Written and directed by Daniel Farrands
Starring John Robinson, Chelsea Ricketts, and Paul Ben-Victor
Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes
by Judson Cade Pedigo
We are living in the age of Amityville. It seems like not a year goes by that we don’t see a see a slew of low budget horror movies released with “Amityville” somewhere in the moniker. Go check IMDb if you don’t believe me. As of this writing there are five Amityville flicks listed as “in-development.” What is it about this haunted house story, over forty years old at this point, that still fascinates us? For me it started as a kid seeing all those Amityville sequels lined up in a row on the video store shelves. What made the series stand out to me amongst the others in the horror section was unlike the slasher videos that surrounded me, these movies were based on A TRUE STORY, which meant that the evil house with red eyes for windows was out there somewhere waiting to eat me if I got too close.
To quickly summarize for the uninitiated, in 1974 Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. shot his entire family to death in their Long Island home. A year later, the Lutz family moved in and fled in terror after only one month, alleging demonic forces that were tearing their family apart. Their story instantly connected with a public that was primed for experiences dealing with the occult and paranormal, no doubt due to the release of The Exorcist a few years prior. The novel The Amityville Horror was written in 1977 and the film adaptation was released two years later. From this point there was no stopping the most haunted house in America. The movie spawned sequels as did the book. When the general public eventually moved on, the series found new life among the burgeoning direct to video market of the 1990’s. Far removed from it’s “True Story” beginnings, this phase focused on haunted objects from the house rather the house itself, which included entries about a haunted lamp, clock, mirror and dollhouse respectively. Eventually the law of diminishing returns caught up with the series again and it remained fallow for years. There was the remake in the early aughts but it failed to kickstart any Amityville revival. It wasn’t until 2011 that the no-budget horror community saw the value of adding “Amityville” to a movie title whether it was about the house on 112 Ocean Avenue or not. From there, the Amityville story was reborn for a whole new generation to discover when there was nothing else to rent at the Redbox. This brings us to the recently released The Amityville Murders which is the first release in a number of years to deal with the actual murders that took place and the result is a mixed bag.
Ronald DeFeo Sr., Louise DeFeo. Dawn, Allison, Marc, and John DeFeo. These are the names of the family members Butch DeFeo shot in cold blood with a high powered rifle the night of November 13th, 1974. The thing I have had to do as a fan of the Amityville Horror series is reconcile the fact that it would not exist without the real life murders of actual people, the youngest of which was nine years old. After a while, you reach the point where the facts bleed into modern day folklore which is given over to pop culture and embedded in the public consciousness but I can never shake the fact that lives were lost for this story to exist at all. While most of the entries in the Amityville series have wisely focused on the house, Amityville II: The Possession is the only one which focused on the murders themselves (with the names changed for legal reasons), and is a completely sleazy affair with it’s tale of incest and demonic possession that left a bad taste in the mouths of many viewers. It’s really just an unabashed Exorcist ripoff (missing only the split pea soup) and there really is no point. For fans of trash cinema, it’s a schlocky exploitation piece but, beyond that, it’s really no good to anyone. When I first heard about The Amityville Murders, I had my reservations. There is a disconnect when you’re watching a movie about a haunted lamp* but this would be dealing with very real events. Did we really need another re-telling of this real life tragedy told through a paranormal lens? When I found out it included the stunt casting of Diane Franklin and Burl Lancaster (two stars from Amityville II) they were able to drag me in. As a fan of the series, this interested me but would it be enough to keep me watching?
