Jay Anson’s 1977 book “The Amityville Horror” was besieged by hoax accusations in its chronicle of the Lutz family’s supposed terrorizing by supernatural forces in a Long Island home, to the point where it’s now often classified as a “novel.” That controversy didn’t prevent a long stay on the bestseller lists, however, or the founding of a virtual multimedia empire. Two years later there was a big-screen version — one of those movies no one ever thought was exactly “good,” but which has achieved classic status by virtue of sheer longevity.
Since then, nearly two dozen films have borne the “Amityville” moniker, some with only a coattail-riding relation to purported original facts, others (like the bad official 2005 remake, or worse recent “Amityville: The Awakening”) more or less authorized by the franchise’s current rights holders. It’s entirely possible that no long-running horror series has paid so little attention to continuity between entries. Certainly few others have found quality so elusive — there have been “Amityville” movies well-funded and dirt-cheap, guilty pleasures and tedious slogs, but none rising above even the low bar of “adequate.”
“The Amityville Murders” doesn’t significantly elevate that uninspiring celluloid history, but it does deserve credit for trying. For starters, writer-director Daniel Farrands focuses on the one frightening thing that did unquestionably occur at 112 Ocean Ave.: In Nov. 1974, 13 months before the Lutzes arrived, 23-year-old Ronald aka Butch DeFeo shot to death his entire immediate family, claiming that “voices” drove him to do so. He was found guilty on all six counts of second-degree murder, and remains in prison. But the mystery around the case began immediately. Police were puzzled by how each victim was found face-down in bed with no sign of struggle, though they (and the neighbors) should have been woken by the successive gunfire.
“Murders” begins with audio of a hysterical DeFeo (played by John Robinson) begging local bar patrons to witness the disaster at his home (“They’re all dead!”) — as, indeed, he did in real life. But otherwise, Farrands’ film mixes true-crime dramatization with supernatural speculation.
Bearded, shaggy-haired Butch is the eldest child of Ronnie (Paul Ben-Victor) and Louise (Diane Franklin). The DeFeos are introduced via faux home movies as a stereotypically loud Italian-American family, forever yelling and fussing at each other. But dad is a noxious bully who’s apparently battered his long-suffering wife in the past. He now primarily takes his anger out on unemployed Butch, whom he grouses should be off getting killed in Vietnam like a “real man.”
Though Butch has a kinda-sorta girlfriend (Rebekah Graf), his only real ally is 18-year-old sister Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts), who urges him to escape this unhappy home. Since childhood, their kinship has encompassed a paranormal element — grandma Nona (Lainie Kazan) taught them to communicate with presumably benevolent spirits as protection, using a hidden basement “red room” for seance-like interactions. But now that the DeFeos are considering moving (dad has a job offer in California), those spirits no longer seem so nice. They begin creating poltergeist-y disturbances in the house, laying siege to psychologically fragile Butch until he’s a danger to himself, and to … well, you know.
In real life, prosecutors claimed Butch DeFeo was a drug addict, had antisocial personality disorder, and was violently at odds with his volatile father. But “The Amityville Murders” needs to involve the supernatural to satisfy genre expectations, so these and other potentially explanatory elements just get stirred into a murky, dissatisfying whole. Thus Louise hand-wrings about Butch’s drug use, yet we see no evidence of any such abuse. It’s suggested dad is connected to the mafia (the DeFeos were in fact related to a prominent New York mobster), but nothing concrete is made of this. Though Grandma gets a long, awkward speech about “conjuration,” it’s never clear just what the alleged spirits are, and who can or can’t perceive them.
This reboot’s best bet would’ve been to chronicle Butch’s mental disintegration from the inside-out, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether his visions are “haunted” or just psychotic. But while competently handled in most departments, the movie can’t quite pull off that “Repulsion”-type decline stylistically — it’s disjointed in ways that feel sloppy rather than evocative of eroding sanity.
The malevolent spirits have the same inky-smoky “shadow” look as in too many recent horror films, while other effects are unevenly accomplished. The climactic mass shooting should horrify, yet it plays as oddly flat in a film that (apart from a couple jump scares) doesn’t manage much suspense or creepy atmosphere.
Indeed, the most frightening thing here is Dad — Ben-Victor is all too convincing as a vicious domestic tyrant — and the film errs in not making his ticking-bomb dynamic with Butch the ultimate narrative crux here. Lead actor Robinson is also good, even if he doesn’t look at all related to the rest of his screen family. The rest of the cast is variable, and it’s disappointing that the three youngest DeFeo children get too little screentime to make much of an impression.
“The Amityville Murders” is well-shot by DP Carlo Rinaldi, with fair attention paid to period trappings, though there are some irksome lapses in judgment. (For instance, why would a nosey father vehemently opposed to all things “hippie” allow Dawn to have a psychedelic “Jesus Christ Superstar” poster prominently hung in her bedroom?) The gap between good intentions and effective follow-through is maybe the distinguishing characteristic of this latest “Amityville” movie, which takes itself with admirable seriousness, yet in the end can’t itself be taken very seriously.