Amityville: The Awakening (2017)
85 min., rated PG-13.
For an installment in an 18-films-and-counting series about a cursed house, “Amityville: The Awakening” has been cursed itself. Filming was completed back in 2014 and release was originally scheduled for January 2015. The release date was then delayed and moved around three more times before being pulled from distributor Dimension Films' releasing schedule entirely. Now, after three years of being in the can, the film is available for free streaming on Google Play and headed for a DVD/Blu-ray release after that, and incidentally in that span of time, three other in-name-only “Amityville” knockoffs have passed this one by. One would expect “Amityville: The Awakening” to be nothing short of abysmal, but if one can put all of that troubled production nonsense aside, it is actually far more watchable than all of that might suggest. Technically a reboot to 1979’s “The Amityville Horror,” this one positions itself as a self-aware entry by commenting on the original, its prequel and sequels, and even the slick, hollowed-out 2005 remake and rendering all of them fiction — not a bad way to reroute this left-for-dead franchise. It is still pretty much a standard haunting tale with basic night-terror frights but respectably well-made on those terms alone.
Forty years after Ronnie Defeo brutally slaughtered his family of six in 1974 in the middle of the night, the house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Long Island, New York, gets a new family. Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has gotten a deal on the property and relocates her two daughters, goth teen Belle (Bella Thorne) and little Juliet (Mckenna Grace), along with Belle’s twin brother James (Cameron Monaghan). The house is close to her sister (Jennifer Morrison) and not far from the best neurological department for the incapacitated James, who’s been in a coma for two years, living in a vegetative state in a hospital bed. Having to start a new high school for her senior year, Belle is not coping well with the move, but Mom believes the house will be good for James and help him towards recovery. Once Belle begins getting picked on at school, she learns from a nice boy, Terrence (Thomas Mann), that it’s the reputation of her new house. Belle may be the last one to find out, but she will be the first to believe that something has been awakened in the house and has already latched itself to her brother.
Living up to the Blumhouse name in terms of atmosphere and production values, “Amityville: The Awakening” might be the classiest looking film in the series, with very few of the obnoxious flash cuts of the Ryan Reynolds-starring do-over. Writer-director Franck Khalfoun (2013’s “Maniac”) actually allows tension to build to tell his more character-based family drama before unleashing some creepy house jolts and pretty much becoming a rehash of 1982’s “Amityville II: The Possession” and even 2009’s “The Haunting in Connecticut,” which also involved an ill teen. With that said, the clever little wrinkles that Khalfoun comes up with to hopefully enliven this particular series are interesting. For one, the whole meta angle is pretty amusing. Terrance first shows Belle a copy of Jay Anson’s book, “The Amityville Horror,” and then convinces Belle and his girlfriend-of-sorts Marissa to watch his DVD of the 1979 original film at Belle’s new home at 3:15 am, the exact time Ronnie Defeo went berserk with a shotgun. There is even mention and visual recognition of the prequel, “Amityville II: The Possession,” and the 2005 remake to which one of the girls says, “Remakes totally blow.” For two, there is also a bounding circle in the backyard that contains the evil, a plot point that might come in handy later on.
Strip away the blood-stained past in the Amityville house and there is a solid-enough family drama inside. Bella Thorne (2017’s “The Babysitter”) broods but brings enough emotional honesty to the role of Belle, James’ twin sister who initially just feels like a selfish brat tired of being second fiddle to her twin brother but also deals with guilt for feeling responsible for her brother’s state and is later faced with a difficult choice to save him. Jennifer Jason Leigh sells the denial felt by mother Joan, who has put every inch of her life into keeping her son alive even if he may not wake up. As James’ doctor, Kurtwood Smith takes a swift exit, as one does after an attack by hell flies, but Thomas Mann and Taylor Spreitler (TV’s Kevin Can Wait”) also both make impressions as Belle’s new friends Terrence and Marissa, only to disappear later on. And, for someone who mostly lays in bed with his body contorted, Cameron Monaghan (TV’s “Shameless”) is effective on that level, until having to take on the “kill them all” role that every actor in this series must. No one will fall on the sword in recommending “Amityville: The Awakening,” except for the most diehard “Amityville” fans, but it’s too competent to be a fiasco. With that said, an “Amityville Horror” universe should still be counted out.
Grade: C +