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The Amityville Horror (1979,USA) versus The Amityville Horror (2005,USA)


Director: Stuart Rosenberg (1979), Andrew Douglas (2005)                Starring: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger (1979); Melissa George, Ryan Reynolds, Jimmy Bennett (2005)

Ahhh you have to love films, especially horror films, that lay claims to being based on real events. Sometimes the claim is an outright fabrication used to misdirect and (hopefully) supercharge the horror The Blair Witch project being a good example, marketed as it was as a genuine “found footage” piece based on genuine folklore when in fact it was entirely fictional. Sometimes there is a “real life” inspiration that is worked into a broader fictional story, the orginal A Nightmare On Elm Street being a case in point. Occasionally you’ll even get a film that combines the two approaches as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where a story inspired by notorious serial killer Ed Gein is wrapped in a fictional tale that claims to be factual. The Amityville Horror though (at least the 1979 original) makes the claim that it is a true story, that the creepy events on screen actually occured to the terrified Lutz family. The 2005 remake uses the inspired get out clause to explain its digression from the story as told by the Lutz’s but the two films are based on the same story, of a family terrorised by evil forces when they move into their new house. But which is better? Much like the comparison I did between the two versions of the Hitcher, this contains spoilers. You have been warned.

The plot? Kathy and George Lutz, plus Kathy’s three kids from her previous marriage, move into a house that’s stood empty for over a year since the family that lived there before were brutally murdered by one of their own. From the day they move in they are plagued by unusual and spooky happenings, gradually increasing in intensity until they are left terrorized and hanging by a thread. George in particular, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ronald Defeo, the young man who shot the six other members of his family in the house, feels the effects of the hauntings the most becoming increasingly agitated and mentally unravelled the longer he spends in the house.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

The Lutz’s are real people and they claim that the events that transpired in their house in Amityville were very much real. The ’79 film portrays the hauntings as described in the original book of the Lutz’s ordeal. Changes in temperature, foul odours, swarming flies in the middle of winter, strange noises, voices, visions, nightmares, doors opening and closing by themselves – all of these things plagued the Lutz’s for the month they spent in their new house before fleeing it for good. They even managed to find a concealed room (dubbed the “red room” for its paint job) in the basement. All the while, George’s sanity was being worn away until he seemed in danger of causing harm to his family.

Fast forward to 2005 and the somewhat vague and indefinable phenomena from the seventies are replaced with much more explicit apparitions. Rather than things going bump in the night there are actual manifestations of ghosts, mainly the daughter of the Defeo’s, complete with the bullet hole in her forehead that spelled her doom. She isn’t the main malevolent force at work though, oh no, there’s the contained spirit of an evil warlock who owned the house a century or two earlier of which the other ghosts are afraid and who is behind George’s descent into madness.

Neither film is particularly scary (although my memories of seeing the original as a kid were of a film that was pretty creepy but then I was much more impressionable back then) but the ’79 version definitely has the edge with its more faithful rendition of the Lutz’s account, an account that leaves plenty of room for doubt as to whether their experiences are supernatural happenings or figments of their own tortured imaginations.

The Madness Of George

The key to the story is George’s descent into lunacy. In ’79 James Brolin (father of Josh) plays a blinder as the bearded, wild eyed and highly stressed George. Feeling the pressure of his new family, paying for a mortgage they can’t really afford, marrying into a strange religion and living in a house where a horrific crime took place he slowly falls apart becoming more introverted and resentful towards the rest of the Lutz’s. Ryan Reynolds attempts a copycat performance in the ’05 version (although frequently bordering on a Jason Lee impersonation) without really achieving the same level of sinister intensity. It doesn’t help that in the retelling, Reynold’s George goes on a murderous rampage, hunting the rest of the family with a shotgun in an effort to recreate the Defeo murders until his wife knocks him out, hog ties him and he manages to shake off the evil influence of the house. This is another symptom of the main difference between the two films. Brolin’s George could be possessed by evil or maybe is just suffering from the strains of his change in lifestyle, the stress and pressure bending his mind. The reboot goes full blown ghost story leaving no room for doubt as to the causes of George’s malady and having him overtly, unambiguously possessed by evil.

I’ve talked in the past about how I prefer (and find scarier) horror films that keep their toes in more plausible waters, so in this area, the ’79 version is vastly superior. Certainly, Brolin’s Jack Nicholson-esque hacking away at a door with an axe in order to get to the kids is infinitely more tense than Reynolds’ running around with a shotgun as his family crawl about on the roof. Sometimes less is more. The real George Lutz would certainly agree, seeing as how he sued the makers of the 2005 version for their “defamatory” portrayal of him (though oddly, mainly because he is shown killing the family dog in the new version, as opposed to saving it in the original rather than because he tries to hunt his family down at gunpoint).

