“Don’t go back to Amityville
And waste another year.” – with apologies to R.E.M.
I will go on record, upfront, that I am not, in particular, a fan of the Amityville franchise. I do have an abiding fondness for the original and all of its junky, late late 70s glory. It’s not really a good movie, but it is a movie made with skilled actors, Margot Kidder and James Brolin, that goes for the horror movie gusto. It’s a crass, manipulative, and fun movie that has some real life resonances that push it into a special category. It is after all the movie with enough raw appeal to keep people making sequels into the next century despite the fact that the source material has largely been debunked.
THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS, I am sorry to say, is a movie that is both unpleasant and tedious. It seems caught between attempting to be a heavy domestic drama and, well, an Amityville movie. The movie is itself not about the Lutz family. It actually goes back to the gruesome real life murder of the DeFeo family by the son Ronald “Butch” DeFeo, much like Amityville II: The Possession which substituted the fictional Montellis for the real life family. There are many real life incidents in THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS and the characterizations of the characters of Butch DeFeo and his father, which seem accurate from what I have read. The father was an angry and abusive man and Butch DeFeo was broody and angry himself. He was convicted of all six murders and believed to be suffering from antisocial personality disorder. The director, Daniel Farrands previously directed two television documentaries on the Amityville story, one – Amityville: The Haunting that focused on the DeFeos. All well and good, but the problems start when the film starts layering on the supernatural element and keeps throwing motivation on top of motivation onto Butch Defeo. First he is a victim of abuse, then he is a heavy drug user with a violent temper himself, so far, so good; however, the conjurings that he and his sister Dawn do in the Red Room get more serious and then the elements of witchcraft, angry spirits, and the trope of the bad place become more prominent. By the time the first, admittedly, scary smoke ghost shows up, I was already impatient and I was wondering when the murdering would start to snap the film out of a really long exposition mode that was making me a bit angry myself.
It is never a good sign when the viewer is really hoping that the characters start getting killed because you would really like to go home.
Then there are the mob elements: Italian men in dark suits doing secret business and a theft of money. The disappearance of the money is quite like one of the best set pieces in the original Amityville, but it lacks the former’s resonance. Another conjuring takes place and the CGI was pretty bad and made me wonder why the scene was even in there. It was almost like the director wanted to make a drama, but had to put the spooky elements in or wanted to put them in to goose the tension and, for me, it did nothing but remind me of an overloaded kitchen sink. It has been a long time since I saw Amityville II: The Possession, however THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS seem like a unacknowledged remake of Amityville II with 98% less incest. At a certain point near the end of the film, one of the more likable characters takes the money and seemingly escapes. While more yelling and smoke ghosting is happening at the home, the character goes to the grandmother’s (played by Lainie Kazan) house where they start talking. After a while the character goes to bed, wakes up at the murder hour, and discovers a trove of seemingly disturbing items and runs from the house yelling “what have you done?” at the grandmother. This is how many motivations are being thrown at the screen. Even the grandmother is put under suspicion in the closing 20 minutes of the film for no readily apparent reason other than BOO? There is also a mob related coda as well.
Usually I would admire dedication in telling a true story but in this case, I don’t think that the director ever committed to one of them. Simply put, THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS implodes under the weight of its own bloated plot and characterizations.
Of the actors, Chelsea Ricketts as Dawn, Burt Young as Brigante, Rebekah Graf as Donna, Sky Patterson as Liam, Steve Trzaska as Randy and Noa Brenner, Zane Austin, and Kue Lawrence as Allison, Marc, and Jody Defeo acquit themselves competently with more humor and human warmth that the rest of the cast, but there no stellar performances among them.
This leaves me to Diane Franklin, Paul Ben-Victor, and John Robinson. Diane Franklin as Louise DeFeo seems to be trying, but I never felt anything real in her performance, which started with stereotypical Italian mom and went to Italian mom who looks scared a lot. Her final moment cannot be called anything but corny with her rosary slipping from her fingers when her character never really evinced any real enthusiasm for religion for most of the movie. I don’t think that’s all her fault and I did feel bad for her, but not for the reasons I was supposed to.
John Robinson is definitely an intense actor, but he really doesn’t have too many places to go after multiple sweaty close-ups of his murderous eyes. The movie leaves him in killer central with not a whole lot of other options. He is occasionally called upon to be scared by the smoke ghosties and does well with that or a victim of his father’s brutality, but the heavy underlining of his character as a killer from almost the very beginning left little room for a complex characterization.
The MVP of the movie, from an acting standpoint, was Paul Ben-Victor, journeyman character actor who is an alumnus of The Wire and Tombstone, among many others. I totally believed him as the brutal and angry Ronnie DeFeo. I believed he was beating his children while experiencing weird mood shifts and was pretty disgusted by most of his behavior, which by itself would have been a simple and concise motivation for Butch’s murder spree, but apparently that wasn’t enough for the makers of the film. He did the very best that he could with what he was given and his very best was pretty damn good.
THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS tries really hard and perhaps that is the real problem. It feels like a movie that was made to try and cover all the bases rather than a movie that was made to tell a story. Yes, true stories can be really frightening because they are true, but many of the classics of horror and film itself are stories that are not true, some that are completely removed from reality as we know it and are fantastic. The fact that a movie is based on actual events doesn’t make it more real to the viewer, the movie itself has to do that.