All those pious pundits who regularly lament the decline of faith should examine the history of the horror flick over the last few decades. Ever since the glory days of The Exorcist and The Omen, which inspired numerous sequels, remakes, and imitations, religion constitutes an important element in the form, suggesting the continuing attractions of faith to the producers and consumers of popular culture.
In a time when a significant body of believers happily anticipates the end of the world, moreover, supernatural menaces, usually in some way connected to satanic possession, assume an increasing relevance in the cinema of terror and dread.
That cultural and temporal context may explain the appearance of a new remake of the 1979 horror hit, The Amityville Horror, which initially spawned three remakes, one of them even 3-D. The new version, following in the footsteps of the remarkably slavish recent copies of Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the producers of the latter film, not surprisingly, also made this picture), sticks closely to the original, adding only a remarkably silly back story to explain the curse that troubles the inhabitants of that famous Dutch Colonial with the peculiar windows on the north shore of Long Island.
The picture begins with a montage in black and white, using newspaper stories and television footage of the actual incident that first made the house infamous, a young man named Ronald DeFeo's inexplicable murder of his entire family. It then recounts the now familiar story of George and Kathleen Lutz, played this time around by Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George, who move with their three children into the enormous old house, which, because of its history, they acquire for an impossibly low price.
Since the present audience benefits from a previous education in the dangers of Long Island real estate, the rest of the action proceeds in a most familiar fashion, with a series of ominous incidents and a gradual accumulation of shocks and frights.
Kathleen's three children think they see some unsettling apparitions and the youngest, Chelsea (Chloë Grace Moretz), acquires a new playmate, Jodie, the ghost of one of the murdered DeFeo children. A babysitter who tells the children the house's history suffers a horrible fright and a subsequent breakdown at the hands of the sinister Jodie, who apparently wants the whole family to join her in death.
Most important, the house begins to work its influence on George, isolating him from the family, transforming him from a good-natured, lighthearted joker into a sadistic bully, ultimately inciting him to attack his wife and stepchildren.
Like the original, the new version employs a couple of decidedly non-supernatural subtexts to establish its atmosphere of ordinary reality. If the horror derives from some unearthly cause, for example, it also grows out of the perfectly understandable problems of a deteriorating family environment, with a young stepfather attempting to ingratiate himself with three troubled children who naturally mourn for their dead father. The tensions and hostilities of that difficult situation in a sense account for George's inability to cope with the conduct of the children and his ultimate transformation into a monster as frightening as the malevolent presence in the house.
As the original book records, and the original film shows, the Lutzes actually called in the obligatory Roman Catholic priest (Rod Steiger) to attempt an exorcism, a ceremony that became extraordinarily popular in the 1970s after the success of The Exorcist, a movie that apparently inspired the Protestant Lutzes.
This time around, Philip Baker Hall plays the priest, but he flees in fear almost immediately, hardly inspiring faith of any sort --- if bell, book, and candle can't do the job, the Lutzes must surely be doomed. (His pallid and despairing performance makes one yearn for Max von Sydow and Jason Miller, who worked with far more conviction in The Exorcist).
The final confrontation with the haunting house --- in a sense the house itself actually influences its inhabitants as much as any supernatural presences --- depends upon a considerable load of nonsense from the past, with some obvious theft from another, entirely different horror film, Poltergeist. The filmmakers use the added material to explain both the visitations that trouble the Lutzes and the slaughter of the DeFeos, although by then any rational interpretation seems quite unnecessary --- the horror really needs no logic beyond the sort of problems that trouble numerous families.
Although religion quite properly offers a solution to evil, oddly it finally fails to withstand the forces that attack the family, a conclusion that suggests little comfort in these unhappy times.
The Amityville Horror (R), starring Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Jesse James, Jimmy Bennett. Chloë Grace Moretz, Rachel Nichols, Philip Baker Hall; screenplay by Scott Kosar, based upon a screenplay by Sandor Stern, based upon the book by Jay Anson; directed by Andrew Douglas. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta