You have to feel bad for the DeFeo family.
Not only where they murdered in their sleep by a junkie loser who also happened to be a member of the family but, for the past five decades, their names have been slandered in a countless number of Amityville books and films. The house’s subsequent owner, George Lutz, realized that he could make a fortune by claiming that the murder house was haunted by a demon and, working with an author named Jay Anson, he did just that. Anson’s book, The Amityville Horror, was published in 1977. The first film version was released in 1979. Since then, there have been over 20 Amityville films, the majority of which feature reenactments of the DeFeo murders and all of which let Ronald DeFeo, Jr. off the hook by suggesting that it was the supernatural that led to the murders as opposed to a raging heroin habit.
With so many different films having been made by so many different directors and companies, it’s next to impossible to maintain any sort of consistent continuity from film to film. 2017’s Amityville: The Awakening acknowledges this in the most meta way possible by having the film’s lead character, Belle (played by Bella Thorne), watch the original film with two of her friends while discussing all of the sequels. In the world of Amityville: The Awakening, the films exist and the house is both famous and infamous. And yet, people still voluntarily live there.
The latest inhabitants are Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her three children, Belle, Juliet (McKenna Grace), and James (Cameron Monaghan). James is on life support after having been paralyzed in an accident and Joan is fanatically devoted to him. Though Dr. Milton (Kurtwood Smith) says that there’s no chance of James ever recovering and that he’s probably brain dead, Joan remains convinced that James will someday come back again. As she explains at one point, she’s abandoned her faith in God but she still has faith that there will be a way for James to recover.
No sooner has the family moved in then all of the typical Amityville stuff starts happening. Flies start buzzing around. The dog doesn’t want to be in the house. Juliet starts talking to people who aren’t there. One night, James flatlines but, after being dead for several minutes, his heart suddenly starts to beat again. Suddenly, James is showing indications that, though paralyzed and unable to speak, he is aware of his surroundings. Joan is convinced that James is recovering but is it possible that something else is happening?
If I may take the risk of damning with faint praise, Amityville: The Awakening is not bad for an Amityville film. Yes, you do have to wonder why the house has never been torn down and yes, I’m as bored with the big Amityville flies as anyone else. And the scenes where the characters discuss the DeFeo murders are icky and unethical as Hell. But, with all that in mind, this is actually one of the better-made Amityville films. Director Franck Khalfoun was also responsible for the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be remake of Maniac and he brings a lot of energy to his direction here. He’s smart enough to realize that the audience is going to automatically roll their eyes at yet another Amityville film and he often rolls his eyes with them. As a result, we get some deserved digs at the shoddiness of the other films. Khalfoun is also smart enough to understand that Bella Thorne is more effective as a personality than an actress and, as such, the character of Belle is carefully developed to fit with Thorne’s public image. Jennifer Jason Leigh, on the other hand, is such a good actress that she actually brings some unexpected depth to the role of Joan and the film as a whole.
Amityville: The Awakening is one of the better Amityville films. You still have to wonder why that house is still standing, though. Seriously, tear it down already.