“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” – Percy Bysshe Shelley
That’s a line from a poem about the futility of ambition and the dashing of human arrogance on the anvil of time. No matter how great you think your achievements are, wait long enough and they’ll turn to forgotten ruins and dust. This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown reminded me of that. It pits one of the neglected classics of the horror genre against an utterly wretched reproduction that could almost be a primer for every crappy mainstream horror flick in the 21st century. It’s “The Amityville Horror” (1979) vs. “The Amityville Horror” (2005) in a battle between an era where you could make a really scary movie where no one dies and an era where the scary movies are so awful you’d like to kill the people who make them.
When I refer to “The Amityville Horror” as neglected, I don’t mean Hollywood hasn’t exploited the hell of it as intellectual property. There have actually been 18 frickin’ Amityville flicks with the latest limping out to theaters in 2017. But who remembers the original as one of the legitimate landmark films of not only its time but of its industry? It came out in 1979 and made, adjusted for inflation, the equivalent of $294,000,000 in 2018. That’s more money than “Justice League,” “The Fate of the Furious,” or “Despicable Me 3” made in 2017 and more than “Rocky 2,” “Alien,” or “Apocalypse Now” made in 1979. It made nearly twice as much as “Halloween” did when it came out in 1978.
And “The Amityville Horror” (1979) wasn’t merely a financial success. It’s also a pretty good movie judged by the standards of a time when most of the people who went to movies were grownups who expected films to be, you know, actually good and not just barely tolerable experiences they’ve been brainwashed into seeing by multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. Of course, it does share the common flaw of 1970s cinema in that its production values are so far below modern expectations it looks worse than most reality TV shows. And its pacing is going to feel rather lackadaisical to anyone who grew up with motion pictures that pummel viewers with visual and emotional stimuli until they are numb. But it remains a genuinely compelling story of an American couple tormented by the supernatural.
What's really horrifying is the electric bill from never turning off those lights in the attic.
Both the original and the remake follow the same basic plot. A somewhat newly married couple, George and Kathy Lutz, buy a house in Amityville, New York one year after the family who lived there were massacred in their sleep. Things seem fine at first but an escalating series of ghostly or demonic incidents eventually drive them to flee the home and never return. Seems simple, right? Well, the original demonstrates how even the most elementary idea can be given some depth and structure with a little honest effort. The remake proves there is no concept so straightforward someone in Hollywood can’t make a complete hash of it.
This plot has an obvious problem if you think about it. How do you make the movie scary but not so scary that the family should reasonably leave the house before the film is halfway over? The story has to build to a horrific moment that pushes the Lutz’s to flee for their lives and their sanity but everything before that has to be significantly less frightening or the characters look like morons for sticking around long after the audience is yelling at the screen for them to run away.
“The Amityville Horror” (1979) came up with a genuinely clever solution to that dilemma. While George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin and Margot Kidder) start out with relatively minor incidents of the strange and unexplained, the film introduces a priest (Rod Steiger) who immediately gets the full force of the house’s satanic presence but is kept separate from the Lutz’s by some perfectly acceptable plot mechanics. This bifurcation allows the film to both immediately grab the viewer by the throat and slowly ratchet up the tension to an explosive climax. We get a preview from the priest of how bad things are going to get and that imbues every minor thing that happens to George or Kathy with extra dollop of anticipation.
Yes, that is Satan in your pajama bottoms.
Another standout moment in the original, even all these decades later, is a demonstration of how important actors can and should be to motion pictures. Though “Star Wars” (1977) probably marks the dawn of the modern age of special effects, no one was really using them for horror yet and I’m not sure anyone even knew how to use them for the horror genre at that time. So when “The Amityville Horror” (1979) has a big scene of the discovery a secret room in the house that’s supposed to be some kind of portal to Hell, there are no CGI wonders that can flash on the screen. James Brolin and Helen Shaver, playing a friend of the Lutz’s, have to sell the terror of that discovery with nothing more than the expression on their faces…and they both hit a grand slam of thespian brilliance. The look of overwhelming fear they project through the screen is more powerful than any prop, camera trick, or computer image will ever be.
Now, “The Amityville Horror” (1979) does have a subplot with a cop that goes absolutely nowhere and the ending where George Lutz going back to the house to save the family dog may not have been that corny then but seems more than a little goofy today. A solid script, superb direction from Stuart Rosenberg, and Margot Kidder at perhaps her peak sexiness more than make up for that.
"For God's sake, shoot me before I do "Green Lantern"!!!!!!
