There was certainly room for improvement where The Amityville Horror was concerned. The legend, borne somewhat of fact, upon which the 1979 film was based might have been one ripe for a cinematic telling, but the result, even in the early days of supernatural horror, was mostly an exercise in staging horror sequences. That was especially true of its 2005 remake, which made all the wrong decisions in attempting both to offer a scene-by-scene update of its forebear and to deviate in several of the crucial details. The tack taken by Amityville: The Awakening, then, is an even stranger one, at least in theory.
In this story, the films mentioned above exist within the world inhabited by its characters. That means that, when Belle (Bella Thorne) and her family move into the estate in Amityville, New York, where a man killed the other six members of his family four decades earlier, she is able to call upon her new friends at school, Terrence (Thomas Mann) and Madison (Taylor Spreitler), to show her the original movie (Not the remake, they state with no sense of irony, because remakes suck) in the living room of the house that inspired it. It is perhaps the only inspired element in director Franck Khalfoun's screenplay.
It also doesn't last long, because the best friends are out of the picture by the half-hour mark, just so Khalfoun can stage horror sequences. That's another irony lost upon the film itself, which at least tries for some time to connect us to Belle and her family before unleashing the hounds of Hell upon them. She feels guilty for an incident at school that forced her to move to Amityville with her mother Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her younger sister Juliet (Mckenna Grace), and her younger brother James (Cameron Monaghan), whose vegetative, almost-comatose state provides the vessel for some of the film's scare tactics.
That doesn't mean that the tactics have much dignity, although Monaghan's performance is the only one here that remotely approaches genuine care taken to bring the character to life. The actor is certainly convincing as a sufferer of Locked-In syndrome, communicating only with expressive eyes and brain waves via a machine that can read them. As Juliet, Grace is only able to play the precocious notes, and Thorne and Leigh both look utterly disinterested in the proceedings. One cannot blame them when the material is almost exclusively reactive in nature: Things scare Belle and Joan every few minutes, and they act vaguely scared in that way that only actors who have done the same take involving the same cues over and over again can pull off.
Eventually, as in the original, the climax arrives, and it once again involves a member of the household stalking the other members with a shotgun. As in the remake, the climax involves unconvincing visual effects creations and a screechy score that underlines and then undercuts every, solitary attempt to raise the stakes and tension. The film is barely an hour and twenty minutes after shaving off the end credits, so at least it doesn't suffer from over-padding. On the contrary, Amityville: The Awakening suffers from being so streamlined and barely tangible that it hardly feels like a movie.
Bella Thorne (Belle), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Joan), Cameron Monaghan (James), Mckenna Grace (Juliet), Thomas Mann (Terrence), Taylor Spreitler (Madison), Jennifer Morrison (Candice), Kurtwood Smith (Dr. Milton).
Directed and written by Franck Khalfoun.
Rated R (horror violence, language).
Released in select cities on October 28, 2017.