I was flipping through channels the other day and I came across the original AMITYVILLE HORROR, precisely the scene where a nauseated nun, having just fled 112 Ocean Avenue, pulls her car to the side of the road, opens the door and heartily vomits. Naturally I was trapped watching the rest of the film to its conclusion, even while that meant suffering through commercial breaks brazenly more nightmarish than the movie itself. Truth is, the 1979 cinematic depiction of the alleged haunting will always be slightly lackluster compared to my pungent memories of lying on a shag carpet and braving the book. I do adore the actors involved (KIDDER & BROLIN) but not how the astonishing events in the film unfold as if they were routine chores. Time is kind to movies from the seventies though, and now I find even the static scenes hold fragments of my youth I had forgotten. Am I imagining the strange depressive drabness that hangs over the film or am I mixing the movie up with my own recollections of the time period in which it was shot? Yikes, how familiar is that puke green wallpaper?
Later that night I decided I needed to see the 2005 remake again. Once upon a time, the gritty preview trailers had convinced me that it would right the wrongs of the first attempt but I was newly left somewhat entertained yet duly disappointed. Again I appreciated the company (RYAN REYNOLDS has some convincing bite, MELISSA GEORGE is heartbreaking and aw look it’s lil’ CHLOE GRACE MORETZ!) but in this take, things are so off the charts fantastical and excessive in places that it hangs toward spook show burlesque. There appears to be phantom hands flying out of every corner and who needs CGI flies? Oh, and don’t get me started on turning Jodi the pig into a then-trendy ghost girl, it’s blasphemy. Not that the super-slick version doesn’t have its strong suites, the revamped house is impressively intimidating and the Indian head television test pattern routine is semi-genius. (Plus I’m bestowing it the award for “Best Use of a Roof in a Horror Film Since HALLOWEEN 4!”) I’ve got a hunch there’s a superior film hiding under the heaps of tension dissolving subterfuge. If I could just grab some scissors and lop off every annoying chic-edit and brown-nosing jump scare I’m sure I could find it.
One shot I wouldn’t touch comes near the end when for a millisecond an unidentified figure is shown through the front door crossing the lawn. It’s subtle and bewildering and it’s a welcome respite from all the wanton showboating. I’d share a screenshot, but it’s so vague that it’s impossible to capture. I tried.
Who needs words though? All you have to do to fully understand the differences in approach of the two AMITYVILLE flicks is check out a side to side comparison of the way the hapless babysitter who gets locked in the closet is presented… nuff’ said.
If you’re keeping score that’s two movies based on the same story and I’d say both are passable and neither are as good as they could be. (PART II: THE POSSESSION remains the best in the series and that’s because it’s not afraid to lose its mind.) So my question is, why do I remain so infatuated? Why do I keep returning to this same address when I know I’m never fully satisfied with what I find there? As an adult, I don’t even buy that the place was truly haunted anymore so why don’t I move on? So much of my original gullibility was chained to my need to believe that part of religions function was to dispose of evil but now that I essentially believe the opposite is true, most of the tale turns to dust. I can now distinguish the difference between windows and evil eyes so why does that house keep staring at me!!!
Then it hit me, much like the foolish HEIDI KLUM, I had been battling my damaged hair from the WRONG END! Religion needed to take a hike, what role did it play in the drama besides as a failed remedy? No seriously, religion, “GET OUT!” as usual, ya just muddy the waters! Also, all you ghosts? Disappear. If you’re not going to actually do anything that can be recorded, vamoose! Now we’re the heart of the house and I get it now. Do you know what’s scarier than hearing bossy voices, getting welts on your hands, finding strange cubbyholes and suffering swarms of houseflies? I do! I know something scarier! How about having a trusted member of your family grab a shotgun and blow the brains out of you and the rest of your family while you sleep? The flies, the ghost swine, the Devil & God are idle bystanders; the horror of Amityville is the horror of domestic violence.
In DANSE MACABRE, STEPHEN KING cites “economic unease” as a timely factor responsible for the tales’ popularity and while that’s probably true, I’d blame at least some of its staying power on a demon similar to the one that steered his THE SHINING. Children relate to the fear that their parents might change faces and crush them and parents squirm at the thought that they could snap and clobber their offspring. No such events occur in either Amityville telling, but the threat that the family’s paternal anchor could repeat the original slaughter (whether via possession or not – who cares when you’re dead?) stalks every hall. (Thank you, supernatural forces. Your services here are no longer required.)
Remove the magical “evil” and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is still the ultimate American nightmare. By rights, when one moves up in the world and achieves a higher standard of living, happiness and contentment are promised to follow. Only in the case of the Lutz family (whose dream becomes accessible thanks to another family’s tragedy) some kind of cosmic error has occurred because having more brings them dysfunction and unhappiness rather than joy. Shoo away all the superstition (and the merited anxiety that the church might abandon you when things get hairy) and we have a story about a family that can’t enjoy their good fortune because mom’s second husband is a moody dickweed with a potentially lethal temper. (That may not have been the case in reality, but it comes across in both films. In fact, the real George Lutz attempted to sue the remake for depicting him among other things, hacking up the family dog.)
For all the wild distractions of the redo it may hit the crux of the problem with a sharper blade. An attempt is made to tag blame on a phantom catch-all villain but who needs invisible bad guys when you’ve got George? After being called an idiot by her husband for realizing that they are “losing each other” and refusing to be satiated by “everything they ever wanted,” Kathy vocalizes the essential truth; Yep, it’s an amazing property but it has no worth if the family itself disintegrates. What good is achieving a dream when you are too filled with hate to enjoy it? Suggesting that happiness can’t be bought (or won at the expense of others) makes her a traitor in George’s eyes.
Maybe THE AMITYVILLE HORROR remains relevant not because of its success as a ghost story, but because of its success as a cautionary fable about hanging your “high hopes” on a house rather than the people inside it. If after all is said and done, under the floorboards, what we’re talking about is the realization that living under the threat of violence can turn even the dreamiest home into a doorway to hell, then sadly it’s not based on “A” true story, but many. People can argue the authenticity ‘til the cows (and the invisible pigs) come home, ghosts or no ghosts, there’s enough horror under this roof to go around.