Growing up in New England, if there was one paranormal story that everyone knew about it, it was that of the Amityville Horror House, located in Long Island, NY. Since the late 70s, the horror genre has been inundated with material on what is considered to be the most haunted house in America. Whether it was through the publishing of Jay Anson’s book “The Amityville Horror” or the many film iterations, the legend of the Amityville house has never strayed far from horror’s consciousness.
For the release of the latest installment in the Amityville franchise, THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS, I had the chance to speak with writer/director Daniel Farrands. During our chat, we discussed everything from his vast knowledge of the hauntings at Amityville to his choice of focusing on the DeFeo family and the horrific murders that took place.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Thank you so much for speaking with me today! To starts things off can you tell us a little bit about your latest film THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS?
Daniel Farrands: The movie focuses on the days leading up to the tragic massacre of the DeFeo family on November 13, 1974, seen through the eyes of the eldest son Butch DeFeo, who was convicted of murdering his whole family in that house. The way that I had envisioned the movie was in three different perspectives: there’s the story of Butch as a young troubled man who was the focus of abuse, severe psychological and physical abuse, at the hands of his controlling, domineering father. Then there is the story that treats him as an out of control young man who was also very much addicted to drugs. The third perspective is that there was some supernatural, dark energy that drove him to do what he did, that was already sort of presence in the house, and that the family believed there was something special about this house that may have had some influence.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Looking back on previous films that you have directed, you’ve tackled quite a few that were based on true stories. What inspired you to take on the legendary Amityville horror?
DF: It’s the story that never goes away in my life (laughs). Way back in the day, in 2000, I had done a two-part documentary that premiered on the HISTORY Channel based on my research into Amityville, which sort of started as a weird dare (laughs). I was playing this game one night with a friend of mine, which was a version of the “Would You Ever” kind of game, and the question was “Would you ever spend the night alone in the Amityville Horror House?” and I said no way. Then I started thinking about what happened to the family. I grew up on these movies in the 70s where the Devil was around every corner with films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Amityville Horror – it was this generation of kids who were just terrorized by supernatural, demonic movies. That being said, it kind of piqued my curiosity about what had happened to the family – what were the real facts behind the DeFeo mass murders because you never heard much about them. I went back and found all the people involved and got most of them to agree to be interviewed, so that became this special that I did for the HISTORY Channel.
Through that, I became close with the Lutz family who lived in the house after the DeFeo murders. They were the first ones to buy it and they stayed for 28 days and as the story was told, they left basically with the clothes on their back and never returned, that was it. The experiences that they had there changed them as a family and as people forever. I have to say, having met them and gotten to know them, the ones that I found lacking credibility were the ones that were screaming hoax the loudest. The Lutz’s seemed to be very consistent with what they were saying and how they were re-telling the story and not amplifying it for dramatic effect. There was something very palpable about the way they told it to me and even when they were re-living it, there was something in their demeanor that would change. You could tell something really scared them. They weren’t the ones that made all the money – it was the movie companies and the publishers and even the author Jay Anson, they made quite a bit of money, but the Lutz’s did not. If they were going to make a hoax, I would have thought they would have done better financially (laughs).
To this day, in what feels like a yearly basis, Butch DeFeo, who is still in prison, comes up with some new version of how it went down that night, but I think the evidence speaks to the fact that he did it and he did it alone. He has all these crack-pot theories about how his teenage sister, Dawn, had done it in self-defence, but if you look at the crime scene photos you’ll see she is a victim like everyone else. For me, though, I wanted to focus on the dynamics of the family and reimagine, through my own lens, what their relationships might have been like and what would have lead to that tragic ending for them.
Nightmarish Conjurings: You kind of touched on this, but I like how your film focused on both the realistic aspects as well as the supernatural. Obviously, you’ve done so much research on the topic of Amityville, but in regards to this film, was there anything you uncovered that you hadn’t known prior or anything that you found surprising?
DF: I think a lot of the research I had done was back when I did the documentary, so that was already there for me. What I did have to bring to this, as opposed to a documentary where you are just picking up facts and having people talk about it, was to find a way to show this family and their relationship. Having grown up in the suburbs of Providence, RI as a small child, I remember those types of families – the screaming mom, the kids in the cellar, and the neighbors just showing up, knocking on the door and coming in (laughs). I brought a lot of what I remembered cause that’s all you can do. I tried to imbue that family with each one having a distinct personality; that being said, a lot of what you see in the movie is based on trial transcripts, the evidence presented, and testimony from the documentaries, so some of the dialogue is lifted.
Unfortunately, the eldest DeFeo, the father, would often say he had the devil on his back with his son Butch, so that made its way into the film. When the mother talks about having a premonition, Louise DeFeo really did talk about that, she saw the ending for her family coming and that they would all be together when it happened. It’s very creepy, but for me, it’s just sad, I don’t find this movie to be anything but a tragedy. I think people will just automatically think it’s another Amityville Horror movie but what happens with this movie and was very deliberate, was that it began as a family drama but as Butch starts losing touch with reality, it becomes more about us being in his head as he becomes this unreliable narrator. Even a lot of the supernatural things you see in the movie are to be questioned. I think that’s the tragic part of it – the father would abuse the family and then spoil them with material things and money and I think that created this strange, yet perfect storm, for what ultimately happened.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Speaking of the characters, which had terrific Long Island accents by the way, what was the casting process like?
DF: Paul Ben-Victor (The Wire) came in late in the process but he was such a great character actor and perfect for the part. He doesn’t so much resemble the real Ronnie DeFeo but I think he’s such a formidable presence in the house that you really feel like he’s a man to be reckoned with. John Robinson, who plays Butch DeFeo, came through his management and agent and I remembered him from a Gus Van Sant movie called Elephant. John had that scary quality to him and could bring it, but he was also a sweet guy. I loved that he brought both of those aspects to the character because it made him unreliable. It made us question can we trust this guy, do we feel sorry for him, or is he this horrific villain? Diane Franklin, who plays Louise DeFeo, was a joy and she actually starred in Amityville II: The Possession, which was very loosely based on the DeFeo case. Diane played a version of the older sister, Dawn DeFeo, so making her the mother I thought was a great nod to the earlier films. On top of that, Burt Young was the father in Amityville II, so it was kind of generational in that Diane was the daughter and Burt was the father, and now she’s the mother and Burt’s the grandfather. For the fans that pay attention, who remember these movies and grew up on all of these films like me, I just thought it would be a nice way to tip the hat.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Last, but certainly not least, can you tell us about any upcoming projects you are working on that we should be keeping our eyes out for?
DF: Yes, I have another film coming out in April called THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE, starring Hilary Duff, that I’m really excited about. It’s a little controversial, but I’m glad it’s coming out so that people can hopefully see what the intention of the movie is as opposed to all the tabloids stories that have come out. I get it, I know why people would be thinking the worst with a title like that. The last thing in the world I would want to do is exploit the horrible death of this beautiful, young woman who was eight months pregnant, and her friends. If anything, I switched it all up and I made it an empowering story for her and those people.
The movie is a bit of a rewrite of history, but it’s done in a way that is kind of in the realm of fantasy. It’s not supposed to be a re-telling of the Manson murders and Charles Manson is not a character in the movie, it’s just not that movie. I think people are going to be really surprised when they see how powerful Hilary Duff is in this role, I thought she did a terrific job and it was not easy. I hope people come with an open mind as I tried to make a movie with redemption and hope, as opposed to just the horror and the misery of what that was. I wanted to twist that story around and give the victims a fighting chance and that’s kind of what this movie is.
THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS arrives in theaters, On Demand, and Digital February 8, 2019.