Aisle Seat April in Amityville Edition

Andy Reviews MGM's Terrifying New Box Set

The amount of remakes in production is nothing short of staggering: “The Bad News Bears,” “King Kong,” “War of the Worlds,” a new “Batman,” “The Fog,” “The Warriors” (Tony Scott apparently directing a re-do of Walter Hill’s cult classic), “The Evil Dead,” “The Hitcher,”’s enough to make your head spin.

Remaking an old movie – whether it’s a classic or a film that could actually stand improvement – is obviously no guarantee of success. In the cult movie department, just look at the tepid commercial results of “Assault on Precinct 13,” which despite having Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, was greeted with the cold shoulder by audiences back in January.

MGM, in collaboration with producer Michael Bay and Dimension Films, is about to give another crack at “The Amityville Horror” on April 15th, and the studio has released a 4-disc AMITYVILLE HORROR COLLECTION box-set (available April 5th) to mark the occasion.

Never regarded as a classic, even of the cult variety, the original 1979 AMITYVILLE HORROR (**½, R, 119 mins.) nevertheless became one of the biggest independent hits of all-time. Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American-International Pictures, the pulpy adaptation of Jay Anson’s supposedly-“true story” of the infamous haunted house provides plenty of cheap thrills and a few unintentional yucks to go along with it.

James Brolin and Margot Kidder essay George and Kathy Lutz, who move into the quiet Long Island community of Amityville. Unbeknownst to them, their new home was previously occupied by a family that was slain by their teenage son in a series of brutal shootings. Whether or not the teenager was driven mad by the house (or something in it), the Lutzes soon find themselves being barraged by a variety of haunted house cliches: slime flowing out of toilets, glowing eyes in the upstairs bedroom, invisible play pals of their young children telling them secrets, and George being taken over by some kind of entity from another dimension. Even a local priest (Rod Steiger) fails to clean the house of its inherent evil after giving it the old Father Merrin try.

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, “The Amityville Horror” is standard but competent ‘late 70s horror. The performances are solid but the movie has that “plastic” kind of look so many films of its era do. It’s like watching an “Eight Is Enough” episode crossed with “The Exorcist.” More effective is Lalo Schifrin’s score, which unfortunately was copied in so many other genre films (and used in even more trailers) that it’s then-unique mix of child chorus and creepy orchestral arrangements also seems well-worn.

The new DVD Special Edition of “The Amityville Horror” debuts in the 4-disc box set, and offers an improved widescreen transfer and remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, both enhanced from the previous DVD edition.

New supplements are here as well: “For God’s Sake, Get Out!” is a superb new look back on the success of the film, sporting interviews with Brolin and Kidder, who isn’t ashamed to admit the movie was her “pay day” following “Superman.” Radios spots and the original trailer are also on hand, though the most entertaining new extra is a full-length commentary from parapsychologist Dr. Hans Holzer.

Dr. Holzer may be known to some for his occasional appearances on Leonard Nimoy’s old series “In Search Of...,” particularly in the Amityville episode where he was a lead investigator. Here, Holzer engages in a fascinating, if not completely off-the-wall, discussion of the actual Lutz haunting, noting where the filmmakers went wrong in making the movie and needlessly messing with the “actual” accounts of what happened in the house. It’s the kind of talk one wishes you’d hear more often in a DVD commentary, and kudos to whoever at MGM came up the idea of having Holzer do the discussion -- a clearly inspired choice.

MGM’s box set also houses a bonus Amityville DVD, sporting two excellent History Channel documentaries about the Lutz incident, as well as an extended peek at the upcoming remake.

The set also includes the DVD debuts of the two theatrical sequels, the tasteless AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION (*, 1982, 104 mins., R) and the entertaining, if not generic, AMITYVILLE 3-D (**½, 1983, 93 mins., PG). Dino DeLaurentiis produced both sequels, which Orion released to declining box-office receipts, leading the “Amityville” series to head to the small-screen and direct-to-tape productions thereafter.

“Amityville II” purports to be a prequel showing what happened to the family that moved in before the Lutzes. Tommy Lee Wallace’s script, which claims to be based on Holzer’s “Murder in Amityville” book, is an unholy rehash of “The Exorcist” and numerous other genre films of the period, exploiting the actual murders that occurred in the house and adding doses of sexuality (including incest!) under the direction of Damiano Diamiani.

Shot in New Jersey (exteriors) and Mexico (interiors), “Amityville II” leaves one with a sour taste, mainly due to its attempt to explain the brutal killings by having the teen son responsible for the crimes being possessed by a demon. The movie has an eclectic cast, with James Olson as a priest who attempts to exorcise the teenager of all evils, Burt Young as the doomed father of the Montelli clan, Moses Gunn as an attorney and Diane Franklin (seen also in “The Last American Virgin” during the summer of ‘82) as the eldest Montelli daughter. The make-up effects are okay in an ‘80s gross-out kind of way, but the sequences showing the Montelli son running around, gunning down his family, leave an uncomfortable feeling that no amount of subsequent hocus-pocus can eradicate.

