How does Hollywood keep screwing this up? Back in the '70s, we teens made Jay Anson's non-fiction 'novel' into our own supernatural In Cold Blood. A huge bestseller, we couldn't wait to see how our favorite dream factory would translate the terror tale onto the big screen. In 1979, we got the answer, and the response was ridiculous at best. Featuring more ham performances than a pig opera and lacking most of the book's biggest scares, the first Amityville Horror was a fright film fiasco. Then, three decades later, Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes brethren tried to capture the bottled remake lightning they managed with their Texas Chainsaw Massacre update - and also botched things up miserably. Not only does this new version of the tale fail to take into account the "truth" supposedly involved in the story, it changes things up completely. Gone are Jodie the red-eyed pig, the "blood room", and the bewildered priest charged with helping the Lutz family. In their place? A pathetic haunted house story that's dull and derivative.
When George and Kathy Lutz go house hunting, they never imagined they'd find a such a cheap waterfront mansion. As a contractor with a new stepfamily to consider, he could barely afford a simple split level - and yet he soon finds himself in possession of an imposing manor in Amityville. Along with the three kids from Kathy's previous marriage, the clan moves in, even though they now know the reason for the distressed price. Apparently, a few months before, young Ronald DeFeo heard voices, went bonkers, picked up a rifle, and killed all five members of his brood while they were sleeping. Now, the spirits that infected the mass murderer are driving George to distraction, arguing for him to "Katch 'Em, Kill 'Em" while turning their dream home into a living nightmare. Not even a last minute local priest familiar with the case can help the Lutzes escape the terror inside their sinister abode.
Jeez - and you thought the 1979 James Brolin/Margot Kidder movie was a dog. Sadly, this three decades in the desecration update is one big fat bow wow. Lame beyond lamentation and unconcerned with the
"reality" of the actual Amityville case, what we have here is The Shining made stupid by massive amounts of Ryan Reynolds scenery chewing. In fact, if it wasn't for his ab-ness dropping t-shirt to give the ladies a look, he'd serve no real purpose in the plot. His George is such a passive threat, forcing his misbehaved stepkids to schelp wood as punishment, that you wonder if he'll ever do anything except glower and gape unconvincingly. At least Mr. 'Not Josh' Brolin tried to bring the badness. Reynolds is merely a pretty boy pretending, and his attempts are pathetic indeed. They are matched well by the rest of the cast, including a mannered Melissa George and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him turn by Phillip Baker Hall as a reluctant man of the cloth (again, he's no match for Oscar winner Rod Steiger's original religious exasperation).
Clearly, big time blame must be laid at the floundering feet of director Andrew Douglas and screenwriter Scott Kosar. Thanks to the latter's work on the Tobe Hooper update (and the little seen indie effort, The Machinist) he was brought on to bring this narrative to life - and ended up making matter much, much worse. There is just something inherently wrong with taking an already established ghost story (true or wholly made up) and putting your own preposterous spin on it. Yet that is exactly what Kosar does, and the results suck clammy dog bones. Douglas is even worse off, learning nothing from his work on the documentary In Search of the Wrong Eyed Jesus that he could use to conjure up fear or dread. Instead, he has fast moving ghost children, disembodied limbs protruding from walls, and flailing flashbacks to Native American atrocities. There is never a consistent tone here. Instead, Douglas diddles around, focusing on how sexed up George and Kathy are at one moment, how supposedly horrifying their new home is the other.
Yet the most important crime committed here is failing to follow an already proven success. Sure, over the years, the Amityville story has had millions of holes blown into it, from dismissals by the priest reportedly involved to a significant lack of supernatural phenomenon since the Lutzes left. More importantly, various permutations of the haunted evil house narrative have changed the fright film landscape, arguing for the minor macabre elements of the original tale. And yet - The Amityville Horror is a touchstone for a certain generation, a precursor to all the Ghost Hunters and Adventures that now make up our reality TV obsessed media. Previously, the spirit world was viewed as part of a fictional universe, a place safely excluded from our workaday world. But with the Lutzes making the grandstanding move of leaving said house without taking anything with them, with lie detectors casting their own doubts, and the undeniable power of myth, the saga lives on. Sadly both motion picture versions of the events will do little except further muddle the myth.
As with many post-millennial movies translated over to the new high definition medium, The Amityville Horror come off rather well on blu-ray. The colors - when not purposefully desaturated - look terrific and the blacks are deep without being too dark. The level of detail in the 2.39:1 image, AVC-encoded at 1080p, is amazing, from ghostly gunshot wounds to the increasing stubble on Reynold's chiseled chin. There is some grain, but not an overwhelming amount. More importantly, the use of CG is not completely undermined by the elements here. While you can tell when certain scenes are faked, the overall look is polished and professional.
For a movie that makes acceptable use of ambient noise and ghost voices, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does a fine job of keeping the sonic scares intact. This is a Pixies production, meaning it goes from 'quietLOUDquiet' at any given moment. We also get lots of spatial immersion and directional movement, especially when the various spooky elements shuttle back and forth in the background. The musical score is a bit much, predicting the shivers with obvious aural accuracy and the dialogue, while discernible, can get lost in the haunted house hijinx. Still, the sound design here is excellent - much better than the movie deserves.
For some unusual reason, the DVD version of the film (included here as part of a marketing strategy two-pack) offers all the added content available in this package. There are deleted scenes, a featurette focusing on the real Defeo murders, a Making of clip fest, some multi-angle peels of the set, a photo gallery, and an audio commentary with star Reynolds and the producers. Of all the bonus features offered, the final one is the most significant. It argues for the pros and cons of the original story and why the makers saw fit to change it. Again, the blu-ray is lacking any extras.
Divorced from the reality of what happened back in the mid '70s, it is possible to view The Amityville Horror as a decent fright fest marred by some overacting and under-direction. Without context, one could easily get caught up in its 'big bad boo' dynamic. Sadly, anyone with a working knowledge of the Lutz family and their argued truth cannot cotton to this macabre malarkey. It's all bumbling and no bite. While a rating of Skip It is more than warranted, we will stick with Rent It for now. This will allowing the non-discerning fright fan a chance to make up their own mind. One day, Tinseltown may just figure out this docu-dark ride. So far, they've done nothing but flail and flop around.
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