There are "lost movies" that are genuinely lost, and there are others that are hidden away so well that they might as well be lost. These movies tend to acquire a certain allure, simply for being impossible to see. The allure isn't necessarily dependent on the quality of the film, or what we might expect the film's quality to be. In fact, the appeal for some of us is inversely proportional to its quality: many of us would gladly forgo a complete director's cut of The Magnificent Ambersons for a chance to see Jerry Lewis's The Day the Clown Cried, or even Andy Milligan's The Naked Witch... though we would certainly regret it afterwards.
A little bit of that allure had attached itself to Amityville: The Awakening, as that movie went from release date to release date, only to be pulled by the studio at the last moment. I think most horror fans know its history by now, but here's a quick summary: Amityville: The Awakening was initially announced by Carl Laemmle as a Universal release for 1930, but production delays and studio financial woes held it up until 1931, when the success of Dracula and Frankenstein made Universal reconsider the wisdom of releasing another Old Dark House flick.
OK, OK, I'm kidding: it hasn't been quite that long. The movie was first announced back in 2011, with a projected release date of January, 2012. It was planned as a found-footage movie, under the title Amityville: The Lost Tapes; but when that idea was (wisely) scrapped, it took until 2014 for the new production to get underway. The finished film was scheduled for release in January 2015. However, in September 2014 it was pulled from the release schedule and postponed until April 15, 2016. Then they changed the release date from Tax Day to April Fools' Day... While they were at it, they also took the opportunity to recut the film a couple of times, in part to compensate for negative responses to test screenings, and in part to tone the movie down from an R-rating (for "strong horror images") to a milder PG. But then — April Fools! — they decided to cancel the release yet again, pushing it off to January, 2017. Then June, 2017. And then, only a few weeks before the premiere, they decided to withdraw the movie indefinitely... except for some limited engagements in east Asia and central Europe.
Just when we were giving up hope of ever seeing the film, the announcement came in late September, 2017: the movie would finally, finally be coming out for audiences in the United States. But it was going to have a very unconventional release:
Now, just let all this sink in for a moment. One of the main selling points of Amityville: The Awakening was that it represented the first "Amityville" movie to get a theatrical release since the Amityville Horror remake in 2005. Also, it was the first theatrically-released "Amityville" movie to be based on an original story. And, believe it or not, it's apparently only the fifth "Amityville" movie in the long, ghastly history of "Amityville" movies to get a theatrical release at all. Note the prominence of the word "theatrical" in all this. The very limited appearance of Amityville: The Awakening in theaters (mainly outside of its home country, to boot) makes the whole PR campaign seem a little hollow.
But on top of that, consider the business model. Here's a film that's been postponed a number of times, to the point where it's become a minor legend. As I mentioned, "lost" movies like this tend to gain a certain mystique, and that mystique tends to sustain our interest... even when the studio's total lack of confidence in its own product tells us that it's going to suck. It's absolutely, positively, without the slightest question Going. To. Suck. After all this time, and all these disappointments, curiosity value alone was going to draw viewers into the theaters, even if their expectations for the finished film were pretty low. So what did Dimension Films do? They allowed this captive audience to satisfy its curiosity for free, more than two weeks before the movie opened for paying customers.
Please don't think that I'm not grateful. Now that I've seen the film, I can confirm: it's terrible — not terrible in a fun way, but feeble... uninteresting... lousy enough that I would have resented spending fifteen bucks on it. So I'm thrilled that I got to see it for free, because the price of admission turned out to be the best part of the experience. But part of me still wonders why they decided to undercut their own box-office sales. Did Dimension want this movie to fail even more drastically than it deserved?
Yet as bad as this all may seem from a marketing perspective, it's actually even worse, because Dimension — which is owned by the Weinstein Company — finally chose to release Amityville: The Awakening at exactly the point in time that Harvey Weinstein became one of the most hated and vilified men in America. October Fools!
Our story concerns a sullen teenager named Bella, who moves into a new town populated by sparkly vampires, burly werewolves, and... wait — no, no, no. I got that all wrong. The girl's name is Belle; she's played by someone named Bella (Bella Thorne). Let me start over: our story concerns a girl named Belle, who moves into a new house along with her mother, her little sister, and her brother who suffers from a gravely serious medical condition. The house is in a little Long Island town called Amityville1
Too bad: I understand they just missed a property in Connecticut that would have been perfect for them..., which for some reason means absolutely nothing to Belle.
