[Screen It]

(2005) (Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George) (R)

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Horror: After moving into a house where a man killed his entire family and blamed it on voices there that ordered him to do it, a family must deal with various supernatural occurrences as well as the father slowly becoming deranged and ever more dangerous.
George (RYAN REYNOLDS) and Kathy Lutz (MELISSA GEORGE) have always dreamed of owning a big house. Currently residing in a small apartment with her three kids -- 12-year-old Billy (JESSE JAMES) and his younger siblings Michael (JIMMY BENNETT) and Chelsea (CHLOE GRACE MORETZ) -- they're cramped for space and a huge fixer-upper they've found seems like a steal. The only catch is that the year before, a deranged man -- allegedly driven crazy by voices in the house -- murdered his entire family there.

With George, a contractor, stating that houses don't kill people, but other people do, the couple buy and move into the place, but don't tell their about its sordid past. It's not long, however, before all sorts of odd things begin occurring, including young Isabel interacting with Jodie (ISABEL CONNER), the young ghost of one of the past murder victims. And George -- who's drawn to the house's unfinished basement -- becomes increasingly irritated, especially toward his step-kids and their pet dog.

As things become more intense and the supernatural occurrences start increasing -- including toward a babysitter, Lisa (RACHEL NICHOLS), who informs the kids about the previous murders -- Kathy eventually goes to the local church in search of help. Yet, upon visiting the house, Father Callaway (PHILIP BAKER HALL) gets an unwelcome reception and flees, never to return. From that point on, and with George progressively becoming more deranged and dangerous, Kathy must decide what to do to protect herself and her family from their haunted house.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Several years back, when buying a preexisting home, I was amazed that while the sellers and their agent had to list any known defects or problems with their property, they didn't have to disclose if anyone died or was murdered there, or (if you believe in such things) that it was reportedly haunted. Thankfully, none of that applied in our case.

Filmmakers and their releasing studios don't always disclose everything about their product, but when you move into a movie house -- albeit only for a few hours -- you usually pretty much know what you're getting yourself into. That's particularly true if the cinematic property is a horror film, and such is the case with "The Amityville Horror."

Based on the "true events" that went on to spawn a book and subsequent movie that starred James Brolin and Margot Kidder, this remake of the 1979 film stems from the story of the Lutz family moving into a house where a man previously shot his entire family to death. After 28 days, they moved out, abandoning all of their belongings, citing an evil, supernatural force made them do so - the same argument, they'd say coincidentally, that the original killer's defense team brilliantly concocted.

I won't go into the debate about whether what happened to the family was true or just a tactic to grab as much fame and moola as possible, since that's not what this film is about. Instead, we're going to explore whether the film works for what it's intended to be, a money-making, cinematic scare machine.

I only recall bits and pieces of the first film -- which wasn't remotely as spooky as the book -- and I'm betting the filmmakers are hoping the same for most everyone else. It's not that the original was a classic like "The Exorcist," but any live comparisons usually just remove the viewer from the proceedings.

Instead, the same people who brought us the recent remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" are probably banking on the earlier version's name and legendary status to draw in the viewers. Considering the current horror film friendly viewing market, it's a safe guess that this film will make lots of money. Yet, how does it stack up as a standalone horror flick?

For a while it's not half bad, notwithstanding any such comparisons to the first film that was a decidedly more sluggish and low-key affair than what's offered here. The pace is quick, the scares are frequent and, as a newspaper article recently touted, it will likely succeed in getting many a girl to jump in many a guy's arms for protection (the article stating that's the reason such films exist). Ah, kids nowadays, they wouldn't know a good scary film if it sneaked up from behind and grabbed them.

As in most current horror flicks (and many an older one), the ghosts are vindictive leftovers from previous human evil (murder, in this case) and are presented as visualizations of the victims post-mortem by a few hours. Thus, the wounds are still there, the skin is discolored, veins are present and the eyes are sunken.

When we first saw this sort of representation years ago, it was effectively creepy and spooky. Now, it's so much of a rote expectation that the effect isn't as shocking or scary as it once was. Nor are the various jump scenes where figures pass by, suddenly appear behind the living, or when hands grab people in the bathtub.

Notwithstanding the regurgitation of said material, first-time feature director Andrew Douglas (a TV commercial and music video veteran) -- who works from Scott Kosar's ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Machinist") adaptation of the source novel and original screenplay -- keeps things decently creepy. That is, at least for a while -- when not eliciting the sort of "Oh, that's gross" laughs that come from, oh I don't know, moments such as a dead ghost girl takes a living person's finger and sinking it deep inside the wet gunshot wound in her forehead.

The rest of the terror is supposed to stem from the husband's descent into supernaturally-based madness, mirroring what presumably happened to the last susceptible occupant of the haunted house. Unfortunately, about the only scary thing here is that rather than James Brolin (who was -- purposefully or not -- acting like a stiff the first time around) or better yet, Jack "The Shining" Nicholson, we have Van Wilder himself, Ryan Reynolds ("Blade: Trinity," "The In-Laws") playing the part. Then again, he must have sold his soul to you know who to attain such a cut and chiseled body that he puts on display here several times (shirtless, despite otherwise always complaining about being cold).

Reynolds is actually okay in the part (at least as far as playing a buff, angry/deranged dude), but his mad turn is too abrupt and without enough substance. With all of their focus apparently on trying to cook up ever more scares, the filmmakers have abandoned his and the others' characters in terms of depth or believability. The result is a ghost of a horror film. While it looks scary, one can see right through it and realize there's simply nothing inside.

The best horror flicks are ones that 1) make viewers utilize their imagination to fill in the spooky blanks rather than show us everything and 2) make the characters real people who we come to like, care and then worry about. This one ultimately fails on both counts. Little if anything is left for the viewer's mind and the characters are simply cogs in the great big scare machine.

The film also flunks the Eddie Murphy test about such matters. In a standup comedy routine from long ago, he made a joke about the silly white people who stay inside a house despite the ominous "get out" warning (that obviously isn't a new doorbell "ring-tone" to chase away solicitors). Not only does the family all too willingly and quickly buy the house with the murderous past, but they also stick around when things turn spooky.

At one point, the mother -- embodied by the very young looking Melissa George ("Down With Love," "Sugar and Spice") playing the parent of a 12-year-old (which means she must have been the same age when she gave birth to him) -- leaves the kids in the house (that she realizes is trouble) with their father who she knows has gone way off the deep end. Couldn't (and wouldn't) she have taken them to the library with her? (The film is set in the mid '70s so no Internet searches or cell phone calls are allowed)

Speaking of '70s material, Philip Baker Hall ("In Good Company," "Magnolia") briefly appears as the priest who visits the house but gets a rude, fly-based welcome. Unfortunately, no glowing pig eyes are present this time.

The role is greatly reduced from the original film that wanted to play up the religious side of the story in the post "Exorcist" cinematic world. A number of kids appear as both the living and dead, but they're pretty much interchangeable with the same from any recent horror flick.

If you want to see an excellent take on a husband-father unraveling in a haunted house (or motel as it were), check out "The Shining," while a hankering for something scary related to "Amity" means you should watch "Jaws" again.

Both films put real people into spooky, scary and/or dangerous situations with far more engaging, unnerving and suspenseful results than anything offered by this remake that starts out okay, but quickly falls apart like a pending house sale after the disclosure that termites have left nothing but a wobbly shell. "The Amityville Horror" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 12, 2005 / Posted April 15, 2005

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