“There are no bad houses, only bad people,” George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) keeps muttering as the old Long Island mansion into which he’s just moved his new family in “The Amityville Horror” keeps exhibiting distinct signs of menacing ghostly activity. But as it turns out, George has it just a bit off. What he should have said is, “There are no bad houses, only bad movies.” And this is one of them.
The picture is, of course, a remake of the 1979 stinker that was in turn based on a supposedly non-fiction bestseller by Jay Anson. (The Lutz family admitted afterward that they’d concocted their entire story.) The book obviously fed off the success of “The Exorcist,” and the movie, with its elaborate priestly interventions, was even more clearly designed to do likewise, but the solemnly paced picture came across as alternately campy and dull, even though it was a success at the boxoffice and spawned two terrible sequels (as well as a TV-movie). Now, after the passage of a quarter-century, the Amityville house has been resurrected, and it seems more than ever like a low-rent cousin of the Overlook Hotel, with George a pallid reflection of Jack Torrance as the evil forces in the place push him toward killing his wife and stepkids with that hatchet he regularly chops wood with. The greatest improvement the new movie has over its predecessor–apart from the predictably slicker effects, of course–is the fact that, at 89 minutes, it’s appreciably shorter (the original ran a stupefying 118). But the thinness of the plot makes even that brief span seem overextended.
“Horror” begins with one of those grisly prologues in which we see, in the whiplash montage style that’s the cinematic equivalent of strobe lighting, the events of a year earlier–the 1973 rampage during with one of the Defeo sons brutally murdered his parents and four younger siblings, claiming that mysterious voices drove him to the terrible act. Things then cut to 1974, when newlyweds George (Reynolds) and Kathy Lutz (Melissa George) meet a nervous realtor to see the house, which seems wildly underpriced. She loves the place, and they decide to take it even after the realtor reluctantly informs them of the year-old slaughter; and they quickly move in with Kathy’s kids Billy (Jesse James), Chelsea (Chloe Grace Mortez) and Michael (Jimmy Bennett), who are obviously still pining away for their recently-deceased dad. Misgivings soon arise, however, with Chelsea taking on an “imaginary” playmate (actually Jodie, the ghost of the young sister Ronald Defeo killed), tyke Jimmy being bothered by nighttime apparitions, and George–worst of all–becoming tyrannical and mean-tempered. Kathy, growing increasingly terrified, consults local priest Father Callaway (Philip Baker Hall), but even he flees from the house when he’s attacked by a swarm of flies while trying to bless the place, and he advises her to get her family out, too. Eventually the Lutzes do leave (after twenty-eight days, we’re informed in periodic titles that appear suddenly on-screen in the fashion of “The Shining”), but not before Kathy has looked into the distant history of the house (plenty more strobe-light inserts with bleeding corpses and tortured souls) that explains, in a fashion reminiscent of “Poltergeist,” why the spirits are so unhappy, and George has gone totally bonkers, threatening his new family with extinction (though the only member that actually suffers his wrath is a non-human one). Along the way little Chelsea almost dies in a fall from the roof and a drug-using babysitter (who used to sit Jodie too, and scares the kids with tales about the Defoes) gets her comeuppance.
From a purely technical perspective “The Amityville Horror” is efficiently made. Director Andrew Douglas, production designer Jennifer Williams, cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister, editors Christian Wagner and Roger Barton and composer Steve Jablonsky together fashion a suitably grim mood. But all their skill is reduced to producing an endless succession of “gotcha” moments. They do so pretty well initially, but the effect pales after the first few “Boo!”s, and the movie really doesn’t have anything else up its sleeve. (It’s actually the case that the first abrupt apparition–involving poor little Michael in the bathroom–will get a rise out of almost every viewer, but those that follow become progressively more tedious.) By the big finale, the picture has become almost laughably dull. The material doesn’t offer the actors much to work with, either. Reynolds’ quick, steely-eyed descent into darkness is, in a way, more comical that Jack Nicholson’s turn was in Kubrick’s film, and George is little more than a generic concerned mom. None of the kids makes much of an impression except for the peculiar-looking Bennett, whose entrance into his parents’ bedroom early on wearing a mask is obviously intended as a nod to another old horror flick–the original “Halloween,” where we view things from the perspective of another mask-wearing urchin named Michael, though with considerably nastier results. As the unlucky priest Hall is happily much more restrained than Rod Steiger was in the 1979 movie (the role is much truncated here), while Rachel Nichols is appropriately skanky as the wayward babysitter and Annabel Armour makes a suitably nervous realtor.
But despite the professional job, one can best advise about “The Amityville Horror” by quoting the script again, this time George’s last line, as he and the rest of the clan speed away from the house by boat. “Don’t even look at it,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.” Wise words, indeed.