Franck Khalfoun’s Amityville: The Awakening is an elegant entry in a lame series of horror films. Perhaps taking a cue from the films of Mike Flanagan, Khalfoun establishes an emotional parallel between the demonic hugger-mugger and a crisis that’s already in effect among the iconic house’s new inhabitants. Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a mother in denial about her son, James (Cameron Monaghan), who’s long been in a coma from which he’s unlikely to awaken. Wracked with grief, Joan essentially leaves her daughters, Belle (Bella Thorne) and Juliet (McKenna Grace), to their own devices, moving them into the infamous Amityville house for a chance at a new beginning.
Khalfoun does disappointingly little with the scariest element of any Amityville film: those windows that resemble demonic eyes. Khalfoun’s fluid staging—long takes that emphasis the setting’s shadow-marked nooks and crannies, the springing of a few unusually effective jump scares—dilutes the blunt, grimy, jackhammer intensity of Stuart Rosenberg’s largely artless The Amityville Horror. But a sense of real craftsmanship is a relief for a series that’s composed of nearly a dozen barely watchable sequels and remakes.
A haunted-house film populated mostly by women is also unusual and refreshing, though one wishes that the conflict between Joan and Belle had surfaced gradually. Joan’s irrational and vacant from the start of The Awakening, and so her stubborn devotion to James and the Amityville house is more irritating than poignant. A sense of Joan and Belle’s relationship before James’s injury may have given the film a more tragic trajectory.
The PG-13 rating shackles the sort of lurid flourishes that Khalfoun sprung in his surprisingly potent Maniac remake. A few unnerving images hint at the perversely Oedipal horror film that could have been, especially an incestuous glimpse of James magically moving his hand across Joan’s bare back. This scene is framed from Belle’s perspective, emphasizing the daughter’s sense of shock and betrayal. And an almost Freudian shot of James lurking in Juliet’s closet is terrifying, showing the boy in a hunched and demonic animal state.
Khalfoun allows the prior Amityville films to exist in the world of The Awakening, which frees him of having to contend with dozens of prior incompatible realities while occasionally establishing an echo effect between the old and new films. In a clever yet conceptually unfulfilled scene, Belle and a few friends watch the Rosenberg film at the time the real murders were said to have occurred. The power goes off in the house, and we’re primed for a new and crazier riff on established tropes, though Khalfoun weirdly refuses to escalate the tension and pay off the sequence with a punchline. The Awakening often feels as if it’s starting all over again from scene to scene, drinking in Belle as she wanders one shadowy corridor after another. This is easily one of the best Amityville films, but it’s marred by timidity.