"But where is the ambiguity? It's over there, in a box."
-- Monty Python
I've said it before, and I think it bears repeating here: movies aren't particularly well-suited to telling us how to live, but they're very good at showing us how we live now. Sure, every year there will be a handful of movies that do comment meaningfully on the Human Condition; in the United States, at least, I think it's safe to say these movies' impact on general audiences is near-nil. Sure, there will be another handful of movies that will raise warning flags with parents' organizations and church groups, leading to angry demonstrations, letters-to-the-editor and calls to talk radio accusing Hollywood of "corrupting out nation's youth". But in general, commercial cinema is a weak force for social change. Rather, the bulk of commercial film product looks backward or inward: it gives us tremendous insight into what's really been going on in the culture that produces it.
The original Amityville Horror is one of these cinematic time capsules. When we watch it today, we may get a sense of what made it so enormously popular when it was originally released in 1979. But that sense will not come from the inherent qualities of the film itself. Instead, it's likely to be dependent on our understanding of the movie's context: the social conditions that inspired both the source story and the actual film. Without that context, the film seems like a thinly-plotted, tasteless haunted house flick that scarcely deserves its cult reputation.
But the remake, on the other hand... the remake is an utter failure as a horror movie, as an adaptation of its source material, as entertainment... as anything other than a sociological statement about our cultural attitudes in 2005. Its story is, if anything, even thinner than the original; it resorts to out-and-out theft from other well-known movies just to pad itself out to feature length (which is still some 17 minutes short of its predecessor). Its cut-and-paste approach renders it completely incoherent, so if we're going to make any sense out of it, we have to refer to the original material. And when we do, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong, terribly wrong with it at the most basic level. We don't need to wait twenty or thirty years for the underlying issues to be revealed. There's true horror up there on the screen, and it has nothing whatever to do with ghosts.
DISCLAIMER: The following potted history of the Amityville Horror story in history, in print and on film is pieced together entirely from my poor memory. I have done little or no research to back up any of this, not even to the extent of watching the Bonus Disk on the DVD set. I freely admit that a lot of this is my own uninformed opinion. Please don't sue me.
The very first thing we see as the movie begins (after the studio credits) is a single phrase, in big white letters on a black screen: Based on the true story.
Before we take a look at what makes the 2005 version so awful, we need to take a look at what this "true story" might be. To do this, we need to go all the way back to 1973. This was the first year of Richard Nixon's second term as President of the United States, to which he was re-elected by a landslide. It was also the year that the Watergate scandal accelerated and caught up with the President, eventually forcing him to resign in mid-1974. At the same time, the long and bloody Vietnam War was entering its last phase. It was also the year that disco was born. All in all, it was a troubled time in the United States.
By the year's end, strange things and stranger ideas were brewing across the country. On December 7, 1973, Nixon's Chief of Staff Al Haig claimed that "some sinister force" was responsible for erasing the notorious 18 minutes of the Nixon tapes. Two weeks later, another sinister force was unleashed: The Exorcist was released to US theatres. So tremendous was the public response to William Friedkin's movie that throughout 1974, even as the American political situation became more and more unstable, people began imagining sinister forces at work everywhere...
Then on November 14, 1974, a young man shot his entire family to death, in the family's home at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York.
The reasons Ron "Butch" DeFeo, Jr., killed his family were far from mysterious. DeFeo was known to be a bully, a liar, a thief and a drug addict; shortly before the killings, he'd attempted to fake a robbery from his father's car dealership to get money to support his drug habit. Unfortunately, he behaved suspiciously under police questioning, and his father realized what he was up to. Rather than risk being exposed by his own father, DeFeo shot the entire family, and then tried to pass off the killings as a mob hit. The police didn't buy it, and eventually DeFeo confessed.
But by 1975 post-Exorcist interest in the supernatural had not abated significantly, even in the courtroom where "Butch" DeFeo was being tried. DeFeo was claiming insanity, saying that he'd heard voices that told him to kill; he also claimed at one point to be God. A rumor began to circulate that DeFeo's lawyer, William Weber, had claimed the boy was innocent "by reason of demonic possession". I haven't researched this absurd claim to find out if it's true — many absurd things have turned out to be true — but in light of the Exorcist hysteria that had swept the nation, it's easy to see how such a story would gain credence.
The jury was unconvinced. The evidence against DeFeo was strong enough to suggest there were no ghosts or demons spurring him on. He was responsible for his own actions. DeFeo was found guilty, and remains in jail to this day.
Not long afterwards, the Lutz family purchased the house on Ocean Avenue. The Lutzes seemed to be an ordinary middle-class family: George Lutz was a building contractor, and his wife Kathy had three children from a previous marriage. They had been married only a short time when they stumbled across the opportunity to buy their dream house, in their dream neighborhood, for far less money than they would have imagined possible. The only catch was that they had to live in a house with a nasty history. A nasty recent history.
