Saturday, October 23, 2010

13 FOR HALLOWEEN # 7: Two visits to Amityville

For my friend Lucy Beckett, with thanks

In the early hours of 13 November 1974, Ronald DeFeo – a 23-year old with a history of drug abuse and personality disorder – shot his parents and his four siblings at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, Long Island. After initially telling the investigating officers a highly suspect story that his family had been wiped out by a mob hitman, he confessed to the murders saying that he’d heard voices telling him to kill. Thirteen months later, following a five-week trial, DeFeo was given six consecutive sentences of 25 years to life. Today, he remains in the Green Haven Correctional Facility, Beekman, New York.

On 23 December 1975, George and Kathy Lutz moved into 112 Ocean Avenue, along with Kathy’s three children from her previous marriage. By January 1976, they’d left the place. In September 1977, Jay Anson’s purportedly non-fiction account of their brief tenure, ‘The Amityville Horror’, hit the bookshelves and became a runaway success. Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film adaptation replicated that success at the box office. Over the next two decades, a further seven ‘Amityville’ films were released – the law of diminishing returns flapping like a plague-ridden vulture around each subsequent title – until the franchise reached its crass, intellectually redundant and viscerally retarded nadir with ‘Amityville Dollhouse’ in 1996.

In 2005, Rosenberg’s original got the remake treatment from Platinum Dunes. Bearing in mind that Platinum Dunes (CEO, Michael “666” Bay) is less a film production company that a serial rapist lurking down the midnight streets of ’70s cinema to drag one classic after another screaming into some forgotten back alley and then toss them aside, broken and ravaged, as soon as the deed is done, Andrew Douglas’s new version of ‘The Amityville Horror’ was something I approached cautiously.

Full disclosure: I’ve never read Jay Anson’s book. A friend of mine describes it as “a real page-turner and very entertaining, but total bollocks”, citing masses of inconsistencies throughout the text, even extending to ambiguity over the actual date the Lutzes moved in. Trawling the internet for background information having watched Rosenberg and Douglas’s films back-to-back, there seems to be a lot of hyberole-ridden Amityville speculation out there but very little in the way of academic, level-headed, collaboratively researched material.

At least half a dozen other books have been published since Anson’s bestseller, most of which seem to be band-wagon jumping pulp titles. Many reviews of the Anson book refer to it as a novel rather than a factual work. Lawsuits and controversies dogged its publication. Anson didn’t work with the Lutzes in writing the book, but drew on tape-recordings of their recollections. It has been suggested that Anson reordered some of the incidents from the Lutzes’ account as well as inventing scenes wholesale. It’s also been alleged that Anson’s book represents an exaggeration and in some places a contradiction of the original account the Lutzes gave the press soon after leaving 112 Ocean Avenue, particularly with regard to the amount of time they spent in the house. They first claimed that malevolent forces drove them out within 10 days. In the book – and both Rosenberg and Douglas’s movies – it’s stated that they left after 28 days. All of these works site that the Lutzes fled the house without returning for their personal possessions. Actually, their possessions were collected by a moving firm shortly afterwards. The employee who collected them reported no paranormal activity during the time he was inside the house. Nor have any of the subsequent owners reported run-ins with pissed off ghosts.

I’ll do the book courtesy of reading it before I publicly disparage it on this site, but between the fact that it appeared so quickly after the Lutzes’ departure and that the book and movie deal seem to have been brokered on the Lutzes’ behalf by William Weber (the defence lawyer at Ronald DeFeo’s trial!), it’s hard not to be of the opinion that ‘The Amityville Horror’ was conceived as a highly saleable product (particularly with the huge success of ‘The Exorcist’ in 1973 and ‘The Omen’ in 1976) rather than a seriously investigative account of George and Kathy Lutz’s experiences.

Stuart Rosenberg’s heavy-handed adaptation opened in 1979 with James Brolin at George and Margot Kidder as Kathy. Although Rosenberg has some cracking films on his CV – ‘Cool Hand Luke’, ‘The Drowning Pool’, ‘The Pope of Greenwich Village’ – ‘The Amityville Horror’ has a tang of hack work about it. Apart from a barnstorming turn by Brolin, the acting is generally shoddy. Kidder is terrible while Rod Steiger, as a priest driven out of the house after attempting to bless it, overacts appallingly. Two scenes in particular – his argument with a senior member of the Catholic church, and his torment by a supernatural force that follows him into his own church (“Oh Lord, give them strrrreeenggggthhhh of miiiiiind and boddddyyyyy!”) – go beyond histrionics and knock on the door of parody.

Sandor Stern’s script is uneven, doggedly taking the Lutzes’ point of view for the first half then drifting off to follow first Steiger’s priest (the real Catholic priest whom Kathy Lutz consulted has stated for the record that he only discussed the Lutzes’ concerns about the house over the phone) then an entirely fictitious police detective who all but waves at the camera and says “Hi everybody, I’m here to remind you of Lieutenant Kinderman in ‘The Exorcist’, please tell all your friends to come see this movie” before fucking right off having fulfilled no narrative or expositional purpose whatsoever.

