Had the filmmakers ignored the source material, turned their noses up at the cheesy original movie (reviewed in this week's DVD section) and its countless sequels, and started entirely from scratch, the idea of remaking The Amityville Horror wouldn't have been a bad one. After all, it's rare that anyone decides to remake a dreadful movie, but they need facelifts far more than the cherished classics that get reimagined as Adam Sandler comedies. Toss out everything but the essential elements of the Amityville story, and what's left are the building blocks of any old-fashioned haunted-house chiller: A decrepit old estate with a sinister past, cheerfully oblivious new tenants with three kids and a dog, and interiors rigged like a carnival funhouse. After tarnishing a true horror masterpiece with their Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, producer Michael Bay and writer Scott Kosar treat the Amityville franchise with similar (though more appropriate) contempt, but don't take advantage of a fresh opportunity. Instead of rethinking the original, they've merely streamlined it for modern audiences scared by cheap smash-cut effects, CGI spooks, and that pallid, long-haired little girl from The Ring.
Aside from a full beard and a proclivity toward maniacal round-the-clock wood-chopping, Ryan Reynolds has more in common with Jack Nicholson in The Shining than with James Brolin in the original Amityville, and the remake has the same idea. Not long after he and wife Melissa George move into the famed Dutch Colonial on Long Island, Reynolds skips from sensitive family man to the "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" stage. When they first learn that this suspiciously bargain-basement dream house was the site of a mass murder a year earlier, Reynolds and George initially brush it off: "Houses don't kill people," says Reynolds. "People kill people." But over 28 harrowing days and nights, the family learns that voices rising from the bellows, blood seeping down the walls, and doors slamming on their own aren't the signs of the average fixer-upper.
The facts of the Amityville case have always been under dispute. Was there really a haunting, or did an opportunistic couple perpetrate a hoax out of the house's grisly history? It would be refreshing if any of the bajillion Amityville Horror movies bothered to explore the possibility that the "evil" was conjured by garden-variety Long Island neuroses, like mistaking drafty rooms for a permanent Hell chill, or a swarm of fruit flies for a swarm of Satanic fruit flies. But the remake simply replaces the laughably dated horror tropes of the 1979 version with a commercial-slick J-horror aesthetic that's sure to look just as silly to audiences in another 15 years. By then, perhaps a whole new set of clichés will inspire the Amityville cycle to repeat itself for a new generation of suckers.