Archive for Thursday, April 14, 2005

Amityville’ lacks a solid foundation

(R) *1/2

April 14, 2005

Never trust a real estate agent who says a potential property has a "vibrant history."

At 112 Ocean Ave. in the Amityville neighborhood of Long Island, N.Y., that description means a family was recently murdered there. Not to mention the fact it was built on the mass grave of tortured natives ... blah, blah, blecch.

This remake of the 1979 horror dud -- itself an adaptation of Jay Anson's best-selling novel -- is supposedly "based on a true story," but it's really just a generic template for another modern haunted-house movie. In this case, "modern" is defined by loads of CGI effects, rapid edits and gruesome images.

If the supernatural events really happened to the Lutz family as portrayed in this picture, then they must have had the crew of Industrial Light & Magic living in their basement.

Ryan Reynolds ("National Lampoon's Van Wilder") and Melissa George ("Sugar & Spice") portray George and Kathy Lutz, who purchase a spacious Dutch Colonial at a bargain price. Stepdad George is having a hard time connecting with Kathy's three kids -- a situation exacerbated when he starts suffering hallucinations that make him increasingly detached.

Soon he begins spending a tad too much time in their creepy basement and WAY too much time sharpening his ax.

When the family learns the truth about their home's colorful history, George dismisses the connection.

"Houses don't kill people; people kill people," he says.

But after youngest daughter Chelsea's (Chloe Moretz) "imaginary friend" gets chatty, the walls start bleeding and unnatural swarms of flies attack, it's clear the Lutz's might want to think about putting up a "For Sale By Owner" sign.

Although set in the mid-1970s -- only apparent by randomly placed items like a Lite-Brite and Creem magazine -- the movie doesn't try very hard to remake the first film. Nor does it pay much attention to the "facts" of the book. "The Amityville Horror" is content to supercharge the cruelty and queasiness of the source material, and its very slickness is emblematic of what's wrong with most Hollywood horror flicks.

Like recent updates of "House On Haunted Hill," "Thirteen Ghosts" or "The Haunting," this latest creep show is too literal to be scary. There's no way for rookie filmmaker Andrew Douglas to ratchet up the tension when every frightening element is rendered in vivid, gory detail.

You don't just hear a noise in the furnace vent, you see what's making the sound. You don't just sense there's something moving in the bathtub with you, you're practically strangled by arms grabbing from beneath the water.

One scene best exemplifies this approach. In the 1979 picture, a junior high-age baby sitter gets locked in a closet. It culminates with the closet light going out and her screaming uncontrollably. Subtle. Effective.

In the new version, the baby sitter is now a sex bomb (played by 25-year-old former Guess? model Rachel Nichols). She also becomes trapped in the closet, only here she comes face to face with the walking corpse of a murdered girl. The bloody ghoul then seizes the baby sitter's hand and shoves a finger into the bullet wound that originally killed her.

It's too garish to be scary. Isn't what MIGHT be in the closet more terrifying than what IS?

What a shame, because up until this point the scene with the baby sitter is actually rather interesting. She comes over, flirts a bit with the oldest Lutz kid (Jesse James), gets stoned, then starts speaking a little too freely about things that none of the kids know about. Like how hard it must be sleeping in a bedroom "where two boys your age were murdered!"

It's a borderline great sequence -- funny, weird, uncomfortable and well-acted -- until that zombie girl shows up and ruins it.

In fact, most of the actors are pretty convincing. Reynolds in particular shows some easygoing charisma in his early family scenes. But whatever realism the cast members infuse into the story is undercut by the constant need to fill the screen with ghostly money shots.

These aren't things that go bump in the night ... unless "bump" means knocking you over the head with a sledgehammer.

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