As horror fans (might or might not) know, you can’t welcome the dawning of a new year without another direct-to-VOD Amityville horror story. Did you see the one about an Amityville dollhouse? Amityville theater? Amityville mantle clock (titled Amityville: It’s About Time, I shit you not). Hungry franchise filmmakers have long woven their individual threads into Long Island’s haunted history, but Daniel Farrands’ The Amityville Murders eyes a return to “factuality.” Based on the true story of Ronnie DeFeo, this is the crime that started it all.
Thank Paimon. An Amityville movie that’s finally based on actual events. Too bad it’s exhaustingly inferior to most canon or non-canon Amityville flicks – a sheepish drag that steals from Paranormal Activity around every ominous corner.
Farrands transports viewers to the three-week period where Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. (John Robinson) becomes possessed by voices (according to testimonial), walls himself from reality, and eventually murders his family on November 13th, 1974. Welcome to 112 Ocean Avenue before the Lutz clan moved in and very quickly back out. Mother Louise (Diane Franklin), daughter Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts), no one’s ready for Butch’s final act. Except you, the viewer.
Countless movies have survived “based on true crime” structures with inherited – finite – endings. This is not Farrands’ downfall. Instead, blame photo-unrealistic green screen digitization that erects the DeFeo’s “High Hopes” property with an unfinished ugliness. Blame shadowy “ghosts” failed by low-budget animation. Blame more attention paid to Louise’s home-cooked Italian meals (“You call this marinara!”) than horror sequences fluent in reactionary screams. Blame docudrama reenactment acting and cringey “Show some respect in my household” distractions. Did I mention how many times the house exists as pixelation, not an actual house?
Let’s start with horror elements, because Amityville: Toby’s Revenge hides not Farrands’ repurposing of Blumhouse’s most storied franchise. You’ll relive all the hits. Paranormal Activity’s “bedtime covers pull!” Paranormal Activity 2’s “all the drawers pop open!” Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension’s blackened outline! I’ve been cranking out reviews long enough to understand and appreciate how cinema will inevitably borrow from existing titles, but The Amityville Murders hits upon zero individuality through composition or framing or personalization of said “influences.” It’s all just borrowed jolts regurgitated with Hallmark Channel stuffiness.
Ronnie Sr. salivates at the chance to teach Butch’s “disrespectful” friends a lesson, or wallops his family without mercy, and even confides in Butch that his son’s first failed gunshot attempt is the proudest he’s ever been (no bullets, trigger pulled). Louise can always be found meal prepping or asking about polenta recipes – they even call the sauce “gravy” – but these details add nothing to Butch and Dawn’s ongoing paranormal “investigation.” Butch ends up getting blamed for Ronnie Sr.’s missing $50K fireplace stash which leads to more beatings – “justification” of Butch’s eventual slaughter (?) – once again to a hambone degree. Farrands displays no tonal control, and Amityville’s cursed threats never conjure appropriately as a result. You can’t ignite dread with exterior lightning bolts and thunderclaps alone (drink every time, no joke).
The Amityville Murders makes do with budgetary restraints not as we’d hope. Witching hour apparitions appear as raven-dark clouds of gas that loom over Butch in a very stand-outish way (reminiscent of IFC Midnight’s Our House but only splotchier). Multiple scenes force computer renderings of the DeFeo’s outside landscape versus physical sets. A young girl gets kicked out of some dudebro’s muscle car mid-blowjob because he’s tripping balls – the house shows him murder premonitions – and as she stands outside, in the rain, it’s so painstakingly apparent that her backdrop is false. Oh, and they couldn’t even splurge for an unbreakable window when Butch attempts to smash his way out of 112 Ocean Avenue. It’s damn hard to stay interested in a movie that continually undermines itself with fakeout location work.
Farrands’ intentions are lost in translation between an opening title card transmission detailing the DeFeo’s murder (tl:dr, the end) and a finale montage of actual crime scene photos. He appears to focus more on exposing the DeFeo family – refusal to admit Butch to methadone clinics, Ronnie Sr.’s abusive repulsion, Louise’s lack of control – which subtracts heavily from Butch’s hinted possession. Paul Ben-Victor appears to be reading from a different script about “gamooks” and goodfellas, especially during a scene where he bends Chelsea Ricketts (daughter Dawn) over a kitchen island, props up her tush and shoves a “disrespectful” local boy’s face into her cheeks. Why? Because *he* – the harasser – made lewd “rump roast” comments at the DeFeo’s dinner table.
It’s a baffling act of parental aggression that, yes, leads to Butch’s first tease at possible killer tendencies, but feels so “daytime sitcom” out of place to a jarring, momentum-killing degree. It’s one of many instances where Ronnie Sr.’s actions detract from trauma.
“Not Logan Marshall-Green” aka John Robinson tries his best to fight the demons swirling inside Butch DeFeo’s head, and his performance is not lost – just wasted by Farrands’ mistreatment of supporting characters. The DeFeos ignore more red flags than a victorious minesweeper game, whether it be Butch’s dead zone stare or lucid visions. Farrands questions 70s Pleasantville dysfunction behind picket fences and suggests crooked mobsters may have played a hand in the Amityville murders, but it’s formulaic to a horror fan’s heaviest fault. Dawn’s ill-fated return home, Nona’s (Lainie Kazan) vague “you take care of the house” mysticism, Butch’s zombie-like wandering that alerts no one – not a single gosh-diddly-darn new idea.
Daniel Farrands tries to have it all. True crime. Historical haunts. Domestic demonization. Basement summonings where shiny coins float. There’s an undoubted desire to expose Amityville for what it is, but that’s never achieved beyond spewed news headlines. True crime aspects drown under obsessive food references. History repeats itself in the form of tossed-up photo evidence. Possession arcs represent what’ll go down as some of 2019’s most contrived, diluted, inexcusably boring Son of Sam riffs put to screen. The Amityville Murders is a sore to behold, a chore to experience, and all-around boondoggle of a horror film that continues my favorite genre’s yearly Amityville rehash tradition with the same destitute results.
The Amityville Murders wastes historical reverence on a paint-by-numbers ghost story that relies too heavily on eyesore animated effects.