier screenplay), Scott Kosar (screenplay)
CAST: Ryan Reynolds …. George Lutz
Melissa George …. Kathy Lutz
Jesse James …. Billy Lutz
Jimmy Bennett …. Michael Lutz
Chloe Moretz …. Chelsea Lutz
Rachel Nichols …. Lisa
Philip Baker Hall …. Father Callaway