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The Horror Of It All

Junky remake is so bad, it's scary

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Jay Anson's 1977 novel The Amityville Horror was such a worthless piece of literature (I use the word lightly) that the only way it could have moved any copies was for its author and its limelight-soaking subjects to declare it was based on a true story. That did the trick: The book became a best-selling phenomenon, absorbed by the same sort of gullible American mindset that also believes Elvis is living with aliens, that the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot are still making their rounds, and that the current administration has the best interests of ordinary Americans at heart.

The book was quickly discredited in legitimate (i.e., non-National Enquirer) circles as pure hokum, but that didn't stop the 1979 film version from also becoming a major hit. Most notable for the eerie, Oscar-nominated score by Lalo Schifrin and the unspeakably awful lead performance by James Brolin, the '79 Amityville, when viewed today, seems even more threadbare than before, a clumsily staged haunted house opus that generates more tedium than suspense.

Still, I'll take that version of the tale over the new one that hit theaters last weekend. Whereas the '79 Horror primarily stole from The Exorcist (complete with a put-upon priest played by Rod Steiger), the 2005 model, with an additional 26 years to draw from, manages to additionally rip off The Shining, Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense and The Ring — heck, this movie is so shameless, there's probably a swipe from Scooby Doo On Zombie Island as well. The extensive cribbing might be forgiven if the movie offered anything fresh to the venerable haunted house genre, but this Horror is a complete waste of time on the part of all concerned.

Michael Bay, one of those Son-of-Satan filmmakers who is doing his best to turn the cinematic artform into one big McMovie, occasionally takes a break from directing crap like Bad Boys II and Pearl Harbor to produce slicked up remakes of 70s horror classics. His first effort was the insipid new take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; next up will doubtless be an equally pointless retread of The Omen or maybe Myra Breckinridge. In the meantime, we're saddled with Bay's Amityville, which opens with the 1974 slaying of the DeFeo family by one of its own members (the only true part of the tale). Cut to one year later, when George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds), his wife Kathy (Melissa George) and his three stepkids become the new residents of the Long Island home where the murders took place. But their domestic bliss is short-lived: Bloody apparitions begin appearing in mirrors, the youngest Lutz (Chloe Grace Moretz) befriends the pale ghost of the youngest DeFeo (Isabel Conner), and nice-guy George turns into an axe-wielding maniac once he imbibes the house's evil aura.

At least in the original film, there was a natural progression from George serving as the family's protector to becoming its worst enemy; here, the jovial stepdad grows surly in about the time it takes to floss. Still, give some credit to Ryan Reynolds, who could play the part in a coma and still be more effective than Brolin — Reynolds, known mainly for comedies, conveys all the proper degrees of fear and loathing, fighting against a screenplay that views its characters as little more than one-dimensional fright fodder.

Did I say fright? Correction: Even as a scare flick — the type that teens invariably line up in droves to see, just for the hope of being startled out of their stadium seating — The Amityville Horror is painfully inadequate, preferring to traffic in quick shots of blood-dripping ghouls (a new addition to this version) than establishing any real sense of dread. If the '79 edit was overlong at two hours, this one seems truncated at 89 minutes, with its priorities out of whack. The harried priest, arguably the most interesting character in the first version, barely appears in this hack job: The excellent Philip Baker Hall takes over the role and is rewarded for his participation with two fleeting scenes (including one in which he's pummeled by a swarm of CGI flies). The various subplots that elongated the original's running time were paradoxically the most watchable parts of that film (certainly holding our attention better than all the silly spook stuff), yet by jettisoning these elements, the new Amityville is left holding an empty bag, with absolutely nothing to offer. I've seen episodes of Sesame Street that were more frightening than this generic junk.

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