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Published: Friday, 4/15/2005

Movie review: The Amityville Horror *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Real Estate Tip No. 1:

Your Realtor, when she insists you go check out the lovely basement, should be willing to walk down there herself. Also, if you have to press her before she mentions that a mass murder occurred in this house - only one year ago (and the furniture is splattered with viscera, not, as she insists, a pasta party that got out of control) - keep looking.

Real Estate Tip No. 2:

By your second day in a new home, if the walls have not stopped bleeding, do not call a plumber. Consider moving out.

Real Estate Tip No. 3:

By the 14th day, if your house (or your German shepherd) continues to insist that you murder your entire family, again: leave. A possessed home is a convincing home. You will lose this debate.

Real Estate Tip No. 4:

By the 28th day, if the above problems have not been worked out, if the faucets still gush blood, remaining in this house should be considered a sign. This is the frighten-upper of your dreams! Settle in! However, please remember to set a place at dinner for the levitating demonic pig with the red eyes.

•

The spookiest thing about The Amityville Horror - both back in 1979, when it was a huge dare-you-to-see-it hit, and in this new, depressingly literal rehash - are those windows. You know the ones I mean. They're still the scariest part of the film because, as with all decent horror, our imagination runs out of control when we see them. They suggest things. They're ominous. The home is a Dutch Colonial, and the windows are half moons separated by a wall that gives the peak of the top floor the appearance of a leering jack-o'-lantern.

Or a skull. Pick your fright.

If this Amityville Horror, directed by first-timer Andrew Douglas, does a single thing right, it resists the urge to give those windows googly eyes. This must have been tempting: there are far more shocks than shivers. The filmmaking (helped along by the crew of the similar remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is a jittery succession of flash bulbs, attention-deficit editing, static, newsreels, journal entries, and ghosts hanging from meat hooks (with helpful close-ups of the meat hooks). When anyone is standing beside a window pane or in front of a mirror, you can be sure a ghoul will appear beside them, the soundtrack will CRASH-BOOM, and then, blah, bling. Everything is shown.

Nothing is frightening.

Except those windows.

Which just ... stare?

The second spookiest thing (again, as in the original) is the astonishing stupidity of the Lutz family. Or rather, I should say, the astonishing shrewdness of the Lutz family. If you have doubts about their tale of how they freaked out, how father George Lutz was a heartbeat from slaughtering them, how they abandoned their Long Island homestead 28 days after moving in - well, who cares? They parlayed their story into a bestselling book and the 1979 blockbuster starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder (a movie which was even worse than this one). That kind of success carries its own justification.

The Lutz story has since been debunked, confirmed, re-debunked, and now, I guess, re-confirmed. The new Amityville opens with this: "Based on the true story." Somehow that story still lacks two elements: a convincing reason for staying 28 days, and the kind of details that would make it either believable or even engrossing. What we get, again, is a house infested with ... rage, I suppose. It's in the ether.

In that sense The Amityville Horror is not unlike a precursor to the new generation of Japanese horror films or Japanese-inspired horror films (like The Grudge). The threat is not a knife-sharpening maniac or monster but a free-floating anxiety that lodges inside your head. You inherit ghosts, and in turn, they colonize you. This Amityville has that nugget of an idea but doesn't commit to it. We get a little Shining (sensible dad goes bonkers), a little Poltergeist (Indian burial ground stuff), and finally, some Exorcist - courtesy of Toledo-born Philip Baker Hall, who plays a priest driven from the Lutz home in a brief scene that comes very close to parody.

Anyway, the facts:

George and Kathy Lutz - now played by Ryan Reynolds, who mugs, and Melissa George, who breathes, unconvincingly - moved into 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, in December 1975, a year after the previous occupants, the DeFeo family, were murdered by the oldest son, Ronald. He killed his parents, two sisters, and two brothers. He's still in jail and maintains that demonic spirits in the house drove him to do it.

The rest is spook-ulation.

Other families have since lived there, all without a single homicide between them. Which doesn't mean a haunted house movie about the place shouldn't work. There's a couple of eerie moments, and what's telling about them is they have nothing to do with shocks, special effects, or creepy children. They're chill-inducing without being clinical: the stillness of a house at 3 a.m., a barn door flapping in the wind, the way the world is asleep in the middle of the night and if you happen to wake up and walk around, the way you feel as if you're intruding on something.

Which reminds me: If a wall bleeds and no one is around to be scared, does it make a boo?

•

A final note of mourning:

This new remake of The Amityville Horror is also the very last film to be released by the once-great Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios. MGM (or rather, its assets) were recently sold to Sony for $4.8 billion; MGM and its just-as-legendary division, United Artists, will eventually be folded into Sony's Columbia Pictures.

So ends one of the most influential Hollywood legacies: It started in 1924 as the merger of Metro Picture Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures and became known for opulence, musicals, that roaring-lion trademark, and a dream team of contracted stars that included: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo, and Elizabeth Taylor. When movies shifted from stylized artifice to a grittier reality-based aesthetic after World War II, MGM never entirely regained its importance.

So yes, a dashed-off Amityville Horror is a dispiriting way for a studio to end an 80-year run, but between MGM and UA, a staggering number of the pictures they produced will be seen as long as people watch movies. A few of those include: Greed, On the Town, Network, Grand Hotel, Rocky, all of the James Bond films, Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, National Velvet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, An American in Paris, and Gone With the Wind.

Those are ghosts I welcome.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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