Judge Brett Cullum says this film is a bit of a fixer-upper, but has a good view of the backyard from the dining room. Just don't mind the demons...
Our reviews of The Amityville Horror (1979) (Blu-ray) (published October 20th, 2008), The Amityville Horror (2005) (Blu-ray) (published October 1st, 2010), The Amityville Horror Collection (published April 11th, 2005), and The Amityville Horror Trilogy (Blu-ray) (published September 20th, 2013) are also available.
Father Callaway: Your house frightens me, Mrs. Lutz.
In 1977, a book by Jay Anson rapidly climbed the bestseller charts, and created a devilish sensation around a haunted house story set on Long Island. The Amityville Horror introduced America to the "true" tale of George and Kathy Lutz, who got a good deal on a house in a prestigious Long Island waterfront community because of the gruesome murders of the entire DeFeo family that had occurred in the residence. A year prior to George and Kathy moving in, an entire family died at the hands of their eldest son, Butch (or "Ronnie") DeFeo. They were killed without the neighbors hearing, and they were all found sleeping on their stomachs as if none of the people in the house reacted to the gunshots. DeFeo claimed he was driven by demonic voices from within the house to commit the crime. The property was a bargain because of the recent violent history, but George and Kathy (and Kathy's three kids) were game to give the house a go. It didn't last. The Lutzes said they were relentlessly terrorized by spirits which drove them to flee in the middle of the night after only 28 days in the Long Island home. They left in the middle of the night without their belongings, and never returned. America was willing to believe the tale—in the late '70s the Devil was a hot commodity, after doing blockbuster film hits like The Exorcist and The Omen. The Amityville Horror was a sensation because it was all true. And who doesn't like a good ghost story?
But alas, the story was dubious and had doubters from the start. George and Kathy Lutz admitted Anson was brought in to write the book without talking directly to the family, and he took extreme liberty with their alleged audio tape accounts (to the point of exaggerations and outright lies). Several facts about the weather conditions and police involvement just didn't add up. Even worse, the priest—who figures prominently as a victim of the forces in the house—claimed, when interviewed, that he never saw anything happen at 112 Ocean Drive. Butch DeFeo's defense attorney claimed he colluded with the Lutzes to make up a story that might get his client a new trial (and lucrative book and movie deals for all of them). The lawyer said he and George Lutz made up the ghost tale over several bottles of wine in one evening. George Lutz still claims parts of the story are true, but the horror that happened in Amityville is now generally regarded as an elaborate hoax done for money, fame, and legal reasons. So why is it still such a hot haunted property? And why is a new set of filmmakers dragging it up again in 2005, and claiming that this time they are staying closer to "a true story"?
The Amityville Horror first hit cinema screens in 1979 as a highly anticipated haunted house story starring James Brolin (Mr. Barbara Streisand) and Margot Kidder (girlfriend of Superman). It didn't stick close to the details of the Anson novel, but it captured the spirit of the tale well, even with its requisite Hollywood flourishes. It did blockbuster business, and spawned countless sequels. I'd say it's a fairer representation of the story than this disc, the Michael Bay-produced The Amityville Horror (2005). If anything, the new version feels more fantastic and further removed from the original story than anything associated with the first movie (even when compared to the 3-D installment, which you can find separately or in The Amityville Horror Collection). So let's all take a grain of salt, and enter the house on 112 Ocean Drive one more time.
Facts of the Case
In The Amityville Horror (2005) George and Kathy Lutz are played by Ryan Reynolds (Van Wilder) and Melissa George (Sugar and Spice). They are a pair of newlyweds who move into 112 Ocean Drive in the posh neighborhood of Amityville. The nervous realtor discloses the gruesome events that occurred. Seems an entire family was killed in the middle of the night by their son. The son claimed he heard voices coming out of the television and throughout the house telling him to "catch them and kill them." The house could be haunted. But the Lutzes decide all of that haunting business is nonsense, and shouldn't ruin the purchase of their dream home at a bargain basement price. What house doesn't have a past? And hey, it even comes fully furnished! Why not have everyone sleep in beds where a whole family was murdered? That won't be creepy at all.
Faster than you can say "GET OUT!" spooky things start happening. George and Kathy, along with their three kids, undergo serious personality changes as the spirits in the house wreak havoc on their domestic bliss and sleep patterns. Things don't just go bump in the night, they crash through the walls. A mysterious ghost girl named Jodie (Isabel Connor, in her film debut) visits the Lutzes and bonds with their daughter. George begins seeing demons in family films. The plumbing oozes blood, nobody can pee without seeing demonic faces in the bathroom mirror, and a priest (Philip Baker Hall, Magnolia) gets a face full of houseflies. Before it's all over, George will turn into a murderous possessed loon wielding an ax trying to "catch them and kill them." The Lutzes will also find a creepy torture chamber in the basement, and discover the house has been evil from the start. It's time to find out that "houses kill people" after all.
