Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2017

Amityville: The Awakening

Brand-name squatter

On collaborative brands and franchise relevance, empty meta gestures, and the latest nail in Amityville's coffin

Amityville: The Awakening
Dimension Films
Director: Franck Khalfoun
Screenplay: Franck Khalfoun
Starring: Bella Thorne, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Cameron Monaghan, Mckenna Grace, Jennifer Morrison, Thomas Mann, Taylor Spreitler and Kurtwood Smith
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 27 minutes / 2.39:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

Brand recognition can be a collaborative partner all its own. And, if you let it, the collaboration can be a fruitful one.

The TV series "adaptation" of 12 Monkeys began as a completely unrelated time travel-based script, before being merged with the storyline and characters from Terry Gilliam's 1995 film of the same name. Jeff Nichols is reportedly doing something similar, attaching himself to a "remake" of Alien Nation on the back of an already-in-progress script with similar ideas. Direct sequels like Ocean's Twelve and Die Hard with a Vengeance took existing, unproduced screenplays - Honor Among Thieves and Simon Says, respectively - and modified them to accommodate established characters and continuity.

No doubt this happens on a semi regular basis with movies that wind up spawning multiple installments (namely those not already based on mountains of ready-to-adapt source material); a backwards version of this seems to be standard operating procedure for the ongoing Cloverfield series.

I'm not saying that's what happened with Amityville: The Awakening. Indeed there are no indications this was the case. And yet it's a movie whose only relevance to the connotations and history associated with its title is the fact that it keeps mentioning it every three minutes. It's set in the legendary Amityville house, but it could just as well have been any other haunted house. It could just as well have been set anywhere, if not for the obnoxious teenage fanboy who periodically shows up to produce expository details about Ronald DeFeo, the events of 1974, the house's enduring legacy, and each of the movies made in its name. Practically and substantively, this film has virtually nothing to do with DeFeo, or Amityville as a paranormal or pop-culture icon; it simply attached itself parasitically to a recognizable brand.

It seems to believe - or, more likely, cynically wants us to believe - that it's using that brand for a more interesting purpose. This purpose boils down to a certain meta awareness of itself. In one scene, once aforementioned aficionado Terrence (Thomas Mann) has invited himself over for an Amityville movie night at the famed house itself - an offer reluctantly accepted by its new tenant, and his new classmate, Belle (Bella Thorne) - he lays out a collection of DVDs. The 1979 original Amityville Horror; its 1982 prequel, Amityville II: The Possession; and the 2005 Ryan Reynolds-starring remake. They groan and unanimously agree to discard the latter. "Remakes are always worse!" (Ho, ho.)

Terrence is essentially a stand-in for the screenwriter - his way of telling us, "Here's why this specific house matters to this story," without the rest of the film ever doing much to make that case. Within the context of this franchise, the events of the narrative never get to speak for themselves; Terrence insists on speaking for them. He's an expert on all things Amityville Horror, so when Belle shows up on the first day of school - with the whole town fully aware what house the new girl lives in - he can't help but acquaint himself. Mostly as a method of hearing himself speak about his particular area of expertise - not because he has any particular interest in Belle as a human person. She has no idea of her new home's reputation when she first moves in, but Terrence is more than happy to get her up to speed. That he not only sincerely believes in the house's mysterious, murder-inducing powers but continually insists, to Belle's face, that her house is trying to kill her and her family - while making no request that she ever leave the premises - seems like an odd strategy for making friends. What's the opposite of a knight in shining armor?

Of course, his latent moral apathy - if not amorality - is more a product of the film sloppily injecting itself with trivia and mythology about the house than a true reflection of character. Terrence is a mouthpiece, and when he's no longer needed, he exits and is not seen again for the duration of the movie.

The object of the house's power this time around is its most helpless occupant - Belle's twin brother James (Cameron Monaghan), who's been in a vegetative state for two years after a valiant attempt to defend his sister's honor went terribly wrong. He slowly starts recovering - in a way his doctors had insisted was not possible - first with subtle physical reactions to voices and other stimuli, later with more discernible consciousness and communication. Only Belle seems skeptical, and comes to realize it's the house - or whatever spirit inhabits it - giving James his newfound strength. It's still him in there, but he's been joined by a much more powerful presence.

Despite a presumptive clarity to the stakes, and the rules operating within this famed location, The Awakening often has trouble following its own internal logic. There are shots that explicitly suggest one thing - I'm thinking in particular of a moment involving the mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, reacting in a particular way to an unexpected event - only for characters' assumptions and understandings to have changed, or reversed, by the time the next scene or two rolls around. This feels, at almost all times, like something that's been re-written, re-shot and re-cut on the fly.

At its best, the film finds a source of underlying fear and discomfort in James' gaunt, atrophied body, which has twisted into a rigid knot and periodically appears upright - in brief hallucinatory flashes - as a sort of deformed skeletal wraith. Belle's aversion to James' physical form is inseparable from the pseudo-philosophical debate between her and her mother over whether he's "really" still alive, or whether what's alive is really, in one sense or another, him. Director Franck Khalfoun doesn't push that angle, visually or otherwise, very far, but it's our only glimpse of an interesting movie. All the Amityville talk is mere distraction.

The long-delayed Awakening - originally scheduled for release nearly three years ago - isn't just a useless addition to the Amityville canon but a disappointingly banal one from Khalfoun, who showed such dazzling ability behind the camera in 2012's otherwise unnecessary Maniac remake. Reportedly, a sizeable chunk of the movie was cut to secure a PG-13 rating - the kind of common studio maneuver that seems more and more outdated, given the decreasing importance of the theatrical run in any movie's permanent legacy. Regardless, unless there's an entirely separate 90-minute feature left on the cutting-room floor, no amount of restored footage could transform Awakening into something worth anyone's time.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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