The Amityville Horror (2005) Review

George and Kathy Lutz think they’re the luckiest couple on earth when they snap up a six-bedroom, lakeside house for a fraction of its worth. Twenty-eight days later, they’re fighting for their lives against the evil that dwells inside it. The most famous ghost story of all time returns to the screen in this big-budget remake, starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

In 1974 on Long Island, New York, a young man named Ronald DeFeo Jr killed six members of his family with a rifle. After he was arrested and charged, he claimed that voices in his house had told him to do it. The house in question was a large Dutch Colonial building sitting beside a lake at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville. A year after the murders, the house was sold at a knockdown price to George and Kathy Lutz, who moved in with Kathy’s three children from a previous marriage. Twenty-eight days later, the Lutzes left in the middle of the night without even taking their possessions. They said they had been driven out by supernatural forces.

Their story was immortalised by journalist Jay Anson in his book The Amityville Horror. It became a huge best-seller in 1977, capturing the public imagination and inspiring several more books and a film adaptation which itself spawned a number of sequels. There was even a pop song – “Amityville: The House On The Hill”! Later, investigators would come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a very elaborate hoax. The parts of the story which could be verified proved to be false and the family that subsequently moved into the house reported no supernatural events. Although George Lutz maintains his story to this day, he also stated that he made it up to settle a court case. Ronald DeFeo Jr later retracted his story about voices, claiming it was his sister who talked him into it.

Whether or not there’s any truth behind it, The Amityville Horror is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Anson’s matter-of-fact, journalistic prose makes the simple story of a family terrorised by a haunted house far more frightening than any over-heated horror novel. It seemed real. The 1979 film starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder failed to capture the spine-tingling veracity of the book but, released on a tidal wave of hype, it became the number one film of the summer, outgrossing Alien, Rocky II, Apocalypse Now and Moonraker. A quarter of a century later, it hasn’t aged well. Still, it does have some effective moments and it works as a piece of melodrama if nothing else.

The 2005 version starts with a big advantage over most remakes: it doesn’t have much to live up to. Unlike Dawn Of The Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Assault On Precinct 13 or The Fog, the original doesn’t have a cult following crying sacrilege. So when I tell you that the remake is still a disappointment and that you’re better off watching the dated, half-arsed 1979 version, you’ll understand that the new film is a pretty poor show.

How does it go wrong? Despite the film-makers’ claims that the new movie is more faithful to Jay Anson’s book, the script actually diverges quite far from both the book and the first film. It does place more emphasis on George Lutz’s psychological breakdown, but its treatment owes more to The Shining than what Anson wrote, and we’ve already had one Shining rip-off already this year. The changes made to the story are in almost all cases for the worse, the exception being a blackly funny sequence involving a stoned babysitter. Otherwise, every alteration makes the film more generic and obvious.

I guess the haunting described in the book was considered too low-key for today’s moviegoers. The physical manifestations the Lutzes claimed they witnessed were disembodied eyes, animal footprints and slime oozing down the walls. The new film throws any such subtlety out the window and populates the house with demonic apparitions that are entirely inventions of the screenplay. There’s even a child ghost. Yes, another child in sinister make-up – it’s been a whole two weeks since I’ve seen one of those. Director Andrew Douglas keeps setting up cheap jolts by having sinister faces appearing in windows and in the backgrounds of shots, accompanied by an almighty crash on the soundtrack but if you’ve seen a horror film lately, you’ll be as bored of such tactics as I am.

So much for faithfulness and so much for credibility. It’s easy to understand how people could convince themselves that a noise in the attic or red eyes at a window were figments of their imagination. However, if you saw spectral faces, watched fridge magnets re-arrange themselves into sinister messages and had a guest wheeled away on a stretcher, gibbering about being attacked by a dead girl, you’d pack your bags pretty damn sharpish. Nobody in their right mind would spend 28 days living in this house.

This family is unconvincing from the start. Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George are too pretty by half to play an ordinary, working class couple. George has the face and figure of a twenty-one-year-old Playmate when she’s supposed to be playing a thirtyish mother with three children years before aerobics and keep-fit took off. Reynolds can get away with his action star physique more easily but he can’t pull off his character’s transformation from doting stepdad to homicidal maniac, not that the writing gives him much help. The child actors, particularly Jesse James as the eldest boy, come off better.

The worst mistake of all is the explanation the script offers for the phenomena. One of the most effective things about The Amityville Horror is that there is no explanation. The one we get here is based on a genuine theory about the house but it will sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s watched a lot of haunted house movies.

Ultimately that’s all the new Amityville movie is – just another mediocre Hollywood haunted house movie. Produced by Michael Bay and written by Scott Kosar, who previously collaborated on the Texas Chainsaw remake, it makes the same mistakes as that film, substituting fast-editing, noise and cheap shocks for suspense, audience involvement and atmosphere. Once again, genuinely scary material has been transformed into mind-numbing formula.

Judging by the ad campaign, the producers realise the new film doesn’t cut it. The trailer uses Lalo Schifrin’s memorably creepy music from the 1979 movie while the poster campaign is based on the image of the Amityville house at night with its upstairs windows blazing like a demon’s eyes – again, something from the original film. The new version makes surprisingly little use of the house and fails completely to make it look frightening, something which shouldn’t present a great challenge. The cinematography actually makes the house and its location look attractive. Indeed, rather than feel chilled, many viewers may find themselves drooling over such a desirable piece of lakefront property.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Apr 17, 2005

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