Mark Kermode - Serious bits of fluff

Film - Two zombified films leave us feeling numb and lifeless. By Mark Kermode

The Amityville H

After Dawn of the Dead, Toolbox Murders and The Texas Chain-saw Massacre, the trend for can-nibalising and regurgitating Seventies shockers continues apace with an updating of that hoary old "true life" haunted house yarn, The Amityville Horror. Based on the patently fanciful accounts of a cash-strapped house owner in search of a quick buck, Jay Anson's source novel recounted the supernatural tribulations of the newly-weds George and Kathy Lutz, who bought and then fled a vast home in Long Island whose previous occupant had murdered his entire family. According to the terrified Lutzes, their dream home was beset by demonic spirits, which manifested in plagues of flies, unreliable heating, and a brooding sense of evil that drove their local priest from their door.

Despite much dramatic overegging, Stuart Rosenberg's subsequent hit movie struck an audience nerve, thanks largely to its evocation of an unfolding economic nightmare, neatly summed up in the horror guru Stephen King's phrase: "Think of the bills!" To-day, however, money is clearly no object; despite a few perfunctory nods towards George's growing financial anxieties, this noisily vacuous new version swiftly gets down to the business of giving the audience their dollar's worth of big dumb scares. Thus, while Rosenberg pootled around with demonic eyes, slimy walls, ghoulish plumbing and vanishing wads of cash, advertising graduate Andrew Douglas goes straight for the bloody jugular, serving up jittery visions of rotting zombies who send various members of the Lutz family flying from their new home's precipitous roof, and conjuring an entire Edgar Allan Poe-style underground labyrinth of flesh-ripping torture chambers, from which the ancient evil apparently emanates.

While such things may entertain adolescent audiences with the attention span of a gnat, those old enough to be worried by increasing interest rates may feel a strange longing for the comparatively languorous developments of Rosenberg's original, in which James Brolin's decline from homeowner to axe-wielder comprised something more substantial than the insertion of bloodshot contact lenses.

Screenwriter Scott Kosar is in typical headbashing form, exhibiting that strange mixture of elaborate over-complication and brain-dead oversimplification that characterised his butchering of Sandor Stern's original script for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As for the opening claim that this is "Based on the true story"; neither the imaginative defence lawyer for convicted killer Ronnie DeFeo Jr nor enthusiastic pot-boiler Jay Anson would have had the nerve to show such flagrant disregard for the few verifiable "facts" in the whole sorry Amityville story.

From the unashamedly ridiculous to the pseudo-serious. The Interpreter sells itself as "the first motion picture in history to receive inside access to the United Nations headquarters in New York" - a privilege that presumably explains the pithy speeches on the value of diplomacy over gunfire delivered by Nicole Kidman. She plays Silvia Broome, a UN interpreter who overhears an assassination plot, and promptly finds herself saddled with a loose-cannon federal agent, essayed in de rigueur downbeat mode by everyone's favourite underdog, Sean Penn. Penn is raw and ragged from the recent loss of his wife; Kidman is uptight and twitchy about her own political past, signalled by a distractingly non-specific African accent. Together, they do a lot of meaningful whispering, delivering ripe reaction shots to each other's increasingly gnomic pronouncements about love, death and politics. It's an actors' piece and oh, how they act, displaying the square-jawed earnestness of serious performers lending gravitas to what is essentially a piece of upmarket fluff.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji makes it all look hauntingly handsome, shoot-ing everything in those deliciously shadowy blacks and blues, which have become movie shorthand for high-powered political intrigue. Meanwhile the director, Sydney Pollack, who made his name with such genre-defining hits as Three Days of the Condor, attacks the wild implausibilities of an overcooked script (five writers are credited) with the air of a man determined to keep a straight face amid mounting silliness. But it is the majestic Catherine Keener who effortlessly steals the show, her sadly under-developed supporting role providing the one convincing portrayal of a world-weary federal agent. If only Penn and Kidman had taken a leaf out of her book and stopped trying quite so hard, this might have been a lively, low-key thriller with few highbrow pretensions.

As it is, The Interpreter often seems distractingly self-important as it conjures its efficient confection of fortune-cookie philosophy (words, good; violence, bad; grief, worse) and daft exploitation action (ticking bombs, furtive snipers) with all the stylish depth of an oil slick.