So the Lutzes moved into an old house (it had been built in 1928)... and then, apparently, the disturbances began.
I really have to wonder what, if anything, really went on, even if I give George Lutz the benefit of the doubt and assume he really believed something supernatural was happening in his house. Although George was a contractor, knowing that old houses make strange noises at night and actually living in one are two different things. Were there strange drafts? Strange noises? Strange smells? Some call that evidence of ghosts; I call it "home ownership". Old houses and old dogs have a lot in common.
Bear in mind, too, that the Lutzes were described as practicing Catholics. Now, don't get offended: I'm being serious here. Catholicism encourages — heck, requires — its adherents to take a mystical view of the world. Miracles and supernatural occurances are built into the dogma. Combine a predisposition for belief in spirits pervading the mundane world, an old house with its attendant problems, and the bloody history of that particular house, and it's no wonder the family started seeing ghosts. Add to this the stress of the move, and the fact that George was new to the family, and you have perfect conditions for a shared illusion.
Whatever may have actually happened in the house on Ocean Avenue, George Lutz found a way to recover from his questionable investment: he decided to go public with the story. Some say he was originally advised to do this by the family priest — if so, the poor priest was rewarded for his advice by being visited with a permanent illness (in the book), and became a blind and incoherent wreck of a man (in the film version). There's gratitude! In any case, Lutz prepared a series of taped interviews that were sent to writer Jay Anson, who was instructed to put together the basic incidents Lutz recounted and make a compelling narrative out of them.
Critics of Lutz's own account said that it was too broad to be believeable. To them, he resembled a hypochondriac who becomes convinced he has a medical problem, reads up on it, and rushes off to the doctor with an improbable list of symptoms. Whatever exaggerations there may have been in Lutz's first-hand account, they're mild by comparison to the sheer invention that Anson used to turn them into a book-length manuscript. Some of his most egregious inventions, especially those that involved real people, had to be changed in subsequent printings because they could not be made to square with the facts.
Once "The Amityville Horror" was published, the story took on a life of its own. The usual assortment of gawkers, would-be psychic investigators, True Crime fans and skeptics converged on the house in Amityville to get as close to the phenomenon as they could, to the chagrin of the house's new owners (who'd experienced nothing out of the ordinary until the crowds arrived). "Professional" ghost hunters announced with confidence that the source of the haunting was the vengeful spirit of an Indian Chief (which would certainly explain the phantom marching band in the living room, the ceramic lion that supposedly came to life, and the ghostly pig named "Jodie", all classic elements of Native American folklore...). Soon the book became a huge best-seller, and before long the movie rights had been purchased. The Lutzes were brought aboard the movie project as creative consultants, but soon found their "true" version of the story was little more than a springboard for Sándor Stern's exaggerated version of Anson's exaggerated book.
If The Exorcist had tapped into some primal need in its audience, some lingering suspicion that the Devil was afoot in contemporary America, so too did the film version of The Amityville Horror come at exactly the right time. By 1979, we'd gone from the last days of Nixon and Vietnam to the Energy Crisis, inflation and mass layoffs. On July 15, President Jimmy Carter gave his famous "malaise" speech, in which he blamed much of the economic crisis facing the U.S. on American overconsumption and excess. Twelve days later, as though to ram home Carter's point, The Amityville Horror opened. It was excessive, and we consumed it.
As Stephen King pointed out in his justly famous analysis of the movie in Danse Macabre, The Amityville Horror is about economic nightmare more than spiritual horror. This isn't a film about courageous priests fighting the Devil for the soul of a little girl; it's about a family struggling to maintain a house that seems to have a mind of its own. It's about a man who comes unglued from the pressures of home and family... it's just that this time, in addition to the mortgage, and the upkeep, and the stress of being a blue-collar newcomer in a wealthy neighborhood, he has a few ghosts to contend with. It's probably the first "economic gore film": instead of red, it's green they're hemorrhaging all over the screen (I'm sure somebody said that before I did, possibly even King; but I can't remember whom to attribute the phrase, and it's too good not to use). The timeliness of the theme was one of the only things that allowed Amityville Horror to become so successful in that most astonishing year for horror (from late 1978 to late 1979) — the year that included the releases of Halloween, Alien, Dawn of the Dead and Phantasm — rather than going the way of its other contemporaries, Nightwing and Prophecy.
