Among the pantheon of “based on true events” horror films, The Amityville Horror is both the most well known and most controversial. But despite its immortal presence in the pop culture DNA of horror, 1979’s The Amityville Horror is not a very good film. The power of its origin, and the cultural impact of the controversial book on which it is based, has elevated its place in the cultural consciousness, but the film now considered a classic is actually pretty clunky when you get down to it. It’s not terrible, but it feels like the TV movie it was originally supposed to be.
The truth is, despite the icon status of the haunted house at its center, The Amityville Horror is not well suited to film. The book, questions of validity notwithstanding, is written like a journalistic chronicle of events. It’s a timeline of paranormal incidents both common and extraordinary, but it doesn’t have much in the way of character development or satisfying story structure. As fascinating and even frightening as the haunting was alleged to be, it’s still a case of a family moving to a new house, experiencing a string of paranormal events, and then leaving. As a film, it amounts to something like The Exorcist, if it ended abruptly at the 40-minute mark with Regan and her mother solving the problem by simply moving away. The bones of a good haunted house story are there, but the reverence to the iffy source material diluted 1979’s The Amityville Horror from the start.
“[The Amityville Horror remake is] imperfect and sometimes exploitive, but it makes a solid haunted house story out of a promising mess, and for that it deserves recognition.”
Then, several decades later, Hollywood was bitten by an infamous horror remake bug. In the mid-2000s to early 2010s, just about every 70s and 80s horror classic received the remake treatment. While the trend was sacrilegious to many horror fans, it wasn’t all bad. Evil Dead (2013) is well regarded to this day, and most horror fans have a mid-2000s remake guilty pleasure in their collection. But most of these films were remaking inimitable classics. And when you’re attempting to recapture the magic of say, A Nightmare on Elm Street or Poltergeist, there’s nowhere to go but downhill. Though Adam A. Donaldson has been making the case for remakes with conviction in his can’t miss Remake Redemption column, so there’s always a chance for reevaluation. And then there’s the dreaded remake of The Amityville Horror (2005). Generally panned on its release, the remake is 15 years old today, and due for a revisit. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it comes much closer to translating its source material into a fun and entertaining haunted house movie. And for that, it deserves a reassessment.
2005’s The Amityville Horror was faced with the unenviable task of adapting a difficult property, to say the least. The real Lutz family stands by the fact that supernatural events tormented them at 112 Ocean Avenue until they fled after just under a month of occupancy. However, later in his life, George Lutz began to admit that those events looked more like physical illness, changes in personality among the family, unexplained sounds, and other phenomena that, while frightening, certainly weren’t the green goo, swarms of flies, demon pigs, and Indian burial grounds of the book.
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The stumbling block of the original Amityville Horror was its fidelity to the “facts” that weren’t facts at all. Its attempts to expand on the drama fell flat. Father Callaway’s blindness, efforts to save the Lutz family, and clashes with Church leaders are a poor attempt to capture the drama of The Exorcist, but with no pay off for plot or character. 2005’s The Amityville Horror chose to streamline its dramatic focus in the name of a better story. And if that meant going wildly off-book, why not? If the source is already mostly fiction, then the filmmakers might as well make it better structured, more focused fiction.
Writer Scott Kosar and director Andrew Douglas chose to focus their take on The Amityville Horror around the family dynamic of the Lutzs and the underlying evil of the house. Ironically, by narrowing in on the emotional effects of the experience and the effect on the Lutz family, 2005’s Amityville Horror was truer to the core of the actual events that took place there. In fact, both of the older Lutz children state that while supernatural torments did take place in the house, the greatest threat was from their stepfather, who was abusive even before and after their time at 112 Ocean Avenue. 2005’s Amityville makes George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) a well-intentioned new father figure who’s descent into abuse occurred under the influence of the house, but the renewed focus on a dynamic that wasn’t in the book and was only lightly examined in the original film gives the 2005 Amityville the emotional urgency that a good horror film needs.
Another marked improvement of the remake is the narrative cohesion of its scares. The apparitions are tied to the evil history of the house and the deaths that took place there. 2005’s Amityville also demonstrates surprising restraint in its use of CGI for its scares, especially considering the era in which it was made. This isn’t a practical effects film by any means, but it’s much more restrained than other haunted house films of the era. Douglas’ take on the babysitter in the closet sequence is an exception, over the top in just about every mid 2000s way. From the creepily sexual, midriff-bearing babysitter (hitting on a twelve-year-old????) to the ghostly girl in the closet, it’s pure remake camp. But on the other end of the spectrum is the film’s handling of Father Callaway (Philip Baker Hall). As opposed to the scenery-chewing and unresolved importance of the character’s role in the ‘79 film, 2005’s Calloway appears fairly late in the proceedings to perform the requisite “Get out!” blessing of the house. The scene is brief and not nearly as hammy as the original, and Callaway only briefly returns to dispense some historical background to Kathy Lutz (Mellissa George). Any further role would be a distraction from the emotional heart of the story, something that Stuart Rosenberg’s film failed to understand.
The most significant deviations of the remake revolve around the backstory of the house. The book alleged a false claim that the house was built on land where the local Shinnecock tribe abandoned their mentally ill, a frankly racist fiction adamantly refuted by tribal leaders. The original film retained this, using it to claim that the house is built on a “portal to hell.” The 2005 Amityville goes even further. Instead of a house cursed by Indigenous people, the remake makes the origin slightly less problematic. Instead, atrocities committed by a Puritan minister against the Shinnecock are the root of the hauntings. It’s still a fabrication that puts indigenous people in a stereotypically passive role. But it recenters the blame on colonialism and gives the house’s evil a more dramatic focus than the vague explanations of the ‘79 film.
The film is not without its flaws, and it generated more than a little controversy with its release. Though it wouldn’t be an Amityville film if it didn’t! The advertising for the film claimed it was based on new and factual information from the actual case. It was a completely false claim, and thus the film drew ire from George Lutz himself. Lutz demanded that MGM consult him for the film. When they refused, Lutz sued and publicly called the film “drivel.” George Lutz died a year after the film’s release with the case unresolved.
The Lutz controversy highlights the inherent moral complications of any adaptation of The Amityville Horror. The source material is a mess of real-life tragedy, fact, lies, and exploitation. Any adaptation that continues to assert that it’s based on fact is complicit in these complications, and 2005’s take on the story is no exception. In fact, the studio’s assertion that the blatant narrative inventions were based on fact was enough to anger the questionably trustworthy Lutz patriarch! So, like every iteration of The Amityville Horror, the 2005 version must be approached with a grain of salt and no expectation for perfection.
“[…] like every iteration of The Amityville Horror, the 2005 version must be approached with a grain of salt and no expectation for perfection.”
But the remake is possibly the best adaptation of the story yet. The opening murder sequence is incredibly shot and the emotional heart of the story is handled well. There are a ton of jump scares, which can feel cheap, but there are plenty of atmospheric scares as well and the tension in the film is consistently effective. And by refocusing on the horror of a new family falling apart, The Amityville Horror kept its story more relevant for today than any previous iteration. For its 15th anniversary, give the remake a rewatch. It’s imperfect and sometimes exploitive, but it makes a solid haunted house story out of a promising mess, and for that it deserves recognition.
What’s your take on The Amityville Horror 2005? Are you a fan of the remake, the original? Are you a semi-believer or do you have no patience for the events at 112 Ocean Avenue at all? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!