It is difficult to critique a remake on its own merits, but it is absolutely vital that one tries to do so in order to remain objective and appropriately insightful about the film at hand instead of its previous translations to the big screen. I therefore will not discuss, even in the most minute way, the original 1979 version of this film, and will solely focus on director Andrew Douglas’s (the compelling documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus) 2005 effort The Amityville Horror. Part of the reason I wanted to make this clear in the beginning of the review is because I want to alert the reader to a recent trend in criticism which has, in my opinion, discredited many critics’ reviews of certain films. This trend can be summed up as “reviewing a remake, not a movie” and so many respected names have jumped thoughtlessly on its bandwagon that it almost amazes me that there hasn’t been an outcry by filmgoers against the negatively biased reviews that it’s resulted into. The film fans are more often than not hurt, rather than helped, by movie critics and in this particular instance, many of them missed a good horror film just because their favorite film critic condemned it automatically as a remake without giving his or her justifying opinion.
Questions I am usually asked when I express this currently unpopular view are: “Do the filmmakers, and the film, even deserve our fullest consideration of what appears on screen?” or “Why should we embrace their work as art when presumably it was only made with financial, not creative gain in mind?” These questions are invalid but I will provide fair answers. The truth is that the filmmakers and their work do deserve our fullest consideration, since their work is in fact art, but art based on preexisting material, in the same way that the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films are, among many others. Remakes are partially made with financial gain in mind, but the possibility of financial gain has only been realized by the producers due to their sensitivity to consumer market trends. In other words, remakes only exist because their producers (rightfully so) sensed a desire for them by the general audience – the people whom hold the careers of movie critics in balance. It is a reality that any film critic would be foolish to ignore or overstep on the false premise that these films are made by money, not creative minds putting their best foot forward to amaze, scare, humor, or simply entertain fans of film. The filmmakers who made The Amityville Horror had this in mind, not just the bottom line.
This film is based on the alleged true story of the Lutz family which moves into a house with a dark past – summarized in the beginning of the film through the use of newspaper headlines inter-spliced with depictions of the killings of the people who had previously lived there – the Defeo family – by none other than their son/brother Ronald (Brendan Donaldson). Ronald had apparently done this because he lived in the basement. Soon after moving in, the Lutz’s seem to be inflicted by the same curse as the Defeos. The father in this family of five, George (Ryan Reynolds) decides it would be much easier if he settles into the basement temporarily where it’s quieter and he can get his work done without being bothered by their three kids (played by future teen stars Jimmy Bennett, Chloe Moretz, and Jesse James). Terror soon ensues.
Director Douglas and screenwriter Scott Kosar create an intense atmosphere from the very start. And while the material here doesn’t really allow them to have much breathing room (most of the film takes place in the house), they are still able to accomplish two things that differentiate this film from a lot of horror films that come out – first, they scatter scary moments throughout the running length of the film, while also building tension up toward the climax of the film, and second – they explore a psychological dichotomy of evil – the evil of the house and the evil of the father. Most would say that the response to that inquiry is pretty clear – the terror in this film is strictly location-based (or history-based since the house’s dark past is really the instrument that drives the third act forward). But I think there is a deeper, more complex answer that Douglas shows in the second act center-piece scene where the Lutz’ young daughter Chelsea (Moretz) climbs on top of the house’s steep roof, claiming she is being guided by an imaginary friend. The resulting near-tragedy is blamed squarely on Chelsea by her dad, indicating his lack of acknowledgement and his dangerous denial of reality. In this way Douglas shows George’s chosen ignorance as the enabler of terror.
But that isn’t to say it’s all smooth sailing as far as the script’s thematic inclinations are concerned. Most if not all of the conflicting themes like the one mentioned above are dropped in favor of long-form tension-building horror-sequences, especially one involving Rachel Nichols as the babysitter-from-Hell Lisa and a scene involving Philip Baker Hall as the local priest trying to help the Lutz family. It is after all, appropriate for Douglas to favor horror over thematic substance in a scary movie, and it results in some of the best horror sequences since the 2004 remake of The Grudge. The scary climax of the film involving Kathy Lutz (Melissa George) uncovering the source of her husband’s madness is one of the scariest, but also most technically-attuned sequences I’ve seen on film. Douglas’s camera moves fluidly from one horrific scene to the next, becoming more and more frantic as it gets closer to its centerpiece. I won’t spoil the scene by going into further detail, but I can assure any prospective viewers of its effectiveness and high production values.
It’s too bad the same attention wasn’t paid to the performances. Unfortunately, Ryan Reynolds turns in the weakest performance of the lot, and has the most screen time. The George character never comes off as menacing or scary, and the most Reynolds’s performance can make us feel is mild discomfort. Melissa George is better as the wife and mother of the family, but is also instantly forgettable. At least her line delivery doesn’t inspire howled laughter. The rest of the supporting cast, especially the young children Moretz and Jimmy Bennet as the daughter and son are top notch, but with little help from the script.
But the hit-and-miss acting can’t take away from the film’s effectiveness. Douglas has crafted a horror film that holds up after multiple viewings and remains faithful to the original story, while also inserting a fair amount of truly scary scenes that stay with you longer after the viewing. It’s slower pace allows for character moments that are usually skipped over in today’s James Wan-inspired horror film examples, but this also makes the scary sequences all the more hard-hitting. Recommended.