This generic, by-the-numbers boo-machine of a movie achieves one small thing. It is the equal, in its oblivious imbecility, of both the book on which it’s semi-based (a 1977 best-seller by the late Jay Anson) and the 1974 hoax — I’m sorry, the “true story” — which the book purports to relate. It is also a series of feeble salutes to other, more original (and scarier) horror films. There’s a mad dad with an axe. (Think “The Shining.”) There’s an evil house and something about long-dead Indians. (Think “Poltergeist.”) There’s even an exorcising priest. (Thinking time’s up!)
It might be said that this “Amityville Horror” is better-crafted, in a technical sense, than the hit 1979 movie of the same name, of which it is a more-expensive remake. But since that earlier “Amityville” was remarkably awful in every technical sense — even by the undemanding standards of AIP, the legendary exploitation factory that produced it — such a thing would hardly be worth saying.
But let’s revisit the original tale. Among the few indisputable facts in the “Amityville” story are these. In the early morning hours of November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr., an unstable, 23-year-old heroin and firearms enthusiast, shot and killed both of his parents and his two younger brothers and two younger sisters in the large house in which they all lived in Amityville, Long Island. One year later, despite an attempted insanity defense, a jury found DeFeo guilty of the killings, and a judge sentenced him to 150 years in prison, where he remains today.
It is also true that in December of 1975, less than a month after DeFeo’s conviction, a recently married couple named George and Kathy Lutz moved into the Amityville house with Kathy’s three young children by an earlier marriage. And that 28 days later, they moved back out, subsequently spinning a wild yarn about being driven away by ghostly visions, disembodied heads, blood-dripping faucets, strange oozy goo, a plague of flies, a demonic pig and inexplicable bouts of levitation. (“The Exorcist,” that classic of otherworldly uplift, had been released only two years earlier.)
Opinions about the Lutzes’ story were divided from the beginning. On the one hand, people who had a sentimental attachment to facts and evidence found it preposterous. Those who thought facts and evidence were overrated felt otherwise. For our present purpose, let’s just note that Ronald DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, later told The Associated Press that shortly after leaving the Amityville house, George Lutz approached him with a proposal to whip up a book about his alleged ordeal. “We created this story over many bottles of wine that George Lutz was drinking,” Weber said. “We were creating something the public wanted to hear about.”
And we still do, of course. We love fright flicks. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a movie even out of such shabby material as this — the premises of most horror movies are dubious almost by definition. Even the half-hearted attempt to present such a story as a “true” depiction of actual events isn’t deplorable; it’s just silly. And we’re inclined to go along with it anyway, just for the cheap kicks.
What’s annoying about this new “Amityville Horror” — more annoying than the original, which was merely brainless and badly made — is that its aim is so low. The movie’s only aspiration is to be a jacked-up re-jiggering of a name-brand horror “classic.” It sets out to be not just schlock, but pre-chewed schlock — schlock regurgitated. The movie’s lack of invention and artistic enterprise are depressing. Basically, it seeks to be little else but a hyper-profitable summer blockbuster, and it seeks to be that by any means necessary.
Unsurprisingly, the lead producer on this project was Michael Bay, a wham-bam specialist whose previous affronts are several, and include the entirely unnecessary 2003 remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The script, which is cramped by the demands of the well-known “Amityville” material, is by Scott Kosar — the man who wrote that entirely unnecessary remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The director, Andrew Douglas, is, like Bay himself, a veteran of the TV-commercial and music-video industry; this is his first feature film.
Douglas creates one memorable suspense sequence high up on the sun-spangled roof of the Amityville house. The scene can’t actually be happening the way it seems to be, but it does seem to be happening that way nevertheless — there are no obvious signs of computer mediation. Apart from that, though, and a broadly amusing interlude featuring a bong-hitting hot-tramp babysitter, Douglas just rings the familiar horror changes — the drifting ghouls, the hideously contorted faces, the swarming maggots and the bloody corpse writhing on the ceiling — with the requisite suddenness that substitutes sucker-punch scares for a more psychologically involving variety of fright. The actors who play the Lutzes — Ryan Reynolds (“National Lampoon’s Van Wilder”) and Melissa George (“Alias”) — do as they’re told; and since the director requires little more from them than shifting degrees of hysteria and disintegration, they have little trouble delivering.
“The Amityville Horror” accomplishes its puny aim. Unconcerned with imaginative effects or the fearful beauty the best horror movies can sometimes have, it just slaps you around and leans on the volume and contents itself with keeping you in a state of sustained, unpleasant tension. It’s like being poked in the neck with a stick every three or four minutes, over and over and over again. You walk out feeling played and irritable — especially if you’ve stayed all the way through to the final scene, which is possibly the lamest “Carrie” rip-off ever. Fortunately, the film’s real denouement is much cheerier. It begins as you shuffle through the exit doors of the theater and it ends when you finally reach the street.