MGM’s DVD offers both widescreen (1.85) and full-screen transfers, plus Dolby Digital mono sound and the movie’s theatrical trailer.

With Richard Fleischer at the helm, the following year’s “Amityville 3-D” offers a superior viewing experience, seemingly more influenced by “Poltergeist”and similar supernatural tales than its predecessors (the movie was even released with a disclaimer that it was unrelated to either of the previous “Amityville” films).

Tony Roberts and Tess Harper play the latest fun couple to move into the Amityville house, just to prove writer Roberts’ theory that the hauntings are just a hoax. Unfortunately for them – and their daughter Lori Laughlin – the Baxters find out the hard way that the spectral scares are indeed real.

William Wales’ script and Howard Blake’s score are both a cut-above the norm, and while nobody will mistake “Amityville 3-D” with a classic of its kind, the movie is a big upgrade on the second film and even offers one or two genuine scares (particularly after Laughlin drowns). The anamorphic frame also gives the movie the most cinematic look of the entire series, though shorn of its 3-D effects, the third film loses a good deal of its appeal.

Like a lot of other 3-D films from the era, “Amityville 3-D” looks a bit blurry in its DVD transfer, though the 2.35 framing is well-composed (a pan-and-scan full-screen transfer is also available). The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is bass-heavy but effective enough, and a brief theatrical teaser rounds out the package.

Coming Next Week From MGM

NAMU, MY BEST FRIEND (***, 89 mins., 1966, PG; MGM)
MAC AND ME (**½, 99 mins., 1988, PG; MGM); Both Available April 12th

MGM’s new family film promotion offers a handful of kid-friendly flicks making their debut on video for the first time (including the immortal Valerie Bertinelli-Conraid Bain classic “C.H.O.M.P.S.”).

Ivan Tors’ 1966 production of “Namu” (originally titled “Namu, The Killer Whale”) is a terrific film for all ages starring Robert Lansing as a marine biologist who befriends the lonely killer whale off the Pacific Northwest coast. Lee Meriwether plays a single mom whose daughter (Robin Mattson) grows attached to the gentle giant, while the local town fishermen want Namu killed because they believe he’s a threat to their community.

This pre-“Free Willy” film is not unlike Disney’s wild life adventure yarns of the ‘50s and ‘60s: the location lensing and cinematography gives the movie genuine atmosphere, and while the plot is routine (Lansing attempts to educate the single-minded local populace about Namu’s friendly aspects), the movie’s messages ring true loud and clear.

The 1966 UA release receives a good-looking full-screen transfer on DVD with Dolby Digital mono sound and no extras. Samuel Matlovsky’s score is spirited and suits the good-natured movie just fine.

Also out next week is “Mac and Me,” a 1988 Orion Pictures release that ripped off “E.T.” and any other friendly-extraterrestrial flick from the ‘80s. It also served as a feature-length commercial for MacDonald’s, from its title right down to an insane musical number and a cameo appearance by none other than Ronald McDonald himself!

The plot, written by director Stewart Raffill with Steve Feke, is a ham-handed pastiche of Spielberg’s classic, with a cute alien stranded on Earth befriending a wheelchair-bound, new kid in school (Jonathan Ward) who could use a friend. Needless to say the alien is ridiculously cute and the movie relentlessly predictable throughout, not to mention heavy-handed and gooey at every turn.

Still, this modest-performing box-office hit has gained some kind of a cult following, mainly among young adults who might have grown up on the movie (I shudder to think about having “Mac and Me” as a personal guilty pleasure), and while MGM’s DVD is in full-screen, the colorful transfer is fine and the Dolby Surround sound also acceptable. The soundtrack sports a nice score by Alan Silvestri that works overtime to give the production some much-needed emotion. Alas, the only feeling most viewers felt was contempt for the filmmakers due to their derivative, saccharine story that’s best left for undemanding young kids.

HAWAII (***1/2, 1966, Not Rated; MGM): George Roy Hill’s grand spectacle was released on laserdisc back in the early ‘90s with a stereo soundtrack and nearly 20 minutes of deleted footage courtesy of Pioneer’s Joe Caporiccio. Unfortunately (just as they did with “The Alamo” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”), MGM has chosen NOT to include the restored “Roadshow” version of “Hawaii” for its DVD release, which has already angered many fans of the Julie Andrews-Max Von Sydow epic. The good news is that the movie’s 16:9 enhanced DVD transfer, while a bit soft, is generally satisfying, and the movie’s Overture and End Credits sequences – backed by Elmer Bernstein’s glorious score – are included in full stereo. The downside is that none of the restored scenes have been included here (not even in a supplement), and the mono soundtrack pales in comparison with the laser’s stereo audio. The original trailer and a rough-looking 10-minute featurette are present, with the latter offering footage of the cast filming around the globe.

