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‘Amityville’: the horror, the horror

Melissa George and Ryan Reynolds star in this remake of the 1979 film. By John Hartl

The fifth top-grossing movie of 1979, “The Amityville Horror” spawned a prequel, a 3-D sequel, a TV movie, many unofficial imitations and now a 21st century remake. It’s difficult to account for all the fuss — or the franchise’s continuing popularity.

Even in its time, “The Amityville Horror” was a haunted-house yawner, far less scary than “Halloween,” “Alien,” “The Omen” or “The Exorcist,” all of which arrived in theaters before its midsummer 1979 release. Only the 3-D sequel, directed in 1983 by old pro Richard Fleischer, generated any goosebumps.

This is clearly a case in which any remake has to be better, right? Well, the 2005 version is about half an hour shorter, which is certainly a blessing. But in no other way is it an improvement. The chief distinction: the 1979 original was thuddingly dull, while the 2005 edition is simply laughable.

The first-time director, Andrew Douglas (perhaps inspired by the film's co-producer, Michael Bay), relies heavily on booming sound effects and fast cutting to get the audience to jump. But after about 15 minutes of this cattle-prod manipulation, it’s clear that Douglas has little left in his arsenal. Instead of gradually building tension, he builds tedium. And an overwhelming sense that he’s underestimating the intelligence of his audience.

The screenwriter is Scott Kosar, who wrote the 2003 remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and he seems as desperate as Douglas to find a way to freshen the material. They place most of their bets on Lisa (Rachel Nichols), a sexpot babysitter in the Elvira/Vampira vein who seems to have wandered over from the set for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

She does take the movie in a different direction for a few campy minutes, but once she’s gone, Kosar and Douglas are stuck peddling the same collection of stock shock effects. It’s not enough even to carry the movie through its relatively brief 89-minute running time.

The cast, including Melissa George and Ryan Reynolds, skews younger than those of previous “Amityville” adventures. They play Cathy Lutz and her new husband George, who acquire a cheap Long Island home in the mid-1970s, and move her children into the place. It’s a bargain because an entire family was massacred there just a year ago, and the place is presumed to be haunted.

Indeed, the house instantly casts a spell on all of them, but it especially has an effect on Cathy’s daughter, Chelsea (Chloe Grace Moretz), who keeps bumping into the ghost of long-dead Jodie (Isabel Conner). George almost instantly starts threatening Cathy and her kids and otherwise behaving like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” Reynolds, who is primarily a comedian (“National Lampoon’s Van Wilder”), seems out of his depth in the role.

In the only truly suspenseful sequence, Chelsea tightrope-walks her way across the roof of their new home, as Cathy, George and Chelsea’s brothers try to talk her out of following Jodie’s orders to commit suicide. The episode is handled so seamlessly that you can’t help wondering how much of the sequence is digital effects, how much is stunt work, and how much involves actors risking their lives.