Two Amityville projects were being pitched in Hollywood a little over a year ago. The first was being shopped by George Lutz and a documentarian, who had the idea to get James Brolin (star of the original The Amityville Horror) and do a movie about "Amityville 25 years later." It would detail George Lutz coming to visit the house, and chronicle his life after the terror at 112 Ocean Drive. It looked like that picture was close to being made, but then Michael Bay came on the scene. He had done great box office producing a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and was looking for another hot '70s horror property for his Sand Dunes film company. A fight was brewing, and Variety was there to cover it. Several complicated rights struggles later, Bay got the green light to go ahead with his version. The end deal excluded George Lutz from much of the profit, and allowed Bay's company to proceed without him as a consultant. Even without poor George, they professed they would remain faithful to the story.
My biggest beef with these filmmakers is they claim endlessly in interviews they wanted to make their movie closer to Anson's book. Hogwash! I read the original book quite recently, and the film doesn't resemble it in the slightest, other than the neighborhood and address remain the same. Even the names of the kids and the DeFeos are wrong. I don't get why they feel the need to keep feeding us that "based on a true story" line, other than it sells more tickets. Whether or not George and Kathy Lutz told a true story, The Amityville Horror is one of the most famous haunting cases in American history. There are many people who know the facts of both the DeFeo murders and the Lutzes' story. None of the details are accurate, and it seems everything has been changed for the sake of sensationalism. This movie is a simple cash grab based on a franchise name. Fine if you want to make a more elaborate fictional version, but admit that is what you are doing. Stop treating your audience as if they can't read a book or do some on-line research. We aren't that stupid.
The Amityville Horror (2005)'s script wreaks havoc on the original events claimed to have happened to the DeFeos and Lutzes in the house, and it's hardly recognizable as anything remotely related to the original source material. For some who found the 1979 movie slow that is good news, but for fans of the "true story" it's disturbing. Some examples of unnecessary alterations include: making Jodie a DeFeo child instead of a demonic pig, killing off the family dog (who survives in every other version of the story), making the house's backstory take the lead by blending two stories about a Satanist and American Indians into an incoherent mess, and ultimately making George Lutz a psycho killer. The real life George cried foul, because he never became an axe-wielding maniac chasing his family through the house. Maybe he was just upset because he wasn't getting profits from the movie, but the changes do seem to wreck the story and send it spinning into a ludicrous territory of style over substance. Anything involving Jodie or the dog feels like exploitation of the worst kind. The project smacks of revisionism. Killing animals and children on screen is the last resort of the laziest filmmakers to elicit an extreme response in an audience. The two actions are, in a word, deplorable.
As a remake of the original, The Amityville Horror (2005) seeks to ratchet up the pace and scare factor. In 1979 what scared people was simply the idea the story was true, and that it happened to an average family. The 1979 movie wisely doesn't show much, and that restraint makes it creepier. The 2005 version shows too much of the monsters and demons to keep them mysterious. We see far too much of them to feel any true terror. Another problem with the movie is the project feels like several remakes rolled into one instead of a treatment of the 1979 flick. George Lutz chasing the family in the house recalls The Shining, and it's nowhere near as effective. All of the Jodie sequences feel like Asian horror movies—like Ringu or Ju-on, or their American remakes The Ring and The Grudge. The make-up and the fast movements are all elements borrowed from the current obsession with Japanese horror. The scenes in the basement with the Indian torture chamber feel like a Rob Zombie video, which makes sense given the director (Andrew Douglas) came from the world of music videos. It's odd to say that a remake feels unoriginal, but this one feels like a messy montage of horror conventions from the last ten years. It lurches along without an original scene in its arsenal of routine scares. The entire movie is culled from better innovators in the genre. Michael Bay didn't direct the film, but it feels like one of his lesser projects—stereotypical, messy, loud, and offering nothing new.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a simple popcorn movie, The Amityville Horror (2005) is fine, and has some okay qualities to make it a solid rental. The good news is it's an R-rated horror story with plenty of gore and jump scares. If you come in expecting a workhorse thrill ride, you'll be fine. Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George are an attractive pair, and they certainly are easier on the eyes than James Brolin and Margot Kidder. It borders on eye candy any time either of them disrobes, which made me want to rename the film The Abercrombie and Fitch Horror. The production is well designed, and it all looks great. At eighty-nine minutes, The Amityville Horror (2005) is tight and moves at a breakneck speed. On its own terms, it makes an okay B-grade horror flick.
