I suppose there’s a fair amount of grim irony in a film about demonic happenings having spent so long in development hell, but the sad reality of Amityville: The Awakening’s nightmarish production – it was filmed in 2014 but is only just seeing a release after numerous delays – is that the thing’s such rubbish that nobody involved in its creation wanted people to see it. They will, of course – the film’s set to be released for free on Google Play on October 12, then to enjoy a limited U.S. theatrical release on October 28, and it might even have enough name value to do some decent business. Which is odd when you consider these things have never actually been any good; at this point, the only thing more haunted that the Amityville house is the Amityville brand.
Anyway, Amityville: The Awakening is a direct sequel to The Amityville Horror, from 1979, and smartly ignores all the other sequels in the hope that people will forget they ever happened – a mission that had already been accomplished, for me at least, about five seconds after watching them. Still, it’s an approach that recently worked out okay in Leatherface, so I can hardly fault writer-director Franck Khalfoun’s logic. Luckily, I can still fault his direction, his writing, his imagination, his tolerance for abysmal performances, his casting of Bella Thorne in any capacity, let alone as the lead, and his adherence to a genre template that is so tired and familiar that more than once I was quoting scenes word-for-word despite never having seen them before.
The plot sees Belle (Thorne) move into the infamous Amityville house with her frazzled single mother, Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh, overacting to the point of hilarity), her precocious little sister, Juliet (McKenna Grace, who played the child prodigy in Gifted; she’s younger here), and her comatose, shrivelled-up twin brother, James (Cameron Monaghan). Belle has the kind of problems that fall somewhere within Bella Thorne’s range, which is to say she’s morose, pouty, and often underdressed. I don’t know if it’s fair to criticise a pretty idiot for being a pretty idiot, but I’m not eloquent enough to think of a better description for the glossy vapidity of Thorne, who strikes me less as an actress than a Disney store mannequin brought to life – perhaps by the kind of paranormal phenomena that plagues her new home.
There are a couple of decent ideas here; nothing that might really rescue a film such as this, but enough that you occasionally wish that Khalfoun was a better storyteller, or at least a better technician. The first is using an atrophied, vegetative coma patient as a vessel for the house’s evil. James’s miraculous recovery and gradual corruption is occasionally undermined by some ropey makeup and visual effects, but hey, at least he’s not a creepy little girl with long hair covering her face. It’s just a shame that there’s nothing at all noteworthy about Khalfoun’s direction or imagery. His scares are all copy-pasted from the big Hollywood-horror directory where you can find such highlights as my personal favourite, “crouching ghoul turns around and screams.”
The other noteworthy aspect of Amityville: The Awakening is that it occupies a weird meta continuity within which the other Amityville movies actually exist – as movies. This of course allows for a scene in which the characters – including Belle’s school chums, played by Thomas Mann and Jennifer Morrison – gather round to watch the original at 03:15am, making time to poke fun at its abysmal 2005 remake, which feels less like a subversive writing wrinkle and more like everyone acknowledging that they’re starring in an equally bad movie.
I wasn’t expecting much, admittedly, but I got even less than that. I suppose this is the season for offal such as this, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasurable to swallow. Amityville: The Awakening is a dopey, clichéd slab of genre slop that is served as artlessly as possible to an audience that have been waiting so long for the meal that they’re long-past the point of being hungry. It might stave off starvation, but it provides no emotional or intellectual nourishment, and scarcely clears even the lowest bars of competency and entertainment value. It took three years to be released, it’ll take only three minutes to be forgotten, and the only thing its awakening is resentment.
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