In the movies, it’s never a good idea to move into a place where you know a family slaughter has occurred. (Ask Jack Torrance.) And so you don’t miss that this giant Suffolk County residence here is dreadfully haunted, The Amityville Horror begins with a flashback sequence, detailing the murders. As thunder claps and lightning shatters the stillness, a young bearded man stalks through his home with a shotgun, blasting each sleeping family member with a chilling precision, even going so far as to cover the youngest with a sheet beforehand.
Grainy police video and gruff cop commentary aimed at nosy for tv reporters (“I’ve never seen anything like this”) complete this “updated” introduction to The Amityville Horror. Producer Michael Bay’s next step in his campaign to conquer ‘70s horror (see also: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Jessica Biel), the film is all about the beat—the brutality this time will be faster, darker, and infinitely nastier.
Lumbering into this bad situation comes construction contractor George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds), looking a little too much like the bearded fellow in the film’s prologue and so doomed to repeat his sad fate. George and his new wife Kathy (Melissa George) are so astounded that they’ve found this large, strangely affordable Long Island home, their dream home, that even when the real estate lady tells them what happened a year ago, they take it anyway. She has three kids—Billy (Jesse James), Michael (Jimmy Bennett), and Chelsea (Chloë Grace Moretz)—from a previous marriage (her husband is dead); he has a body left over from Blade 3 (that is, extremely buff and revealed in repeated shirtless moments). Together, they all move in with a flurry of smiles and super-8 home movies, one big happy family moving into “the perfect house.” Ba-dump.
Within days, the voices start groaning in the vents and the wind starts whooshing in the nearby trees. George starts looking a little peaked, and the kids notice that he’s growing grumpy. Claiming that the house is cold and the dog is irritating, George moves himself into the dreaded basement—where the previous inhabitant was inspired to pick up his shotgun—and cozies up to the wood furnace. Even mom, as dim as she seems to be, has to notice when the refrigerator magnets reshape themselves into the words, “Katch ‘em, kill ‘em.” Mom is only moved to action, however, when she and George come home from town (they’ve left 12-year-old Billy in charge) to find adorable little Chelsea teetering on the rooftop, claiming she was invited by her dead-girl friend, Jody (in veiny whiteface and ghoulish eye makeup). Though George makes a valiant effort to save her, it’s clear by now that there’s something “not right” about the house and that he’s affected more intensely than the rest of them.
As is the current fashion, the new film is certainly skritchier and more jaggedy than the original: the edits are speedier and the blood is splattier, especially in the form of George’s increasingly bloodshot eyes, repeatedly shot from below, they seem particularly menacing. The kids, especially Billy, get this, but can’t persuade Kathy to help him, this even as George is making the kid hold blocks of wood while he chops them or stack wood for hours on end. For the most part, George’s mood changes are more spastic than convincing (all he has to do is step off the property, and he’s back to his old amiable self, treating his wife to a restaurant dinner, wondering at how much healthier he feels now that he’s getting some “air”). Still, Reynolds brings welcome bleak comedy to the role (looking at Kathy weeping over her scared daughter, he can only scowl: “What’s wrong with you people!?”
Most tediously, Kathy’s seeming inability to act—even in defense of her children—prolongs the tension but weakens the effect. She leaves the kids repeatedly, either with an explicitly slutty babysitter, Lisa (Rachel Nichols), who teases Billy with scary stories about the boys who were killed in his bedroom, or with her plainly unhinged husband. Then again, she’s pretty much left on her own here, as the local priest from whom she seeks help, Father Callaway (Philip Baker Hall) is even less together than she is. After he visits the house and his exorcist-ish holy water sizzles on contact with any surface, he takes off, only explaining, “Your house frightens me.”
Soon (but not soon enough if you’re checking your watch), Kathy is left without the standard patriarchal resources - no husband, dog, or priest—and so at last, she has to figure out what to do on her own. That this sequence is the film’s most preposterous doesn’t exactly boost your faith in this reluctantly independent woman.