Jay Baruchel is Hollywood’s affable geek du jour having plied his unique trade recently in the animated blockbuster How to Train Your Dragon and the considerably less successful rom-com She’s Out of My League. His gangly frame twitchy visage and nasal drone make him perfect for movies in which awkward self-effacing underdogs triumph against enormous odds to achieve great feats like saving a Viking tribe from certain destruction or getting laid by a really really hot blonde chick.
Movies like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice a live-action CGI-fest directed by Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure films) and inspired by a famous sequence from Fantasia Walt Disney’s groundbreaking collection of animated shorts. Fantasia debuted in 1940 long before Disney subleased its animation work to Pixar and "Fantasia" became more commonly known as a popular name among exotic dancers. My how things have changed.
Baruchel plays Dave a hapless NYU physics nerd unwittingly cast into the middle of a centuries-long good-versus-evil battle between powerful sorcerers who wield an infinite array of supernatural powers. Representing the good guys is Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) a wide-eyed eccentric whose all-black goth-pimp ensemble draws nary a suspicious glance on the eclectic streets of Manhattan. Dave it turns out is no ordinary college student but the Prime Merliner which sounds like an underwater number divisible by only one and itself but in actuality is a sort of wizard messiah destined to rid the world from the likes of the sinister Horvath (Alfred Molina) and his imprisoned overlord Morgana (Alice Krige). That is if he can take time off from his bumbling courtship of a pretty co-ed (Teresa Palmer) to actually learn the tricks of the sorcerer’s trade.
“Disposable” and “formulaic” are terms commonly applied to both of Turteltaub’s National Treasure collaborations with Cage but I submit that those films are at least fun if ultimately forgettable. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is far less fun and far more forgettable its formula followed so perfunctorily that it ultimately comes off as an elaborate exercise in corporate cynicism one unlikely to inspire the string of sequels it so transparently hopes to conjure. Which is a shame because the film shows intermittent signs of promise and Cage despite his distracting perm is oddly charming as a sort of desperate weirdo.
An obsessed archaeologist named Kale (Luke Goss) is hidden away in the hills of the desert researching a Native American tribe that mysteriously disappeared. With the help of a well-meaning Indian historian (Russell Means) Kale discovers that a creature destroyed the tribe and he inadvertently unearths the remnants of the monster. Along with Goss the monster traps a rag-tag group of people including an alcoholic female sheriff (Emmanuelle Vaugier) a grizzled rancher (M.C. Gainey) a wise-cracking dude (Charlie Murphy) and others. To their horror this creature is a ruthless and cold-blooded killer who picks them off one by one. Although there are some character actors doing what they do best--especially Means as the wise and haughty Native American grandfather--in general the acting is pretty mediocre. Vaugier tries to do more with her role as the outcast alcoholic who's trying to hold onto her job as the local sheriff but ultimately it's one note. As is Goss as the obsessed scientist desperately trying to bring some veritas to his performance. Actually the very weirdly-shaped creature is the best actor of the bunch and that's not saying much. Matthew Leutwyler made a splash with his zombie comedy musical Dead and Breakfast and tries to follow up with Unearthed. He has assembled a competent special effects team to create one helluva creature--not your usual garden-variety monster here. This creature spits balls of acid which turn into worm-like things that burrow into people's skin. The creature also seems to have claws for hands and needles that come out of his skeleton. Nice image huh? Good thing Unearthed has such a scary villain because this film otherwise would be dullsville.
Here's the real-life story: On Nov. 13 1974 inside a large Dutch Colonial house in Amityville Long Island the police discovered a horrific crime scene: The entire DeFeos family living there were slaughtered by the prodigal son Ronald DeFeo Jr. He confessed to methodologically shooting his parents and four siblings with a rifle while they slept claiming the "voices" in the house drove him to commit the grisly murders. Riiight. One year later happy couple George (Ryan Reynolds) and Kathy Lutz (Melissa George) and their children move into said house thinking they had found their dream home. But soon bizarre and unexplainable events began to occur thus speculating on the house's inner demons. A ghostly little girl-- with a gunshot wound in her head--wanders around talking only to the Lutz's daughter Chelsea (Chloe Moretz). Haunting evil voices keep telling George to "Katch 'em and Kill 'em." And yes there are flies involved. Lovely. While the confused and frightened Kathy struggles to hold her family together George's behavior oddly enough becomes increasingly erratic and dangerous. Hmmm. Time to pack up the stuff honey we're moving out!
Horror films never really procure deep meaningful performances. The actors mostly react to the terrifying events unfolding around them which is pretty much what George (Mulholland Drive) and the rest of the supporting cast end up doing in The Amityville Horror. On the other hand Reynolds--who was so funny in Van Wilder and was the only reason to see Blade: Trinity--actually shows off some genuine skills especially by spouting off sarcastic quips in his trademark delivery while at the same time turning into the bad guy red eyes and all. After one particularly harrowing scene in which Chelsea nearly falls off the roof of the house and Kathy tries to console her after getting her down George mutters "What is wrong with you people? God this family is screwed up." If Reynolds plays his cards right he could be on his way up.
Whenever The Amityville Horror is mentioned I'm reminded of an old Richard Pryor routine in which the comedian questions why you would stay in a house if it tells you leave. He says he'd just get the heck out. "Oh baby what a lovely house what a great house we can live here forever aren't we lucky? …[in a satanic voice] GET OUT…OK well gotta go! Been nice but we're outta here!" The original Amityville did suffer a little from that stupidity as well as listening to lame dialogue from a cast who tended to overact. Fortunately the remake guided by commercial director Andrew Douglas cuts right to the chase and surprisingly uses little to no special effects to achieve the chill factor. Of course the scares aren't really anything you haven't seen before: getting locked in a closet with a dead person nearly drowning in a bathtub as ghostly arms hold you down apparitions appearing in the mirror behind you stuff like that. But like The Shining the sinister atmosphere comes from watching a seemingly normal happy man transformed into a crazed homicidal maniac urged on by a place with a malevolent history. Especially if it really was suppose to have happened. Shiver.