The difficulty I had going in was going to be putting aside my personal feelings on the real life story and try to focus on the movie itself. This wasn’t exactly easy to do and it might simply be because I know too much. My biggest problem with this movie lies with the portrayal of Butch DeFeo. In real life, Butch was a hot-tempered drug addict whose pastimes included getting into bar fights and scoring dope. Butch DeFeo was not a good person and to depict him as anything otherwise is completely irresponsible. Here, he is portrayed as a tragic figure, the loner with the soulful eyes. Now I know by their attention to detail that the filmmakers have done their homework, they’ve gone so far as to meticulously recreate the family portraits that hang by the stairs. My point is, if they dove that deep into the story of the DeFeos they knew exactly the kind of man that Butch was and they chose to ignore it because it didn’t fit in with the narrative they were creating. I find this troubling, especially when it comes to the ending (which we’ll get to in a little bit.) As much as I tried to enjoy the movie on it’s own terms I kept finding myself unable to cross the divide between the character on screen and the actual person. I know when adapting any story to the screen there are going to be some things that are lost in translation but in this particular case I found the discrepancies too much to overcome.
The movie opens at a double birthday for Dawn and Butch, the oldest of the DeFeo children and the closest in age. As one does at these kinds of things, the pair invite their friends to the secret room in the basement (dubbed the “red room”, the first of many nods to the original) for an impromptu seance. The twist in this iteration of the story is that there has always been a presence in the house, and the two have been coming down there since they were kids to communicate with the spirits with an old book of spells their grandmother just happened to leave lying around (more on her later). This addition seems largely added to make the story more relevant to an audience in this post Conjuring horror landscape we find ourselves in today rather than anything based in reality. I don’t recall Butch ever mentioning this in court but then again, ever since his incarceration, his story about what REALLY HAPPENED seems to change weekly. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, the dark forces they are dabbling in get a little darker freaking out the group and causing the lights to go out. Amidst the chaos we are introduced to the story’s other big bad, Ronald DeFeo Sr. As in real life, Big Ronnie is depicted as a bear of a man prone to violent outbursts and physical abuse. He pounds his son to the ground for no good reason while Butch does nothing to defend himself. Again, this is where I had problems with the portrayal of Butch Defeo. It’s no secret that the toxic relationship between father and son went both ways. There are reports of screaming matches and fistfights between the two from the front lawn of the house but here Butch barely even raises his voice to the man. Why make Butch such a passive character? It’s not only wrong but it’s a boring choice for the movie. It would have been far more interesting to have him be the scumbag he is in real life. Let him be a charismatic asshole that will turn dangerous without a moment's notice instead of this wet noodle with daddy issues. It would at least break the standard Amityville formula where semi-nice guys slowly turn evil. Let him start bad and then get worse, adding more menace as the movie goes on. You could have room to really play with the ambiguity of it all, is the house making him a bad person or only bringing out what was already there? Nope, not here. Now, they don’t exactly make Butch a saint, there is a lot of talk about his drug use but you never actually see it happen. To be fair, he does kick his girlfriend out of a parked car after dropping acid in the driveway but it was more of a symptom of him having a ghostly vision from the house rather than having him be, you know, a bad guy or anything. At this point the movie takes its cues from the original Amityville Horror with Butch doing his best George Lutz impression who was actually doing his best Butch DeFeo impression. Weird huh? Except in this version Butch just kind of shambles about like he has the flu or a hangover and everyone else in the house is pretty much oblivious to his behaviour. At least James Brolin was chopping wood for half of his movie, angry chopping. From the moment Butch starts to come down with a mild case of demonic infection, the movie goes in to Amityville greatest hits mode. There are demonic POV shots careening through the halls, ominous shots of the house, repeated trips to the red room. This is Amityville 101. The thing is, no one really notices any of the paranormal stuff except Butch so the tension never really builds or goes anywhere.
