Studio: The Asylum
Director: Geoff Meed
Writer: Geoff Meed
Producer: David Michael Latt
Stars: Jason Williams, Devin Clark, Amy Van Horne, Gracie Largent, Luke Barnett
Tyler Benson records the mysterious events that plague his family when they move into the infamous Amityville Horror house.
At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Bob Weinstein announced plans for a “found footage” movie titled “The Amityville Horror: The Lost Tapes.” Partnering with Miramax and Dimension Films, Jason Blum of “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” fame was tapped as producer. I liked the idea of a “found footage” movie based on a well-known property and there was enough associated talent above-the-line to justify my piqued interest. A few months went by after the announcement and I still had it in the back of my mind as one to watch for, but I had forgotten the title.
That is how The Asylum duped me. As low-budget film fans are already aware, The Asylum is a production company that has made a dubious name for itself by pinching out “mockbusters,” also known as “granny films.” This is because their DVDs typically land in the checkout aisle at Rite Aid, where a well-intentioned granny sees “Transmorphers” and confuses it with those robot cars that her grandson likes. Little Jimmy is either too kind to point out the mistake, or doesn’t feel like wasting breath explaining the difference between the “Transformers” and the “Transmorphers.” Either way, no one will bother returning the knock-off to Rite Aid.
So it was that I loaded up the “found footage” thriller (“thriller” should probably be in quotation marks, too), “The Amityville Haunting.” The third title card was the first clue that something was amiss. It mentions the Lutz family living in the notorious house for two years when the original story was pretty clear about the fact that they were only there for about a month. Anyone with even a passing interest in The Amityville Horror probably remembers this. You would think someone making a film based on the story might take two seconds to straighten a fact using Google.
The footage opens with a prologue of four teenagers breaking into the infamous house for a night of amateur ghost hunting. Within moments, the camera cuts abruptly to two of the teens having sex in a bathroom. My Spider-Sense was tingling. Not because there was a teenage sex scene, but because something about the staging and suddenness just did not feel right. When one teen later exploded, literally, during sex, I knew for certain that something was wrong. Not that the films they make always turn to gold or anything, but there was no way Bob or Harvey Weinstein would have their names on a film with acting and direction this low grade. I hit Pause, and then hit the computer. Then I hit my forehead. Of course, I was watching The Asylum’s version of Amityville found footage.
With my expectations recalibrated to a significantly lower level, I begrudgingly returned to the movie. Despite a new awareness of the quality I was likely due, I still met with disappointment. “The Amityville Haunting” is a premise hoping for a full movie to flesh out its bones by happenstance, without making a conscious effort to turn that goal into reality.
Strangely, the movie does not make the most use out of its connection to The Amityville Horror, aside from a brief shot of an outdoor window covered in flies. Among other elements, the original story included a pig with glowing red eyes, walls that bled slime, a secret red room in the basement, and demonic faces that appeared in the fireplace. Plenty of fodder for a haunted house story (as evidenced by the double digit number of films in the Amityville series). Yet “The Amityville Haunting” sets all that aside and chooses two different ghosts to haunt the new residents. IMDB lists the adult ghost as Ronald DeFeo, Jr. I looked around and could find no claim directly from The Asylum that this is who it is supposed to be. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt then, and just tag this phantom as some mystery entity. Since DeFeo is still alive in a New York prison as I write this, it would be somewhat difficult for him to be a ghost.
The other ghost is John Matthew, the nine-year-old boy who was a victim of the real-life DeFeo murders at the house in 1974. He first appears as an imaginary friend to young Melanie. Why this innocent child would become a malevolent spirit is anyone’s guess. And whether or not The Asylum crossed a line by turning a real-life child murder victim into a haunting phantasm for a low-rent horror movie is for someone else to argue. It would have made more sense for the little girl’s imaginary friend to be Jodie, the same imaginary friend that Missy/Amy had in the original story. This is just one of the curious choices that haunt the film.
It is certainly no sin to make a “found footage” movie without a complete script. For dialogue, anyway. But even Larry David uses an outline for staging scenes on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” There seems to be a lack of specific screen direction in any Amityville Haunting scene that involves something more than just people talking. When Douglas decides to install a security camera in the living room, he surveys the ceiling for an unusual amount of time before finally settling on the obvious spot for the camera: the corner. More specifically, the corner facing the door he wants to watch. Where else would he put it?
Douglas’ friend who installs more cameras later appears similarly confused about how to kill time while delivering lines. He looks around the camera like he is seeing it for the first time and keeps poking at it long after it is situated. He fiddles with it so much that it falls when he loosens a hinge. I would bet money that was an accident, yet they kept that take.
Offering a positive note (since I’m determined to find one), Jason Williams strikes a decent tone of intentionally “aggravating” as the father, Douglas, who wants to pass his military discipline down to his children. His son Tyler more than once tries to show him and his wife a video of strange deaths found on a cell phone. Although several people have already died in the short time they have been in the house, the parents still refuse to watch the video in its entirety. The way they so eagerly dismiss Tyler’s claims in light of what they themselves have witnessed is comical. But I was still reminded of that frustrated feeling children do have when parents just will not listen.
There is also the way Douglas separately accuses all three children in a row of leaving the back door open and commands “don’t lie to me” during every interrogation. His parenting prowess, or lack thereof, flavors him as one of those know-it-all fathers who never has time to give his children the benefit of the doubt. Douglas ends up showing the most personality and becomes the most developed character in the movie.
Oddly enough, he is then completely misused and never becomes as truly menacing as he should be at the climax. He points a gun at one teenager, turns his eyes into a death stare when talking to his daughter about John Matthew, and starts acting like he is not even aware of his family’s presence while in a manic trance. It seemed as though the filmmakers wanted to parallel the original storyline by having Douglas go “George Lutz” on his family, but they pull away from that thread just before the last act in favor of focusing on the ghosts. Douglas has a nervous breakdown, goes into full military mode one more time, and then just ends up another victim. Again it seemed like the filmmakers moved forward with half of an idea and no clear direction on where to go with it.
Bigger than the fact that very little here actually relates to the Amityville legends (other than John Matthew nonsensically becoming an evil spirit) is the issue that the movie is dull, and not at all scary. Most instances of paranormal activity are just doors opening or closing on their own. Nearly all of the deaths occur offscreen. The two that are in full view use static and corrupted video to mask the carnage (and the sub-par FX). “The Amityville Haunting” is a by-the-numbers paranormal haunting movie that does not even cover all of the numbers. From the way that the iconic home exterior is never shown to the under-staged acting and cheap FX, every low-budget string is on full display. There is no sense of passion evident anywhere.
There is an errant comma in one of the date and time stamps. “Residence” is misspelled “residents” on the coroner’s reports at the end of the film, along with “extreme” spelled as “extream.” John Matthew is referred to as “John Matthews” for much of the film until the characters suddenly start saying the name correctly near the end. After the living room security camera is replaced with one that shoots in color, we still see a shot from that camera in black-and-white. Sure, these are extremely minor quibbles that most of the audience may never notice. These easily ignored mistakes do not even affect my already-low-enough review score. I point them out to highlight just how sloppy the detail is in this film. It delivers an impression that any effort put forth here was minimal. And if the filmmakers do not care that much about their movie, then why should I?
Review Score: 10