How do you go about making a movie that’s at once a based-on-a-true-story exploration of a murder mystery that most people have heard in one version or another, and also a cash-grab prequel to a horror classic that’s nearing its fortieth anniversary? The answer might shock you.
You don’t make it very good.
The Amityville Murders
Director: Daniel Farrands
Release Date: February 8, 2019
The actual Amityville murders are a 1974 killing spree in which Butch DeFeo used a shotgun to kill his entire family as they slept. He claimed he heard ghosts telling him to do it, and investigators couldn’t understand why everyone was found face down or how they all slept through the assault. It’s some spooky campfire stuff, and since this story has been the stuff of legends for over forty years now, I assume we’ve all seen some flashy Discovery Channel documentary about it or show where dudebro ghost hunters run through the actual house screaming at the walls. The question still remains, however, of whether it was all in his head or something from beyond our plain of existence.
The movie The Amityville Horror, of course, follows a family after they buy the house post-killings and are haunted by a clear malevolent spirit. Since the movie The Amityville Murders is a prequel to The Amityville Horror, the first problem is that you know which side of the fence it falls on. It’s definitely, absolutely, no-question-about-it ghosts.
This is established early with Butch (John Robinson) and his twin sister Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts) leading their friends into a secret crawlspace they call the Red Room, and then they pull out their grandma’s old witchcraft book and summon a spirit that makes a penny levitate off a plate. To quote their friend Randy (Steve Trzaska), “That’s some seriously heavy shit.”
The movie decides to treat this real-life tragedy with a clown’s rubber mallet. Even a MadLib reveals the plot, as a friend reads, “Butch DeFeo will go insane and murder his sister in the Red Room.” I’ve never had a film try to scare me with a prophetic MadLib before, but here we are.
The only thing more on-the-nose than The Amityville Murders‘ supernatural bent is how ungodly Italian everybody is. We open on a birthday party in which forced New York Italian accents abound. The grandmother is complaining about the marinara sauce. The grandfather is dressed like Vito Corleone himself, handing out free cars. The family only eats lasagna or spaghetti. Also, the dad is an abusive alcoholic with a secret safe full of mafia money (that the ghosts steal, by the way). It’s like someone put a spec script for The Sopranos in a shredder with the Poltergeist screenplay, and this is the reconstruction.
For a movie set in the 70’s that’s calling back to a film from the 70’s The Amityville Murders does little to embrace the gushing, shocking, violent terror of the era. There are suitably ominous inserts of the house itself and a few well-framed shots (Most notably Butch standing between the house’s two attic windows with light pouring through on either side of him), but any kind of horror itself is fleeting.
Butch hears voices in his head, hallucinates his family covered in blood at the dinner table, is stalked by shadow figures, but it all moves too quickly and predictably to be effective. Tension can’t exist without timing, and The Amityville Murders has none. It’s too impatient, burning through scenes to its inescapable end. Because of this, we’re never given a chance to bond with any characters or feel the build-up to any specific set piece. Butch will scream and rave, and we’ll cut to a scene where the father, Ronnie DeFeo (Paul Ben-Victor) is beating up Butch, and then we’ll whip to a scene where the grandmother affects her spookiest Italian accent to talk about Halloween and witches in the old country.
At one point, we have a kitchen scene where Ronnie is beating Dawn and their mother, shouting and cursing, and Butch shoves a rifle against his father’s neck and pulls the trigger. The gun is empty. Then, Ronnie comes to Butch’s room and tells him that he’s proud of Butch for pulling the trigger. In the very next scene, Dawn is walking home and sees a statue of the Virgin Mary outside. All of a sudden, that near-death experience caused Ronnie to find Jesus, and he filled the house with statues as a means of penance. A lot can happen between single frames, I guess.
Given that the film spoils its own ending six times in the trailer alone, it gives the impression that since we already know how this is going to turn out, we might as well whiplash through all the beats as quickly as possible, so we can get to those juicy shotgun deaths in time.
The shotgun deaths aren’t terribly juicy, however, and in this version, half of the family does wake up while Butch is on his spree and only fall back in their beds by happenstance. Hell, Dawn drives home from her grandmother’s while he’s killing everyone, runs away from him, screams for him to stop, and then decides to just put on her nightgown, lay down, and get it over with. It’s dumb.
The lazy, ham-fisted cheesiness of The Amityville Murders’ horror is only made that much worse by the film’s ending having the audacity to show the real life Butch DeFeo and his victims. It even uses crime scene photos as if to boast about how realistically the crew captured the deaths. Ending with the actual facts that inspired a movie can work so long as I feel that I watched a genuine interpretation of those facts, the people involved, and everything that lead to its end. The Amityville Murders comes nowhere near earning that. I sat through a dimestore horror story that then reminds me that real people lost their lives so they could make this movie. Text also mentions that Ronnie’s money was never retrieved. Okay. What am I supposed to do with that? Think that the ghosts went to Vegas with it?
In the words of every Italian (and ghost) ever, get out of here.