Thursday, November 29, 2007

Amityville Horrors

The original 1979 production of AMITYVILLE HORROR is an interesting film to me, in the simple fact that even though it isn't an overwhelmingly good one it is a movie that I return to often. I think there are a lot of reasons for it, with nostalgia being the main one. Certainly the Amityville case is one of those seminal moments for many children from the seventies. For me the case of the maybe haunted house in Amityville is right up there with the Patterson footage of Bigfoot and Franco Harris' immaculate reception from 72 as something that sparked my young imagination and continues to do so. There are other elements as well that keeps bringing me back such as Margot Kidder, that great James Brolin melt-down scene, and that fantastic Lalo Schifrin score. Still, every time I revisit Stuart Rosenberg's THE AMITYVILLE HORROR I come away a little disappointed. I want so badly for it to be as great as the sum of its parts, but ultimately it isn't.
Recently I revisited the 2005 remake of one of my childhood favorites and despite it being a dreaded Michael Bay production, I must admit that I am quite fond of the newer AMITYVILLE HORROR. I saw it in its theatrical showing a couple of years ago, and found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected. I think it is the fact that it is a remake of a not so perfect film that distinguishes it from many of the other horror remakes that have been plaguing theaters in droves for the past several years.
Directed with some flair by former commercial and video director Andrew Douglas, the new THE AMITYVILLE HORROR falters in its last act, but for a good hour it is a really solid and effective little thriller. Bolstered by winning performances by Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Rachel Nichols (so smashing in the current P2), and the always reliable Philip Baker Hall, Douglas' film is a fast paced, visually interesting work that almost achieves greatness in a handful of scenes.

Much like the original, the main thing that keeps THE AMITYVILLE HORROR above the usual modern CGI driven American nightmares are the fact that we are allowed some time with the characters before the horror starts. In what is becoming an almost novel idea, Douglas allows characterization and not effects to fuel the first part of his film. So, while it can be argued that both Reynolds and George seem to young for their roles, in just a few scenes I come to really like and believe them as a couple. Add on the excellent performances by Jesse James, Jimmy Bennett and Chloe Moretz as their children and, for a surprising first half, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR works as much as a family drama as it does a horror film.
Of course it finally has to work as a horror film and for a while it does so very well. Douglas builds a decent amount of tension in the first half with several creepy set pieces, including an eerie rooftop sequence featuring Moretz. The nice cinematography of HALLOWEEN 4 dp Peter Lyons Collister doesn't hurt either, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is never less than a pleasing visual experience. A major highlight, along with the rooftop sequence, is a superbly lit closet sequence featuring Nichols giving the first of what I hope is a series of truly memorable horror performances. I can't think of another young American actor right now who seems so adept to the genre than Nichols.
It's not a great film though, as it is let down by a slightly disappointing score, and an unsatisfying final act that forgoes the strong characters that have been built for the usual Bay inspired pyrotechnics that have more in common with modern action films rather than works of horror. I must say though that I find its faults more forgivable than most modern horror films. The score by Steve Jablonsky is fine really, it is just hard to think of that house without the brilliant work of Schifrin, and if the final act isn't as strong as the first parts it is at least nowhere near as bad as Bay's artistically bankrupt TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE reworking that probably helped finance this film.

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR opened up to good business and the usual critical pounding just over two years ago. Still a few critics came to its defense including The Los Angeles Times writer Kevin Thomas who wrote an excellent critique of it where he called it "Superior to the original" and that it is a film "anchored in strong characterizations, and its plot develops with chilling psychological suspense. It's such a skillfully made entertainment that its plunge into the supernatural is persuasive even for the skeptical." I agree with him, even though few of his peers did.
The DVD is a fairly good edition. It hit right before the wave of 'uncut' versions on disc so it is as it was in the theaters. The extras include a fun commentary with Reynolds and Douglas, as well as some deleted scenes and featurettes. I hope that another edition will arrive someday as I suspect the film was trimmed for an R, and there are plenty of interesting behind the scenes issues that could be discussed (including a law suit from the real life George Lutz before he passed away).
I would rank the remake of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR as one of the best of the dozens we have had this decade. It doesn't have the impact of Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES re imagining but it is miles above the new TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE debacle, or the bland remake of THE OMEN from last year. Like the original, it is flawed and not totally satisfactory, but its well worth a first or even second look for those interested.


Joe said...

The remake of The Amityville Horror is a fantastic demonstration of how movies have changed for the better and worse in the last 25 years. Almost everything about the 2005 version is stronger: the visual design, obviously the effects, but the acting as well. I really liked Ryan Reynolds & Melissa George as the couple in this one, plus the priest and the babysitter.

What's remarkable is that the remake wasn't scary. The 99 cent, 1980 original is actually spookier, as are a lot of those drive-in monster movies that came out in the '70s like Creature From Black Lake. Maybe this is because I saw them when I was a kid. But with the new slate of horror films, there's rarely any suspense that anything really bad is going to happen, like a kid dying.

Anyway, fantastic post, Jeremy.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Joe...that's really interesting. There is something much scarier about these films from the seventies. I think that part of it is that the flashier modern cimema is often too slick for real horror. I think this one does a fairly good job in balancing the two, but I agree with you for the most part...the original is scarier.
I think an even better comparison is the CHAINSAW remake, which I hated. There the effects, gloss, and buffed bodies had no chance at standing in for the seventies...I hear Bay is producing a new FRIDAY THE 13TH next. I only hope it is as good as his AMITYVILLE and nowhere near as bad as his CHAINSAW....

For my money the only modern remake that generated any real scares was Aja's brutal HILLS HAVE EYES...a film that for me managed to combine somme of modern films high tech wizadry with the real down and dirty grime of the seventies...

anyway, great comments...thanks for them

Neil Fulwood said...

The Amityville remake is ultimately more streamlined and entertaining than the original, which, while atmospheric, is lumbered with a dull script and often plodding direction. The 2005 version, with its paired down running time and better lead performances, is a lot more immediate. Also, with the Letz's book largely disputed, the remake doesn't worry about whether the events it depicts were true or not, but instead provides the audience with a rollercoaster ride through its set pieces.
I love the scene with the priest, as well: it sets him up as a Father Merrin-type exorcist only to have him flee the house in terror within minutes.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Neil,
I meant to mention how much shorter and concise the remake is so I am glad you pointed it out.
I think one of the biggest problems with the original is the pacing, and that it feels overlong.
Good point about the book as well...
I appreciate the comments...

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I've watched the original one quite a few times over the years. While I like the cast and am fascinated by the story, it's not one of my favorite horror films of the past. I do think it drags on in parts. I do want it to be better than it is. I guess I continue to expect that it will improve with age. It's not that I think it's a bad film, but it's not a great one.

I will admit that I enjoyed the remake more than the original. While I detest Michael Bay and what he does with films, this was a pretty good flick. I do think that it does falter some in the last 1/3 of it, but overall I enjoyed it.

Steve Langton said...

I've installed this film on my rental list after reading your piece and the resulting comments. To be honest, I'm a bit turned off remakes after getting burned by the terrible RING and WICKER MAN remakes. This does sound interesting though. Thanks for setting down your thoughts.