The Amityville Snorer
I finally made it to the Berkeley Plaza Cinema 7 to see the Amityville Horror. I thought the trailer looked good and my hopes were raised when the makers decided to go with an R-rating instead of the more financially safe PG-13.
I had the almost perfect setting to see a scary movie. My usual movie-going buddy had to work and the theater, for a late showing on a Tuesday night in April, was dead. I sat alone in the theater. I had my $5 ticket in my pocket, my $2 bag of popcorn in my lap and a readiness to suspend belief and be thrilled.
After watching the movie, I'm really not sure why The Amityville Horror deserved the R-rating or how it would have been less effective at PG-13. There's more skin shown in the average NYPD Blue episode and more horror and violence seen in an episode of The Shield.
Certainly the movie had better special effects than the original yet it's not the size of your special effects it's what you do with them that counts.
The movie begins promising with the slayings of the family in the Amityville house: effective, brutal and to the point. Yet after that, the movie meanders and never seems to remember if it's a ghost movie or a psychological thriller with the husband going slowly insane. Certainly the elements of possession that are hinted at could have been presented in a more believable and frightening manner.
The original released in 1979 was weak material to begin with. As Stephen King describes it in his review of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, the 1979 movie was "stupid," "transparent" and "simplistic."
Yet King modified his view of the movie from between his review of it in Rolling Stone magazine and by the time he wrote Danse Macabre. He still saw it as stupid and transparent, but he recognized the elements that worked that he originally missed.
One reason the movie worked, and it was a huge box office success in 1979, was in allowing the viewers to follow a simple story. The simplicity allowed the audience to exercise their imaginations and accept the inexplicable without clutter requiring them to think. As King wrote:
"Simplicity may not always make great artistic sense, but it often makes the greatest impact on minds which have little imaginative capacity or uponminds in which the imaginative capabilities has been little exercised."
We saw it in the results in the 2004 election. Many listened to the simple message and accepted what they were told no matter how outlandish rather than to think for themselves and to comprehend more sophisticated, but necessarily more complex positions.
The other reason the original movie worked well, the "real watchspring" as King describes it, is the subtext of tremendous economic unease. The 1970s were a difficult time for most Americans just as today's economy is difficult. The middle class is being squeezed out of existence.
When $1,500 goes missing to cover the wedding party caterer, you see the agony in the faces. There is genuine horror when Mr. Lutz writes a check to cover the cost and knows he does not have the money in the account to cover it and the other bills.
"Brolin's check may not have been 100 percent Goodyear rubber, but in his sunken, purple-pouched eyes we see a man who didn't really have the money any more than his hapless brother-in-law did," King wrote. "Here is a man tottering on the brink of his own financial crash. He finds the only trace under the couch: a bank money-band with the numerals $500 stamped on it. The band lies there on the rug, tauntingly empty. 'Where is it?' Brolin screams, his voice vibrating with anger, frustration and fear. At that one moment we hear the ring of Waterford, clear and true -- or if you like, we hear that one quiet phrase of pure music in a film that is otherwise all crash and bash."
As King describes it, everything that works best in the movie is summed up in that scene. The house is slowly strangling the family financially and that is understandable by the vast majority of movie goers, particularly those today with gasoline at $2.35 per gallon and corporations shipping good paying jobs to low-wage earners in Asia in order to make the wealthiest of the country receive even higher dividends.
"Think of the bills," King notes a woman sitting behind him in the theater as saying.
Certainly today's economic situation is every bit if not even more frightening than in the 1970s. Then most Americans could expect that if they worked hard or studied hard in college and found a job, they would do better than their parents did. Certainly the economic uncertainty caused by record ;national deficits on top of record consumer debt and rising housing costs (whether a bubble or not) causes many, like the woman sitting behind King in the theater, to "Think of the bills."
I know what King speaks of. While watching The Ring 2, the only genuine moment of unease for me came when the water gushed out of the television set. "Think of the carpet!" I thought. The water damage. The mildew. The horror. The horror! For someone who waited eight years to buy replacement carpeting and installed it himself to save money, that was the scene I found most effective in The Ring 2.
In the current version of the Amityville Horror, it is as if the director, Andrew Douglas, is willing to show the viewers horrific corpses and brutal murders, but flinches when it comes to scaring us with our subconscious financial fears.
The actors playing the Lutzs, Ryan Reynolds as George and Melissa George as Kathy, dutifully tell us that all their finances are sunk in the house, but we don't see it. Telling is much weaker than showing in story-telling and movie-making. For a couple worried about finances, neither goes to work. They're not shown scratching their heads as they pay the bills or tearing up the house in an anguished search for missing money.
Perhaps it has something to do with how Americans feel about economic class today compared to the 1970s. The images of financial success must always be shown to audiences to create escapism rather than allow the reality of existence to creep into the theater. In the 1970s, the film makers may have trusted the audiences to still look favorably upon those in economically challenged straits. Today's audiences cannot be trusted to see themselves as being anything other than successful for fear it would shatter the illusion (often created by charges to high-interest credit cards) that leads 20 percent of wage earners to believe they are among the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
The movie has many other failures as well: the children see frightening apparitions and are terrified out of their wits, but in the next scene appear to have no memory of the house being haunted; the mother fears leaving the children alone in the house and then proceeds to do that for several scenes; at the end, when they finally must escape, they go past the vehicle parked nearby in the driveway to leave by the speedboat in the boat house far across the lawn. I don't know about you, but if the ghosts are after me, I'm taking the nearest vehicle away.
As King explained about the original "...the main reason that people went to see it, I think, is that The Amityville Horror, beneath its ghost-story exterior, is really a financial demolition derby."
That seems to be a horror that Hollywood fears to show us today.