Review: The Amityville Horror (dir. Andrew Douglas, 2005)

For a Christian film critic like me, one of the more interesting things about the recent glut of horror sequels and remakes is the opportunity it has given me to go back and look at the classic thrillers that I avoided at all costs in my younger days. When I was a child, I was reluctant to expose myself to any supernatural story that didn’t have the clear imprimatur of some evangelical author or other, and by the time I became a man and put away childish things, many of the films made during my youth had faded into video-store oblivion. So the best thing I can say about Andrew Douglas’s remake of The Amityville Horror is that it gave me a reason to track down the original film, which I remember hearing about when I was still in grade school, and which, to my surprise, has a fair bit of Christian content.

In that 1979 original, based on a book by Jay Anson and directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), it is made very clear that George and Kathy Lutz are a Catholic couple, who count a nun among their relatives and ask a priest to bless their home as a matter of course. When the priest is driven out of the house by some sort of evil presence, he begs his ecclesiastical superiors to let him seek help for the family, but the church bureaucracy is skeptical of his claims and turns him down. In some ways, the film harks back to The Exorcist, but where that slightly earlier movie was content to express the conflict between skeptical modernity and spiritual pre-modernity suggestively, through its use of sounds and images and character arcs, The Amityville Horror spells things out more bluntly, as the characters use words like “modernist” and “rationalist” in their conversations.

Still, even a blatantly obvious discussion of the relationship between faith and doubt can be better than no discussion at all, and alas, the faith elements are all but missing from the Amityville remake. Written by Scott Kosar, whose earlier credits include the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and directed by Andrew Douglas, whose only previous film is the alt-country documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, the new movie is completely uninterested in offering or exploring any sort of subtext to the events that transpire at the Amityville house. Instead, it offers little more than a stylish exercise in cinematic shock and awe, full of lightning storms and ghosts popping up in mirrors and windows, and lacking anything that might stick with you once the ride is over.

The film insists it is based on a true story, and the opening scenes use just enough real-life news and crime-scene footage to make that claim stick. In 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered the other six members of his family, most of whom were in their sleep, and the opening re-enactment of this crime is followed by actual clips of the detectives who investigated the case. The film then picks up one year later, when George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) and his wife Kathy (Melissa George) buy the former DeFeo house; while other buyers have steered clear of the building, the Lutzes figure they should take advantage of its low, low price. After all, houses don’t kill people, people kill people, right?

However, spooky things begin to happen almost as soon as the family moves in. George finds the temperature too cold, and spends hours chopping firewood, his behavior becoming more and more obsessive with every swing of his axe. The first time George and Kathy have sex in their new bedroom, George suddenly sees a girl hanging from a noose at the foot of the bed — which is odd, since the DeFeos were shot, not hanged. Shadowy figures zip through rooms when people aren’t looking. Fridge-magnet letters spell scary messages all by themselves. And sweet young Chelsea (Chloe Moretz) begins to pass on messages from her new “imaginary friend” Jodie (Isabel Conner) — and it doesn’t seem to faze her at all that Jodie has deathly-pale skin and a bullet hole through her head.

The film’s co-stars are a pretty sexy couple, and comedian Reynolds in particular seems to have no trouble flaunting the muscles he built up for his vampire-hunting role in Blade: Trinity. Perhaps no episode captures the new film’s emphasis on cheesy humor, perfectly toned bodies and grotesque special effects like the one involving the babysitter Lisa (Rachel Nichols). When she shows up, she’s dressed in clothes so tight and skimpy you’d think she was going out on the hottest of dates, instead of looking after the kids so that Mr. and Mrs. Lutz can spend an evening together. George takes this in his stride and asks his step-son Billy (Jesse James), who has been protesting that he’s too old for a babysitter, if he really doesn’t want to be alone with this bombshell after all. And when Lisa is trapped inside Chelsea’s closet, Jodie shows up and sticks Lisa’s finger right inside the hole in her forehead.

Nearly an hour of this sort of thing goes by before Kathy finally turns to a priest for help, and when Father Callaway (Philip Baker Hall) does show up at the Lutz residence — not to perform a routine blessing, this time, but to perform an exorcism — he is scared away pretty quickly and more or less abandons the family without trying to contact them or to solicit the help of his fellow clergy. And so they are forced to struggle with ever more brutal events — the death of a dog, the discovery of centuries-old torture chambers under the building, and so on — and we are compelled to endure these trials with them. Those who want nothing more than a thrill ride might get a kick or two out of this film, but the rest of us might prefer to hold out for something a little more thoughtful and interesting.

1.5 stars (out of 4)

Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. When Ronald DeFeo Jr. is about to kill his family, we see a book titled, Evil Is Proof of God. Do you agree? Why or why not? Is it possible for goodness to exist without God? Is it possible for evil to exist without goodness? Why does God allow evil to exist?

2. Billy says prayer does no good, because he asked God to keep his father alive and his father died anyway. How would you respond to Billy? How do you think this film shows prayer? What about the priest’s efforts to bless or exorcise the house?

3. If a child said her “imaginary friend” was real because she had seen her, how would you respond? How does Chelsea’s insistence that “I’ve seen her” compare to, say, Lucy’s insistence in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that she has been to a fantastic country? How do you think the Professor in that story would apply his “logic” to Chelsea?

4. What is the relationship between faith and skepticism? How readily should we agree to anyone’s assertion that events like the ones behind this film really happened? Are we more inclined to believe positive stories than negative ones? Should we be?

5. What would you do if you lived in a house where strange things like these seemed to happen? Do you believe the house could be “cured”? Do you think you would have to abandon it? What other sorts of situations should we be prepared to flee from, and why?

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

The Amityville Horror is rated R for violence, disturbing images, language, brief sexuality and drug use. The film is full of gruesome and shocking images, including bodies hung from hooks, showers of blood, and the ghosts of various corpses. The film’s one sex scene involves a married couple, and in one scene, a babysitter asks a boy if he knows how to French kiss.

— A version of this review was first published on the Christianity Today Movies website.

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