On the night of November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. took a high-powered rifle and murdered his entire family as they slept. At his trial, DeFeo claimed that "voices" in the house commanded him to kill. This is their story.
For a horror fan, I’m rather uninitiated in the widespread world of The Amityville Horror franchise. As a kid, I read the book (it scared the s*** out of me), I’ve seen the original film, the television movie Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes and the 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds. And that’s pretty much the extent of it.
While I have some knowledge about the DeFeo family history (via the novel and from just plain old movie knowledge osmosis), I was surprised to see that this film was going to again focus on that family, as the 1982 sequel, Amityville II: The Possession did (under the guise of a fictional family name, of course).
When I talked to writer/director Daniel Farrands on the carpet of the 18th Annual Screamfest in Los Angeles (where the film held it’s World Premiere), he explained the differences I should expect between his new film, The Amityville Murders, and the aforementioned 1982 franchise sequel.
“Amityville II – they were doing the DeFeo story to a certain extent. Of all the Amityvilles that one’s my favorite – until ours [laughs]. What that one did, that was different, it really tapped into our collective fear and obsession with The Exorcist at the time. It really played it from much more of the Catholic angle and all the tropes of Catholicism. It was much more about a priest and the tattered pages of a Bible and the possession of a son and the face that morphed into the devil. I just wanted to reign it all back and tell it more from a human perspective. We’re using the DeFeo names. We’re using elements of the story which were taken right out of the court transcripts during the DeFeo trial.”
Jumping off on Farrand’s comment, I was quite taken with the non-supernatural aspects of the film. The film is a striking picture of a man descending into madness. And had it been only a story of a person’s harrowing battle with mental illness, I believe it still would have succeeded.
A lot of that credit goes to the performance from John Robinson as Butch DeFeo. It’s a tour-de-force performance, showing Butch’s pitfall into a devastating mental illness and a matching drug addiction. Hallucinations and disembodied voices – matched up with the film’s striking familial violence – give Robinson a treasure trove of disturbing pieces to use toward his performance. At one point – during a particularly frightening breakdown, I felt intense sympathy for the character – bordering on a tearful response to the scene.
What helps to sell the great work of Robinson, is the fact that Butch is damaged goods from the get-go. And so it felt easier for the character to follow the path he ultimately takes. Had Butch been a goody-two-shoes at the beginning, I might not have accepted his trajectory. That’s smart writing. And matched with Robinson’s powerful performance – kismet.
In the roles of mother and father DeFeo, Diane Franklin (Amityville II: The Possession, Better Off Dead) and Paul Ben-Victor shine as a troubled couple – trying to pretend that the malevolent force in their home and its effect on their eldest son – is something they can handle. But with the family’s brutal history of domestic violence, this couple is simply not equipped to take on this situation.
Franklin’s a marvel at trying to keep Louise in control – feigning normalcy at every crazy turn. But when necessary, she lets Louise’s desperation and fear loose.
And matching her great performance is the amazing ‘70s wig she dons to complete the character. (UPDATE: Director Farrands informed me that Franklin’s “up-do” was indeed her real hair. Well, now I’m more impressed.)
As the film’s central character, Dawn, Chelsea Ricketts does a fine job in the role of “final girl”. She wears her heart on her sleeve as Dawn and it’s admirable to see how Dawn matches her mother’s “everything is okay” attitude – at least until later. When I asked Ricketts on the Screamfest carpet, what was the most challenging thing about her performance, she elaborated, “The entire thing. It’s physical, it’s emotional. And it also adds the weight of, ‘I’m telling a true woman’s story.’ So I’m not playing a made-up character. It was challenging all around.”
I’ve been outspoken in many previous reviews, about how a score can sometimes be “distracting” or that it might be working too hard to make up for the film’s pacing/suspense shortcomings. While I made note of the score here (from Dana Kaproff – the musical voice behind the iconic score of 1976’s When a Stranger Calls) – it was all good. I noticed it, appreciated it and then fell back into the film. Noticing a score without being taken out of the film by it – is truly a fine line to walk – a trick Kaproff pulls off perfectly.
There was some post-screening discussion among friends, about how the inclusion of actual crime-scene photos of the DeFeo tragedy, might have been in bad taste.
While I was watching this footage, I wasn’t struck by such a sentiment. Yes, I was taken by how upsetting it was, but also how well the filmmakers managed to recreate these disturbing images with their actors.
On the carpet, Farrands discusses, “There are documentary elements in the movie. This is very dramatized, until the end of the movie. What we do at the end, is we kind of bring it full circle – into the true story. I want to remind people at the end of the movie, this was real. These were real people. These were real lives which were shattered in this house.”