HOTEL RWANDA (***, 2004, 122 mins., PG-13; MGM; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week): Don Cheadle’s triumphant performance is the chief asset of Terry George’s acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film. Cheadle plays  a hotel manager who tries and save as many minority Tutsi refugees as he can, while trying to keep he and his family alive while Rwanda is thrown into a state of chaos under the Hutu militia. Keir Pearson and George’s script is a bit rough around the edges, with some uneven supporting roles (particularly by Nick Nolte as a would-be U.N. peacekeeper), but Cheadle’s central performance and the meaning of the film resonate far beyond its flaws, and the atmospheric cinematography by Robert Fraisse aids immeasurably in delivering the intention of the filmmakers. MGM’s Special Edition DVD includes two fine documentaries, “A Message For Peace: Making ‘Hotel Rwanda’” and “Return to Rwanda,” plus commentary by Terry George and the real-life Paul Rusesabagina (whom Cheadle essays in the film), and select commentary from Cheadle and singer Wyclef Jean, whose song “Million Voices” appears in the movie. The 2.35 transfer is superlative and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound also commendable.

New This Week

SIDEWAYS (**1/2, 2004). 127 mins., R, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes with written introductions by Alexander Payne; Commentary by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church; Trailer. 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Paul Giamatti plays a down-on-his-luck English teacher and would-be novelist whose actor pal (Thomas Haden Church) is about to be married. Out for one last buddy-fling before the wedding, Giamatti and Church head up north of L.A. where they wine, dine and fall for a couple of locals: waitress (and recent divorcee) Virginia Madsen and winery worker Sandra Oh, both unaware of Church’s situation and Giamatti’s constant depression.

In a year of disappointing films, it was easy for critics to overrate “Sideways,” which has a few bright moments but several pretentious passages with an overly-active Rolfe Kent score that soon wears out its welcome. Director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor adapted
Rex Pickett’s novel, and they have a tendency to downplay the depressing aspects of the material in favor of offbeat comedic moments. The lack of consequence to the characters’ often disreputable actions (particularly Church’s playboy) never really ring true (often they’re anything but funny), but thankfully Giamatti’s strong central performance anchors the movie and makes you care about his character. Giamatti enables you to see all angles of his character’s alternately pathetic and sympathetic personality, though it could have been just as easily captured in a film that ran 30 minutes less than it does.

Fox’s DVD, out this week, includes a hysterical commentary track with Giamatti and Haden Church that’s often funnier and more playful than the film itself. Seven deleted scenes are included with a written introduction by the director, while a standard Making Of featurette and the original trailer round out the DVD. The 1.85 transfer is perfect and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound just fine for this kind of film.

Overrated but still worthwhile, “Sideways” is worth the trip for Giamatti’s journey (or the duo’s commentary track), and is best viewed with a glass of wine (or two) by your side.

ELEKTRA (**1/2, 2005). 95 mins., PG-13, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes, Making Of featurettes, Comic-Con Featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Not as satisfying as “Daredevil” but a guilty pleasure nonetheless, this box-office flop from last February deserves a better fate on the small screen.

Jennifer Garner is back as Elektra, the feisty heroine we last saw apparently being bumped off in “Daredevil.” It turns out she’s not dead after all, but rather brought back somehow from beyond and with enhanced super powers to boot. Elektra finds herself embroiled in a centuries-old conflict between good and evil (is there any other kind?) after she’s hired to perform a hit to the tune of a multi-million dollar payday. In the process, she runs into dad Goran Visnjic and his gifted 13-year-old daughter, and becomes a pawn in a martial arts battle slickly directed by “X-Files” vet Rob Bowman.

The Zak Penn-Stuart Zicherman-Raven Metzner script is pretty much a mess: with a scant 95 minute running time and a plethora of poorly-defined supporting players, there’s not much room for character development in “Elektra.” Garner gives it her all, but she’s undercut by her role being likewise thinly-drawn, and the lack of a direct connection with “Daredevil” is odd (Ben Affleck’s cameo as Matt Murdock was dropped from the film, an ill-advised choice which can be seen in the DVD’s deleted scenes).

That all being said, “Elektra” provides a colorful, no-brain good time if you can check your brain at the door (a whole lot easier to do with Garner being adorned in the Marvel heroine’s sleek red outfit!). The action scenes are crisp and only somewhat jarringly edited, the anamorphic frame is filled with strong colors courtesy of cinematographer Bill Roe (a nice switch from the dirt and grime of “Daredevil”), and Garner makes for a fetching action heroine. It may not be up to your typical episode of “Alias,” but “Elektra” is worthy of a look by comic book fans on video, where the movie should be greeted with more enthusiasm than its theatrical run.

Fox’s DVD offers nearly five minutes of deleted scenes (including Affleck’s brief appearance), a standard Making Of featurette, another featurette entitled “Inside the Editing Room,” a brief look at Garner popping in during a comic-con presentation, and the original teaser and trailer. There are also bonus commercials for “Fantastic Four,” “Mr. And Mrs. Smith,” and the eagerly-awaited return of “Family Guy” to the Fox airwaves next month.

NEXT WEEK: Bob Newhart, The Lone Gunmen, and Doogie Howser hit DVD! Don't forget to say Aloha on the Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!