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The Amityville Horror   C

MGM Pictures / Dimension Films

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Andrew Douglas
Writer: Scott Kosar (based on the book by Jay Anson and a screenplay by Sandor Stern)
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Philip Baker Hall, Jesse James, Jimmy Bennett, Chloë Grace Moretz, Isabel Conner, Rachel Nichols.

Review by Rob Vaux

1979's The Amityville Horror may be the most overrated fright fest of all time. Its lurid tie-ins to real life -- based on a book by Jay Anson and boasting an actual house in the actual Long Island where actual bad things happened -- turned it into a cultural phenomenon. But the movie itself comes across as turgid, badly dated, and about as scary as a Girl Scout picnic. These days, much of its reputation arrives secondhand, and those who see it usually end up wondering what all the fuss was about. In that light, a remake is easy to understand, at least from a marketing point of view. You've got built-in name recognition, an instant plot, and a chance to evoke something other than cheesy giggles with the material. What big-shot producer could say no?

The resulting 2005 update of Amityville is first and foremost a chance to make more money with the brand name. There's a sense of risk management to it; for scares, it depends mainly on routine shock edits that will eventually date it as badly as its predecessor. The leads are perky and bland, the story filled to the brim with horror clichés (including a little girl with an imaginary friend, a fearful priest played by Philip Baker Hall, and that most bewhiskered of gags, the ancient Indian burial ground). And yet for all the mediocrity in its assemblage, it still provokes a few genuine shrieks that will linger when the final credits roll -- far longer than any conjured by its predecessor.

Director Andrew Douglas has a background in commercials, and his technique does little to make Amityville stand out from other recent horror films. His best moments come when he touches on the mundane anxieties hiding beneath the boogeymen: worries about money, family dysfunctions, and even the primal angst of a seven-year-old boy (Jimmy Bennett) trying to hold in his urine. They flutter beneath the surface of The Amityville Horror, poking their heads up just often enough to suggest something resembling a subtext.

Most of the time, however, the film goes straight for the jugular, as happy couple George and Kathy Lutz (Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George) move into a suspiciously cheap Long Island colonial with their three beautiful kids. Before you know it, George has developed a preternatural fixation with the basement and begins chopping mountains of firewood with his shiny new ax. The best fulcrum for the jolts is the house itself, which of course has a violent history and which is presented as a malevolent entity bent on swallowing the family whole. Its spookiest resident is little Jodie Defeo (Isabel Conner), who was murdered by her brother, along with the rest of her family, at the behest of demonic "voices" a year before the Lutzes came. Douglas uses her as part of the relentless regimen of predictable shocks, first appearing as the unseen playmate of the Lutzes' little girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), then taking on a more malevolent role by settling accounts with the local babysitter. Though unexceptional, her appearances conjure up the film's scariest moments, and Douglas' visual composition imbues both her and the house with a real sense of menace. The film also earns brownie points for shying away from CGI, relying on old-fashioned scares that compare favorably with the original.

Besides the house, the film's favorite subject is George, and with him The Amityville Horror is at its weakest. His slow descent into madness comes off in unwieldy chunks, ricocheting him wildly between loving family man and complete psycho. Without more nuance, the performance becomes unintentionally jokey and strains to give him credibility as a threat. Even setting that aside, the rest of the film simply feels too similar to too many other movies to really hold us. Of all the specters in The Amityville Horror, the most stubborn is the corporate thinking that produced it, shirking memorable terror in favor of the safe, the time-tested, and the just-good-enough. Nothing about it demands our attention; it's just another cookie-cutter carnival ride looking for a quick buck. It does its job with workmanlike regularity and never takes the chance of achieving anything more.

Having said that, it's still a big improvement on the brand. As a horror movie, it may be barely adequate, but as an Amityville movie, it takes all comers.

Review published 04.15.2005.

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