Andrew Douglas’s remake of The Amityville Horror takes a more accurate measure of the diminishing cultural authority of the Catholic church in America than any news analysis piece that followed the death of Pope John Paul II. In the original version, released in 1979, Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) piously struggles to save a family from the haunted house on Long Island it has just moved into; in the new version the priest’s role is greatly reduced, and the one who does appear—Father Callaway, played by Philip Baker Hall—is cowardly and ineffectual. And no wonder: Callaway represents an organization that is now, as the movie’s audience knows, mired in scandal and questioning its identity.
In the years before John Paul II ascended to the papacy in 1978, progressive American Catholics had reason to believe church leaders were ready to acknowledge changing social mores. The reforms of Vatican II in the 60s, though relatively modest, came as a welcome signal that Rome was willing to at least rethink its positions on women’s rights and birth control. John Paul II’s reign would prove that belief misguided, but in the 1970s it wasn’t absurd for moviegoers to believe that the hero of an American horror movie could be a brave, compassionate Catholic priest.
It’s now axiomatic that 70s vigilante films like Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976) sublimated America’s psychic wounds from the Vietnam war. The subtext of 70s horror films, however, was a national anxiety about what we now call “family values.” And Catholicism was a perfect placeholder for that anxiety, because it was then facing its own choice between adhering to tradition and keeping pace with a rapidly secularizing society. In horror films like Carrie (1976), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976), the threat doesn’t come from supernatural demons so much as the fallout of the 60s: feminism, the sexual revolution, rising divorce rates, and other perceived dangers to the American family.
Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) might be the first example of the theme: Rosemary’s domestic imprisonment in unwitting service to her baby’s father can be read as a satire of the backlash against the women’s liberation movement. But The Exorcist set the template that the original Amityville Horror follows and the remake tosses out: a modern family is thrust into peril by an evil that only a strong dose of stern but sympathetic Catholicism can dispel. In The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn plays a movie star and single mother whose career and social life are disrupted when her daughter, Regan, shows symptoms of a psychological disorder that turns out to be demonic possession. The exorcism is the handiwork not just of a senior priest, played by Max von Sydow, but a younger one (Jason Miller) who has doubted the relevance of his faith. The Exorcist arrives at its happy ending by reestablishing the primacy of motherhood and family in women’s lives while reviving Catholicism’s most seemingly archaic traditions.
The original version of The Amityville Horror offered a franker look at the disintegration of conservative family values. George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder), recently married, purchase a Victorian manse that they can afford only because no one else wants it: a young man murdered members of his immediate family there. Kathy, who has three children from a previous marriage, is a faithful Catholic, while George is a nominal one—he’s converted only to marry her. Early on, he dismissively asks where he should hang a gaudy silver cross, and as if to punish him for his weak faith, he’s possessed by the evil that lurks in the house and eventually creates a passage to hell in the basement. Kathy, as the heroine, is a wife first and a mother second: she’s concerned with maintaining her second marriage—even if George winds up attacking the children with an ax during the climax.
In the new version of The Amityville Horror, however, both Kathy (Melissa George) and her husband match today’s middle-class parenting ideals, in which children take priority over everything else, including a sacrament like marriage. The new George—played by Ryan Reynolds with a skill and intelligence that are surprising, given his past roles in Blade: Trinity and Van Wilder—acts more affectionately toward the children than Brolin’s aloof stepfather, and in an early scene lovingly grants one of them permission to call him by his first name. (In the original, the kids call him George in a show of disrespect.) The new Kathy is empowered, a lioness: when George attacks the kids, Kathy subdues him with his own shotgun before leading her brood to safety. Melissa George’s performance has more Lady Macbeth in it than Kidder’s: “This is the life we want,” she says to George when she persuades him to buy the house. She has real estate, not sanctuary, in her sights, and though she invokes her faith at one point, she plainly cares little about religion.
So does the film. In the original, both the priest and Kathy’s aunt, a nun, immediately fall ill when they enter the house—implying that they’re more spiritually pure than the other characters. Though Steiger’s priest has received a secular education as a psychologist, even his colleagues in the church sneer at the notion that something supernatural is afoot. “For a modernist who thought Vatican II didn’t go far enough, don’t you think you sound a little medieval?” one priest asks after Steiger describes a swarm of flies that has attacked him inside the Lutzes’ home.
That scene is among the creepiest in the original movie, but the CGI insects that circle Hall this time look hokey; the low-key special effects of the original may look dated today, but the scares were appreciably more subtle. In the new film we can actually see the ghosts, and everything is literally spelled out—on blood-inked walls and in magnetic letters rearranging themselves on the refrigerator.
Without a Catholic context, the remake—from the producers of last year’s uninspired remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—grasps for relevance with a thin backstory about a murderous reverend who tortured Native Americans on the property centuries ago. It’s an awkward and simplistic substitute: are the filmmakers implying that our Puritan ancestors or their indigenous victims are specters haunting contemporary America? Without a specific culture war to take on, the remake has only pedestrian special effects with which to frighten us—and they don’t. And when Father Callaway flees the Lutzes’ home he can offer only a timid explanation to Kathy for his cowardice: “Your house scares me.”