The bewildering success of the original movie made everyone hungry for more. Lutz came out with more recollections in a book called Amityville Horror II, but the "true" story was wearing thin by then. Imagine Lutz's surprise when a sequel to the movie was announced, and it had nothing to do with him or his family! Though Lutz had made sure he got exclusive rights to the story for sequel purposes, the De Laurentiis group went ahead and made Amityville II: The Possession without him. This time, instead of following the further adventures of the Lutz family, the film purported to tell the supernatural version of the story of the DeFeo murders. It turned out to be a sickening character assassination of the DeFeo victims, and a whitewash of "Butch" DeFeo. It was also a lumpy mess of a film: it told its vicious, ugly story in two tenuously-connected sections rather than in one convincing arc, and the whole second part was merely an Exorcist retread. The DeFeos were no longer around to defend themselves, but George Lutz certainly was (though again, the words "tenuously connected" suggest themselves)... and Lutz was not amused. He took the film-makers to court to stop the film from coming out, since it wasn't based on his Amityville sequel. He got partial satisfaction: the De Laurentiis Group had to remove the word "Horror" from the title (thus the film is simply Amityville II, not Amityville Horror II), and theaters that showed the film had to put up signs that swore the movie had nothing to do with George and Kathy Lutz.
Then came Amityville 3-D (part of the short-lived 3-D revival of the early 80's), which deserves a pathology all to itself. Amityville 3-D is my favorite of the non-series; it's a riot, not least for the disclaimer that appears at the end, stating that the movie is not, repeat not a sequel to The Amityville Horror or Amityville II. Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes, evidently a sequel to three unconnected movies, followed on television. After that came sequels which were numberless in every sense of the word: Amityville Curse, Amityville 1992: It's About Time, Amityville: A New Generation, Amityville Dollhouse...
Amityville XVII: Ectoplasmic Bugaboo...
In the meantime, the story spawned its own literary sub-subgenre, as book after book on the haunting and its effect on the American psyche began to come out. A hack named John G. Jones even "continued" the Lutzes' story for them, in a series of "fictional non-fiction" books. I seem to remember reading one of these when I was younger: I remember it ripped off the classic "whose hand was I holding?" moment from Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House.
(Based on the True Story, you know.)
By the turn of the millennium, the Amityville phenomenon seemed to have burnt itself out. It was a minor miracle that it managed to keep struggling along for as many years and as many installments as it did, but at last it seemed like we'd heard the last of that particular franchise. Even when a new trend began for revisiting classic horror films and trashing them for a new generation — including an adequate but unneccesary remake of one genuine classic from 1979, Dawn of the Dead, and a trashy, spineless sequel to another, Alien vs. Predator — nobody in their right minds would have imagined that The Amityville Horror was ripe for pillaging.
But then, along came Michael Bay, fresh from his moderately financially successful remake of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Now, if there was one raw nerve of a film that did not need to be remade... that nobody had the right to remake (least of all Tobe Hooper, when you consider the rest of his career)... it was Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But remake it Bay did, and surprise! He wasn't lynched; he made a little money; he got some good press, and therefore decided he was on to something.
And to be fair, maybe he was. Let's see: what horror films preceded Amityville 2005 into the theatres? Well, there was The Grudge, which was the remake of a remake (sequel?) of a sequel (remake?), all written and directed by the same guy and sharing some of the same cast as the original video production. The there was Ring 2, the third movie bearing that title and the second by the director of the original Japanese movie, which was a remake of a TV series and a novel, each of which has sequels of their own. And a new (unrecognizeable) version of House of Wax, a gothic from the 50's inspired by an early technicolor feature from the 30's, is heading into theatres shortly. Mainstream horror cinema today resembles an ailing animal eating its own excrement for whatever nutrients it could scavenge. So maybe Bay's instincts make sense from a purely mercenary standpoint.
Not that I can prove Bay has any other kind of standpoint. Rats; there I go with the ad hominem attacks again. I'll try to be more balanced, but I guaranteee nothing.
When I heard that a remake of Amityville Horror was in the works, I wasn't sure if I should believe it. I think my initial reaction was, "Get out!" After all, somebody started a rumor recently that the American remake of the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters was going to star Mary Kate and Ashley Olson in their horror debut. This was, of course, nonsense: the Olsons made their horror debut in a production of Faust known as... their entire career. When, unlike the Olson rumor, the Amityville whispers turned out to be true, I was actually intrigued more than disappointed. I thought it was just possible, with a little thought and attention to detail, that a good movie could be brought forth from the rubble which was the Amityville franchise. It was a long shot, especially with Bay in the producer's chair, but it was possible.
In order for the film to succeed, I mused, they would have to reduce the story to its core elements and proceed with extreme caution. The first thing they should do would be to forget the "true story" wheeze. There is a tremendous difference between a "true" story and a story based on "things that may have actually happened". I believe the only way to tell a true story in film — in any art form, really — is to admit from the beginning that you're making it all up. You have a better chance of saying something genuine if you don't pretend that you're being accurate.
