It’s remarkable how many of the epochal horror movies of the last half century all tell, in essence, the same story: the unholy crack-up of the American family. Norman Bates and his dotty slasher mother in Psycho; pregnant Rosemary and her soul-selling husband in Rosemary’s Baby; pea-soup-puking Regan in The Exorcist — the demon child Rosemary might have given birth to; the demented cannibal clan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the crazy daddy on a terror spree in The Shining; and on and on. The Amityville Horror, that supernaturally dull 1979 haunted-house saga, enjoys a special place among these black sabbaths of domestic breakdown, and it is this: Though marketed as a ”true story” (to this day, many high schoolers from Amityville, Long Island, make a point of reveling in their homegrown goth cachet), it’s a family-horror blockbuster in which the family is so nondescript that you can scarcely rouse yourself to care about whether or not they’re haunted to death.
Ditto for the new The Amityville Horror, a movie that, I say with weary regret, is extraordinarily faithful to the spirit of that creaky, derivative, fly-infested, don’t-go-in-the-attic boofest. If you watch the original again (as I did, dear readers — never say that I don’t sacrifice for you), you’ll see that it holds the end of the Jimmy Carter era in the tiredness of its terror-schlock bones, and that quality, in its fashion, has been duplicated in the remake. Nothing gets in the way of the rote staging, the ham-handed predictability, the feeling that you’ve been to this house, and yawned at these ghosts, once too often.
Ryan Reynolds, as the stepdad gone evil with an ax (the story rips off more than its share from what Stephen King invented in The Shining), wears one of those doesn’t-this-make-me-look-older collegiate beards, yet Reynolds, a likable card in Blade: Trinity, is never more harmless than when he’s acting menacing. His chest is too fussily buff (at least for 1975, when the movie is set), and when he gets angry he turns into a junior John Lithgow — a walking snit fit. Looking at the house, a stately Dutch Colonial, some may feel a ping of nostalgia for those dormer windows, which still make the place look like the face of a jack-o’-lantern. But there’s no candle inside.