The effects veer between the simple but effective – the steady movement of an unoccupied rocking chair; a pair of disembodied red eyes outside a window – and hilariously bad. The moment when George sees his daughter’s imaginary friend Jodie manifest as a demon pig is so funny I’m surprised no-one developed the character for a spin-off movie: ‘The Ham-eaterie-ville Horror’.

By the end, Rosenberg has thrown everything but the kitchen sink into the mix: walls seeping what’s either blood or pus (or maybe a demonic admixture); an inverted crucifix; a plague of flies; floorboards cracking open in full-on gateway-to-hell stylee; the family pooch going all Cujo; a plaster ornament inexplicably administering bite marks; George hallucinating his wife as a wrinkly old woman; closet doors with no lock somehow locking on a traumatized babysitter.

Ah, yes. The babysitter. Here we have an excellent segue from ‘The Amityville Horror’ of 1979 with its nerdy babysitter wearing the kind of braces that look like they were designed by a committee which included Pinhead, Joseph Mengele and H.R. Giger …

… and ‘The Amityville Horror’ of 2005 where the babysitter’s played by Rachel Nichols and, oh my sweet lord, why did I never have a babysitter who looked like this?

Now, notwithstanding that we’ve racked up an immediate point to the remake in terms of the braces vs. cleavage decision, the babysitter/closet scene is so much more effective in Douglas’s hands. Whereas the original gives us a shrieky girl batting her hands against the closet door until they’re bloody followed by a redoubling of the efforts in the screaming department once the lights go out, the remake pointedly shows us what she’s screaming about. It may not be particularly original (Douglas has definitely got his J-horror funk on) or unexpected, but it works.

The wood chopping scene works a whole lot better in the remake, too. Whereas Brolin in the original swings the axe away moodily until he’s stacked up about five years’ worth of firewood, George (here played by Ryan Reynolds in a perfectly acceptable performance) decides to punish Kathy (Melissa George)’s oldest son for a perceived misdemeanour by forcing him to hold each chunk of wood on the chopping block while he brings the axe down. The threat is real and immediate, the scene tense and not overplayed.

Melissa George’s typically excellent turn is perhaps the highest example of trading up in any remake ever made. The kids are generally better, too, most notably Chloe Grace Moretz in her debut role. Subject of which, I absolutely love this moment. It replaces Jodie the porcine demon with Jodie the creepy J-horror style dead girl. I look at this …

… and I’m not thinking Eeeeeewwww, scary dead ghost girl. Uh-uh. I’m thinking Hey, scary dead ghost, that’s the future Hit Girl you’re fucking with. An exorcist is going to be a walk in the park compared to pissing this one off.

Philip Baker Hall, again improving on the original performance, plays the luckless priest whose only contribution to the film is to flee the house after the most rubbish attempt at exorcism in the history of the genre. And this, I think, is key to appreciating the remake over the original: Rosenberg’s take on the material is plodding serious and not particularly well executed. Douglas, although paying lip service to the “based on a true story” tag, seems to acknowledge from the off that the book is mostly likely a load of bunkum and gets on with treating the scant running time (87 minutes, the end credits comprising almost ten of them) as a rollercoaster ride through the expected Amityville tropes as well as throwing in a couple of excellent sequences of his own, both involving young Chelsea (Morentz) lured into dangerous situations – a near drowning in the boathouse and a vertiginous bit of business up on the roof – by her spectral friend.

Credit where it’s due, though, the original makes better use of the immediately recognisable look of the house, effortlessly portraying those creepy quarter-windows as eyes behind which something evil lurks. Moreover, Brolin’s performance tops Reynolds’ … although Reynolds is served by a script that gives George Lutz a little more credit. In the original he goes wacko pretty much from the start and doesn’t come through for his family until the very last scene. The remake shows George struggling throughout against the darker impulses inexplicably manifesting in him; there’s never any doubt that he’s basically a decent family man trying to fight what’s happening to him. In virtually all other aspects though – and most crucially, in not feeling any need to treat Anson’s book as sacrosanct and instead just cutting loose and having some dark and cynical fun with the material – the remake wins out.

Hey, I’m favouring a Platinum Dunes production over the original. Now that’s scary!


Bryce Wilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryce Wilson said...

"Platinum Dunes is less a film production company that a serial rapist lurking down the midnight streets of ’70s cinema to drag one classic after another screaming into some forgotten back alley and then toss them aside-"


Stephen King had a pretty great essay on the film in Danse Macarbe, where he talks about going to see the film in the theater (after panning it based on a private screening for Rolling Stone) and being shocked to find the film's median age to be around forty. With one poor woman even moaning, "Think Of The Bills" during the final demolition.

It's been awhile since I've seen it, but I think King was dead on, in pegging the one really great scene in Rosenberg's film as the bit where Lutz's knew Brother In Law loses the deposit for the caterer and Lutz having to cover it. Lutz looking for the lost cash that is now his lost cash has more intesnisty, desperation and genuine fear to it then any number of demon pigs.

Aaron said...

I kinda like the remake, I think. It's been a long time since I've seen it, but I remember not hating it. I still haven't even seen the original yet, nor do I really have any desire to.

Neil Fulwood said...

Bryce - I went back to my copy of 'Danse Macabre' after you left your comment and re-read that passage. Yup: King nails it.

(Rather proud of my Platinum Dunes metaphor, btw.)

Aaron - you're not missing much with the original.