MGM (parent company: Sony) goes all out to give The Amityville Horror (2005) a fully realized technical presentation. The transfer is amazingly clear. Black levels are spot on, and the level of detail in the picture is amazing. You can see Ryan Reynolds is wearing bloodshot contacts, because the picture is so crystal clear you can see their edges. There are a few compression artifacts, and the lines in the house shimmer. With all those angles and dark lines it was bound to happen, and it is noticeable. Still, overall it looks good. The audio department is where the disc truly shines. Surround sound on the disc booms and crackles awesomely. The sound design is the best part of the movie, and on DVD it is used to full effect. If you want to know whether your subwoofer is working, pop this movie in the player. Directional effects are all over the place—it's an audio demo track candidate.
There are also a whole gaggle of extras to support the movie. Ryan Reynolds joins producers Brad Fuller and Andrew Form for a chatty, fun commentary with lots of talk about why decisions were made at various points. They seem a little too satisfied with the changes they made, but sound like they had fun filming the picture. Deleted scenes are included, as well as a "making of" featurette. The extra scenes aren't insightful, but they do provide some entertaining omissions. The featurette includes a lot of in-depth looks at the make-up and stunts in the film. Everyone (again) claims that what made it so cool was that they were working on a "true story." The production's handsome design is showcased in a feature that lets you take a multi-angle look at the film's shoot during the feature. There is a documentary on the real DeFeo murders, which could lure fans of the real story to take a peek at the disc. The only problem with it is it uses footage from the movie, which is not accurate. But they do conduct interviews with real people involved with the case. If you click on a symbol in the middle of the menu when Jodie appears, you are taken to a "scare reel," which compiles all the jump shots in the film into a fast montage. Use it if you want to skip the feature proper.
The Amityville Horror (2005) is a schlocky remake of a hoary haunted house tale. It offers little that is new, but it is faster, louder, and dumber than the source material. Some people will prefer this remake to the 1979 original—it boils down to a matter of taste. If you like "boo" moments with fantastic imagery, this version is superior in that respect. The problem is I like believable characters, and the remake is short on that. The creep factor is lacking because I don't care about the people, and you want to root for the house to get them all. It's not the actors' fault as much as it is the movie's. The script doesn't develop anyone well, and the director is in love with angles and special effects shots. Can I root for a guy who kills his own dog? Or for a wife who seems to take everything—including the abuse of her own children—without question? They miss the normalcy the original established in the Lutzes. They aren't a family in the Michael Bay approved remake, but rather props to throw on to the set and torture. Am I supposed to worry about them? The remake also uses the basest forms of fear, and resorts to abusing and endangering children and animals to illicit a primal response. It's the cheapest of ploys, but it does elicit a response. A smarter horror flick could get by without resorting to the lowest level…but this is a Michael Bay production. Bombast and a general lack of taste is the order of the day.
On a recent business trip I went to Long Island, and couldn't resist the urge to have my cab driver take me by the real Amityville house on Ocean Drive. It was a gray rainy day—perfect weather to view a supernatural landmark. I had just seen this movie in the theatres; and in staring at the real house, it struck me how Michael Bay and his team missed the mark. What makes the house scary is how normal it is, and how sleepy quiet the neighborhood seems. They made a movie about noise and violently over-the-top images. Where you can take The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and go for broke, this story needs the sleeping dread only suburbia can inspire. Jay Anson's novel was about evil lying in wait, nestled inside a place nobody expected. If any of the ghost story is true, it is scarier than any movie could depict. I doubt the "real story" has ever been told, either on film or on the written page, and maybe it never can. It might have been made up by George Lutz and a desperate defense attorney over a bottle of wine, but part of me wants to believe in the demons that live in Long Island. It's a great ghost tale, and maybe one day someone will get it right.
Guilty of playing fast and loose with its source material, The Amityville Horror (2005) is simply a few good jumps strung together with music video and Asian horror imagery. It's too loud, too fast, and overproduced thanks to the team on Michael Bay's payroll. I sentence the cast and crew to a night with repeated viewings of the original The Haunting to study how to make an effective haunted house movie with sparse unseen elements that pack a punch to your gut. In the end, it's what we don't see that scares us the most. Whatever the real life Lutzes ran from in their original tale, it never showed itself completely. Fear is the unknown, and this film is too recycled to scare effectively. We've seen all of it before.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Actor Ryan Reynolds and Producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller
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