It would be a tremendous mistake to focus on the house in the new film. The temptation might be great to go the route of Ju-On: The Grudge and its American version, by presenting a central mystery in the house and focusing on they way that evil reaches out and touches the lives that come into contact with it. Rather, the best way to renew the old story would be to realize that at heart, it is the story of a family, and the way they deal with extraordinary pressure from outside. It really doesn't matter that the outside force is probably supernatural. If the movie were to concentrate on the family at the center of the story, it would resonate with a much larger audience, and (if it was done well enough) might turn into a more durable film than the original.
I would have suggested to the film makers that they start by introducing us to the newly-formed Lutz family, to get us used to the ups and downs of their lives. There will be a certain tension between the kids and their new father-figure, and that tension will be certain to affect the relationship of the newlywed George and Kathy as well. Introduce this tension, I would have suggested, but don't dwell on it; then get the family into the house as soon as you can.
Once you get them into the house (I would have continued), slow down. One of the most important things I would have suggested would have been to show us nothing for at least the first half of the film. Careful camera placements and little sounds would be enough to suggest the Lutzes' growing disconfort with the house they've chosen.
One thing that was handled fairly well in the original (up to a point) was Jodie, the young daughter's distressingly unimaginary imaginary friend (what was the little girl's real name? Amy? Chelsea? I don't remember). Keep the things that worked well in this regard: don't show us too much evidence that the "imaginary" friend may be real. Keep her ambiguous. Suggest just enough through movement and shadow to make "Jodie", in whatever form you cast her, a palpable but invisible presence. And whatever you do, I would have gone on to say, don't give us an enormous glowing-eyed pig staring out the window, no matter what it says in the book.
As for George, his transformation must be subtle. We should feel some ambiguity here. We may be seeing the influence of something evil in the house... or we might be seeing hidden aspects of George's real personality, coming out under the combined stress of home ownership and his new position as head of another man's family. After all, the pressure is on George to be someone else: either "Butch" DeFeo or the lost husband he's replaced. Keep it unclear which absent man has the greater influence. This is important: not only does it make for a more compelling story, but it also helps us sympathize or empathize with George before the really bad things start to happen. We must never lose our sympathy with George, or the whole story falls apart. We must always understand why Kathy believes in him, because this is the key to the plot's resolution.
It's only when George starts to become recognizeably something other that we should start seeing signs of a possible ghostly presence in the house. And in any case, I think we should see somewhat more of these manifestations than the family does. What the presence in the house wants to do is destroy the family from within, so it doesn't really want to be seen by the others except to unnerve them and make the tensions run higher.
But eventually, it should be Kathy who brings things to a head. She will suspect something is wrong in the house because she has faith in her husband. This is a quality the house is not prepared to understand, or to deal with. Rather than break under the strain and turn against her husband, possibly beginning the slaughter with her actions, Kathy would decide to turn to the family priest. The priest would be skeptical at first, but would agree to pay a visit. It's here that the supernatural must come roaring to the foreground, because it knows Kathy has guessed what's happening.
This would be the point at which the special effect would run riot. You could have blood drip from the walls, you could have flies and ghostly voices and floating pigs... it wouldn't matter, because you'd have built a solid foundation for the film which no empty spectacle could shake. Once the house begins to manifest its evil, that means it's losing the battle. Confronted by evidence of the supernatural, and bolstered by both his wife's belief in him and by his religious faith, George could begin to regain control of himself (and also regain the trust of his children). Together they would recognize the evil for what it was, and abandon the house before it destroys them.
If they had followed these suggestions, they'd have some up with a very... Catholic movie... one which I'm distressed to note even the current Pope might approve of. After all, it posits evil forces at work in the world... as all ghost stories do; but in addition, it shows a family's revolt against two integral concepts in American culture: reason and materialism. When George starts to turn on his family, the obvious conclusion — the reasonable conclusion — is a psychological one: we're seeing George's personality change under stress. Kathy intuits that George is possessed, and guess what? Kathy's right! At the end of the film, the family abandons their status-symbol home and all their worldy possessions, to save their souls and the physical and spiritual health of their family. The fact that the house is a "Dutch Colonial", suggesting the trappings of bourgeouis German Protestantism, only strengthens the symbolism. I suppose it's only to be expected, considering the strong role of Catholicism in the original story; in any case, here it is: a template for a horror film that would appeal to the foes of the "dictatorship of moral relativism", drafted by a sworn foe of the iron-fisted tyranny of moral absolutism. Maybe it's a good thing nobody came to me for advice.
I'm not suggesting that this is the sort of movie I would actually want to make. My point is that given the source material, this outline is how I would approach it to make a fairly watchable movie.
When I actually went to see the movie they did make, I was at first pleasantly surprised. They seemed to be doing things the way I'd imagined them (up to a point). We were introduced to the Lutzes, and we were given a fairly good look at the impossible position George finds himself in relating to three stepchildren of different ages. Almost immediately, we find ourselves and our protagonists moving into the house on Ocean Avenue.
