The epic tale of Amityville: The Awakening began in 2011 with Dimension Films and Blumhouse Productions announcing the impending release of a found-footage film titled Amityville: The Lost Tapes, due to come out in the winter of 2012; it stretched across six years and seven different planned release dates, as its production over the summer of 2014 receded farther and farther into the past. Finally, after appearing almost by accident in Ukraine and the Philippines in the summer of 2017, it was shamefacedly pushed out for a one-month free stint on Google Play - Google fucking Play, of all places! - that rather severely undercut the nominal theatrical release meant to take place smack in the middle of that free month.

Such a brave, miserable history it's been, and at the end of it, what do we have? Nothing less than the most horrendously dull film with the word Amityville in the title yet, though that dullness is sharpened by the fact that at least The Awakening looks somewhat less insultingly cheap than the seemingly endless glut of direct-to-video Amityvilles scattered across the 2010s (a glut based, I do believe, in the hope that The Awakening would make enough of a splash to support a constellation of knock-offs - haha, joke's on you, micro-budget producers who failed to predict how epically fucked the straightforward act of releasing The Awakening would turn out to be). There is one way and one way only in which the film distinguishes itself as memorable or unique, and I am sad to report, it's not a good way: The Awakening demonstrates, against my expectations, that it is entirely possible for Jennifer Jason Leigh to give a terrible performance.

The film takes place in the bygone age of 2014, forty years exactly after Ronald DeFeo, Jr. murdered his parents and siblings in the Dutch Colonial house at 112 Ocean Ave. in Amityville, New York. The latest inhabitants of that storied building are the Walkers: single mother Joan (Leigh), and her two daughters, teenager Belle (Bella Thorne) and eight-year-old Juliet (Mckenna Grace, who has had an entire career as a child actor in the years since this was shot), along with Belle's twin brother James (Cameron Monaghan), whose brain has almost completely died following an accident, and whose body is kept blipping along thanks to an array of machines. Joan seems to hold out hope that one day, James might regain consciousness, though nobody, including neurologist Dr. Milton (Kurtwood Smith), shares her optimism.

Credit where, I guess, credit is due. Amityville pictures all the way back to 1982's Amityville II: The Possession have been happy to cater to the presumption of an extremely impatient audience, obliging the presence in The House - or, when applicable, the presence carried out of The House via lamp, clock, dollhouse, mirror, or scrap lumber - to start manifesting itself almost the instant that the new family first unlocks the front door. The Awakening plays things a bit slower, letting the Whatever Dark Force It Is creep into the film oh so slowly, and unseen by the viewer at first. Our initial sense that something is wrong comes from Juliet's insistence that James is talking at night; what seem like at least a couple of weeks of plot drift by with only small irregularities in the comatose boy's status cuing us to the demonic onslaught waiting in the wings, and the characters themselves don't seem to make much of these cues until even later. Even once Belle is told the house's legendary history by the only people at school who haven't immediately decided that she's a socially unacceptable freak, Terrence (Thomas Mann - the 22-year-old American actor, not the deceased German author) and Marissa (Taylor Spreitler), she doesn't really buy into it.

So that's, like, nice. The only problem is that writer-director Franck Khalfoun doesn't do anything with that added space; this isn't a slow-burn horror film so much as one which can't get the tinder to light. Most of the film's running time is given over to the immensely uninteresting story of the mild tension between Joan and Belle, owing to Belle's role in James's accident (the details of which, when we learn them, are as splendidly idiotic as one would hope), and Belle's loneliness in a hostile new town, which translates to a sardonic flippancy in her behavior. Neither of these things is terribly interesting, or persuasive - Thorne is a bland performer, and the most that the four Walkers feel like a family lies in the uncanny physical resemblance of Thorne and Leigh. The attempt to make the medical drama fuel the film in an effective way runs aground of Leigh's strangely flat, squawking performance, and the teen drama is pure clichรฉ.

What makes The Awakening minutely interesting, in what little ways it manages to be so, are the ways it engages with the corpus of mythology surrounding the house at 112 Ocean Ave. It's "realistic", as far as that goes, openly acknowledging that nobody since George and Kathy Lutz in 1975 ever reported paranormal activity in the house (it fails to acknowledge that the house's subsequent owners have removed the distinctive quarter-moon winows, and had the address legally changed, both in the hopes of dissuading morbid sight-seers from bothering their privacy). It also uses the relatively high budget - this is by a considerable margin the costliest Amityville film since the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror, not that it took much to overleap that bar - to secure the rights to use footage from 1979's The Amityville Horror, the film whose enormous popularity enabled the whole rest of the not-officially-a-series, and which remains, after almost 40 years, the only one that I'd say crosses the imposing barrier to being An Okay Movie. Most of the interim Amityvilles, be they from the initial glut in the '80s and '90s, or the torrent of '10s indies, have carefully tiptoed around acknowledging the reason why the tiny suburb of Amityville is nationally well-known in the first place; for a film to stride forward and declare that yes, this is all because of that 1977 book and 1979 movie, is a genuinely refreshing spin on the ossified mythology.

More minutely interesting still is what The Awakening thinks to do with that mythology. We do not have yet another iteration of the Lutz family story, with little more than the names changed to accommodate the usual 28-day assault of demonic presences; a lot of the ingredients are the same (the littlest girl starts seeing things first, buzzing flies, the focus of the terror is in the basement), but the framework has been skewed enough that it doesn't feel like a retread. And the final act inverts the whole thing quite thoroughly, giving us the most unexpected justification yet for how a family could traipse right into the most famously haunted house in the continental United States without having a clue as to its notorious history. "Unexpected" not meaning "good"; in fact, the things that happen at the end are dumb as all shit. But it's at least a new direction for a brand name that has thrived on dead-eyed repetition, and if I could never bring myself to call The Awakening an enjoyable film in any way - free on Google Play is very much the correct price to pay for it - at least it has the self-awareness to know that it had to do something to justify its existence. It does it poorly; but it does it nonetheless.

Reviews in this series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)
The Amityville Haunting (Meed, 2011)
My Amityville Horror (Walter, 2012)
The Amityville Asylum (Jones, 2013)
The Amityville Playhouse (Walker, 2015)
Amityville: Vanishing Point (Greenberg, 2016)
The Amityville Terror (Angelo, 2016)
Amityville: No Escape (Couto, 2016)
Amityville Exorcism (Polonia, 2017)
Amityville: The Awakening (Khalfoun, 2017)

Not reviewed at this time
Amityville Death House (Polonia, 2015)
The Amityville Legacy (Ferguson and Johnson, 2016)
Amityville: Evil Never Dies (Ferguson, 2017)