Amityville, Hollywood: Looking Back at the ‘Amityville’ Franchise | Part 1

By Sara Century

CONTENT WARNING

These movies aren’t just about hauntings; they include references to murder, incest, child abuse, and other potentially triggering subjects.

Amityville films covered in Part 1: The Amityville Horror (1979), Amityville II: The Possession (1982), The Amityville Horror (2005), and The Amityville Murders (2018)

In November of 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. murdered his six immediate family members, including both parents and four younger siblings. The specific details, in this case, have been disputed, but DeFeo, Jr. appears to have been abused as a child and afflicted with undiagnosed mental illness, which led to a troubled adulthood, including possibly hearing voices that urged him to commit the murders. DeFeo, Jr. recently passed away in March 2021 after spending most of his life in jail.

Only a year after the killings, the Lutz family (stepfather George, wife Kathy, and her three children from a previous marriage) moved into the house only to flee about a month later, “never returning for their belongings.” They claimed to have been driven from the residence by malevolent spirits. These claims were validated by the infamous Warrens, Ed and Lorraine, whose names blew up right around the time of their involvement in this case. Writer Jay Anson is responsible for the book The Amityville Horror (1977), which was subsequently called out for its many inaccuracies and outright embellishments.

Left: The DeFeo family (Front Row: Dawn & Ronald Jr. “Butch” | Back Row: John, Allison, Marc) | Right: The Amityville crime scene on November 13, 1974
Left: The Lutz family (Clockwise: Daniel, George, Kathy, Joan, and Christopher w/ family dog Harry) | Right: Lorraine and Ed Warren

The Amityville Horror may not be especially unique at its root when viewed through the eyes of modern audiences. After all, today’s genre fans have seen similar stories in countless films, including, but not limited to, The Conjuring (2013), Paranormal Activity (2007) Poltergeist (1982), Insidious (2010), and countless sequels thereof. Yet, it is still a disturbing story, and very much in tune with other movies of its era that showed a sort of funhouse mirror’s version of the idealized fathers of days past. Combined with its real-world spectacle, it was a recipe for commercial success.

Regardless of how inaccurate the book may have been, it should come as no surprise that the film adaptation did so incredibly well at the box office that it was the top-grossing independent film not just of the year, but that it held that record until 1990 (low-budget horror films have had notoriously strong representation in this arena, out-grossing many more critically acclaimed cult classics over the years.) This film came out only a few years after the Lutz family had fled the house, making it fiscally timely but also very fresh for the children that lived through these damaging events. The long-lasting trauma that eldest son Daniel Lutz underwent is the subject of the documentary My Amityville Horror (2012). As always, when examining accounts of real-world horror, it’s important to remember the people who were directly affected by these events.

Margot Kidder as Kathy Lutz in ‘The Amityville Horror’ (1979).
James Brolin as George Lutz in ‘The Amityville Horror’ (1979).

The Amityville Horror (1979) stars James Brolin and Margot Kidder in the roles of George and Kathy Lutz. As the story goes, they find the house of their dreams with only one minor downside: there was a series of brutal murders that took place there. The couple is disturbed by the story, but the pressure to buy the house at such a deal overcomes their trepidation. They soon come to sense something is amiss with the house, but they are helpless to do anything about it as they’ve sunk their last pennies in it. A priest attempts to help them dispel the spirits, and George’s business partner’s new-age girlfriend offers some advice, but in the end, the Lutzs are on their own as their house fills with flies and George becomes moody and violent. He’s sweaty and feverish, and his physical discomfort is obvious as he creeps around, spending every spare moment in the basement. He, Kathy, and the kids ultimately escape the evils of the house, but not before a possessed George nearly kills them all.

Amityville doesn’t always work as a horror film, and one reason is that its charming and talented actors are a little too in-on-the-joke to play it realistically, but it is an interesting artifact of the zeitgeist. It’s no great leap to draw a line between this movie and any number of similar horror films of the time. Indeed, though released before The Shining (1980), the movie has scenes that seem like direct references to it, including Brolin’s Lutz swinging an ax through a door and terrorizing his children. Likewise, the exaggerated presence of a priest in the film draws direct similarity to The Exorcist (1973). Countless movies would follow Amityville’s footsteps, and it even garnered a tribute from The Simpsons in a Treehouse of Horror special.