There the resemblance to my ideas for a good movie ceased. There the resemblance of this movie to a good movie ceased. The rest of the movie is pure excrement.
Twice now I've called the new movie a pile of crap. Now it's time for me to hand my readers a spoon. Let's consider the elements of this remake:
Like I said, I've always considered that this story was about a family, not about a house. To concentrate on the house is to ignore the universality of the story's real theme. Well, in a sense, the new Amityville Horror doesn't concentrate on the house. It concentrates on nothing.
But while we're thinking about the house, let's see what the movie has given us. The real Amityville house was modestly sized; hardly the sort of house you'd expect to be haunted. Its most recognizeable features were the two quarter-moon attic windows, which became so notorious after the movies came out that the house's new owners had them replaced by tiny square ones. In fact, the original house's windows didn't look big and sinister and eye-like enough for the makers of the original movie, so they shot the exteriors at a house in Toms River, NJ, not far from where I live.
The house's style is always identified as Dutch Colonial. I lived in a two-story Dutch Colonial for a while. They're generally not extravagant houses. However, the house the Lutzes move into in the new version is an enormous Victorian, with glassed-in porches, twelve foot ceilings, and deep wood paneling. Transylvanian Colonial, perhaps; not a common style in suburban Long Island. Even at a discount, this is not the sort of home a struggling contractor would imagine he could keep up.
One of the things that made the original effective in its way was the fact that the house itself seemed so ordinary. Perhaps it was a bit larger and fancier than other people's houses, but at any rate it was the sort of home that the middle-class audience could imagine living in, and wanting to live in. This house, on the other hand, is so big and shadowy and creaky and downright unnerving that you're surprised the ghosts have the courage to lurk in its corners.
This kind of hyperbolic inflation is disappointing, but typical. Certain details of the house had a tendency to grow across sequels, particularly the infamous "red room" in the basement. In real life, apparently, the "hidden room" was really a tiny enclosure that provided access to the plumbing. In the original movie, it was a slightly larger enclosure that led to a pit of bubbling blood. In the prequel, the whole layout of the basement changed, and in the third the "red room" had metamorphosed into an open, gaping well in the middle of the basement floor (which also happened to be the gateway to Hell).
Guess what happened to the "red room" in the remake? It turns into an enormous, fully-appointed torture chamber, complete with cells and iron tables and a channel in the floor for the blood to run into! OK, I admit this is just in a flashback and a dream sequence, but it's bad enough. I'll have more to say about dream sequences later on.
I suppose this brings us to...
Here we have a major disappointment. The original was creepy because we didn't know what was in the house, or what it really wanted. We couldn't even tell what form it would take: a ghostly pig may be the least-scary manifestation ever realized on screen, but at least it's unexpected. The new version manages to disappoint in two major respects: it tries to scare us with a completely incoherent assortment of grab-bag haunted house effects; and then, at the end, it gives us a ridiculously clichéed explanation for everything... an explanation which really doesn't tie in with the haunting as we've experienced it.
There were certain subtleties to the haunting in the original book and movie — not many, perhaps, but some — and these contributed to the feeling of unease. For instance, there was a particular window which would not stay closed. The family was at a loss to figure out what was going on: did someone open it, or leave it open, and forget? Or did it open by itself? In the new version, we get to see not one window, but rows of windows opening themselves, as eerie gusts of wind billow out the drapes... while in the meantime, chairs and tables move themselves across the floors with angry insistence.
If the infamous disappearing money sequence — a sequence that derived most of its power from its sheer frustrating ambiguity — had been retained from the original movie, the new version would have certainly shown us a rotting hand reaching up through the floorboards to grab the cash, ostentatiously discarding the paper wrapper, and disappearing with a maniacal disembodied laugh. If you think my speculation is a little unfair, consider that spectral arms reach through solid objects for other reasons at least three times in the course of the movie.
The first actual apparition we see is a ghostly little girl, hanging by her neck at the foot of George and Kathy's bed while the newlyweds are having sex (George catches sight of her, but curiously says nothing). This moment is good for a quick gasp of revulsion, but then we remember (as the movie takes pains to remind us later): The DeFeos were shot. Nobody in the house's back-story hanged themselves. It's just another meaningless shock scene.
And while we're thinking about the apparitions: the ghostly Jodie is no longer a pig, but a little girl. She's the youngest DeFeo daughter (although there was no DeFeo child named "Jodie"; Jodie was the name of the neighbor's cat, which explains the glowing eyes at the window... among other things). Jodie was killed in the closet of the room with the eye-like windows (actually, all the DeFeos were shot in their beds... what was that about being "based on the true story"?). Sometimes she's presented as a sort of spiritual hostage in the house, held back (physically in one scene) by the real Evil in the house. Other times, she seems to act with complete autonomy, sometimes taking revenge on people who seem to deserve it (the skanky babysitter), and other times seemingly in league with the house to tear apart the family (for instance, when she tries to induce little Chelsea to commit suicide so she can see her real Daddy again).