I’m not sure anything can make up for “The Amityville Horror” (2005), not even Ryan Reynolds going on to make “Deadpool” (2016). The best thing you can say about it is there have been worse horror flicks but few of them check off as many bad movie boxes as this one does.
1. Blast the audience with complex imagery to try and trick them into thinking the story is way more interesting than it truly is? Check!
2. Not understanding its own story? Check! The 2005 version recreates a scene from the original that was a shocking reveal to the audience in 1979. The 2005 scene is not only as unshocking and unrevealing as possible, it literally serves no purpose. There’s no alternative meaning or new spin put on the scene. They totally missed the point of the original scene and just reproduced it to pad out the remake’s run time.
3. Trying to plan for a franchise rather than making a good movie? Check! The 2005 film pathetically tries to create its own horror villain, like Jason from Friday the 13th or Freddy Kruger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films. It comes out of nowhere, has nothing to do with the original, and doesn’t even factor into the story in any meaningful way. Somebody in the “creative” process just insisted the movie have some kind of hook that could be used for a sequel and they came up with this evil Puritan dude.
4. Have no clue how human beings actually feel about things? Check! The remake attempts to make the audience sympathize with a little girl ghost. We’re supposed to feel sorry for her and even worry about her being menaced by eviler spirits. Except the remake also has a scene where the little girl ghost tries to kill a living girl so she can have a playmate in the afterlife. Yes, because nothing screams sympathetic like selfishly murdering children.
5. Not understanding its own story again? Check! In 1979, the evil force in the house attempted to drive George Lutz into violent madness. In 2005, the movie can never decide if George is being driven crazy or if he’s actually possessed by an evil spirit. Those are two different things that change what the story means and how the audience will react to the character of George.
6. Using jump scares without the foggiest notion of how jump scares should be used? Check! Jump scares work because they provoke the startle reaction in normal human beings. It’s an instinctive response that works every time…the first time it’s triggered. The more you use jump scares, however, the less effective they become until the only emotions they provoke are boredom and disgust. “The Amityville Horror” (2005) is only 94 minutes long and there’s a good hour of that where it isn’t the least bit frightening because they burn through so many jump scares so quickly that nothing the movie does after that can get any reaction.
7. Actors who don’t look anything like normal people? Check! Ryan Reynolds walks through the remake with his shirt off and a chiseled physique that NO ONE in the 1970s had. Professional athletes in the 1970s, which is when the remake is set, didn’t have bodies that look have as good as Reynolds’. It’s almost as bad as Pablo in season three of “Ash vs. Evil Dead” where he’s supposed to be Ash’s comedic sidekick but from the neck down looks like he should be starring in an action movie.
8. Putting characters in jeopardy when the audience doesn’t give a damn if they live or die? Check! In both films, a teenage babysitter gets trapped in a closet and terrorized by the supernatural. In the original, she’s an ordinary girl trying to do the right thing and winds up in an awful situation. In the remake, she’s a borderline sexual predator who is wildly irresponsible and was mean to the little girl ghost when she was alive. Why in the world should the viewer care what happens to this awful person?
9. Nothing exists outside of what’s happening on the screen? Check! The original has a minor subplot where George’s growing insanity is hurting his business and his main assistant tries to get him to snap out of it. By presenting some real world consequences of George’s behavior, it help the audience suspend their disbelief and buy into the reality happening on screen. The only thing even close to that in the remake is when Kathy’s kids learn about the family that was massacred in the house and are creeped out, but that is utterly ignored the instant that scene is over. “The Amityville Horror” (2005) never pretends for a second that it is something more than a cobbled together effort to separate the moviegoing public from their money.
10. Did I mention the jump scares?
Seriously, NO ONE looked like this in the 70s.
“The Amityville Horror” (1979) takes this Throwdown and serves as a reminder to any pretentious filmmaker that no matter how great they may think their work is, if it’s actually any good at all it will become a tired cliché repeated endlessly by the talentless hacks of the future until no one can recall why it was ever effective in the first place. Being interviewed on TV by Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t quite make up for that, does it?
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Written by Sandor Stern…who sounds like a minor Superman villain from the 1950s.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, Natasha Ryan, K.C. Martel, Meeno Peluce, Michael Sacks, Helen Shaver, Amy Wright, John Larch, Val Avery, and Irene Dailey.
The Amityville Horror (2005)
Written by Scott Kosar.
Directed by Andrew Douglas.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Jesse James, Jimmy Bennett, Chloe Grace Moretz, Rachel Nichols, Phillip Baker Hall, and Annabel Armour.