Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: Extreme Home Makeover – The Amityville Horrors, Old and New

James Brolin and Margot Kidder in The Amityville Horror (1979).

I’m going to open with a confession: despite moonlighting as a film and television critic, I have a notoriously bad memory for film and television. Friends and coworkers regularly quote movies and TV shows to me, often ones I’ve seen and loved, and I respond with a blank stare. I used to try to maintain my cultured façade by discreetly Googling the reference in question but I’ve given up on that as I’ve gotten older (… mostly because sometimes I get caught). My abysmally bad memory is how I wound up writing this piece. My colleague Justin suggested I do a Critic’s Crypt piece: maybe I could compare an original with a remake. The horror genre is rife with remakes! So I said, “Sure! I’ll write on The Amityville Horror! I love that movie.”

Upon re-watching “that movie,” I’ve recognized that I don’t actually love it. Rather, I fell into the trap of misremembering a classic – and it cost me five hours of my life. Let this be a lesson.

My own recent experience aside, The Amityville Horror is a 1979 film directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) that has held a place of great significance in the horror movie canon for almost 40 years. Newlyweds George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) score a great deal on a Long Island mansion – I tried in vain not to resent that their “splurge” price for their dream home was $80,000 – and move in with her three children from a previous marriage in tow. The film imparts an important and now ubiquitous message about flying too close to the real estate sun: obviously, their fabulous new home comes with a malevolent force that slowly drives George crazy, slams a window on one of the kids’ hands, and makes the house just too damn cold. The basic plot is consistent in Andrew Douglas’ 2005 remake (also titled The Amityville Horror), as is the fact that the Lutzes only stay in the house for 28 days before fleeing with their lives. While there are still some noteworthy plot discrepancies between the two, the hard truth is that neither film really hits the mark. In fact, I don’t understand why the original was beloved enough to warrant a remake in the first place – but hey, here we are.

One thing I can say for the original ’79 film is that the 1970s vibe baked into it is inextricable from the Amityville legacy. Andrew Douglas seemed to feel this way too: despite being made a whopping 26 years after the original, his 2005 remake still takes place in the 70s. The beards, plaid, vintage cars, questionable home décor choices, and retrospectively Amish feeling of a life without electronics imparts the sense that the original film is a time capsule, as mired in the time it came from as its iconic murder house is mired in its own. As with many things in the 2005 remake, however, its quality as a 1970s period piece starts strong and fizzles out toward the end. In the way that bad period pieces are sometimes obvious years later, the 2005 Amityville’s artistic direction feels a little like the Lutzes 2.0 (Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George) start the film in 1974, with the appropriate wardrobe and lighting, only to wrap up the movie in some sort of vaguely 70s-inspired 2005 clothing ad.

Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George in The Amityville Horror (2005).

In addition to its organic 70s aesthetic, the original Amityville Horror also boasts an Oscar-nominated score that might be the only halfway decent thing to come out of the entire franchise. The breathy, high-pitched singing is idyllic sounding in Rosenberg’s film. This music plays as a starkly lettered title card in a dated font fades into a silhouette of the iconic house set against a blood red sky. The sky lightens into a less ominous blue and the house’s skull-like outline softens into something more mundane and recognizable while the music shifts in the opposite direction, now punctuated by minor notes and dissonance that suggest that something is still inherently wrong despite the benign image on screen. The movie could have stopped here and it would have been perfect because the first minutes of Rosenberg’s movie tell you everything you need to know: this house is pretty but fucked up. Okay, great. Roll credits.

