While I remember most haunted houses as oozing charming decadence, the central edifice of Andrew Douglas’s “The Amityville Horror” is reminiscent of the set of “American Idol” — sleazy, gaudy and ruthlessly cliched. A dubious remake of the 1979 B-movie classic, 2005’s “Horror” certainly evolved out of a troubled past. Unfortunately for all, ’70s schlock haunts the film under the guise of weak dialogue, greasy eye makeup and, worst of all, station wagons.
The film is supposed to be a period piece, though the past is only evoked in garish costumes and lousy film quality. Worse, “The Amityville Horror” claims to be based on factual happenings on a boring Long Island town. (We are rudely notified of this gimmick by an unkempt typewriter font at the end of the opening credits. What shortly follows is a miserable montage of Ronald DeFeo blasting his sleeping family, set to a syncopated beat of theatric lightening flashes. After this jarring stylistic device (though it could hardly be called stylistic) reaches its concert pitch, the film succeeds in one-upping its own nauseating editing pace by flashing shots of glistening crime scene photos. Before “Horror” begins, the movie seems irredeemable.
Enter the former star of “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” (and the future Mr. Alanis Morisette). Ryan Reynolds plays George Lutz, the new ringleader of the Lutz family (an annoying blonde melange of insipid personalities and buckteeth, which lost its former dad to cancer). While their unsightly children are at school, George and his wife Kathy (Melissa George) drive around Long Island in search of a home with more space and more potential for impotent plot twists.
Struck with dumb smiles and “what a bargain!” exclamations, they find a cheap Dutch colonial in the ominously named Amityville that piques their interest. After a nervous realtor gives them a brief tour, they’re instantly convinced that they’ve found the home of their dreams (and other maudlin ramblings). Of course, there’s a small catch: The home was once a reservoir for pools of DeFeo blood and is host to a bevy of groaning ghosts.
“There are no bad houses,” George weakly asserts. “Just bad people.”
Bad dialogue and actors aside, the home is at first an idyllic haven for the Lutz family. Yet things go awry as the weather conveniently changes to a pallid fall and blood starts seeping out of lighting fixtures.
George, once charmingly cynical, becomes gruff and petulant. He scoffs at stepdaughter Chelsea’s “daddy is with the angels” speeches and makes his son hold blocks of wood while he chops them in half with an axe. Essentially, he transforms himself into a tepid impersonation of Jack Nicholson from “The Shining,” only with a bizarre affinity for exploiting his LA gym body on screen, and eons less talent. Luckily for Reynolds, most of his character transformation hinges on his bloodshot contact lenses.
Kathy becomes rightfully concerned, and the children begin to hate their stepfather more than before. Yet the kids are naive to the abode’s grisly past, until a pot-smoking babysitter — a refreshingly fun performance by Rachel Nichols — divulges every crimson secret. Now privy to foreboding downfall of the DeFeos, the Lutz children see their stepfather approaching similar avenues.
While that may sound somewhat exciting, the film manages to remain mind-numbingly stupid. Perhaps its most glaring flaw is its tragic deficit of originality. The entire thing is a party platter of stale horror film cliches. Not even mustering the bravado to allude to Hitchcockian archetypes, the film fails at even an artful level of mimicry. Instead, it prostitutes a number of ’90s-horror-renaissance cliches with annoying languor.
And worst of all, the comedic aspects of its failures mar any attempt to inflict a fright. Perhaps the glowing haunted house would be creepy if it didn’t look like one you could purchase at Michaels for $19.99. Perhaps George’s festering anger would be scary if Reynolds transcended the same acting techniques he used for “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.” Perhaps the film would be effective if every attempt it made at inflicting terror didn’t gather a hushed titter from the audience.
There are no bad houses. Just hackneyed horror-movie remakes.