A Tale of Two Amityvilles.
It is rare, if not impossible, to find a horror remake that undeniably improves upon its predecessor. Some come close, but usually because of the fun in seeing an old favorite updated 20 or 30 years later.
With The Amityville Horror, though, the 2005 version is not only a better horror movie than the 1979 original, but a better movie, period.
Both movies begin with subtitles reminding us that they are based on a true story. On February 13, 1974, Ronnie DeFeo brutally murdered his family, claiming he heard voices telling him to do it. One year later, George and Kathy Lutz buy the DeFeo house. They’re so thrilled to find this bargain that they aren’t terribly concerned with its history. 1979 George (James Brolin) says, “Houses don’t have memories” and 2005 George (Ryan Reynolds) says, “Houses don’t kill people; people kill people”. Technically, both statements are true; however, something will eventually drive them from the house, never to return, not even for their belongings.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg from a script by Sandor Stern (based on the best-selling novel by Jay Anson), the 1979 version of The Amityville Horror is creepy in parts, but filmed with no unique style. The few genuine scares it offers come from the things that happen, not from any manipulation of tension. (A much better haunted house movie from the same era is 1976’s Burnt Offerings.)
On the other hand, the 2005 update, directed by Andrew Douglas from a screenplay by Scott Kosar, drips with an atmosphere of dread, offering terrifying images and palpable suspense. I like it’s style, but I must admit it borrows a few tricks from J-horror hits like The Ring and The Grudge. There are also a few “false scares” that horror films can’t seem to do without, but at least they’re not overused.
The stories are very much the same, with a few changes in detail. For example, the 1979 Lutzes last only 18 days in the house; the 2005 Lutzes last 28. Otherwise, both families experience weird happenings, with George experiencing the same obsession/possession as Ronnie DeFeo. As would be expected from an increase in expectations from audiences over the course of 26 years, the 2005 events are much bloodier (and the special effects are much better) than those from 1979. Even a similar scene of the family dog digging at a basement wall carries a greater sense of foreboding.
The Amityville Horror (2005) adds character development and backstory to nearly every aspect of the original. Imagine assigning bullet-points to the events in the 1979 version. The remake hits all of those bullet-points, yet adds detailed layers to each one of them. We know more about the Lutzes, we know more about what happened in the house and we know more about why. But it all seems organic and interesting, not just created to add depth to a skimpy script.
One of the subplots of Amityville 1979 involves the story of Father Delaney. In perhaps the most memorable scene of that version, he arrives to bless the house on moving day. The bedroom door slams shut, the temperature rises, a putrid odor wafts in and… the flies… who can forget the flies? For the remainder of the movie, the happenings at the actual house are intercut with scenes of Father Delaney. When you have a great actor like Rod Steiger, I’m sure you want to include him in as many scenes as possible, but once the demonic voice tells him to “get out”, he doesn’t serve much purpose.
The remake wisely reduces the character’s role, introducing him much later in the story with Philip Baker Hall making as much of an impact in 2005 as Steiger did in 1979. The things that happen to Father Delaney away from the house don’t make sense to me in the original movie. Neither does the concept introduced when, on the 11th day, a detective notices that George Lutz resembles Ronnie DeFeo. The remake is more logical.
Another improvement lies with the casting of George Lutz. James Brolin starts out with long hair and a scruffy beard; his transformation is not as startling as that of nice guy Ryan Reynolds. Plus, Brolin gives a flat performance, starting out quiet and grumpy, his intensity barely increases. Reynolds starts out as a more personable family man, so his descent into darkness is more of a contrast. A good example of the difference between them is their reaction to the babysitter being locked in the closet. 1979 George yells at his wife (Margot Kidder), “These kids of yours need some goddamned discipline!” 2005 George gently reminds his wife (Melissa George) as he tries to convince himself, “No bad houses, just bad people.”
Character development is richer for the rest of the family in the remake, also. The children have more personality, but are not stereotypes. When watching the remake recently, I was reminded that Chloe Moretz from Kick-Ass and Let Me In plays Chelsea Lutz, who befriends the ghost of murdered Jodie DeFeo. You can see hints of the great young actress she’s going to become.
Finally, The Amityville Horror (2005) is entertaining regardless of the genre. It is well-paced with action, thrills and chills. The Amityville Horror (1979) is steadily-paced with no real suspense. What you expect to happen, happens. The remake truly stands on its own; nothing is added by having seen the original. And nothing is missed by not having seen the original. It’s not that the 1979 version doesn’t have some charms of the era, it’s just that the 2005 version is able to stand on its own. I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve watched it.