[27 October 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
When I heard the details and I finally knew the whole story, it just finally helped me to understand that big huge puzzle, of how evil does personify itself.
—Lorraine Warren, Interpreter for the Dead, Supernatural Homicide
“Based on a true story,” notes Amityville Horror producer Brad Fuller as the so-designating title rolls. “Already controversial.” That is, some debate remains as to the “powers” of the Suffolk County house where Butch DeFeo murdered six family members on 13 November 1974, leaving them face down in their beds, hands above their heads. The house became infamous a year later when George Lutz moved in and claimed the house urged him to kill his brood. While the case is probably most notorious now for the Eddie Murphy joke about it (black folks would never have moved into a house where voices warned them to “get out!), it has also inspired some movies, the last a Jerry Bruckheimer project starring a bearded Ryan Reynolds as George.
The DVD jumps right into this “controversy, with Supernatural Homicide, a documentary on the real life case (interviewees include Suffolk County Deputy ME Howard Adelman, Interpreter for the Dead Lorraine Warren, and former Amityville Chief of Police Ken Grekuski, in a “God Bless America” t-shirt). Featuring swooshy music and images from the crime scene, the doc generally supports the ooky inclinations of Andrew Douglas’ movie: the house was bad, George was prey, and his family was really scared.
Commentators Reynolds, Fuller, and another producer, Andrew Form (the last two worked on Bruckheimer’s remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well) are less inclined in this way. Instead, they take up where a second, making-of documentary leaves off, attending more to their own concoctions (Which are, frankly, more innovative piece by piece than the movie as a whole). They note the creepy “realism” of the opening sequence showing Butch’s methodical massacre (thunder claps, shotgun blasts), set-up scenes establishing construction contractor George’s sweetness with his wife Kathy (Melissa George), and jokey devotion to his kids (“I love the way you said ‘We’ll sell one of the kids,’” Fuller tells Reynolds, “Another great improve thing that you did there”).
The Lutzes are wary for a minute 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. Kathy has three kids—Billy (Jesse James), Michael (Jimmy Bennett), and Chelsea (Chloë Grace Moretz)—from a previous marriage (her husband is dead), and George seems typically fond of them. Together, they move in with a flurry of smiles and super-8 home movies (which, Reynolds informs us, he shot, and thinks he should have had a cinematography credit), one big happy family moving into “the perfect house.”
Their brief joy is underlined by a blue-lit love scene on their first night, for which Reynolds offers “the folks at home” a description of “what it’s like to do a love scene”: “It’s the worst. And I mean it. There is nothing titillating about it, there is nothing exciting about it. There are 80 people standing in that room with you and it is nothing short of embarrassing.” Poor Fuller adds, “Well, Melissa was great in this scene, and… honestly, you guys had a chemistry.” At which point we notice the dead girl hanging from the ceiling in the background and Reynolds quips, “Yes, I always make sure I have the undead in my room during my lovemaking!”
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 skritchier than the original: the edits are speedier and the blood is splattier, especially in 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 amiable self, treating his wife to a restaurant dinner, wondering at how much healthier he feels now that he’s getting some “air.”
When George yells at his boys (and the scene cuts to the youngest in blubbery tears), Fuller notes, “Yes, Ryan’s gone to the dark side now.” Reynolds adds, “It’s so difficult yelling at kids.” Or again, when the camera locks down on “Ryan chopping wood” (“He was awesome at that,” says Fuller), Reynolds says, “It was therapy… Sometimes it hurt… I have that axe, still, by the way.” Reynolds brings welcome bleak comedy to the role as well as to he DVD track (looking at Kathy weeping over her scared daughter, he can only scowl: “What’s wrong with you people!?”
Tediously, Kathy’s seeming inability to act—even in defense of her children—prolongs the tension but weakens the effect. What is she thinking? 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.”
Following one especially gruesome scene that leaves George barking, breathless, and bloody in the shower, he heads to the doctor for a checkup. Watching, Fuller and Form again praise Reynolds’ performance, noting how convincing he is in conveying the character’s abject fear. Though he is, in fact, “fine” when he’s away from the house, George is, as Fuller says, “Not a fully realized guy,” quite unable to take the physician’s advice that he see a shrink. “No!” agrees Reynolds. “He’s not looking to get actualized just yet.”