Whatever the new Jodie's motivations may be, and however she chooses to show up, she's just another ghostly dead girl. We've seen so many pale grey children in horror movies recently that we almost miss the pig. And it's not just recent movies that come to mind when we see Jodie: this ghost girl and her doll, who act as decoys for a malevolent presence in a house, seems to have been lifted from Umberto Lenzi's Ghosthouse. Generally speaking, it's a bad sign when a mainstream modern horror film suggests it's been stealing from Umberto Lenzi.
To make matters worse, we see far too much of Jodie. Her presence is never ambiguous: as soon as Chelsea talks about her imaginary friend, there she is... sitting in a chair behind the oblivious Kathy. At least in the original her presence was merely suggested, until the movie shoved that improbable pig in our faces.
And if you thought Jodie was a cliché, wait until you find out who or what what's actually behind the haunting [ SUPER-ULTRA-MEGA SPOILER ].
Which brings us to...
The child actors playing the put-upon kids easily outclass the adults. The casting director did a good job finding kids who looked like they were related to each other and to their mother, with the additional benefit that they could act fairly well, too.
Unfortunately, the script treats the children with complete contempt. They exist in this version of the story only to be brutalized. Now, remember: I think there is certainly a place in horror cinema for bad things to happen to children. I'm not one of those people who believe that children in films should never be threatened with serious harm. However, if you're going to harm kids in your movie, your movie had damned well better understand how serious a gesture that is. You need to earn the right to do so, and you'd also better have the courage of your convictions.
Amityville Horror has no kind of courage at all. It picks on its children because it has nobody else to pick on. Since this was "based on the True Story", we know that nobody can get killed; nobody can be messily dismembered, except through weak, weak gestures like dream sequences and flashbacks, of which we get a few. Since the film obviously has no idea how to make the haunting scary — as evidenced by the fact that they've stolen ideas from every major supernatural-horror movie of the last several decades and still haven't come up with anything genuinely frightening — they decided to reduce their film to an hour and a half of consistent, sadistic child abuse.
From the opening, in which a child is shot point-blank... through possessed-George's increasingly abusive behavior... through the ghostly presence's attacks on Jodie, the ghost-girl... to the babysitter, who, at the beginning of one of the most nauseating sequences in the movie, attempts to arouse the twelve-year-old Billy... everybody, with the exception of Kathy, seems to want to take advantage of the movie's children. It got to the point that when a Catholic priest showed up late in the film, I began to fear the worst. Maybe somebody out there finds this convincing entertainment, but I think it's appalling.
Even the babysitter's comeuppance didn't sit well with me: she finds herself locked in a closet with the vengeful spirit of Jodie, whom she used to babysit equally badly. Jodie brushes back the hair from her forehead, revealing the bullet wound: "Look what Ronny did," she says. Of course, so far this is just chew-n-show film-making, of a type that makes that once-controversial scene in Lucio Fulci's The Beyond (in which a little girl-zombie gets a hole blown straight through her head) look positively kind by comparison. But those of us who've suffered through Amityville II, with its revolting and unnecesssary incest subplot, hear Jodie's words with a slow sinking sensation in the pits of our stomachs — a feeling made worse by the age of the girl who says them. And it gets worse: Jodie grabs the babysitter's hand and forces her finger into the bloody hole, all the way to the last joint. I suppose the film-makers thought this would be merely enjoyably gross; I suppose they never thought about what the gesture might suggest...
I don't even want to think about this any more; let's move on to...
GEORGE AND KATHY
I refuse to call them "the Lutzes", because whoever they are or were, and whatever really happened to them, and whatever they did as a result, the Lutzes were real human beings who deserve the most basic respect as real human beings. Probably the biggest insult offered by the movie is its insistence that is is "Based on the True Story", since it presents an exceedingly unflattering picture of the family.
Some attempt has been made to put George and Kathy into a convincing seventies background. However, the film-makers failed when they came to George and Kathy themselves. The pair don't look or act like a couple from pre-Bicentennial America. They are much too... shiny. They look like a bad guess at what suburban couples might have been like wa-a-a-a-y back in the distant late-1990s. I think this is what Hollywood considers the generic era of "a long time ago". But I was alive in the 1970's, and I don't remember anybody's Dad being as bursting with health-club-fostered muscles as George (come to think of it, not even the macho action heroes of the day were as buff as this version of George)... When the slatternly babysitter shows up midway through the movie, she's dressed pretty accurately for a mid-seventies hippie slut, but not for the kind of babysitter that your typical suburban couple of the time would leave with their children. Yet George and Kathy don't even blink at the way she's dressed.
