THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


One of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year came at the tail end of the credits of The Amityville Horror. A small-print disclaimer informs us that the story is “based on actual historical events.” Yes, it’s true that there was an old house in Amityville, New York that may possibly have been built on an ancient Indian burial ground. And yes, one of the owners of that home claimed that it was haunted. That said, the assertion that this cliché-ridden, special effects-heavy movie is true is absurd; it’s like saying that Star Wars was based on actual historical events simply because a long time ago there really was a galaxy far, far away.

The Amityville Horror is a remake of the 1979 fright flick, which was itself based on Jay Anson’s book. Ryan Reynolds (Van Wilder, Blade: Trinity) stars as George Lutz, a contractor recently married to a widow named Kathy (Melissa George) with three kids. George and Kathy decide to buy a home. Amazingly, they find an enormous old colonial house that is surprisingly affordable. George wants to know what the hitch is. The realtor nervously informs them that a series of brutal murders were committed inside. You’d think that George and Kathy would run screaming, or at least do some heavy duty soul searching before buying the place. But no, they spend about 30 seconds before deciding that they can live with that little piece of trivia. “We can make this work,” they tell each other. Idiots like this get what they deserve.

Once they move in, everyone in the family starts hallucinating. Kathy sees the words “Katch ‘em and kill ‘em” spelled out in refrigerator magnets. (Yes, refrigerator magnets are supposed to be scary here.) Daughter Chelsea starts talking to an imaginary friend, who is really the little girl who was murdered in the home. At one point, she climbs to a perch on the roof of the house because her imaginary friend tells her to. George fares worst of all. He sees demon faces appearing on the children, witnesses gruesome slayings, and hears voices coming from the basement. Ultimately, George becomes completely possessed, believing that he has to reenact the history of his home by murdering everyone else.

Here’s where the movie really goes off track. There is never any explanation for what’s going on. We see all kinds of horrific images, and it becomes clear that some paranormal force is influencing the family, but this concept is never developed beyond a surface level. There are just random, unexplained scenes of the Lutz family seeing demonic visions. I felt like the movie had a beginning and an end, but no middle. A good horror movie will ratchet up the tension by slowly cluing the audience in to the source of the evil. (Think of how Naomi Watts gradually uncovered the secrets of the videotape in The Ring.) The Amityville Horror merely throws one gruesome image after another at the audience, without the benefit of any context. If we knew more about the characters – or about the demons who are tormenting them – it would be easier to care about what’s going on. Instead, the filmmakers take the lazy way out, avoiding any pretense of a plot. This is a movie for people who buy Fangoria magazine and only look at the pictures.

It doesn’t help matters that the acting is really, really bad. Ryan Reynolds is just about the least threatening actor you’ll find, yet he is called upon to play a guy who becomes physically and emotionally intimidating. Watching the actor (who gives off a natural comic vibe) try to be scary is like, as Simon Cowell recently put it, rather like watching a kitten trying to be a tiger. Melissa George (Down With Love) doesn’t come off as silly, but she has little to do besides scream. Then there’s poor Phillip Baker Hall, playing a priest who comes to exorcize the house. Baker is a fine actor, having appeared memorably in Magnolia and Boogie Nights> I’m not exaggerating when I say that he looks absolutely embarrassed to be here.

In retrospect, there’s probably no way that a remake of The Amityville Horror could have worked in this day and age, despite the fact that it was popular in book and movie form back in the 70’s. The elements of this “true” story - blood dripping from walls, ghostly voices, shadowy apparitions, finales that take place on dark and stormy nights – have become the stuff of horror movie cliché. Consequently, the things that are supposed to be scary come off as funny instead. If you had told me in advance that this was a comedic remake, I might have actually believed it. We live in the 21st century, however, and this kind of thing is hopelessly old-fashioned. When I was growing up, society actually stopped to consider whether an old house in New York could be haunted, or whether people could really be abducted by aliens, or whether Bigfoot really existed. No one cares about this kind of thing today. We’re too cynical and jaded to take haunted houses seriously.

This remake was co-produced by Michael Bay, the questionably-talented director of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. He also produced last year’s remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - another picture I didn’t like. Bay seems intent on redoing famous horror movies at low budget prices. What he doesn’t get, apparently, is that good horror movies tap into our deepest primal fears. It takes a lot more than constant bloody mayhem to really scare the audience. The Amityville Horror certainly has lots of moments when ghostly figures pop out unexpectedly. Those moments might make you jump, but that’s just reflex. Scaring the hell out of you…well, that’s something this movie has no idea how to achieve.

( out of four)

The Amityville Horror is rated R for violence, disturbing images, language, brief sexuality and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.

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