Kids Say The Funniest Things

One of the main threads of the story is the supernatural (read: imaginary) friend of Kathy’s daughter (Amy in the first film, Chelsea in the remake, Melissa/Missy in real life) Jodie. In the reboot Jodie is the youngest child of the Defeo family, the little girl ghost of the youngest member of the family killed in the house. Admittedly this fits well with the different setup in the new version but couldn’t be further from the original (and the Lutz’s account) if it tried. In 1979, Jodie was a peculiar, flame eyed, pig like creature and clearly entirely the product of Amy’s fertile imagination, even if Kathy and George both have occasion to see Jodie at various points in the story.

Whilst the reboot’s Jodie is a major point of departure from the “actual” events, it certainly makes more sense in the context of the hauntings than a weird pig beastie with glowing red eyes. For me, Jodie the pig is one of the main indicators the original story is stuff and nonsense and clearly not the result of paranormal activity at all. It’s one thing for a little girl to claim Jodie exists but quite another when two grown adults also “witness” the preposterous creature. That said, the ’79 version handles Jodie’s presence much more creepily, the main indication of her existence being an empty rocking chair in the corner of Amy’s room. Classic, creepy stuff and vastly superior to the makeup/cgi combo of 2005’s Jodie.

Bless This House

So if your house is haunted your first port of call has got to be a priest right? We’ve all seen The Exorcist, we all know that when it comes to combating the evil forces of Satan nothing does the job like a good old Catholic preacher man. Unfortunately, the Lutz’s aren’t lucky enough to get their hands on a Max Von Sydow style avenging holy man who will stop at nothing to drive the evil away. No. They have to settle for Father Delaney, a man driven out of the house by a queasy feeling and some flies when he tries to bless it and who pretty much fails to do anything to spare the Lutz’s from the evil presence he senses (and indeed falls victim to) in the house. So much for the support of the church. The 2005 Lutz’s don’t fare much better, their Father Callaway is equally foiled by some crappy CGI flies.

Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect a Catholic priest to have much impact on pre-Christian spirits (both films attribute the ghostly intruders to the good old Native American burial ground cliche) but you’d certainly hope they would try a bit harder than they do. The later film does treat the character quite superficially with a relatively minor role. The ’79 version focuses quite a lot of attention on Father Delaney’s ill effects, suffered even at a distance from the horrific house and pretty much portrays him as a feeble coward who does hardly anything to help the Lutz’s escape their torment. Top marks for the original then! It also scores in the effects department. Without the safety net of CGI technology in the seventies the original filmmakers had to rely on good old fashioned fly wrangling to create the swarm that drives Delaney out of the house, a far more unpleasant scene than its 2005 equivalent with its unconvincing pixel powered effects. In fact, the 2005 version should be penalised heavily for its overuse of computer generated effects which aren’t a patch on the mechanically executed seeping walls and rupturing doors of the original.

Ketchum, Katchem, Kill Em

Both films maintain the supposed connection of the house with equally supposed Salem warlock John Ketcham (yet another largely made up element of the tale). Once again, the ’79 version keeps this concept minimal and plausible – that Ketcham was the first occupant of the house, used the red room in the basement to summon demons (ok, vaguely plausible) and that he built the house on land used by the Shinnecock Indians as a dumping ground for the mentally ill or dying members of their tribe (a claim the tribe has subsequently refuted). Of course, in expected style, the 2005 version takes this idea to “the next level” by reinventing Ketcham as a Reverend carrying out horrendous experiments on the Indians in an extensive network of cells beneath the house, cells which George reveals during his renovations of the basement in place of the ’79 red room. It really does take it far too far, asserting Ketchum killed himself to ensure his spirit would live on in the house and was therefore subsequently responsible for the evil presence that resulted in the Defeo murders and George’s attempts to slaughter his own family.

It’s the tipping point that illustrates the remake’s obsession of taking everything too far, pushing past the sublime and into the outright ridiculous. Any suggestion that what the Lutz’s experienced could have been psychological rather than supernatural evaporates when the blame gets laid at the feet of the demonic spirit of an evil torturer. It’s clumsy, ham fisted writing at its worst and is the last nail in the coffin of the remake for me.

Will You Stop?

As it happens, in the cold hard light of the twenty first century, even the first Amityville Horror film isn’t particularly scary. When I first saw it, young, impressionable, still open to the possibility of the supernatural and (most importantly) willing to buy into its “true story” credentials I rated it as pretty creepy but now, not so much. It doesn’t help that there’s been a lot of effort put into discrediting the authenticity of the Lutz’s original claims (which to any right minded individual seem more like the result of emotional stress than supernatural interference). However it is light years ahead of the limp wristed 2005 remake, a film that goes out of its way to excise any of the things that make the original film creepy in any way and replace them with overblown, theatrical nonsense that fits in with this bizarre, apparently modern notion of mainstream horror film making which seems to say that all you need are some CGI effects and a couple of ghost train shocks to make a scary movie. The result here is taking a relatively creepy story and rendering it toothless and mundane. Original beats remake once again.

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