The new version of Kathy doesn't seem to be very bright. She's extremely slow to pick up on subtleties: for instance, she doesn't do a very good job of dealing with the natural tensions that occur when she brings a new father-figure into the family. When little Chelsea says her invisible playmate Jodie thinks "the man who lives here is an a-hole", we know she's talking about whomever or whatever is haunting the house — the thing with arms. But Kathy has no way of knowing that, and if the screenplay were a little better she might perhaps think it was George the little girl was talking about. This could lead to some interesting ambiguities... but ambiguity is not the movie's strong point. The implications seem to go right by Kathy.
It's true, Kathy is the one who eventually figures out what's really going on; but she does this by going to the library one day and looking up a book called (I think) Hey, Kathy! Yes, You, Kathy Lutz! Here's What's Haunting Your House, which spells it all out for her in small words... with pictures.
She also finds some newspaper clippings that reveal the DeFeos moved into their house and then were murdered twenty-eight days later (which is another thing this "based-on-the-True-Story" movie made up). That's when she realizes they've also been in the house for 28 days. Kathy and the audience reach the same conclusion at the same time, namely: we all would rather be watching Danny Boyle's Twenty-Eight Days Later.
And even though Kathy arrives at the library before it opens, and she's provided with clippings and a book that together leave no room for doubt about what's really going on, it still takes her until well after dark to put the book back on the shelf and get home.
And then there's George. George is my principal reason for being mad at this movie. Remember, I'd thought one of the keys to making a successful movie adaptation of The True [sic] Story was to keep George's transformation gradual and believable. Fat chance. In this version, the Evil in the House is able to turn George on and off like a particularly low-wattage light bulb. Practically from the moment he moves in, George is the stooge of whatever's in the house. By Day Two he's starting to get crazy, and before we've even had time to adjust, presto! — an intertitle tells us it's already Day 15! So much for a gradual transformation.
I'd mentioned earlier how the disappearing money episode from the original movie had not been used in the remake. The reason it doesn't is that the family is almost never seen to interact with the outside world after they move into the house. This is another significant departure from the sources. We don't see how George interacts with anyone outside of his immediate family, and this has two negative effects: first, it means we don't see how others react to George's change, how others react to the house, or how George deals with other people when in his "possessed" state. We saw this in the original film, and it helped us gain sme perspective on George's behavior and the influence of the house. The other bad thing about keeping the family isolated (at least in the way we see them) is it makes us dwell on the unpleasantness of George's actions toward his children. He has nobody else to turn his cruelty on, so we get an unbroken series of abusive tableaux. On those few occasions when George is away from the house, he reverts back to his normal Van Wilder self. Put George back in the house, though, and he resumes doing his impression of Kris Kristofferson doing his impression of Kurt Russell doing his impersonation of James Brolin pretending to be Jack Nicholson. Badly.
And while he's in Evil George mode (his eyes turn red, in ase we can't tell from the [cough] subtleties of Ryan Reynolds's performance), he behaves so horrifically toward his family that he crosses the line: he does things to his children that are so rotten, so cruel, so psychologically scarring that — whatever his excuse — he has permanently lost the trust of his family and the sympathies of the audience.
This version of Evil George isn't content to merely sharpen his axe and look mean. Apparently it's no longer enough for a man to be distant and surly, to lash out at his family and friends and generally seem a bit dangerous. No. In order to be a convincing bad guy, he has to physically and emotionally torture his children. He has to build coffins for his family in the basement. He has to turn the family dog to hamburger with an axe... OK, to be fair, George didn't know it was the dog. He thought it was the ghost of a dead Indian. But, since he just happened to be carrying an axe, and since his natural reaction to being startled by someone or something is to hack the offending person or thing to bits, it's only natural that he should shred the dog by "accident". It's just one more incident of this stupid movie taking out its bloody aggression on the characters least able to defend themselves.
If this had been anything like The True Story, then I'd like to know how the Lutzes, who according to legend never even went back for their belongings (I was about to write "possessions", but thought better of it), could explain the coffins in the basement, or the shotgun blast-holes in the roof. I think the police might want a word or two about the use of firearms in a house full of kids. And I think the real estate agents might want a word about fixing the roof. But of course, this is nothing like the True Story, whatever the True Story may have been, because George Lutz himself could never, ever have been so much of a monster as this film makes him out to be.
The movie did make a cursory attempt to address two of the issues I thought would be necessary to make a decent film. First of all, it suggested that the Evil in the house wanted to keep its presence unseen by the adults, so it could tear apart the family from within. The movie suggested this by having the Evil physically restrain Jodie's ghost after she is glimpsed in the window by George. Unfortunately, nothing much is made of this idea, so it comes off as just another excuse to show a child suffering.
