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Amityville Horror, The Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

Critics always whine and complain about remakes. I do it too, and most of the time, I think I have good reason. Last year we all saw The Stepford Wives, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Manchurian Candidate, all ostensibly bad movies that either missed the targets of their originals, or else aimed for different targets and still missed. I ripped into all of them, some with affectionate reservation, others like Simon Cowell at amateur night, mainly because they were all ignorant to the art of the remake. Now I arrive at The Amityville Horror, a remake of the 1979 film by the same name, a movie which critics have already flogged. However, today I am not among them. The Amityville Horror is good, cheesy, drive-in theater horror at its best, crawling with atmosphere and cheap suspense and an occasional spark of silliness. I liked this movie, and I think you will too. After all, what do critics know?

Nothing, it turns out, since, when you get right down to it, a lot of reviews of The Amityville Horror are just plain inaccurate. A common critic grievance is that the film just isn't scary enough. True, but I think they missed the point. The Amityville Horror, thank god, isn't a jump-out-of-your-seat scare-fest to begin with. It's more about moods, haunting presences and general creepy-crawliness than loud "boo!" scares and senseless gore (although the film, slapped with an R-rating, isn't without those things). Think The Shining. Think one man's gradual descent into madness as the evil spirits in his house possess him, warp him, and sic him on his family. Think thick suspense as opposed to quick scares. Think classier filmmaking than what horror movie patrons are used to.

Yet, even though The Amityville Horror works in a more sophisticated way than most horror films do, this isn't some heady psych-thriller. On the contrary, this is quite the fun romp, and there's a lot of gleefully eerie stuff waiting for you as the tension undulates. Many of the scares, both spooky and silly, are lovingly stolen from other horror pictures (a girl who talks to a dead girl distinctly recalls Hide and Seek, a secret torture chamber of a basement seems lifted right from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plus the aforementioned Shining allusions), but the recycling isn't a bother, since the atmosphere (a ghost house, mist on a glassy lake sort of feel) is so convincing. The Amityville Horror is enjoyed on the basest levels (what good horror film isn't?), but its inner workings are not the product of idle filmmaking. Underneath it all, this is clever stuff.

Immediately (as in, at the first frame), The Amityville Horror does one thing wrong. It has one of those "based on a true story" title cards at the beginning, which we all know can be a tad misleading, especially when it comes to horror movies. After all, most fans of the original Amityville Horror now accept that Jay Anson's novel was mostly based on a hoax, and not real life events as Anson originally claimed. Still, some (like a fellow critic with whom I saw this movie) still maintain that Amityville is the real deal. To all of this I ask simply, who cares? Is something that's allegedly reality based necessarily more entertaining than something that isn't? Is The Aviator any less a great movie because it isn't documentary-level faithful to Howard Hughes' life? Of course not. That's silly. This "based on a true story" business is just a marketing ploy that, for some reason, always gets people talking, but never, ever implies or ensures a better film going experience. There's a kind of arrogance in it that I can't quite explain, but that gets me steamed nonetheless. Anyway.

The Amityville Horror, fact or fiction, tells the story of a creepy old house where, many years ago, the occupant went crazy and murdered his family (responding to "voices he heard coming from the house"). And, of course, because something scary happened there, the house has to be the most overtly scary abode imaginable, with creaky doors, dark corners, a suspicious basement and (my favorite), two attic windows which were clearly made to look like two sinister eyes. It's like this house was built to be haunted. That's why I have no sympathy for George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds), who moves into the house with his family, even after he sees those scowling eye-windows, and even after he hears that a murder happened there. What the hell, right? The house is cheap, and George's family could use a big spacious place like this. Yeah, home sweet home.

I almost feel like I'm insulting your intelligence by telling you what happens next. Sure enough, George starts to go a bit nuts, and soon he has all the symptoms that the other guy had (the voices, the visions, the irrepressible anger). The rest is self-explanatory-George has a few freak outs, until the finale when he really goes berserk. All basic stuff, but it's an important point to make, I think, that comedic actor Ryan Reynolds was chosen to play George. It gives the movie a crucial layer. Reynolds is an intense presence that serves the scary parts well, but he also has a slight comic edge, which keeps the film's faint self-aware smirk alive under the dark mood. It's the same logic used when they cast Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Like Nicholson (though to a lesser extent), Reynolds can be spooky, but he can also hint at humor, which ironically is an important element in any movie like this. In the end, I really like that The Amityville Horror isn't entirely a serious movie. Reynolds is well-cast, and the goofiness is well played.

As for the other performances-what does it matter? George's three step-children are all poorly portrayed by three forgettable child actors, and Melissa George does a pretty weak Shelley Duvall impression as George's weirded-out wife. The acting is all-around pretty bad in this movie, although I can't be totally sure, since the writing isn't exactly Shakespearean either. Scott Kosar has mixed and matched all sorts of typical bad horror movie dialogue into this script, and there are more than a few times where we laugh when we shouldn't. But, by and large, this is forgivable.

My theory: critics have been so frustrated with the truckload of crappy horror films this year that they passed by The Amityville Horror without blinking twice. It's a shame; I think a lot of them missed out on a great time. The trick is, you can't just breeze past The Amityville Horror like any other thriller. You have to slow down and really look at this film, look at what it's doing and notice how well it's doing it. You have to buy into its ridiculous little game, accept that it's a cheesy fright flick, but allow yourself to admire the style that went into it. Some just can't do it. And what kind of world do we live in where we can't just sit back, get spooked and have fun?

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