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The Amityville Horror

remake (re•make): To make again or anew.

This seems to be standard protocol for most Hollywood studios these days, and on paper it makes sense. Dollars and cents. Hell, if sold before you might as well try to cash in on the property again, and it sure beats coming up with anything original, right?

Well, let’s be fair. Nothing is new or original in the studio system anymore. With the term “original” applied to various films which basically pay homage to countless genre films from the past, it’s become quite clear that true “originality” comes in the approach of presenting the material, no matter how tired it may be.

Consider Dawn of the Dead. The George A. Romero original offered just the right amount of gore to appease horror fans while finding something substantial to say about consumer culture in a socio-political fashion. When news of a remake circulated it sounded like yet another tawdry cash cow in the works.

Then it hit. Dawn of the Dead was remade anew in 2004 at the hands of relatively unknown director Zack Snyder, and surprise, surprise, it worked. Albeit nowhere near touching ground trail blazed by the original, Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn kept only the essentials (zombies, survivors, and a mall) and made the rest their own. All of this aside, the remake was as resounding as its predecessor, but was still distinct enough to hold its own.

So along comes relative newcomer Andrew Douglas’ remake of The Amityville Horror, and the result is a remake that actually surpasses the original in some regards, despite a few trappings that manage to fall flat. Along with screenwriters Scott Kosar and Sandor Stern, Douglas approaches the remake in less of a revisionist method, yet still manages to fix a few complications from the original film.

One major overhaul, and the weightiest gripe about the film, is the bow to hyper-stylized flash cutting that is all the rage with younger directors. Nothing establishes a creepy surreal tone like longer, more uncomfortable takes, and a film like this should be more about tone and unease than shock-schlock cutting for effect.

The opening sequence, detailing true-life murders of the DeFeo family at the hands of their eldest son, is such an assault to the senses that it is difficult to tell which offends more, the act we are supposed to be horrified by or the barrage of images and sound effects used to accentuate each cut made.

Once one wades through the muck, the film settles in, slowing the breakneck pace from the initial onslaught in favor of character development. George Lutz’s (Ryan Reynolds) arc, especially, benefits from this decision in comparison to the original film.

George, portrayed deftly although surprisingly by Reynolds, is established here as a widow’s new husband who desperately wants to do the right thing in regards to his wife, Kathy’s (Melissa George) children. George’s plight is portrayed in such a way that prior to the move into the house, viewers admire his efforts with young Billy (Jesse James), who adamantly wants to hate him for stepping into the family.

George never presses to replace the memory of Kathy’s ex, and the pain on his face while trying to engage Billy despite being cut down is very real and resonant, which is a big surprise from Mr. Van Wilder. We see the strains on the family before they even step foot in Amityville, and these are the same strains that the spirits in the house exploit during their twenty-eight day stay.

The Lutz’s are informed of the DeFeo murders, and being skeptics of the supernatural opt to move into the house regardless. Financial woes play into this decision, considering they could not afford such a house under any other circumstances. As George becomes more and more detached from the family, monetary pressure masks his shift in behavior. Karen seems to equate George’s mood swings as product of the stresses of making this venture work, not something as outlandish as hearing voices in the late night hours.

She remains unaware of the late night murmurs pushing George to the edge, and his lack of communication in this regard doesn’t help. Take away the “spooky ghost and ancient burial ground” logic, and beneath is a situation that commonly troubles younger married couples: lack of communication pulls apart relationships. This serves as a metaphor for the deterioration of the American Family in a similar fashion that The Exorcist riffed on the effects of a divorce on mother-daughter relationships.

This leads us to one of the major flaws in the original, lack of character development coupled with some illogical plot points. In the original, George is never established as a caring figure, so when he begins acting irrational, we know he is likely under the influence of the house, but we aren’t given anything to compare his harsh punishments to.

Also, the process of discovery should lead to logical decision making within the confines of character. Karen’s research into the house’s history leads to finding after finding that would have prompted any normal family to reconsider their stay before anything truly disturbing had even transpired. The remake slows this progression, and Karen doesn’t really begin clueing into what could be at stake until it is too late which builds to a more cathartic and emotionally logic third act setup.

Overall, the film maintains the look and feel of the seventies without stooping to self-reflexive inferences. Even the film stock is grainy, recalling the gritty cinematic aesthetic of horror films from that era. Now if only these directors could learn that with precision framing, attention to mood, and establishment of tone, the need for rapid fire splicing is rendered unnecessary.


Mario Anima

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