Did the voices make him do it? Or was it the moviegoing public, clamoring for more cheap and bloody thrills?

The Amityville Horror was a big hit in the mid-70s, a creepy big screen rendition of a somewhat-true story. The headlines that inspired it are still troubling: A young boy murdered his parents and his siblings in their sleep in 1974, and then, a year later, a different family moved into the same house and were driven out by an oppressive spiritual force. But the news wasn't troubling enough, apparently. So a 1977 novel sensationalized these events and inspired a popular movie and a series of lousy sequels.

Since today's popcorn addicts seem to have a limitless capacity to absorb cheap and indulgent horror flicks, filmmakers seem perfectly content to recycle old material. Just a few weeks after the forgettable, disposable Boogeyman, the new and not-at-all-improved Amityville Horror is No. 1 at the box office.

"Those who want nothing more than a thrill ride might get a kick or two out of this film," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies), "but the rest of us might prefer to hold out for something a little more thoughtful and interesting."

He observes that the "faith elements" of the earlier versions have been left behind. "The new movie is completely uninterested in offering or exploring any sort of subtext. Instead, it offers little more than a stylish exercise in cinematic shock and awe, full of lightning storms and ghosts popping up in mirrors and windows, and lacking anything that might stick with you once the ride is over."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says that the filmmakers "must have decided that they'd need lots more blood, scary images and violence to attract a new audience. And they do pile it on. So much so that their Amityville becomes little more than a series of artificially scary supernatural and bloody moments." He adds that the film "waters down respect for God's power over evil (along with respect for human life) 'just for fun.'"

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Amityville has a few genuine jolts but ultimately unravels into a muddled stew of sensory overload and confusion. The scariest thing about [the movie] is that it is the last major film made by MGM—the studio that made such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Ben-Hur, and Singing in the Rain—before its recent purchase by the Sony Corp. It's a pity that the MGM lion will go out with a whimper, not a roar."

Dr. Kenneth R. Morefield (Christian Spotlight) concludes that the movie "manages to present the Christian faith as the root of all evils … and the cowardly lion that abandons all those who look to it for help from the evils it has unleashed." He gives it an "F."

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Mainstream critics aren't scared so much as they are bored. My favorite quip comes from William Arnold (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer): "The new version … is so full of false beats, heavy-handed staging and unnecessarily overblown effects—and so lacking in suspense and character involvement—that it's about as scary as a Toyota commercial."

"D" is for David Duchovny's directorial debut

Your reaction to the first film directed by X-Files star David Duchovny, The House of D, may depend on your reaction to this telling detail: Robin Williams plays a mentally disabled janitor.

If that brings back bad memories of Patch Adams of Jakob the Liar, well, you might want to think twice. But according to Christian press critics, the film has its virtues and may be worth your time.

The story concerns an American expatriate (Duchovny) who prepares to return home and face the ghosts of his upbringing. As a child, he struggled to endure life with his depressed mother (Tea Leoni, Duchovny's real-life wife), and found comfort in the friendship of a man named Pappass (Williams).

"While most elements of House of D are exceptionally moving, it is not without a few rough spots," reports Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies), citing "jumpy" transitions. "What House of D gives us is its heart: a great script and fine performances. Unlike so much of the computer-generated action junk that shows up in theaters, House of D is about something true and compelling. It's a delightful coming of age drama/comedy that deals with weighty matters of the soul."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) writes, "Despite flaws, House of D imparts overall admirable messages about the importance of honesty, friendship, filial devotion and the finding of your roots, even if served up in platitudinous doses. The performances are excellent. At first, it's difficult to accept Williams as the simple-minded but wise man-child he plays here, but it's to his credit that we finally accept his impersonation as much as we do."

Most mainstream critics might be tempted to give it a "D." Paul Clinton (CNN) says, "Duchovny claims he wrote the screenplay for House of D in only six days. It shows."

The Ballad of Jack and Rose boasts a dynamite Day-Lewis performance

One of the finest films so far this year is also one of the most overlooked.

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Rebecca Miller, daughter of the great playwright Arthur Miller, has written and directed her second feature film—The Ballad of Jack and Rose. This is a much more ambitious feature than her first film, Personal Velocity, and it features your run-of-the-mill Daniel Day-Lewis performance … that is to say, he's phenomenal.

Day-Lewis plays a dying man who is the last resident of an island commune, reflecting on the idealism of the 1960s during which he, his wife, and his friends tried to create a utopia in order to escape the corruption of contemporary American culture. They failed, and now Jack is left to mourn his losses. In his despair, he takes too much comfort in the company of his lovely daughter Rose (Camille Brown), and their relationship toes the line of incest.

Troubling? Yes. Truthful? Absolutely. The Ballad of Jack and Rose is a story about how human beings can try to wall out the evils of society, but we all fall short of the glory of God, and we take evil with us wherever we go. While the film itself falls short of suggesting any answers to this dilemma, there are a few suggestions that can lead us toward hope. One of those moments comes when Jack realizes, to his horror, that he is slipping into self-destructive behavior, and he cries out for God's forgiveness. Another comes when, in the presence of his enemy, he is able to admit his own faults and recognize the other's virtue.

The film co-stars Beau Bridges, Catherine Keener, and Jason Lee, and features a memorable performance by a young actor named Ryan McDonald.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) isn't as impressed. "Though Miller creates an atmospheric backdrop for her strange tale, the vaguely incestuous undertones between father and daughter and a scene where the daughter invites one of the boys to deflower her make for fitfully distasteful viewing."

They're certainly distressing scenes, but neither is portrayed as things to celebrate. If the film had portrayed them in a way that didn't feel distasteful, we'd have a problem. I'll never recommend Ballad as a feel-good movie or as family viewing, but as a thoughtful and absorbing exploration of human weakness, it has admirable strengths.

Mainstream critics are divided over the film, but it has won some enthusiastic raves. Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) calls it "a model of artistic, provocative American filmmaking."

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Down and Derby is downright awful

Billed as a "family comedy" about deadbeat dads who become competitive in a local derby and learn the true meaning of fatherhood and parenthood, Down and Derby is, according to critics, a waste of time that isn't very funny and has very little to say about anything.

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) describes it as "yet another take on the timeworn comedic tradition of over-the-top competition and dysfunctional families. It's not meant to be taken seriously. It's just supposed to be a good, clean, family diversion." Unfortunately, he notes, the film falls short due to "completely unnecessary sexual innuendo it includes. An even bigger concern … is how relentlessly dads are caricatured as immature, selfish and out-of-control. I wish the Down and Derby men had realized how important their boys and wives really are sooner than they did. They behave badly throughout and suffer virtually no consequences."

Most mainstream critics say it's the audience that loses this derby.

More reviews of recent releases:

Sahara: Andrew Coffin (World) says, "It's easy to compare Sahara to last year's surprisingly successful National Treasure. But where National Treasure held to a certain silly logic and narrative structure, Sahara becomes increasingly unhinged as the story progresses."