In hindsight, I think that the addition of footage of DeFeo’s arrest and the media frenzy surrounding the crime, was perfectly fine. But displaying the actual photos of the family’s gruesome deaths – maybe not the best choice. Besides, if one of Farrands’ intentions was to disturb the audience, following Butch through the house in the film’s final moments – was plenty unsettling on its own.
The film ends with the introduction of some familiar characters in the Amityville universe, and even with my limited knowledge of this world, this moment tickled the horror nerd within me.
In what I feel was a solidly-done film overall, there was one particular sequence which most impressed me. In what could have been something of a throwaway scene, Dad Ronnie opens Butch’s bedroom door to address a situation which happened in the previous moment. We see only Ronnie’s shadow in the doorway of Butch’s room – and it’s an inspired bit of lighting and mood. During the premiere screening, this moment also had one of the audience’s biggest reactions – to a sort of congratulatory line of dialogue from father to son. In dialogue, performance and in visuals – this is a brief but brilliant scene – certainly one of my favorites in the film.
There are plenty of visual effects present here, and not all of them are 100% convincing. The exteriors (per Ricketts they never shot at the actual, legendary home) are computer-generated. And it’s never necessarily distracting, but didn’t match up with the well-done set design of the home’s interior. And in one sequence in the infamous “Red Room”, a plate full of coins takes on a mind of its own – and I didn’t quite buy it.
It’s the simpler, practical effects which will most impress (take note, filmmakers). Squeaky doors and drawers opening on their own, shadows on the walls and an effortlessly-gliding camera sweeping through the house – help create the atmosphere better than some so-so CGI tricks.
It’s in no way a spoiler for me to discuss the film’s climax. Many horror fans will know the fates of the DeFeo family, and if you don’t – the brief synopsis of the film on IMDb (and elsewhere) clearly spells it out. In other words, don’t blame me.
That being said, there’s a delicious anticipation as the story progresses (sort of like Titanic – we know what’s coming, but it’s the journey toward the inevitable). The tension continues to amp up as the DeFeo family crumbles – and I think it’s a great credit to the filmmakers that although I knew how things would tragically end, I was still ready, willing and able to take this upsetting trip into horror.
Farrands was also behind the production of several episodes of the television documentary series, History’s Mysteries (early 2000s) – exploring the phenomenon of this ongoing Long Island tale. In fact, he became friends with the famed, real-life Lutz couple of the original book/film (played by Margot Kidder and James Brolin in the 1979 film). With all of the back and forth over the years of, “Was the Lutz story a hoax, or not?”, Farrands offered this interesting tidbit:
“I knew George Lutz and his family very well, until their deaths. This movie is, in a way – a tribute to them. They experienced something in that house. In my long relationship with them, they absolutely believed that what lived in that house was evil. That what they took out of that house was something evil. And that it changed them as people forever.”
Knowing that the DeFeo murders really happened, and that despite the controversy surrounding the actual experiences of the Lutz family – you have to imagine that there must be some sort of negative energy in that now-iconic home at 112 Ocean Avenue.
With his long history investigating and perhaps obsessing over the rich history of this particular home, I asked if Farrands believes in such things. His response, “My life has been affected by it, in one way or another – because of my relationship with the Lutz’. They opened my eyes to certain things. I’m by nature a bit of a skeptic. So… I experienced a few things along the way.”
Beyond all of the call-outs to the franchise’s other characters/films, this particular story succeeds most an authentic tale of a broken family, headed by an abusive father – abuse which pushes an already damaged personality into the darkest reaches of his mind – supernatural goading aside.
And with as many complaints as I’ve had – in countless reviews – about how a film and its story failed to make the characters the forefront of their concern (thus properly building audience sympathy) – I have to hand over the kudos to the story-telling here. Aside from the three younger DeFeo children (who serve only as set dressing – they’re completely undeveloped), the two parents and the two older children are given real souls, real troubles and with strong performances behind them – real people.
A fun bit of trivia – the Rocky franchise’s Burt Young (who appeared in Amityville II: The Possession) makes an appearance as the DeFeo family’s maternal grandfather. And in the role of grandma – My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Lainie Kazan.
While nothing particularly groundbreaking (in a world of multiple installments of The Conjuring, Insidious and Paranormal Activity), The Amityville Murders is a well-acted, smartly-produced and sometimes upsetting supernatural thriller – certainly worth a look.
And in closing, I’ll offer this sound advice. Sleep on your backs, folks.
The film is scheduled for a theatrical release on October 15th, 2018.