Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George in MGM's The Amityville Horror - 2005
Photo Copyright MGM
By all rights, any remake of a 1970's horror classic that involves Michael Bay should be a recipe for disaster. Surprise, surprise, however, Bay appears to be two for two. First, the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre turned out not to be total junk. (or so I hear. I didn't actually watch it, as I'm deathly afraid of chainsaws, a device which reportedly plays a central role in the film. It's ok, I'm not ashamed of my phobia. I'm secure in my manhood, and I get to keep all my limbs intact.) And now, his remake of the "true" story of the ultimate haunted house, The Amityville Horror, fails to suck as well.
Two things first. One, Michael Bay didn't actually direct either of these films, which could be part of the reason for their slightly above average calibre. He's a producer, but I would be willing to bet that he's not all that hands on, though I could be wrong. Two, this is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It's barely a good movie, actually. But the salient point is that it's not a terrible movie, and by virtue of that alone, it exceeds expectations. Expectations are a tricky thing, and I find that they can completely color my moviegoing experience. So, now that I've cleared up that this non-Michael Bay horror flick was just barely above average, but a lot better than I thought it would be, let's address its veracity.
Ever since the early 1970's when the Lutz family made that fateful move into real estate horror lore, they have been cashing in big time on their supposed "true" experience with a house full of wrathful spirits. After the book and the 1979 original film, there were three sequels (of increasingly low quality) and now this current remake promises a whole new series of cash cow films. The problem is, it's been pretty well established that the only truth in this "true" story is the part that has nothing to do with the Lutzes at all. In 1974, a deranged Ronald Defeo did indeed murder his entire family as they slept. He was arrested and reportedly claimed that voices in the house told him to do it. Later, taking advantage of the deal of a lifetime, George Lutz, a contractor, and his family moved into the house. Twenty-eight days later (or less) the family moved out, and claimed that a houseful of maniacal ghosts had nearly killed them all. It is this story that canny George Lutz has managed to parlay into box office green for the last thirty years. However, there is widespread belief that George simply made the whole thing up to help him out from under a crushing mortgage, and the real Ronald Defeo's lawyer claims that he helped the Lutzes craft the tale, hoping to get a book and a retrial for his client. He later sued the Lutzes when their book project went behind his back, cutting him out of the deal. The story, as invented by Lutz and lawyer, puts George front and center as a Ronald Defeo redux, the spirits slowly driving him mad, until he attempts the murder of his own family. As ghost stories go, it's pretty good, even without the supposed true element.
On a technical level, Amityville Horror has its ups and downs. I really liked the look of the film - slightly grainy and over exposed, a technique that kept it from losing its edge in the cold, shiny look of new Hollywood. And there are some pretty good scares to boot. The film utilizes special effects well, not over done, but enough to give us a spooky look into the supernatural. The acting is fine, not great, but not awful either. The writing was mostly adequate, until the end, which feels the need to tack on a lame Indian torture plot device, a needless deviation from the simplicity of the Lutz's original tale. When the end is finally revealed, (in the last ten or fifteen minutes) I thought, "Ahhh, here's the movie I thought I was going to." With such short attention spans anymore, I guess Hollywood thinks there can be nothing ambiguous in the world.
I don't know whether or not the slightly above calibre status of Amityville Horror is a good thing or a bad thing. After all, sometimes really bad movies are more fun than good ones. Horror could easily have been one of those. However, it rose to the occasion, skating just above the cheesy horror film thin ice. Then again, it's not really good enough to like, either. Grade: C+
The Amityville Horror is rated R for language, violence, brief sexuality, and gore. By the way, I can't totally take credit for the straight dope on the Amityville true story. There's a good book that just came out, Based on a True Story by John Whalen and Jonathan Vankin, that takes 100 popular fact based films and shines a harsh light on them. It's a fun read, though sometimes you wish you didn't know.
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