Friday, April 15, 2005

The Amityville Horror - Genre conventions overtake originality

Last night, I found myself yet again at another Thursday midnight screening at the Arclight Cinerama Dome. This time, it was for opening night of The Amityville Horror remake. I have to say I went in with fairly low expectations. The last two horror films that I was excited for (The Grudge and The Ring 2) were each disappointing in their own right. In fact the Ring 2 wasn’t even scary, so I was expecting a boring, trite, unexciting ride.

To my pleasant surprise TAH exceeded these expectations, but didn’t blow them away. Conceptually, the story of this movie is very simple. It centers around the Lutz’s, a young family looking to buy their first home, who unwittingly move into a house with a horrific history. A history which involved a man had going insane and taking a shotgun in the middle of the night and using it to kill all of his family members. When the movie says “based on a true story” at the beginning credits, this is the portion which is actually true: there was a terrible multiple homicide in a home in Amityville, Long Island in the mid 70’s. The rest of it is all fabricated, in fact the original family (as portrayed by the Lutz’s) wrote a book in the 70’s about their so called paranormal experiences in Amityville were proven to be hoaxers. The family was called out for having taken money to lie, claiming that they had been terrorized by the house, and caused to flee after only 28 days of residing there. In both the original and the remake, the father figure in the family that has just moved in, begins to go insane, just as the father was before he slew his family.

This being said, I thought the screenplay was alright. There was some ironic humor peppered throughout, and I thought the writer tried to give the characters some back story so could have an emotional anchor for their characters.

The remake had some noticeable distinctions from the original film, some more intriguing than others. In this adaptation, the writer instilled an edge into the family dynamic; Kathy, the wife portrayed by Melissa George, has recently married George, who is played by Ryan Reynolds. But the three children in the family are actually from Kathy’s previous marriage with her first husband, who had since passed away. The stepfather element adds an interesting tension into the story, even before anything supernatural has gone down. Early in the film, the seed of George’s alienation from the nucleus of the family is planted, as he overhears his wife whisper to his step children that he will never replace their father. I thought this was a clever way of foreshadowing the fact that he will soon be replaced by an alien presence that presides in this house. The passing of the children’s biological father also gives them a reason to act out, and serves as a psychological foil for the disintegration of their family brought on by the supernatural evil force.

Overall I thought the acting were good. The actors were concerned with delivering emotionally true performances, and made a visible effort to flesh out their characters. Ryan Reynolds gave an almost endearing performance as the portrait of a husband gone mad, and Melissa George was able to juggle looking pretty, while not going too over the top in her more emotional scenes with her children. The kids were all solid, and I found myself surprisingly amused by a cameo done by Rachel Nicols. Nicols plays the seductive pot head babysitter, who reveals a little too much (in more ways than one) and gets her just desserts in the attic. Some people who I went with found her sequence to be ridiculous, but I thought it was hysterical.

What I did find a bit ridiculous was how young the casting was skewed in this movie. Melissa George who played the lead role of Kathy, was meant to be a mother of three, her oldest son being twelve years old. However Melissa is 28 years old, and the actor who played her son, Jesse James, is actually 16! She could have easily played his older teen sister, instead of his mother. Reynolds is 29, and also looked a little young for the role, a man who supposedly owned his own construction business and remarried to a woman with three kids. James Brolin, who played this role in the original film was 39, and Margot Kidder who played Melissa George’s role in the original was in her early 30’s. I realize the producers (Michael Bay, yes you) were trying to bring in the kids with this one, but there were definitely moments, when it just looked like a bunch of young’ns playing house. There was not enough separation between adult and child, nothing exemplifies this more than their casting for the “teen” babysitter. Rachel Nicols is 25, only three years younger than Melissa George who plays the mother.

There were definitely some scares in this movie, and I thought there was a bit of a slow burn in the first half of the movie that helped build up the tension and suspense of what was to come. I won’t give out specifics about some of the popcorn tossing moments, but I definitely screamed out loud more than once.

For me, the biggest problem with this movie, became how much it stuck to genre conventions. I mean how many times can I see a haunted house movie? Granted Amityville was always going to fall into this trap, because it is a remake of THE haunted house movie. But still, its getting to the point where I can barely become engaged, because I just know everything that’s going to happen. Doors will close, and strange noises will abound, and then the characters will discover that they are living above an old ancient burial ground or some such. One of the only possessed house movies that I think still stands alone is original Poltergeist, produced and ghost directed by Spielberg (who else). Poltergeist is a brilliant ghost story because it not only provides a colorful array of characters, but it tells a fully developed story with twists and turns and plot development. Amityville has very little plot, as do many horror movies these days. Bad house, house bad to people, people die and/or leave. The end. In the original horror movie, there is little explanation of just why this house is so evil, the house just happens to be a gateway to hell, end of story. In this version of the story, the writer tries to tack on some sort of mystery, but it feels forced and unfulfilling, almost as if they tacked on the whole thing with reshoots and ADR. I won’t spoil the fun of what this “mystery” is, but it doesn’t compensate for the lack of originality in exercising the tropes of the genre.

There are people who might think I’m asking to much out of Amityville, or even a horror movie in general. I was entertained, I screamed, I winced, I laughed. What more should I ask for? It’s only a horror movie.
Yes, it is only a horror movie, but when horror is done remarkably well, it can be a revelation. Think of the greats: The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist, The Birds, The Sixth Sense. They all bring to life our biggest fears, and force us to confront them if only for two hours at a time.

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