Then too, they hold off on introducing the priest until the end of the film, rather than bringing him in at the beginning in the manner of the original movie. Here, too, the gesture comes to nothing: the movie has been drained of practically every reference to religion, except where it's expedient: to introduce a priest and a failed exorcism, which leads to the inevitable flies and phantom voices chanting "GET OUT!"... and also to provide a minor secondary villain in the form of the Church (as represented by the cowardly and ineffectual priest, who fails to give counsel to either the DeFeos or the Lutzes, and ends up running away from the haunting; and also through a part of the [ SUPER-ULTRA-MEGA SPOILER ]).
What we're left with, then, is a ninety-minute ode to child abuse, leavened with quotes from other, usually better films. Few elements remain to remind us of the original: aside from the names of the central characters and those big windows, we have... a.) occasional bloody flashbacks to the DeFeo murders of the prologue, to rub the audience's nose in the atrocity of the crimes; b.) two on-screen incidents of vomiting (though not by clergy this time); and c.) the ol' flies-all-over-the-face gag. It's a disgrace. I've heard some reviewers call the movie bold, serious and uncompromising in its delivery of genuine horror. This is nonsense. The movie is shallow, cowardly and a complete sell-out. It must resort to dream sequences as an excuse to shoehorn in some gore the story doesn't call for. It saves most of its violence and brutality for the children and for an animal, which is a shameful cop-out.
Before anybody accuses me of turning into one of those alarmists trying to censor horror films of their extreme content, let me make myself clear: it's the thoughtless, slipshod manner in which these things are presented that makes me so angry. For every objectionable element I've identified in Amityville 2005, I can point out an instance in a Lucio Fulci film from twenty-some years ago in which the same general material was handled in a more dignified manner. Compare the babysitter scene with Barbara Bouchet's performance in Don't Torture a Duckling, for instance — and look to that film also to see how a subject as harrowing and distasteful as violence against children can be used intelligently, without exploiting the children themselves. Then, if you want a haunted-house film that is very much concerned with the psychological tensions between fathers and their sons, try House by the Cemetery.
Those Fulci movies from a quarter century ago were extreme, and honest in their extremity. They also stole liberally from other films of the time, but they did something entertaining and original with the bits they stole. Not so Amityville Horror 2005. I find it very disturbing that a mainstream film — and make no mistake, that's what this is — would display such cruelty and contempt toward children. It also goes to great lengths to self-describe itself as a True Story, when in fact it makes libellous distortions of the characters of the people involved. My reaction to the movie is the same as my reaction to most reality television: this is entertainment? How can anyone watch this stuff and remain unmoved by the thoughtless callousness evident both on-screen and off?
I can make a rough guess why there weren't any red-eyed pigs at the windows in the new version of the film: it's because this time, they were all on the other side of the camera.
(as opposed to the usual kind)
So what is it that's really causing the haunting?
You may recall that the "real" Amityville haunting was blamed on the ghost of an Indian Chief, or perhaps on the location of the house over an Ancient Indian Burial Ground. This pseudo-explanation made it onto some of the movies as well. Naturally, present-day Hollywood wouldn't dare suggest that Native Americans could be responsible for the Evil -- in a sort of odious reverse-discrimination by which they refuse to acknowledge that any member of a particular ethnic group could possibly possess such a complex character trait. Instead of inventing a fictitious Indian Burial Ground, they invent a fictitious Evil White Guy, a priest named Jeremiah Ketcham, who tortured local Indians to death in his basement. I've heard that there was a prior owner of the house named Ketcham, so this is just one more bit of character assassination the movie wants to visit on someone marginally connected with the story.
Emeric Belasco — excuse me, Jeremiah Ketcham — committed suicide in the basement of the house when his misdeeds came to light. By cutting his own throat — a gesture he repeats for George in a dream sequence at the end of the movie, bathing George in a torrent of hot blood — he ensured that his undead presence would remain in the house to torment its future owners (perhaps he thought the house's future owners would be Native Americans?). Now he appears on occasion in his true form: a disfigured guy in a slouch hat and a long coat, with assorted sharp implements. He looks a bit like the Creeper from Jeepers Creepers as seen from a distance. Come to think of it, he looks a lot like a cleaned-up version of the evil Jeremiah Stone from the film Miner's Massacre; this makes stealing from Umberto Lenzi seem almost dignified by comparison. In any case, he's your typical supernatural Michael-Freddy-Jason wannabe, suitably outfitted ("I'm ready for my action figure, Mr. MacFarlane!") and sequel-ready.
He even has his own trademark catch-phrase: "Ketcham... and kill 'em!"
Are you sufficiently appalled yet?