Yet another in a string of movies that do not deserve to be re-watched, let alone re-made, Andrew Douglas’ The Amityville Horror answers the long-asked question “What would happen if Poltergeist were set on Long Island and it weren’t so good a movie?”

    When George and Kathy Lutz look at the too-low-priced-to-be-true house on high-priced Long Island, they decide to ignore their misgivings, the shadows in the hall, and their realtor’s admission of bloody familicide (I just made that word up) that was visited upon the previous owners by their own son, and buy it anyway. What the hey, George is a second husband to Kathy and unwanted stepfather to Kathy’s three kids, so he’s used to stepping into deep doo-doo. But a steam-shovel couldn’t save George and Co. from the pit of iniquity and evil that bubbles and squeaks at this home’s foundations.

    Before long, George is alienated, seeing things, and living in the basement, listening to old clock radios and TV’s that aren’t even plugged-in. A contractor for a living, George doesn’t realize he’s coming unglued like a piece of cheap plywood. He’s riding the same train that railroaded the previous owners’ son into madness and murder. And it’s all because the house is built atop the foundations of a retreat in which a self-anointed preacher tortured and killed Native Americans a couple hundred years ago. Gee, how did that tidbit of information never survive to the conversations at the local coffee shop?

    As husband and father cum madman, Ryan Reynolds (Van Wilder, Blade: Trinity) is up to the job of being as hairy and scary as James Brolin was back in the 1979 original. In fact, he’s scarier (but not hairier, Brolin wins that race by a mile). The entire cast is more than adequate to the demands of the script – what the heck, they’re good. Melissa George (Down With Love, Dark City) morphs from sexy young mom to abused spouse with believability and depth, and the cast of siblings (Jesse James, Jimmy Bennett, Chloe Moretz) carry a weight of feeling and disappointment that is admirable. The scene where Reynolds splits wood with a long-handled ax while demanding that oldest son James hold it in place with both hands is terrifying.

    Unfortunately, like Reynolds’ George Lutz, the film comes apart at the seams. Too many skeletons jump out of closets, too many phantoms patrol the halls, windows open and close, magnetic letters on the fridge form into portents of doom – FX abound. But to what point? The scene in which youngest son Bennett scoots to the bathroom in the middle of the night, only to be unknowingly overshadowed by the gibbering bloody ghost of a long-dispatched Indian, would be far more effective without the effects. The Killer Preacher appears at a window, but the only thing that’s scary is how much he looks like Julian Beck from Poltergeist II.

    While a large budget and producer Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) ensure a visual feast, the meat and potatoes of character and story are hard to see in Amityville. It’s a shame, as the horror in this story is ripe for development on two levels: one, as a ghost/possession story, and two, as the devolution of a loving family man into a vengeful and paranoiac abuser. I’m not interjecting unwanted social commentary here; this storyline exists in the script by Scott Kosar (the estimable The Machinist) but is not explored to real depth or satisfaction. This looks to be a result of overall production/direction, however, as much dialogue is cogent and quick and lends to character insight. Had a deeper line of thinking been followed throughout the film, however, viewers, rather than simply being startled, might have been genuinely scared as well. Like I said, though, I believe this burden lies squarely on shoulders broader than the screenwriter’s.

    All told, The Amityville Horror opted to keep the important aspects of the 1979 original: scares, hairs and basement lairs. Twenty-five years has yet to prove to some filmmakers that true horror lies in character recognition and response, rather than the richness of the color of the blood and the heights to which they can make it spatter.

    (-Steve Wisniewski-)

    | copyright, 2005 |