On November 13, 1974 Ronald De Feo Jr kills his entire family in their beds. One year later George (Reynolds) and Kathy Lutz (George) move into the former De Feo home. During their 28 days in the house, strange things start to happen and George becomes increasingly unbalanced.
Some films should never be remade - the resulting retreads are often so inferior they forever tarnish the original. The Amityville horror, happily, isn't one of those films. The 1979 first stab, though hugely successful, squandered a strong, and allegedly true, story with hokey jumps and dialogue. This remake still ends up losing its nerve and resorting to predictable shocks and loud noises but stands as marginally superior to its predecessor.
The haunted house horror is one of the hardest to make consistently scary, since there's no actual monster to be vanquished and if one is concocted, it'll only end up ruining the third act with tiresome rather than terrorsome CGI. A rattled chandelier or creaking floorboard can maintain a sense of creeping terror if a director uses them confidently, allowing the audience to play with its own fears of what may be lurking in darkened corners. But after an hour of well maintained shivers, making the most of the titular residence's murky expanses with the Lutz family huddled in dimly lit rooms, director Andrew Douglas evaporates the scares by visualising everything that was previously only suggested and substituting slow build for rapid demolition.
Still Reynolds and George are interesting choices for the leads. Initially they seem far too young to play the mother and stepfather of a 12-year-old child, but are in fact of a similar age to the real-life Lutzes. Reynolds proves particularly unsettling, beginning the film in his familiar cocksure joker mode, before slowly breaking down into paranoid sociopath as the house takes a grip on him (madness helpfully signposted by bloodshot contact lenses, for those audience members who find axe wielding and shouting too ambiguous). George is given little to do, though, other than harangue the worst exorcist ever (Philip Baker Hall), but in the final stages gives good shriek.
If Amityville could keep its tongue from occasionally creeping into its cheek it would be more effective, but feels the Scream-a-like need to constantly reference other horror movies. Nods to the Exorcist, Halloween and a virtual headbang at The Shining may be sly and post-modern, but reminding audiences of classics of the genre rather draws attention to the movie's own shortcomings.
It lacks its own identity, too often coming off as a dim imitation of The Shining, but as a standard shocker it does its job well enough to keep you jumping throughout.