It is arguably one of the most famous haunted houses in the world. It’s the Long Island house in Amityville where Ronald DeFeo murdered six members of his family in 1974. One year later the Lutz family movie into the same home where they claimed that they had experienced recurrent paranormal phenomenon. The same house was the subject of an investigation by Ed and Lorraine Warren (yes, the Warren’s of The Conjuring series) and a bestselling non-fiction book by Jay Anson.
When The Amityville Horror was released in theatres on July 27th, 1979, it came at the end of a truly fantastic decade for the horror genre. It also marked the temporary end of the 1970’s fascination with all things occult and Satanic. Released on the heels of The Exorcist and The Omen, The Amityville Horror divided critics and fans receiving only a lukewarm critical response, but striking a nerve with audiences. In the years following its release, The Amityville Horror has been followed by several inferior sequels and re-imaginings. In 2005, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes studio produced a remake starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George. In this edition of Re-Animated I take a look at the original Amityville Horror and its remake.
The Amityville Horror (1979) Remains a Definitive Haunted House Film
It’s easy to forget now but when The Amityville Horror was first released it was a huge box office success. For horror fans in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Amityville was the definitive haunted house film. Critics drew unfavourable comparisons to other occult-themed 70’s heavyweights, including The Exorcist, but it arguably pushed the haunted house subgenre forward. Many of the tropes we now recognize were fairly fresh when Amityville haunted theatres.
Many of the tropes we now recognize were fairly fresh when Amityville haunted theatres.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) and starring James Brolin and the late Margot Kidder, is a confident haunted house film that allows its scares to build slowly from its simple premise. Amityville doesn’t necessarily define ‘slow burn’ as it pretty liberally sprinkles its scares across the movie but it nevertheless moves along patiently. The actual house itself, with its ‘evil window eyes’, is probably the most memorable haunted house in horror film history. Lalo Schifrin’s Oscar-nominated score also greatly assists in maintaining persistent dread even in the film’s quieter moments.
While many of Amityville’s best moments have become overly used tropes since its release, Rosenberg knew how to package and deliver them without it feeling contrived or heavy-handed. The unseen voice speaking ‘ get out’ is truly creepy and all of the confrontations between religion and Satanic evil are compelling. Rod Steiger’s priest may chew the scenery a little too much but his ‘bees scene’ is still a classic.
Much of Amityville’s success also relies on James Brolin’s slow breakdown. Brolin brought a lot of intensity to his role, and his physical and mental deterioration as he’s slowly possessed adds to the film’s build-up when there’s no overt scares happening. Younger audiences will find the ending to be rather anti-climatic. In addition, The Amityville Horror doesn’t quite measure up to other haunted house films like The Haunting or Poltergeist, but it was an important evolution in the subgenre that remains inherently watchable.
The Amityville Horror (2005) Remain Should Have Been Foreclosed
Another Michael Bay-produced horror remake from the 2000’s, The Amityville Horror proved to be a modest box office success for Platinum Dunes. Wisely opting to ignore the series’ convoluted sequels, this Amityville is a straight-up remake of the 1979 original. Yet unlike some of the bland remakes from the 2000’s, like The Stepfather and Prom Night, that stripped their remakes of anything resembling the tone of their predecessors, this Amityville remake is anything but bland. Director Andrew Douglas has turned up the dial … on everything … assuming that bigger, louder, and faster is better.
Director Andrew Douglas has turned up the dial … on everything … assuming that bigger, louder, and faster is better.
Unfortunately, ‘more’ isn’t always better. If there’s one word that would most accurately describe this remake it would be ‘obnoxious’. Things start off promising with an intense, frenetically edited re-creation of the Ronald DeFeo Jr murders. This opening immediately establishes that the remake will be a much more briskly paced version more suitable to its contemporary audience. There’s even a few good jumps in the opening 30 minutes offering hope of a remake that’s at least mindlessly fun.
Sadly, in the absence of anything new to add to the legend, Douglas decides to just bludgeon the audience with an onslaught of stimulation. The Amityville Horror horror is loud, with a score that never seems to stop and a firm belief that really loud noises are the same thing as atmosphere. The ADHD-editing style is almost incessant with the climax risking the possibility of inducing seizures. Ryan Reynolds is buffer than James Brolin. Even the babysitter has been ridiculously ‘sexed up’ from the headgear braces-wearing girl in the original.
It’s almost as though Douglas had no confidence in the story and screenplay. He’s like a poor magician trying to divert his audience’s attention with slights of hand. We’re treated to unnecessary slow-motion moments and just about every haunted house film trope from bleeding walls to upside down crucifixes. If there’s one scene that really shows Douglas’ misunderstanding of how to generate suspense and fear, it’s the wood-chopping scene with Reynold’s ‘George Lutz’ and his oldest stepson. Douglas edits this scene with so many cuts and a relentlessly pounding score that what should be a tense moment falls flat.
Ryan Reynolds delivers a good performance as George Lutz, a man slowly descending into madness. At the film’s halfway point, we’re also treated to one genuinely suspenseful moment as a young Chloe Grace-Moretz walks precariously along the house’s rooftop. But the remake’s climax is an over-cooked mess that will be more likely to give you a headache than a nightmare.
Genuine Fear Can’t Be Renovated
Even if the original The Amityville Horror isn’t among your favourite horror films, it’s a masterpiece when compared to its remake. If you’re a fan of The Simpsons the best way to think about The Amityville Horror remake is to compare it to ‘Poochie the Dog’ – a loud and obnoxious creation devoid of any real substance. Somehow the creative forces behind the 2005 film managed to drain anything scary out of the legend behind the original film. Until The Conjuring universe decides to re-visit that house in Amityville, the 1979 original remains the definitive version of the Lutz family’s experience.