There were several things I’d forgotten about the original ’79 film over the years and one of these was the bizarre, largely detached subplot involving the Catholic Church. Anyone who’s ever seen this film (yes, including me) has the scene where Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) tries to bless the house and winds up covered in flies burned into their memory. What I was surprised by was the large amount of screen time Father Delaney has as he tries to phone the Lutzes, argues with the Diocese about whether or not demonic possession is A Thing or not, and reminds us all that he’s a priest first and apparently a psychoanalyst second. In fact, upon closer inspection, the Lutzes are themselves deeply tied up with the Church. Kathy wears a cross, decorates her demon house with more crosses, paints statues of the Virgin Mary in her spare time, and has a beloved aunt who reappears several times throughout the film who happens to be a Catholic nun (Irene Dailey). For the life of me, I don’t know why this is featured so heavily in The Amityville Horror but, based on the script’s firm and repeated assertion that George Lutz is not the father of Kathy’s children, and the fact that the ’79 script makes absolutely no mention of their biological father, I’m tempted to read it as some statement on divorce and turning one’s back on their beliefs. I’m tempted to – but I can’t commit fully to this interpretation because there the film really doesn’t give you the cipher for untangling its message. As a result what could have been brilliant comes across as merely sloppy and disjointed.

Rod Steiger as Father Delaney in The Amityville Horror (1979).
Comparatively, the remake does away with this subplot. Father Delaney’s (here renamed Father Callaway and played by Phillip Baker Hall) screen time is drastically reduced and Kathy’s formerly intense connection to the Church is downplayed. The priest character is no longer “like family,” but someone she must introduce herself to in a moment of desperation. The iconic scene where the flies swarm all over the priest's face remains but feels more like obvious fan service than an integral plot point. Here, the film also clears up the fate of Kathy’s ex-husband. He died, and Reynolds’ George Lutz is a just cool guy stepdad who “wants to be [the kids’] friend,” instead of the potentially sinister usurper Brolin played in the original. Ultimately, Douglas and writer Scott Kosar offer a cleaner and more streamlined story, but not necessarily a better one. The updated and liberally used special effects they employ actually make their film less scary than the original. While the 1979 version used comparatively rudimentary techniques, it conjures a better sense of malaise by showing less. 2005’s Amityville falls into that early-2000s horror-movie trap, relying on obvious, overbearing audio scares and tossing in pale ghost children in nonsensical contexts wherever possible – why does 2005’s Jody appear with a noose when it’s expressly stated she was shot, other than just because it’s spooky? – to its detriment. The result is a film that feels tacky, silly, and void of mystery.

I make no secret about loving Ryan Reynolds (there is an article open in a tab on my browser right now titled “A Casual Reminder That Ryan Reynolds May Never Be Hotter Than He Is in The Amityville Horror,” and I fully intend on reading it) and, predictably, he is the 2005 Amityville Horror’s saving grace. Yes, he is obscenely attractive as shirtless, bearded George chopping wood or diving into a lake in white cotton PJ pants, I’m so glad you asked – but he also has the perfect range for playing such a necessarily schizophrenic character. Few other actors could be both as incredibly likeable and intensely repellent in this role as Reynolds, with his sharp wit and smart mouth, and casting him was a stroke of genius. Honestly, the rest of the cast is forgettable, even baby Chloe Grace Moretz who plays a very annoying Chelsea Lutz, a character that would score herself an armful of Darwin Awards were it not for luck and her concerned parents. Melissa George is especially infuriating: the writing is bad, I’ll admit, but she performs her role as if she’d never even read the script, asking questions like “is this Jody?” with a painfully unaware over-seriousness when daughter Chelsea presents her with an Etch-a-Sketch drawing of what looks like Freddy Kruger and Abraham Lincoln’s love child. In a perfect world, I would make an all-star cast with Reynolds starring opposite 1979’s Margot Kidder (Brolin was taciturn and boring), but some dreams really don’t come true, I guess.

Ultimately, this experience calls to mind the ancient proverb, “you should never meet your heroes.” I started this journey with fond memories of both the original Amityville Horror and Ryan Reynold’s flawless half-naked body and somehow this Critic’s Crypt has tarnished both by presenting me with not one but two plot-hole ridden, carelessly constructed time sinks that failed to scare me an iota. While I can’t deny that Amityville's imagery and story are iconic, colouring better horror stories in the decades following (American Horror Story, The SimpsonsTreehouse of Horror episode with Pierce Brosnan) to great success, it turns out that some things are perhaps better left buried.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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