Amityville Horror, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What is a studio to do when all sequel possibilities have been exhausted for a brand name that retains name recognition? Why, do a remake, of course! Thus, we have first-time feature director Andrew Douglas' take on the events in late 1975 at 112 Ocean Avenue (or at least the purported events, as related in Jay Anson's bestseller). The good news: the 2005 edition is the best movie to-date to bare the name "Amityville" in the title. The bad news: there's no real competition. The 1979 film of the same name was so awful that it belongs in the guilty pleasure category and the various sequels (some of which were direct-to-video) are among the worst movies ever made.

First, a note on the film's opening caption, which reads, "Based on a true story." Balderdash. When Jay Anson's book, The Amityville Horror, was published in the late 1970s, it was viewed as non-fiction. When the movie arrived in theaters, the events of Anson's chronology had not yet been seriously challenged. So, as awful as the first Amityville Horror was, saying it was "based on a true story" was a legitimate claim. 26 years later, however, the events of the novel have been debunked. The paranormal chain of events was revealed to be a hoax dreamed up by the Lutzes (allegedly to spare them from having to pay a crippling mortgage). "Truth" has nothing to do with The Amityville Horror, so the movie's claim to be "based on a true story" is dishonest and misleading. (See Hidalgo for another recent example of this.)

The 2005 version is better than its 1979 predecessor in every way except one. The production values and special effects are superior, the acting is at a higher level, and the scares carry more umph. Unfortunately, the writing has shown no improvement. Scott Kosar's screenplay is as insulting to the intelligence as Sandor Stern's was a quarter of a century ago. In a ghost story, the narrative doesn't have to be a model of originality or coherence, but it needs to support the scares. In The Amityville Horror, the writing is so bad that it detracts from the "boo!" moments and creepy interludes.

The film opens with a brief prologue in 1974 detailing a fictionalized view of real events - the murderous rampage of Ronald DeFeo, who used a shotgun to kill the other six members of his family. A year later, George and Kathy Lutz (Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George), purchase the house where the atrocities occurred because it is selling for an astonishingly low price. With their three kids, Billy (Billy Lutz), Michael (Jimmy Bennett), and Chelsea (Chloë Grace Moretz), in tow, they move into the dream house. It only takes a few days before bad things start happening. George undergoes a personality change, as his genial nature morphs into something cruel. Apparitions make appearances and Chelsea meets an imaginary friend who has the same name as one of the murdered DeFeo girls. The family dog starts barking in the middle of the night and a local priest (Philip Baker Hall) flees from the house in terror when his attempted exorcism goes wrong.

The Amityville Horror contains one memorable scene. On a night when George and Kathy go to dinner, they hire a babysitter named Lisa (Rachel Nichols) to look after the kids. This girl is a parent's worst nightmare. She smokes pot in the bathroom, flaunts her sexuality in front of a twelve-year old boy, and delights in telling the Lutz children about the house's history. Then she ends up locked in a closet with Chelsea's imaginary friend, Jodi, who looks like a refugee from The Ring films (decaying face; long, lank, black hair). What subsequently occurs represents about as much fun as one can have watching a modern, R-rated horror film.

For the first two-thirds of its running time, The Amityville Horror is an effective ghost story, with plenty of moments guaranteed to make audience members shriek. The atmosphere is right, the horror is mostly low-key (primarily fleeting glimpses of ghostly images), and the story seems to be building to something. Then comes the letdown. The backstory uncovered in the final 20 minutes is dumb, and, in the wake of this revelation, The Amityville Horror changes into a stalker/slasher film, complete with an unstoppable figure carrying an axe and a rooftop chase. I thought I was watching the last reel of a Halloween or Friday the 13th movie.

Despite the teen-unfriendly R-rating, The Amityville Horror should do well with viewers who have become infatuated by the American re-makes of Asian horror films (The Ring, The Grudge). This version of the classic Long Island haunted house story owes as much of its presentation to cinematic styles from half-way across the globe as it does to the first motion picture telling of the tale. The Amityville Horror fails as a movie, but, if you are searching for are a few good scares, you'll find them here. It's a good date movie if all you're interested in is clutching or being clutched.

Amityville Horror, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1