That most enduring of haunted-house hoaxes, “The Amityville Horror,” returns in a remodeled version that — like producer Michael Bay and screenwriter Scott Kosar’s 2003 makeover of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — begins slavishly faithful to its low-key 1970s predecessor then sledgehammers auds with a numbing succession of shock edits and over-the-top horror effects. Which, as with “Chainsaw” (which grossed more than $100 million worldwide), won’t dissuade the core audience of twentysomething yahoos and their nervous-Nellie girlfriends. They’ll keep this sorry swan song for MGM scaring up profits for at least as long as the 28 days the Lutz family managed to tough it out at 112 Ocean Ave.
As evidenced by the muscular performances of “The Grudge” and “The Ring Two,” the market for disposable horror fare is still far from its late-1980s level of overspeculation. And lacking a Japanese fright pic to remake, Hollywood seems content to turn back to its own catalog, with “Amityville” arriving on the heels of last year’s “Dawn of the Dead” and just ahead of new versions of John Carpenter’s “The Fog” and Roger Spottiswoode’s “Terror Train.”
“Amityville” has the added lure of purporting to be based on a true story — that of George and Kathy Lutz, who moved into a bargain-priced Dutch Colonial house on the shores of Long Island, only to flee one month later, claiming their home was festooned with demons and other sinister forces.
Their story became the basis for author Jay Anson’s bestselling 1977 book and the big-grossing 1979 American Intl. Pictures film (both credited as source material here) adapted from it. Although the Lutzes’ claims were subsequently debunked as a crass attempt to exploit the brutal sextuple murder that had occurred in the house, the Amityville legend has proven an enduring pop-culture myth.
In director Andrew Douglas’ retelling, Ryan Reynolds and “Alias” actress Melissa George (who bear strong physical resemblances to original “Amityville” stars James Brolin and Margot Kidder) are the newlyweds who arrive at 112 Ocean Ave. Clocking in at a brisk 89 minutes (a full half-hour shorter than the 1979 version), this “Amityville Horror” doesn’t have time to waste manufacturing an air of home-sweet-home normalcy. Following introductory moments patterned virtually shot-for-shot on the original, Douglas ramps up the paranormal hooey, with creaking floorboards and mysterious shadows rapidly escalating into full-blown apparitions of dead children hanging from the ceiling.
In fairness, the original “Amityville Horror” (directed by Stuart Rosenberg) was far from a genre classic, and the remake actually improves upon it in certain respects. Smartly, screenwriter Kosar omits some of its more laughable episodes and adds a perilous rooftop encounter between the Lutzes and their young daughter, Chelsea (Chloe Grace Moretz), that is executed by Douglas with expert, palm-sweating intensity.
There’s also less time wasted with extraneous secondary characters. In particular, the role of the town priest, played by Rod Steiger in the original and by Philip Baker Hall here, has been dramatically reduced.
But the original had a creepy ambiguity about the cause of the happenings and an ability to unsettle auds without the aid of digital imagery. Like the most affecting haunted house pics (the original “The Haunting,” “Poltergeist”), it rooted its terrors in a distinctly domestic realm, achieving its tension by violating the presumed safety of ordinary household objects.
Kosar explicitly suggests that the haunting is the work of Jodie Defeo (Isabel Conner), the youngest victim of the massacre at the house. (Evidently, someone thought there weren’t already enough movies in which the restless spirits of dead children torment the living.)
At the same time, Douglas (“Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”) buys wholesale into the more-is-more philosophy that may be dooming the future of Hollywood horror movies. Hence, a believable swarm of flies becomes an army of CG insects, young Chelsea’s imaginary friend is no longer so imaginary, and the infamous “red room” in the Lutzes’ basement becomes a cavernous series of tunnels and underground torture chambers. And, none of it is nearly as scary.
In her first major screen role, George, who isn’t asked to do much more than scream and look petrified, does an acceptable job. Reynolds, playing against his stock-in-trade lighthearted comedy parts, is more convincing as the benevolent husband-father of pic’s early passages than as the ax-wielding, Jack Torrance-like psycho he evolves into.
Tech credits are predictably solid, with the work of production designer Jennifer Williams and costume designer David Robinson particularly noteworthy — they’ve hauled the fashions and fixtures of the 1970s out of a time capsule intact, from the mirror behind the Lutzes’ bed to George Lutz’s floral print shirts and tan leather blazer.