What’s the most prolific horror franchise of all time? A case could easily be made for “Frankenstein” or “Dracula,” if one considers all media, but if you limit the count to movies, those with “Amityville” in the title would certainly be in the running.
Ever since the appearance of the supposed non-fiction book “The Amityville Horror” in 1977, about the experiences of the Lutz family, who moved into the titular house in late 1975 and left after less than a month because of the spooky events they encountered there, along with the popular film adaptation that followed in 1979, twenty movies using the place name have appeared. They don’t amount to a genuine franchise; many were independent direct-to-video efforts. But with the remake of the original 1979 flick in 2005 and the release of the fairly upscale production “Amityville: The Awakening” in 2017, the grisly legends surrounding the Long Island home have gotten renewed life.
The latest attempt to cash in on this known quantity is “The Amityville Murders,” written and directed by Daniel Farrands, who knows his way around genre material (having directed documentaries about franchises like the “Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” series and served as a producer on “The Awakening,” as well as making a couple of documentaries about the Amityville house back in 2000).
Essentially it’s a prequel to “Horror,” focusing on the slaughter of six DeFeo family members in the house late in 1974, a crime of which the eldest son, the sole survivor, was eventually convicted. (He told several stories about the killings, at one point admitting he was the perpetrator but claiming insanity, insisting that supernatural forces made him do the deed.)
What Ferrands has concocted from this is not only a pretty familiar mass murder movie with supernatural overtones, but in many respects a virtual remake of “Amityville II: The Possession,” the 1982 sequel to the original “Horror.” True, his script jettisons the “Exorcist” inspired subplot involving a priest (James Olson), and uses the DeFeo name (“The Possession” called the family the Montellis), but otherwise the beats are very similar; and the connection is accentuated by the casting of Burt Young, who starred as the Montelli father in the 1982 movie, as the grandfather here.
The plot is fairly simple. Ron DeFeo (Paul Ben-Victor) is a thuggish paterfamilias who lords it over his wife Louise (Diana Franklin) and their children Ron Jr., or Butch (John Robinson), Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts), Allison (Noa Brenner), Marc (Zane Austin) and Jody (Kue Lawrence)—both verbally and physically. He’s also got underworld connections, holding some funds for the mob in a safe in the house, which is ironically called “High Hopes.”
The efforts of Butch and Dawn to free themselves from their father’s brutal control lead them to make friendships with local kids that he doesn’t approve of, and one example of their modest rebellion is to congregate in a small room in the house where, among other things, they try to conjure up spirits, a practice that their grandmother Nona (Lainie Kazan), who knows something of the house’s history, and of witchcraft too, will tell Dawn she should have realized was dangerous.
It certainly seems to have been so, since Butch soon begins hearing strange noises in the house and seeing ghostly apparitions—though his drug use might have something to do with that, too. His physical and mental deterioration accelerates, and matters are not improved when the house is burgled on Halloween, with the money taken from Ron’s safe—a real problem, given whom it belongs to. Finally the spectral figures beckoning Butch to kill his family become so insistent that he cannot resist, and he picks up a rifle and shoots them all as they sleep. The picture closes with a mixture of news clips and newly-shot footage showing the aftermath, as well as a kicker of the Lutz family moving in to begin their saga of unnatural events.
Though the events of “The Amityville Murders” are grounded in specificity—we’re even treated to captions giving us dates and times, as well as contextualizing material like a TV broadcast of Nixon’s resignation speech—the plot plays out like a generic haunted-house movie. It’s not badly executed—though the special effects aren’t particularly good, the production design (by Billy Jett), cinematography (by Carlo Rinaldi), editing (by Dan Riddle) and music (by Dana Kaproff) are all okay, and shots of the iconic Amityville house are periodically introduced (usually accompanied by a fearsome musical crash) to induce shudders. The performances are also somewhat better than is usual in such fare, even among the supporting cast: though Ben-Victor comes off a bit too fierce, Robinson conveys Butch’s descent into madness (or is it possession) pretty well, and Kazan has a couple of scenes she grabs onto with relish, especially toward the close.
Ultimately, though, the movie doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen many times before, and that it does it better than “The Possession” isn’t saying much. The only major difference between that movie and this one, apart from the removal of Olson’s priest, is that in the present case the names haven’t been changed to protect the innocent.