Written and Directed by: Franck Khalfoun
Starring: Bella Thorne, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kurtwood Smith
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Every house has a history. This one has a legend.
Few franchises are more tenuous than the series of Amityville films, which technically—and more or less officially—petered out after three entries (and even the third had to carry a disclaimer that it wasn’t truly a sequel to The Amityville Horror for legal purposes). After that, the “brand” name carried on arbitrarily enough, mostly via various knock-offs that involved haunted items from the Amityville house, meaning there’s an entire assortment of movies best remembered as “the one with the lamp” or “the one with the dollhouse.” In that spirit, Dimension has revived the title with a film that can perhaps best be described as “the one with Patrick in the Amityville house,” which to be fair is among the more inspired takes, I suppose.
Less inspiring, of course, is the years-long delay accompanying The Awakening, a fate that seemed inevitable given Dimension’s involvement. Hatched all the way back in 2014, this follow-up endured numerous delays, not to mention an almost comical amount of release dates spanning several years before it was ignominiously dumped to Google Play last month for free. There’s DTV, and then there’s “straight to Google Play free of charge.” If there’s one “franchise” that doesn’t need so many warning signs, it’s this one, even if Dimension did its best to overcome the stigma attached to Amityville by assembling an impressive cast and crew.
With all that said, The Awakening mostly comes out in the wash: between the lowered expectations and the talent involved, it’s not an altogether terrible entry, especially considering how low the bar has been set with this series. Again, the setup at least features something of an interesting wrinkle: after some faux-grainy documentary footage recounts the infamous DeFeo murders, we’re told the house has stood without incident for 40 years, at which point a family of four decides to move into the infamous abode at 112 Ocean Avenue. This time, beleaguered mother Joan Walker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has moved to escape some recent trauma that has left her son James (Cameron Monaghan) comatose. Her oldest daughter Belle (Bella Thorne) carries a cryptic guilt about her brother’s condition that obviously weighs on her, especially since her mother clings to a desperate—and futile hope—that James will miraculously recover.
When it looks like James has done exactly that—much to the amazement of his doctor (Kurtwood Smith) and the delight of his mother—Belle is suspicious. It turns out this perfect (and absurdly inexpensive) house has a history with the locals, including Belle’s new acquaintances at school, who fill her in on the details with a DVD copy of the original Amityville Horror. That’s the wrinkle here—it turns out that The Awakening is set in the “real world,” where all of those Amityville films that have plagued us throughout the years are just that: a series of fictional embellishments that have haunted the town for 40 relatively peaceful years—until now.
But lest you think The Awakening sees this meta-wrinkle as an opportunity to explore, well, anything substantial, think again. More than anything, it seems to exist for the characters to make a predictable, eye-roll-inducing quip about how they should watch the original film instead of the 2005 redux because “remakes suck.” Not only does this feel like the sort of gag you’d expect from a film released a decade ago (you know, at the height of the remake craze), but it’s also especially galling since The Awakening basically feels more or less like the same old Amityville shit. In fact, it would have barely registered amongst the horde of haunted house movies that would have inspired its production years ago.
Save for one admittedly clever twist, it offers the same reheated scares from previous Blumhouse fare. Familiar parlor tricks, like a young girl walking through an ominously lit house and encountering supernatural nonsense are even more trite than usual here since they’re punctuated by obnoxious, CGI-aided jolts. Sure, it all looks slick and certainly feels like it’s better than it has any right to be considering the talent that’s involved, but it's utterly lacking in anything resembling a pulse. If nothing else, I suppose that’s fitting for a movie that’s vaguely riffing on Patrick, a terrifically perverse film that’s daring in a way this imitator definitely is not. Imagine yawning through an especially lame, predictable dark ride: that’s pretty much Amityville: The Awakening.
All of this has the effect of leaving you a bit astounded: just how did this collection of talent—which includes Franck Khalfoun behind the camera in addition to the Blumhouse branding—conspired to craft something so forgettable and mediocre. Obviously, Dimension’s tinkering—an all too familiar horror story for genre fans—did it no favor, but I’m certainly in no position to perform a half-assed autopsy on this DOA sequel. What I can say is that there’s a glimmer of an interesting movie buried in here somewhere. I mean, you can’t just cast the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kurtwood Smith without stumbling onto something worthwhile, even if the film ultimately doesn’t have the good sense to capitalize on either of them. It’s not that Thorne isn’t decent (and one can certainly see the monetary reason for wanting to put and up-and-coming star front-and-center)—it’s just that the whole thing comes off as the latest teen-horror nonsense carrying the Amityville banner.
But again, it’s not without its moments. As routine as it mostly feels, the script tosses in a pretty wild curveball that turns Leigh loose, at least, resulting in a pretty fun—if not unexpected—turn from an actress who is decidedly too good for this shit. If nothing else, she’s on the level here, having fun when it’s called for (like when she’s reveling in the contents of the house’s basement) without tipping so far into camp that you don’t feel some measure of sympathy for a mother willing to do anything to keep her son alive. It’s just a shame that it’s all in the service of yet another Amityville movie that climaxes with a shotgun toting maniac terrorizing family members, the crescendo to a Greatest Hits package that includes a copious amount of flies, portals to hell, and even some incestual innuendo. The lone distinction here is that the on-screen carnage seems to have been literally scrubbed away, at least if the more gore-soaked behind-the-scenes featurette is any indication.
Amityville: The Awakening is a severe case of déjà vu in more ways than one for genre aficionados. Obviously, this isn’t the first time Dimension has effectively scuttled a movie and churned out a lackluster final product. However, it most reminded me of Leatherface, another recently-released (and long-delayed) franchise revival helmed by French auteurs but eventually undercut by studio interference. But where that film at least retained some of Bustillo and Maury’s distinctive penchant for ultra-violence, The Awakening has been all but sanitized of just about anything that would remind you of Kahlfoun’s previous work. Just about the only thing keeping this anonymous, bland offering from being the worst-case scenario is the fact that it still somehow lands in the middle of the Amityville pack—though that certainly says more about the franchise as a whole than this particular entry itself.
Amityville: The Awakening is now available on Blu-ray from Anchor Bay and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. The disc includes a 5-minute making-of featurette.
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