Speaking of the family, we really don’t get to see much of them. For the most part, the movie focuses on Butch, Dawn, and their parents. This is another missed opportunity. Since we already know the terrible outcome, time should be spent getting to know the family so when the inevitable happens, it is even more heartbreaking. We should be filled with a sense of dread watching the story unfold, knowing what we know. It should be hard to watch this family, especially the children, with the knowledge that they will die. Instead they are shuffled in and out of scenes not making much of an impression. Then there is Granny, who we learn lived in the house previously. When she gives a speech similar to Conal Cochran’s in Halloween III about spirits and the old country, you pretty much know where they’re going with this one. The malevolent forces in the house are again linked to the old “house on an Indian burial ground” trope which has been a part of the Amityville series in the past but is still not only offensive but boring at this point. Then to add the “Granny is a witch with a scary book of spells” on top of that just seems unnecessary. I mean, you might as well offend two cultures simultaneously, right? The cast does an admirable job but I can’t help but feel they are held back by the material. I particularly enjoyed Chelsea Ricketts as Dawn DeFeo but I just wish she had more to do. Reliable character actor Paul Ben-Victor has a very effective scene where he begs his wife not to leave him after a particularly violent outburst which adds a nice moment for a character who is mostly required to yell a lot. The film’s secret weapon is of course Diane Franklin (she played the Dawn-inspired role in Amityville 2) who is just as gorgeous now as she was in 1982. She adds a vulnerability to a part that could easily have come across as inconsequential even if her “Laaaawng Island” accent is a little much at times. If there is one thing this movie did right, it was bringing Diane Franklin back home to Amityville.
Again, I will say that maybe I would have enjoyed the movie a little more if I know less about the actual Amityville case. I was mostly mildly annoyed with the depiction of Butch DeFeo right up until the end when the filmmakers did something unforgivable in my eyes. After the murders and Butch is faced with the horror of what he’s done, twinkling piano music begins playing and it cuts to actual news footage of the incident and the very real Ronnie DeFeo being led away in handcuffs. If there is anybody less deserving of twinkling piano music it’s Ronnie “Butch” DeFeo. “Despite his plea of insanity DeFeo was found guilty of second degree murder” the screen reads all the while the piano plays and archival footage of the family’s funeral flash on the screen. We are told “He is currently serving six life sentences in a New York State prison” as the piano twinkles on along to a picture of Butch’s mugshot. You know what? Good! I hope he never gets out of jail! Is the movie actually trying to make us feel sorry for Ronnie DeFeo? If not, it sure seems that way. It reminded me of the ending of Blow where they showed a video of the very real guy who helped smuggle untold amounts of cocaine into America and then wanted us to feel bad because his daughter never came to visit him. I don’t blame her, I’d want nothing to do with him either. Why should we feel bad for the man who is responsible for ruining countless lives by bringing a highly addictive drug to this country illegally? Likewise, why should we feel even the least amount of sympathy for the guy who murdered his entire family? Then they show ( I really hope not) actual crime scene photos. This trick might have worked in The Conjuring movies to really sell you on the “based on a true story” aspect but no one actually died in those stories, here it just feels crass and wrong because these are pictures of real people who were really killed in their sleep. All the while the piano twinkles on. Bizarrely, they end this morbid montage by doing a freeze frame of the “movie” Butch being led away in cuffs superimposed with a picture of the real Butch behind him. The way it is framed though has real Butch looking over fake Butch’s shoulder like an old senior photo. It is so bizarre. At this point it’s too much for me. Who directed this thing, DeFeo’s defense attorney? (A quick look at director Daniel Farrands upcoming movies, The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and The Haunting of Sharon Tate show that he’s not done with lurid real life murder cases any time soon. Seems like a Sleaze merchant to me.) The real “horror” of this Amityville is that this real life tragedy is being exploited yet again when the story should be allowed to rest in peace.
* Amityville 4 opens like ALIENS with a group of priests busting down the door like a squad of colonial marines, blessing the shit out of everything in the house. It is amazing! I just really like the idea of a bunch of priests getting together going “Let’s cut the bullshit, this house must be stopped!” It woulda worked too if only the evil hadn’t escaped into a lamp that was sold in a garage sale and sent to California to haunt another family and attempt to create an Amityville house on the west coast. Watch that one instead, where only fake people die fake deaths all because they bought the wrong lamp. Also, Patty Duke is in it. Patty Duke vs. the lamp from hell. Seriously, watch it.