Belle's brother James (Cameron Monaghan) was injured in some kind of accident and is apparently brain-dead, but their mother Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) refuses to give up hope he will recover. Somehow she's been able to move him, and all his complicated life-sustaining equipment, out of whatever hospital he was in and into the new home in Amityville. How she manages to cope with his extreme condition all by herself... how she acquired sufficient medical training to keep her unresponsive son alive between visits by the family doctor (Kurtwood Smith)... even how she manages to pay for everything, considering we never see her go to work... all these things remain unexplained. We do get an explanation for James's accident, though, and suffice it to say there may be a reason why sullen teen Belle is as sullen as she is.
We're given a few glimpses of Belle's awkward introduction into her new school — enough that we can fill in the rest from all the teen angst movies we've ever seen. In class she meets a local boy named Terrence, who's played by Thomas Mann... at first, we think he's only interested in her Buddenbrooks ("Is that a Magic Mountain in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"), but this turns out to be a false impression. Terrence turns out to be an interesting character. He's clearly meant to provide some necessary exposition that the screenplay can't figure out how to provide on its own, but he turns out to be one of the most accurately-realized teenage boys I've ever seen in a horror movie. He could have been set up as a love-interest for Belle, or as some kind of hero who steps in to save her at the last minute, but fortunately he's neither. He's just a kid, sometimes helpful, sometimes frankly annoying. He and his friend Marissa — she's a girl, and a friend, but don't you dare put those words together — are the ones who inform Belle that she's living in that house, and help her figure out what's really going on when things begin to get weird.
I can imagine a horror-movie universe in which people have never heard of the Amityville haunting... in which a young person with some modest pop-culture awareness could movie into the most famous haunted house in horror movie history, eye-windows and all2
I should probably mention that neither the real Amityville house at 112 Ocean Avenue, nor the house in Toms River, NJ, that was used in the 1979 movie, have those famous windows any more., and not realize it. It's a bit of a strech, but I can just about imagine it. What I can not imagine is that a universe like that would allow for this:
It's got to be either one or the other. But both in the same film? Amityville: The Awakening clearly puts itself outside the narrative created by both the 1979 and 2005 movies, so it takes place in a world where George and Kathy Lutz were real people and The Amityville Horror was a genuine cultural artifact. Our world, in other words. The idea that anybody could move into the town of Amityville at all, let alone into 112 Ocean Avenue, and at no point be reminded of the movies, or the books, or the TV shows, or all the associated hoopla, calls for a weight of disbelief that I can't suspend.
In any case, our clueless heroine soon finds herself very ill at ease in her new house. Things are strained enough, with Joan blaming Belle for James's condition, and Belle furious at Joan for uprooting the family and moving them to this godforsaken dump. But then Belle begins to be disturbed by things around her. The flies, for example. The stained wallpaper she finds after she peels the current layer off the walls of her room. The voices in the hall at night — are they really whispering, "Kill them all!"...? When little sister Juliet starts having freaky conversations with her silent, brain-dead brother, Belle is convinced something evil is lurking in her new house. And when James starts showing signs of an impossible recovery, she begins to wonder if it's really her brother stirring in that hospital bed.
Now that I've seen the film, it's left me with two nagging questions: For whom was this movie made, and from whom did they want to hide it?
With the age of DVD and Blu-Ray, many older horror movies have enjoyed a mainstream revival that would have astonished their creators. There is a surprisingly large audience who would appreciate a thoughtful tie-in to the 1979 original. This movie is not for them. On the other hand, the 2005 remake did reasonably well at the box office (even though it shouldn't have); clearly there are people who would appreciate a continuation in that vein. This movie isn't aimed at them, either... it even goes out of its way, at one point, to refer to the 2005 version and how awful it was. There's three quarters of your expected audience already, slated for disappointment. Then, too, the new movie was purposely cut down, from an R-rated version, into a PG-rated version — which is conspicuously lacking in "strong horror images". Serious horror fans reacted very negatively when they learned of this development, so there goes seven-eights of the expected audience. But who on earth wants to go to a family-friendly version of an "Amityville" movie? Was a kinder, gentler set of demon-inspired shotgun murders going to appeal to a wider demographic? Really? And if the producers truly believed that, why did they keep pulling it from the schedule?
