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The Amityville Horror (2005)

For gods sake...get out!

Directed by:

Andrew Douglas

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 89 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

In Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the chef Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) takes great pains to get back to the snowbound Overlook Hotel through impassable roads and treacherous weather conditions – only to get an axe in the stomach as soon as he enters the lobby, in a sequence horrifying enough in itself, but even more shocking to anyone who had read Stephen King’s novel, and was therefore expecting Hallorann to help save the day. In a peculiar homage to this, Andrew Douglas’ remake of the 1979 blockbuster The Amityville Horror also features a scene involving an axe to the stomach of a character expected to save the day – only this time the effect is even more jarring, because the fatal axing took place neither in the original film, nor in the ‘true story’ on which both ‘Amityville’ films purport to be based. It is an event which simply cannot happen – and while the film does find a way out of this conundrum, just the very fact that the sequence is included in the first place nods to the film’s true origins in the realms of the imagination rather than reality.

Of course no-one of sound mind actually believes the tales told by the Lutz family of their harrowing experiences over 28 days in 1974 spent in a house where several murders had previously occurred – and even the original The Amityville Horror featured that proverbial symbol of all that is incredible and impossible, a flying pig, as a nod and a wink to viewers that perhaps the ‘true story’ was not to be taken so seriously after all. There are no flying pigs in the remake, but screenwriter Scott Kosar, who has made his name confounding reality and illusion in his scripts for the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Machinist (2004), proves just as adept here at playing games with truth and fiction. As in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (made by the same production team), there is plenty of accurate seventies period detail and (mocked-up) media coverage to lend a certain authenticity to the proceedings, as well as an opening title asserting the film’s basis in truth – but at the same time Kossar flirts openly with the film’s fictionality by drawing just as prominently on entirely invented horror films like The Shining (and ‘Poltergeist’, and ‘What Lies Beneath’) as on Sandor Stern’s script for the original The Amityville Horror, Jay Anson’s book about the house, or material from the Lutzes themselves.

It would be impossible to overstate the debt this remake owes to The Shining – which is no bad thing given how vastly superior Kubrick’s film was to the original Amityville. One lesson, however, that Kossar has failed to learn from his master is the proper handling of ambiguity to create a sense of the uncanny. George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) may, like Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance in The Shining, already have a few problems of his own before the haunting begins, but already on day one objects are moving of their own accord and ghosts are seen ‘objectively’ by the viewer (rather than merely from the perspective of an individual character), so that there is never really any question that George’s transformation from loving stepfather to mad killer results from what is in the house rather than what is in his head.

In the absence of such psychological tension, what remains is a slickly made and well-acted exercise in jumping out and shouting ‘boo!’ at the audience as many times as possible in an hour and a half. Sure, there are frights galore (and there is also some humour) – but the film proves so resistant to any suggestion of the Lutzes’ problems being all their own that to explain away the haunting it must resort to that old horror cliché, the house built on the suffering of Native Americans.

It's Got: An impressive Ryan Reynolds doing his best Jack Torrance impression minus the grotesque gurning (no mean feat); the great Philip Baker Hall having his inestimable talents somewhat wasted in the rôle of local priest and would-be exorcist Father Calloway; Lisa (Rachel Nichols) the babysitter from hell - although not literally, unlike several other of the films characters; and a brisk economy that more ponderous, minute-heavy horror films of recent times would do well to emulate.

It Needs: To introduce the certain presence of ghosts in the house MUCH later in the film, so that the possibility that George Lutz is abusive by his very nature can be taken at least half seriously - oh, and without wishing to give too much away, arent people supposed to die in horror films?

Alternatives:

Hide and Seek, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist, The House on Haunted Hill, The Shining, What Lies Beneath

Summary

Punchy, frightening, and far slicker than the original – but for all the refurbishment, something's still not quite right with this haunted house.

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