Forty years ago, The Amityville Horror shocked the nation. Based on the book of the same name by Jay Anson, the film was a fictional account of the Lutz family, who moved into the house on 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, where a mass murder had taken place the year before. The Lutz family lasted only a month before leaving, claiming that the house was haunted. Since 1979, over twenty films have been made based around the Amityville house, aka, “the most haunted house in America”, with The Amityville Murders as the most recent, taking us back to where it all began.
Before there was the Lutz family, there were the DeFeos. Written/directed by Daniel Farrands (Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy), The Amityville Murders is a prequel to the original film, following the true story of the DeFeo family, a family which was gunned down in their sleep by Butch DeFeo (John Robinson), who claimed that ghosts told him to do it. This is not the first time this story has been told, as Amityville II: The Possession is loosely based on this account, renaming the DeFeos as the “Montelli” family. But where Amityville II took a much stranger, over-the-top 80s approach, The Amityville Murders is much more realistic and reserved to attempting to accurately portray that fateful night, with mixed results.
It all begins when Butch and his sister, Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts), decide to show off to their friends at a party by summoning a coin-levitating spirit, because that’s what kids did in the 70s, apparently. I mean honestly, how many 70s/early 80s horror films begin with a bunch of dumbasses toying with spirits or a Ouija board? Parents should be glad we have video games, because kids are staying out of that kind of trouble now! Anyway, we immediately learn all about the DeFeo family experience, after their dad, Ronnie (Paul Ben-Victor) gets pissed off over the event and beats Butch’s face in, a beating which seems pretty routine for Butch and his mother, Louise (Diane Franklin). It seems strange to say this about characters based on actual people, but the people populating The Amityville Murders are about as clichéd and stereotypical for the franchise as they come. While the cast delivers some solid performances, in particular Victor, who is frightening as an abusive father, no one really stands out over their paper-thin personalities. Ronnie is the angry dad, a common theme in the Amityville franchise. Butch is the quiet, possessed kid. Dawn the sweet, frightened sister, and Louise the loving, abused mother. They’re all characters we’ve seen time and time again in this series, leaving the viewer feeling as if we’re watching mere ghosts of the franchise’s history.
And in a way, that’s what The Amityville Murders is: a tired ghost of a franchise that’s been long overplayed. Farrands’ film is like a combination of the first two Amityville films, but without any of the originality of the first film, or the outrageous, entertaining absurdity of the sequel. The Amityville Murders falls somewhere in between as a nostalgic story which pays tribute to the franchise and lives on its referential nature, but dies on its inability to add much new to the series. There is an epic gasp of awe upon seeing the iconic house for the first time, framed beautifully by cinematographer Carlo Rinaldi. The Amityville house is probably THE most iconic house in horror film history, and fans will get a thrill out of seeing those eye-like windows pop up for the first time in the film. Farrands is clearly a fan of the franchise, inserting other subtle references here and there, such as a single fly buzzing around on one of those windows. Where The Amityville Murders both tries something different yet fails is in its commitment to remaining as close to reality as possible.
I respect the hell out of Farrands as a director. His work on both Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy and Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th tells me that Farrands is not only a huge genre fan, but understands these films and wants to be as true to their stories as possible, and the same can be said for his obvious respect for the Amityville franchise, or at least the original. From the second film on, the Amityville series unquestionably dropped off the proverbial deep end, and Farrands makes clear with The Amityville Murders that he wanted to pull the franchise back to the original’s vibe, with more realism and less supernatural insanity. But what results is a dull portrayal of the DeFeo family events, simply because any fan of the series knows this story well by now, and so there’s nothing left to offer story wise. Farrands does insert some interesting backstory to the family and reasoning for why the ghosts are doing this, but outside of that, there isn’t enough of a foundation supporting this house of horror to keep the audience engaged.
While Farrands and Rinaldi create some excellent atmosphere with eerie lighting, a slow-moving camera which creeps through the house like a ghostly figure, and unnerving sound design which makes the house itself feel like a living and breathing thing, there are other elements of The Amityville Murders that work to undercut that tension. Specifically, the editing. The Amityville Murders has a way of tossing the viewer into situations, without any set-up to build the right amount of tension. For instance, in one sequence, the DeFeo family leaves a sick Butch at home, only to suddenly cut to Ronnie rampaging through the house with a shotgun, looking for an apparent burglar. No information. No reason for why this is happening. Just an incredibly jarring sensation that leaves us confused and in the dark and thanking all that is good that Ronnie isn’t our dad.
The effects and horror sequences in The Amityville Murders also leave a lot to be desired. The original Amityville reveled in a deep, psychological terror. The sequel featured an orgasmic amount of unforgettable practical effects. The Amityville Murders has a few CGI shadow ghosts, and that’s about it. In a franchise that has gone beyond ridiculous over the course of twenty films, it’s surprising that Farrands actually does so little with the supernatural elements outside of some creepy whispering and the occasional shadow. And Robinson may be a good actor, but with the script feeling as if it leaves so much detail and build-up out, we hardly ever get the sense of that true terror developing inside Butch the way we do in the original Amityville or even The Shining, a similar story. Farrands introduces some creepy concepts, like an unnerving reasoning for why every family member was found face down in bed, relating to the way corpses were buried in the old country, but other than that, The Amityville Murders is a haunted house with all of the scare actors taking a smoke break out back.
There is nothing inherently wrong with The Amityville Murders, there just isn’t much that stands out, either. It is well-directed, well-cast, well-shot, but forty years later, has nothing new to offer or say, leaving me wondering, why THIS story? That being said, Farrands is a talented director with a knack for historical storytelling, and I would be first in line to see him tackle an Amityville franchise documentary, where he would really be allowed to let his love for the series titillate the audience the way The Amityville Murders fails to.