The plain truth is, Amityville: The Awakening isn't a capital-letters Bad Movie, though the studio gave us every reason to believe — even hope, I suppose — that that was the case. It's just dull. It moves listlessly from jump-scare to jump-scare, checking off Amityville-related plot points with joyless determination. Flies? Check. Stained wallpaper? Check. Opening windows? Check. Red Room? (Sigh) check. There's even a reference to a pig at the window, though the way that's been shoehorned into the script may make you want to hurl something at the screen.
By contrast, here is a quick list of the "Amityville" movies that have come out between the first announcement of this movie and its actual release, not including to half-dozen or so that are still currently in production: The Amityville Haunting (2011, made by The Asylum in a direct response to the announcement of Amityville: The Lost Tapes), The Amityville Asylum (2013 — not made by The Asylum; actually, it's Welsh!), The Amityville Playhouse, Amityville Death House (both 2015), Amityville Legacy, Amityville: No Escape, Amityville: Vanishing Point, and The Amityville Terror (all 2016), and The Amityville Exorcism (2017). Some of these (most of these, actually) are mind-bogglingly awful films. And among them sits Amityville: The Awakening, like a wine cooler in a biker bar. Like a Disney Store in New York's Times Square... in 1974. I'll ask again: For whom was this movie made, and from whom did they want to hide it?
The movie is full of missteps and miscalculations. Take the very opening, a sort of a prologue: we're given what appears to be an excerpt from a documentary on the DeFeo murders, with contemporary footage of the crime scene and the neighborhood. The documentary is narrated in the present tense, as though it's documenting current events; the sound-quality also suggests this is an old broadcast from the 1970's.
There are three major problems with this prologue. The first problem is that the genuine 70's footage gives us a clear picture of the house and environs... and we realize that the images we've been accustomed to from the long succession of "Amityville" movies are entirely wrong. The original house was brown, not white, and those prominent eye-windows weren't very prominent after all. The house isn't off on its own in the woods somewhere: it's in a typical suburban neighborhood, right by the street, surrounded by similar houses. And this discrepancy would be fine — if the film-makers intended to give us an Amityville House that corresponded to the one we see in the actual documentary footage.
But they don't.
While 40 years is enough time for many things to change, it's not really enough to account for the radical differences between the house in the prologue and the house at the start of the movie proper. The projecting wing with its fenced-in balcony is now on the opposite side of the buidling. The front porch is now several feet lower, and the raised basement is now entirely underground. The house is now located on its own, at the end of a long dirt driveway, with the wrong side facing the street.
And even this might be forgiveable, if we didn't go straight from a shot of the original house directly to a shot of the movie version. They just don't match, and it couldn't possibly be more apparent.
But that's not the only problem with the introduction. Here's Issue Number Two: if you were to remove the entire prologue and go straight to the opening credits, you wouldn't get a clear view of the house at all — and that would actually strengthen the movie. And it's not just a matter of getting rid of the discrepency between the two versions of the house.
Let me explain: One of the best moments in the whole Amityville filmography doesn't happen in any of the franchise films. It's the opening shot of The Conjuring 2, in which the camera pulls back slowly from a quiet suburban street, through a window, and into a house... and as the camera finishes its movement, we realize by the shape of the windows which house we're in, without a word being spoken. Remove the prologue from Amityville: The Awakening, and you'd have a very similar effect. Admittedly, we already know that this is an "Amityville" movie, so we wouldn't be in for the surprise that The Conjuring 2 gave us. But if our first glimpse of those famous windows came as Belle walked into her bedroom for the first time, in blissful ignorance of what they signified, it would have made a big difference to the tone of the film. From the way the opening is cut, it really feels like this was what the film-makers originally intended.
The third problem with the prologue is the fact that the same narrator comes back at the end of the movie to provide a commentary on what we've just seen. It's unintentionally funny, because even the 70's acoustics of the voice-over are the same. Did they keep the same guy on ice for 40 years, and bring him back out of storage for the occasion?
