When was the last time you saw a good haunted house story? For me, other than the final segment of the anthology flick V/H/S, it has been far too long. Did today manage to make up for that shortage? Read on, friends, and see for yourself.
Unnecessary and unscary horror flick.
Recently married George and Kathy Lutz move with Kathy’s three kids to a new house in Long Island. The house sold cheap because it has been empty for a year since a young man named Ronny DeFeo shot his whole family there. Ronny claimed he’d been hearing voices that made him do it. Shortly after moving in, the Lutz family start to experience some weird stuff. Soon, the house begins to affect George’s personality. For one thing, he’s spending a lot of time with that axe…
Remake time again! Unlike some people, I’m not the kind of guy who will instantly dismiss a movie just for being a remake. I never saw the problem. Just look at the theatre: plays are constantly being reinterpreted by a new director and cast, and the results are often spectacular. There is no reason why the same cannot be true in cinema. Just because it has never really worked yet is no reason to give up hope. But seriously, some recent remakes have done very good jobs of making a recognisable story fresh and exciting. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead for one. Scorsese’s The Departed; Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre from ’03 had its flaws but was still a lot of fun. Unfortunately – and unfairly – it is the failures that people remember. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is still a bit of a sore topic around some Hitchcock acolytes, then there are embarrassments like Jan de Bont’s The Haunting (and the less said about Samuel Bayer’s Nightmare on Elm Street the better).
It is with The Haunting that today’s flick has the most in common. Both are haunted house stories, based originally on novels*, and both remakes seem to have been produced for entirely mercenary as opposed to artistic reasons. The Amityville Horror is a money-spinner, pure and simple. But is it a successful one? Financially yes, it made back more than five times its modest budget worldwide. Artistically, no. While it does try out one or two intriguing changes to the source material, ultimately it just feels, I don’t know. Soulless. First-time feature director Andrew Douglas tosses around plenty of mirror scares and shaky-head gags, but he seems to miss what truly makes horror – and particularly haunted house – movies scary: what is in your head is always worse than what is on the screen. This isn’t a good horror movie, but I suppose it’s not a bad supernatural thriller.
Where this flick succeeds is mainly thanks to the cast. Both Melissa George and Ryan Reynolds throw themselves into the roles of Kathy and George with wild abandon. Reynolds in particular does a very good job with George’s declining mental state as he gets more and more twisted by the spirits in the house. By the end of the movie he is genuinely scary. His abs are somewhat distracting though. Was anyone really that ripped in 1975? Philip Baker Hall is as dignified as ever as Father Callaway (in a part much reduced from Rod Steiger’s Father Delaney in the 1979 version), but the secret weapon, the ace up the sleeve, is a little eight-year-old by the name of Chloe Grace Moretz, in her first major role. In hindsight, it is so obvious that she had big things in front of her. I would not be even slightly surprised if she grows up to be one of the finest actresses of her generation.
This version is much more streamlined than the original, with all the subplots and most of the supporting characters completely excised. The result is a half hour shaved off the running time as well as a more focused look at the family dynamic as the house works its mojo on George. This was a wise decision on the part of scripter Scott Kosar (also the man behind the typewriter for Nispel’s Chainsaw) and it could have been a solid basis for a really effective little ghost story had he and Douglas – no doubt with some input from producer Michael Bay – played it more like Val Lewton instead of William Castle.
*Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a stone classic and should be required reading in every high school English syllabus in the world.