What I’m about to write is probably going to catch a lot of flack, but here it goes – in terms of creating a horror movie experience, I actually prefer The Amityville Horror (2005) to the 1979 movie. While director Stuart Rosenberg’s original is well-made and features strong performances from its leads, I’ve never really been a fan of it, and thus, have found over the last decade or so a true admiration for what Amityville (2005) was able to bring to the table.
Not only does the remake give us deeper characters to invest in, better scares, and made the act of chopping wood absolutely one of the most horrifying things ever, but it also does what all good cinematic retellings should do – respect its roots but also steps out and does something different. So when it comes to all the Platinum Dunes remakes, I do think The Amityville Horror is one of the better ones, and deserves to have a little love thrown its way.
Before I delve into the Amityville remake, I wanted to address the real-life facts surrounding these films. With Jay Anson’s novel, plus countless TV documentaries that have come along in the last 40-plus years since the DeFeo murders, as well as the accounts of the Lutz family who moved into the (possibly) ill-fated home at 112 Ocean Avenue shortly after the DeFeo tragedy, there’s been a lot of speculation and reports on the possible supernatural activity that has occurred in the now-iconic abode. And while I’ve always found a lot of that stuff fascinating, for this piece, I’m taking out any kind of “real life connections” Amityville (2005) might or might not have, and will just be discussing the film from a purely entertainment standpoint.
The Amityville Horror remake gives us a pretty similar story to the original, but does offer up a few interesting twists I wasn’t expecting going into it. Director Andrew Douglas (who had only really done documentary filmmaking prior to Amityville) was pretty much a first-timer at the helm, and he was working from a final screenplay from Scott Kosar (who also wrote the Texas Chainsaw remake, The Machinist, and The Crazies remake as well). Kosar included a lot of key elements from what we saw in the first film, but he also gave us a lot more of what I felt was lacking from the 1979 version – a better sense of who the Lutz family was and the bond that they shared, which carried them through their heinous experiences after they move into their newly purchased home.
After the DeFeo murders flashback, Amityville (2005) introduces us to George (Ryan Reynolds) and Cathy Lutz (Melissa George), and Cathy’s kids who George is doing his best to connect with, as they’re a newly formed family – Billy (Jesse James), Michael (Jimmy Bennett), and Chelsea (Chloe Grace Moretz, who makes her feature film debut here). In the first few scenes, Kosar establishes the family dynamic which will continue to be relevant to the rest of the story – Billy, the oldest of Cathy’s kids, hasn’t quite warmed up to George just yet, while both Michael and Chelsea have accepted their new father figure for the most part (even if they still miss their deceased dad). Cathy and her new hubby decide to do a little house hunting, and of course, I think we all know how that goes, as we see them very soon after moving into their new home, enjoying the immense property which includes the main house, a shed, and the boat dock where George now parks his speed boat.
And almost immediately, we begin to see the affects of the Amityville residence on George in particular, he gets sick the very next day, and even their first night settling in, he already begins to feel cold all the time, and grows concerned with making sure the fire in the basement furnace is kept going. This leads to George’s obsession with chopping fire wood, and the more days they stay in their new place, the more the Lutz’s begin to realize that there is something deeply wrong with their new homestead. Oh, and the youngest Lutz also makes an imaginary friend who may not be so imaginary after all.
As mentioned, my biggest complaint with the original Amityville is that overall, it’s a rather mild horror experience that plays out much more confidently as a family drama than it does as a true scarefest. Maybe its because director Sandor Stern’s script for the 1979 version played it a bit more closely to its source material (Anson’s novel), but honestly, I’m okay with a movie “based on real events” taking a few liberties with its approach if it services the viewing experience (besides, if I wanted to watch a documentary, I’d do just that). And that’s precisely what Kosar does with his 2005 script.
Sure, Kosar sticks to the basics of the Amityville mythology, but he also peppers in some folklore in regards to John Ketcham, an elusive figure that’s been (sort of) linked to the days of witchcraft hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts, and tries to connect the dots between the two. Amityville (2005) uses the house of ill-fame as the backdrop to Ketcham’s alleged mistreatment of Native Americans to amplify the supernatural elements of his script. I don’t know if it’s wholly successful, but I think the inclusion of the Ketcham backstory left more of an impact on me as a movie-goer than just a singular red room (that was actually a closet), and frankly, I’m more accepting of a remake that takes some chances than one that doesn’t take any chances at all.
There are aspects of The Amityville Horror (2005) that are just downright nasty, but I think that’s what I appreciate about it. Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of the dog-killing scene (it almost makes George unredeemable as a character we should be sympathizing with), but the one moment that is easily one of my favorites from the remake is when George punishes his oldest stepson Billy by making him hold wood as Reynolds’ character chops it with his trusty ax.
The idea of a man whose mental state is questionable wielding an ax should be something of nightmares, and the original just never quite takes the idea as far as it could go. Amityville (2005) does though, and the tension that Douglas infuses into those moments still makes me squirm to this very day. Even if you’re not a fan of the remake, you cannot deny that watching Reynolds wildly swinging away with an ax just mere inches away from a frightened child isn’t a truly terrific moment of terror, probably even more effective than the film’s supernatural elements. I’d also like to point out that Douglas put Reynolds in a scene that the horror genre would typically put a woman in – the perilous bathtub attack – so mad respect to Amityville (2005) for subverting stereotypical gender expectations there too.
Oh, and speaking of spooky stuff, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention little Jodie (Isabel Conner), who portrays little Chelsea’s ghostly companion. I don’t completely love the bump of her freaking out at the end of Amityville (2005), just because it feels so mid-2000s, but it’s easy for me to overlook because of the scene where she terrorizes the babysitter (Rachel Nichols), tormenting her to the point where Jodie actually sticks the girl’s finger into the bullet hole in her forehead. Just delightfully wicked stuff that I still cackle at every single time I watch it (because I’m a terrible person, I know).
To be perfectly honest, when I saw The Amityville Horror (2005) in theaters on its opening weekend, I was bracing myself for the worst going into it. I kind of hated Melissa George (she was such a perfect villain on Alias that it carried over in my opinion of her pretty much for everything she would do after – but I guess that means she was doing something right, in retrospect), and while I was a big fan of Reynolds (and his washboard abs), I wasn’t sure how he’d fare in a role that was more than him just delivering funny quips and his trademark snark.
But George, Reynolds and Amityville (2005) all really surprised me, especially with some of the film’s more relentlessly tense moments (little Chloe on the rooftop? Melissa’s hair being caught in the propeller of the boat? Both of those moments still make me catch my breath any time I rewatch it), and I have to admit, I left the theater that first time wholly surprised, and since then, I’ve probably watched it least three dozen times.
I won’t ever try and tell someone who doesn’t like The Amityville Horror (2005) that they’re wrong (because art is subjective, and everyone’s opinions are their own), but I would implore anyone who ever wrote it off as a soulless remake to dig a little deeper with a rewatch, because you might just be surprised at how great of a modern horror movie it truly is.Next: Deadly Pleasures: FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII – THE NEW BLOOD (1988)