Diane Franklin as Patricia Montelli and Jack Magner as Sonny Montelli in ‘Amityville II: The Possession’ (1982)
Jack Magner as Sonny Montelli in ‘Amityville II: The Possession’ (1982)

Amityville II: The Possession (1982) is likewise a product of its time in that hyper-violent horror sequels had so recently become the new normal in the world of horror cinema. This “prequel,” loosely based on a reimagined, renamed DeFeo family, takes every opportunity to embrace taboos. Pushing a highly upsetting incestuous relationship between a brother and his sister to the forefront of the film, the “Ronald DeFeo” of this movie (called Sonny Montelli) not only brutally murders his family but spends entire scenes openly leering at his younger sister before he does so. He struggles with demonic possession (hence, the title). There are many gory shots of Sonny’s skin rippling and bursting due to forces beyond his control, literally ripping him apart at the seams. The clergy make an appearance in this film as well, and they are equally ineffective as when they last appeared.

This movie is an ugly piece of work that plunges the viewer into Hell right along with Sonny. To say it does a disservice to the DeFeo family is to say that water is wet, but it certainly doesn’t go light on the commentary around abuse being a central factor in the murders. Sonny and the ghosts are no walk in the park, but his physically violent and ill-tempered father is still the scariest part of the movie.

Chloë Grace Moretz, Ryan Reynolds, and Melissa George as Chelsea, George, and Kathy Lutz, respectively, in ‘The Amityville Horror’ (2005).
Ryan Reynolds as George Lutz in ‘The Amityville Horror’ (2005).

As far as which of the Amityville films works most effectively as a horror film, that honor goes to The Amityville Horror (2005). This came after many sequels and Amityville-adjacent films had been released out into the wild, but it is the first and only direct adaptation of the original film. It stars Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George in the roles of George and Kathy Lutz. The movie follows the same general trajectory as the first with a few added elements of gore and horror. It repeats the assertion that the house was built on an “ancient Indian burial ground” which is not great and, perhaps it goes without saying, not accurate.

The final and most recent entry under discussion here, The Amityville Murders (2018), focuses on Ronald DeFeo Jr. himself as his mental health declines and he becomes increasingly violent. This take on the story attempts to follow along with statistical facts of the case, but its overwhelming focus on Ronald, or “Butch,” leaves a lot of empty space where the rest of his family should be. The horror in these takes always falls a little flat, in part because the family never quite comes across as real people, just extensions of Ronald’s delusions and trauma. Still, this gives a slightly more compassionate view of the family that Ronald destroyed than Amityville II did, to say the least. In any telling, Ronald’s father was a violent man who took his frustrations out on his oldest son, and this does make more of an attempt to humanize the people at the heart of this brutal story than any other take has so far.

Chelsea Ricketts as Dawn DeFeo and John Robinson as Ronald “Butch” DeFeo, Jr. in ‘The Amityville Murders’ (2018)
John Robinson as Ronald “Butch” DeFeo, Jr. in ‘The Amityville Murders’ (2018)

The Amityville story as fiction is interesting for so many reasons outside of just the immediate context of the films. For one, it’s a rare instance in which adding ghosts to the story makes it significantly less frightening. Malicious spirits are indeed disturbing, but not as scary as abusive fathers existing completely without any paranormal interference whatsoever. That is profoundly disturbing in and of itself, and it’s worse to think that things like long-term abuse and serial murder happen all the time and can’t be blamed on unseen malevolent forces. Without evidence, we are left with a handful of highly disturbing tales that regularly contradict their own timelines, but such is the nature of trauma. This is to say, if there’s no way to prove that these stories were true, there’s no way to disprove it, either. Yet, what we have evidence of needs no embellishment to make it horrific. Children were abused, a family died brutally, and a second family endured events that left their children traumatized. That is more than enough of a horror story all on its own.

About

Sara Century is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. She is a writer of short stories, articles about comics and film, and many, many zines. She is also an artist, comic creator, filmmaker, and podcaster, and she used to be a musician. She’s written for SyFy.com, StarTrek.com, Bustle, Gayly Dreadful, and many more. Visit her website at SaraCentury.com. Find Sara’s webcomic with Tana Thornock and her podcast about comics with SE Fleenor. Follow her on Twitter @SaraCentury.

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