Review: THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS is a Well Directed, Often Scary Set Piece of a Pre-Lutz Horror
Let me tell you, if there is one story that we horror junkies have seen enough of, it has been the tale of the Amityville Horror. The basic story of the Amityville Horror is based on the story of Ronald DeFeo Jr., who lived with his parents and four siblings in Long Island, NY. After experiencing hypnotic hallucinations and feeling compelled by something sinister that was inhabiting the house, DeFeo brutally murdered his parents and siblings in November of 1974. In the years after, we have had no shortage of movies based on, even with minor tenuous connections, to the Amityville lore itself.
Beginning with the original classic, The Amityville Horror from 1979, focusing on the Lutz family moving into the cursed DeFeo home, and in turn experiencing the same demonic presence that DeFeo encountered. Since then, we have had a smorgasbord of stories told about the Amityville Horror, whether it be sequels to the ‘79 original (Amityville II: The Possession, Amityville 3-D), remakes (2005’s The Amityville Horror starring Ryan Reynolds), new stories using the Amityville location, or objects from the house, as the backdrop (2017’s Amityville: The Awakening, 1993’s Amityville: A New Generation) and, of course, documentaries in movie and book form (2012’s My Amityville Horror and 2008’s The Devil I Know: My Haunting Journey with Ronnie DeFeo and the True Story of the Amityville Murders, respectively). When I learned that, yet again, we were getting another movie based around this classic tale, this time called The Amityville Murders, I was skeptical at best.
This version was going to be a telling of the Ronnie DeFeo murders from 1974, making it a change of pace from the entries that used this tragedy more as a plot device for supernatural shenanigans to occur. The thing that piqued my interest more so, however, was that this was going to be directed by Daniel Farrands. If that name is not familiar, it should be, as he is the man responsible for the two best horror documentaries that have ever been produced about my favorite slasher franchises, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy from 2010 and Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th from 2013. Despite these positive attributes, does the world really need another Amityville movie? Does this do anything special or is it just another forgettable entry?
As stated before, director Daniel Farrands decided to deal directly with the actual event, via re-enactment, that inspired the various movie adaptations that followed over the years, the multiple homicide case of the DeFeo family. Is Farrands able to tell a compelling narrative that tells displays the beginning of the madness as 112 Ocean Ave without making it feel like it’s just a cash grab? Overall, he is able to successfully pull that off. Beginning with a title reveal (complete with Insidious-like music playing while it’s on screen) and followed by a home video montage of Butch and Dawn celebrating their birthdays (which is three weeks before the incident takes place), the opening does a good job of setting up the characters, plot, and general atmosphere that will be present throughout the flick.
The movie continues to deliver numerous creepy set pieces and moments throughout its lean 95 minute running time. A small part involving Butch dragging a glass across his bedroom wall to locate voices he is hearing displays great close camerawork and pays off with a good jump scare. Another great atmospheric scene involves the red room (the hidden room where the spirits appear to reside and séances took place), with Butch and Dawn sitting on the floor while he goes on about old tribal practices of burying outcasts face down, and a chant that leads to an unhealthy amount of loose change spiraling and flying around the room. The most effective scenes occur late in the running time, with one involving Butch going around the house at night, finding no one sleeping in their beds, and is suddenly pursued by otherworldly spirits. It ends up being quite claustrophobic in the way its shot, and you feel the terror in Butch’s reaction as he tries to barricade himself in his bedroom. Another moment, a dinner scene involving Butch and his “family,” is very disturbing and delivers a respectful shock payoff as Butch’s eyes glance over to the living room mirror.
The non-horror storytelling also plays out better than I expected, with tons of veteran actors contributing committed performances across the board, and they all do an adequate job of carrying the viewer from one scary set piece to the other. Paul Ben-Victor plays the abusive, sleazy Ronnie DeFeo Sr. with the great sliminess and gusto that the part requires. We want to hate the patriarch of this family, and Ben-Victor, a great character actor, delivers the necessary performance to make us despise him. Diane Franklin, better known to me as the foreign exchange student love interest of John Cusack in Better Off Dead, delivers a solid performance as the matriarch Louise, making you feel sorry for the current state of her marriage and family, but also extremely mad that she would let her husband go on the way she does. John Robinson and Chelsea Ricketts are the emotional core of the movie, and end up giving good performances as Butch (Ronnie Jr.) and Dawn DeFeo, siblings who dream of getting away from this life of pain and misery, with Robinson in particular put through the wringer emotionally-wise.
Not everything is done well in the movie, unfortunately. The supposed Long Island accents that grace many of the characters in this movie, in particular Butch and Dawn’s friends, are quite absurd in their over-the-top delivery, reminding me of the inane accents that were used for the mafia characters in Punisher: War Zone. In addition, CG seems is at play in multiple scenes where it wasn’t isn’t necessary, and also comes off as looking cheap and fake-like, as in various establishing shots of the house from outside, complete with unconvincing downpour rain effects, and a glaringly obvious green screen shot of Butch trying to break the window in his attic floor bedroom as the camera zooms away from the house. They aren’t deal breakers, but their visual ineffectiveness does remove you from reality somewhat.
We have had so many Amityville movies, books and documentaries based around the DeFeo events, the Lutz family that moved in after, and various fictional stories and tales that use the Amityville house and its objects as a catalyst. Did we really need another Amityville movie, and is The Amityville Murders even worth your time? In this case, the case of this well-acted recount of the original grisly multiple-murder that kicked off the myth of the Amityville house, I can say that I was, I was quite invested in the story of this troubled family rife with abuse and general dismay, which had the added trouble of malevolent spirits that were insistent on them never leaving the house, at any cost. Daniel Farrands did a great job of telling the story we have heard over the years many times in various forms, and he kept my interest throughout, and that’s all I can ask for. The Amityville Murders will be released in theaters, VOD and digital on February 8th, 2019.