Amityville: The Awakening (2017)
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bella Thorne, Mckenna Grace, Cameron Monaghan
Directed by Frank Khalfoun
We get a new iteration of the Amityville story or some semi sequel/prequel constantly. Personally, I’m only a fan of the original classic and its batshit crazy prequel, Amityville II: The Possession. The main reason I was excited for the newest film is that it was written and directed by Frank Khalfoun. I was a huge fan of his remake of Bill Lustig’s Maniac, a film I originally felt was untouchable, as it was able to keep the spirit of the original but tell it in a new inventive way. He took a grindhouse film and made it high art horror.
Khalfoun’s Maniac is an amazing, beautifully shot film; and the characters within, while disturbing, are interesting as hell to watch. With that thought, I kept hope for Amityville: The Awakening as it seemed perfect for him, especially considering how well he had handled the nightmarish scenes of the mannequins in Maniac.
Awakening was originally made under Dimension Films and has gone through cut after cut, distributor after distributor, and has taken more than two years to finally see release. These are all bad signs usually. Just like The Cabin in the Woods getting pushed back forever, I trusted the creative team to deliver. Sadly, this is no epic like The Cabin in the Woods. While I’m not completely underwhelmed, I’m not as satisfied with the end product as I’d hoped. There’s a definitive voice throughout, but it seems it has been chopped and toned down from its original gusto. Too many cooks in the kitchen.
A broken family headed by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Joan along with her daughters, Juliet and Belle, move into the Amityville house to be closer to Joan’s family and receive better medical care for her comatose son, James (Cameron Monaghan). Belle is bullied at school for having moved into the Amityville house, but the history of the house is unknown to her until she makes friends with Terrence (Thomas Mann) and Marissa (Taylor Spreitler), who teach her about the home’s haunting past using the MGM Amityville films(!). Things get super strange as her brother begins moving and Belle starts seeing spooky things at night, leading to a showdown of good vs. evil.
It’s a really cool concept with the evil manifesting itself inside the brother, and Monaghan, whose career has just skyrocketed thanks to his television work, kills it throughout the movie. The thing this movie has in spades is its killer cast that really sells it even when some don’t have much to do. Monaghan is probably my favorite, though. During most of the movie he can communicate only with his eyes, but the pure emotion he puts in every eye movement is really amazing. Once he gets his moment to shine in the end, he gets truly horrifying.
Bella Thorne’s character goes through a roller coaster of emotion, and her performance here shines. It’s easy to start off hating her because she plays the stereotypical pissy teen, but once you start to discover the root of her anger and pain, she grows on you. The moments shared between her and her brother are really heartbreaking, and she conveys so much emotion. It’s just really cool to see this stone cold character completely lose herself in moments of emotion and passion. Khalfoun should be applauded for the dynamic set up between these two characters.
Jennifer Jason Leigh served her purpose well as a main focal point for the story, which leads to a really cool family discovery about the reasons why they are there, but she comes off too one-dimensional at times. I get the grieving mother angle, and she has two small moments of foreshadowing why they moved to Amityville, but she comes off as a horrible mom at times. Her character plays an important role in forwarding the plot, but her clunky portrayal just doesn’t work.
Actors Kurtwood Smith and Thomas Mann seem a little wasted here. Smith plays the doctor who helps with James’ condition but doesn’t really further the plot in any way save one bit of info that leads to a plot point. He also has the worst CGI fly attack ever and a terrible reaction to it to boot. Thomas Mann is usually fun as hell, like in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, but here he’s just a dime store Randy from Scream with the worst dialogue ever. It’s like Khalfoun doesn’t know how to write teens, or possibly his dialogue was changed at the last minute by someone else.
This movie gets really meta. We’re talking to an eye-rolling degree here. It has no connection to any of the other films within the Amityville universe, but its entire basis of information comes from watching the original Amityville Horror, which was based on the experience of the Lutz family. Oddly enough it doesn’t mention the Lutzes at all but focuses on the original DeFeo murders. Dime Store Randy shows Belle the movies and the book and then goes through a slew of information about the house when he’s standing in it. It’s fun for a minute but then becomes a little grating and way too convenient for exposition. The Awakening in the title is half-assedly explained by Dime Store Randy as well as in passing as a line of dialogue that feels like a really lame excuse for why the house has been quiet for 40 years. Once again, it seems that it may have once set up a bigger explanation but that was cut from the overall end product.
The look of the film is nothing special. Pretty generic stylistically with no really cool shots save for the obligatory Amityville window shot. I honestly can’t believe Khalfoun didn’t have some grandiose cinematography planned for this. There are some really interesting scenes in the last fifteen minutes that kind of edge on something different, but at that point the story delves into all too familiar territory. Then there’s the ending. It’s serviceable enough with some okay drama, but damnit, give us some badass demonic shit and let’s have a little fun!
At the end of the day, this isn’t such a bad flick, but viewers looking for an insane new Amityville experience will just have to keep chasing that dragon. I’m still hoping for something eventually that can even come close to matching the lunacy of Italian maestro Damiano Damiani’s Amityville II: The Possession. Given his work on Maniac, it’s easy to hope that Khalfoun could have been allowed to go to that level of crazy, but alas… it’s just not to be. When all is said and done, Awakening feels rushed and cut to bits to score that coveted PG-13 rating. There was an R-rated version of Amityville: The Awakening shot, but who the hell knows why it’s not available here. It’s not like it’s opened wide in theaters and they were hoping to attract a teenage market. Home video is the home of unrated content, is it not? What we have here is a sometimes fun one-time watch with (for the most part) excellent acting and an interesting premise.
I still love you, Khalfoun!