Here's another issue: the movie's treatment of Bella Thorne, especially in light the sexual abuse allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. Here's a still from the movie of Thorne, as Belle, swatting a fly:
Look at her clothing — what there is of it. Look at the camera angle. If this was part of the original footage shot in the spring of 2014, Bella Thorne was still sixteen years old at the time. (OK, you can stop looking now.) This is not the only such shot: for instance, the movie puts Ms. Thorne on a staircase, shot from below, in the same skimpy outfit. As I write this, I am a few days short of my 51st birthday. When I see something like this in a movie, I feel like a dirty old man. I feel like I need to march down to the police station and put myself on some sort of pervert registry (no, really, you can stop looking at the picture now). The film-makers felt they had to take out the horror-movie violence to secure a PG rating... but they had no problem leaving in leering footage of a girl who was probably under 18 at the time.
But the biggest problem with Amityville: The Awakening is that it is simply not scary. Not at all. The 15-second Blumhouse Productions company credit that precedes the film, which is deliberately hackneyed, is still creepier than anything in the movie itself.
In this installment, the haunting is perfunctory: yes, there are flies, just like in the original book and movie... but there are usually too few of them to make an impact, and when we finally get more of them, there are so many it's absurd. Yes, there's a window that won't stay closed — but do you remember how subtly that was dealt with in the original movie? Granted, The Amityville Horror is anything but a subtle movie, but when Margot Kidder absently closes a window twice, and James Brolin comes in a few minutes later and closes it again — with neither of them aware of the significance of what they're doing — it's a nicely chilling moment that paves the way for the broader shocks to come. Of course, Amityville 2005 eschewed any attempt at subtlety and showed us a carnival funhouse, with windows opening and shutting by themselves all over the place. Amityville: The Awakening treads a tepid middle ground: we get to see one window open by itself, once. But when Belle goes to shut it, she's startled by a spectral presence in the glass... which we're expected to believe turns out to be her little sister's reflection. Except that's impossible, and clearly not what we actually saw. So either this movie hopes we'll excuse it for ignoring physics and common sense to justify a stupid jump scare, or there's an unidentified ghost in the house who pops up for a single scene. Either way, it's a cheat3
And if you think this a spoiler, you've probably never seen a horror movie in your life. Although that would certainly make you part of the target audience for Amityville: The Awakening, so perhaps this really was a bit of a spoiler. Sorry..
The one reasonably suspenseful sequence Amityville: The Awakening manages to serve up comes when Belle, Terrence and Marissa decide it would be a great idea to watch the 1979 The Amityville Horror in the house at 112 Ocean Avenue... at 3:15 in the morning. The idea alone is enough to generate a few goosebumps.
It doesn't help that the movie's violence has been drastically edited to earn the PG rating. It's painfully obvious where the cuts have occurred, and the coy cutaways leave the fate of at least one major character to our imagination. But cutting away from major characters is a flaw of this movie even without the violence: when they're not presently needed to advance the plot, almost everybody besides Belle simply disappears... sometimes permanently. Belle is able to skip school repeatedly without any consequences: her schoolmates and teachers may as well not even exist after their introduction. Juliet is little more than an adorable prop: one of her only important scenes as a character turns out to be a dream sequence — and it's Belle's dream. Terrence and Marissa, having provided the necessary plot points, drop out of the story and don't even appear in the final half-hour. And don't get me started on what happens to the dog...
Midway through the film, the screenplay gives us what it thinks is a stunning plot twist. It's not; anybody paying attention to the dialogue a few short minutes into the movie will have realized that something's up. But the twist, such as it is, sets up certain expectations for the rest of the movie, and those expectations are never fulfilled. The evil at the heart of the Amityville haunting has changed: it's got noticeably dumber in the last 40 years. Perhaps the demons in the Red Room should have read Jay Anson's book, or watched The Amityville Horror at 3:15 AM with Belle and Terrence, because they seem to have forgotten their own story. There was a method to the pernicious influence in the Amityville house as it was originally revealed to us, and for a while Amityville: The Awakening seems to be using that same method to build to a very dark conclusion. Unfortunately, the film doesn't have the courage of its convictions. Maybe the original cut of the film — the version test audiences disliked so much that the producers pulled the film for reshoots — followed through with the implications it had set up. In any case, the version we ended up with is stuck with a bland and very unsatisfying end.
What's worse, even to get to that conclusion the film-makers had to make a substantial change to the Amityville mythology — a big, fat, round change that is flatly contradicted by every previous installment of the story. Why not? This is horror with training wheels. Why shouldn't its Evil Presence be similarly limited?
Bottom line: this is by no means the worst "Amityville" movie ever made. And that's a damned shame. With a little more ambition, and a little less studio interference, maybe it could have been. And then it might have been worth watching.