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The Amityville Horror

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  • Noel Vera
    The Amityville ho-hum Noel Vera Perhaps the main reason why Jay Anson s book The Amityville Horror - -plus the movie version it spawned, not long after--were
    Message 1 of 1 , May 26, 2005
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      The Amityville ho-hum

      Noel Vera

      Perhaps the main reason why Jay Anson's book "The Amityville Horror"-
      -plus the movie version it spawned, not long after--were hits was
      because the public was fascinated (downright titillated, in fact) by
      the possibility that the story was true. It's been some seven years
      since "The Exorcist" made a big dent on the boxoffice, I suppose
      people felt the need to be scared once more, and a true-life haunted-
      house story was as good an excuse as any.

      That's it, the only reason I can think of. Maybe if I dug a little
      deeper I can find economic or socio-political causes, perhaps trace
      trends in film horror through the late seventies--whatever; point
      is, I can't imagine both book and movie making money because they
      were actually any good. Anson's bestseller was basically a laundry
      list of ghost-story clichés, arbitrarily put together; Stuart
      Rosenberg's movie was somewhat more effective because instead of
      relying on Anson's flat prose it puts everything, clear and obvious,
      on the big screen. Call it hoary, call it clichéd, I still feel a
      tingle when I see a crucifix hang upside down on a wall.

      Andrew Douglas' remake (it's his first fiction feature) improves on
      the original somewhat (the equivalent of saying if you give a moron
      a baseball bat he will clonk himself on the head), although he does
      get some of it wrong (the equivalent of saying the moron wasn't sure
      where his head was, at first). Scott Kosar's script (he updated Tobe
      Hooper's classic "Texas Chainsaw Massacre") is easily the best thing
      in the picture, in that it fashions an emotional throughline which a
      viewer can hold on to as he descends (there is no other more fitting
      word) into the rather incoherent story--namely, George Lutz's
      struggle to be accepted into the family by Kathy and her three kids
      from a previous marriage. The picture features an altogether younger
      cast, with Ryan Reynolds as George and delectable Melissa George as
      Kathy (Margot Kidder already seemed halfway neurotic and James
      Brolin almost entirely psychotic when they were introduced in the
      original). The kids are somewhat more sharply particularized than in
      the original: eerie young Chelsea (Chloe Moretz), weepy Michael
      (Jimmy Bennett) and--best of all--sullen, pudgy Billy (Jesse James).
      Kosar doesn't forget to give them amusing lines of dialogue to say
      and Douglas doesn't force them too insistently on us--they're
      attractive and believable as a family, and we readily warm up to
      them, even care what ultimately happens to them.

      As for the rest of the cast--Philip Baker Hall as the hapless
      visiting priest comes to mind as a prime example of how a better
      actor giving a more competent performance is not necessarily a good
      thing. I remember Rod Steiger's unforgettable scenery-chewing, and
      how the flies stubbornly stuck to his flesh--not, you feel, because
      they were evil so much as because he seemed so moist and salty.
      Hall's performance is considerably more low-key, but all the
      understated acting in the world can't save him from the bit of
      slapstick involving a ventilation grate and a cloud of digitally
      animated flies--once he starts flying the movie's credibility goes
      right out the window. The picture does provide us with Rachel
      Nichols, who steps in out of nowhere playing a babysitter with bare
      midriff (I'd love to know the phone number of the agency she works
      for), lays herself on poor Billy's bed, and gleefully admits "Wow, I
      suck at babysitting." Both kids and house don't know what to make of
      her (except perhaps Billy, who in his hilariously clumsy way tries
      to act cool and casual), so she ends up getting locked in a closet
      and receiving your standard-issue digitally-animated scare…

      It's a surprisingly engaging family picture, well-written and acted,
      with quite a few pointedly funny moments--but this is "The
      Amityville Horror" we're talking about, not "The Brady Bunch," and
      Douglas' movie is weakest when it comes to horror. The original
      picture may have been clunky and slow, but it showed us the scares
      full-on, no apologies (and no digital effects); the new one adheres
      to recent thinking in horror that probably goes like this: "If the
      audience is too quick and smart to be scared by what takes place on
      camera, we should try stay a jump ahead, and spring the scares on
      them before they're ready." The result--cameras that snake along,
      then leap forward in sudden bursts of speed; music-video shock cuts
      showing choice bits of gore (too quickly for anything to really sink
      in); innocuous objects or faces, digitally transformed into features
      more malevolent--were tiresome when they were introduced way back
      when and have become even less welcome now. Think what Hideo Nakata,
      who worked on so-so material in "Ring Two" and is a skilled
      craftsman in the art of the slow chill and steady thrill, might have
      done with this project.

      Anson's book and Rosenberg's movie came out at a time when the story
      held (for a while, anyway) popular imagination captive; people
      picked up a copy or walked into the theaters half-willing to believe
      there really was an evil lurking out there in Long Island, New York.
      You might say there is no better horror than what you bring into a
      book or movie yourself, and the original "Amityville" capitalized on
      that, clumsily but effectively. Twenty-five years later we've since
      seen the truth-bending machinations of "The Blair Witch Project,"
      not to mention heard questions about the Lutz's credibility (their
      motive, apparently and unsurprisingly, was a need to be the center
      of attention); the Amityville legend has since grown considerably
      less potent--has, in fact been spoofed unmercifully in its various
      uglier sequels and in the Wayans brothers' "Scary Movie" series,
      among others. Maybe the other movie Douglas made--the one with all
      the drama and family tensions--is the right one to make after all.
      When all is said and done there IS a story to tell here, a fairly
      good one; just wish Douglas and company had actually sat down and
      told it.

      (Originally printed in Businessworld, May 13, 2005)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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