starring John Robinson, Chelsea Ricketts, Diane Franklin, Paul Ben-Victor
written and directed by Daniel Farrands
by Alice Stoehr The case of Ronald DeFeo Jr. is a gruesome true-crime tragedy. On November 13, 1974, the 23-year-old shot his parents and four younger siblings to death in their Long Island home. A year later, a jury found him guilty of the murders. He's been in prison ever since. The family's house beside the Amityville River now has pride of place in the annals of American haunting. George and Kathy Lutz's one-month stay there served as the basis for a novel, then a film franchise whose second entry, Amityville II: The Possession (1982), fictionalized the DeFeos as the Montellis, with their son in a demon's thrall. Decades and many more sequels and reboots later comes The Amityville Murders, which depicts the family under their real name in the last couple weeks of their lives. Though loosely based on actual events, it's less a docudrama than an extrapolation, sticking to the timeline of the murders while ascribing them to the supernatural. Writer-director Daniel Farrands, whose slasher bona fides include Halloween 6's screenplay and a 4-hour Elm Street doc, applies a measure of realism in his retelling. The opening credits feature a faux home movie that surveys a family barbecue. It introduces the teenage sisters and little brothers before turning to worn-out mom Louise (Diane Franklin), abrasive dad Ronnie (Paul Ben-Victor), and lastly Ronald Jr. (John Robinson)--known to all as "Butch"--sporting a shaggy beard. The DeFeos' home, from the very start, is emphatically middle-class and Italian-American. Recipes for cannoli and marinara are points of pride. Floral blouses and turtlenecks help set the film during the Ford administration, as do a wealth of cultural reference points: Cher, Angie Dickinson, The Exorcist, and the puppet show "New Zoo Revue".
Most of the evil manifestations are routine for this sort of story: a pigeon crashing into a window, a knock at the door with nobody there. Louise finds violent sketches in her son's room, as well as some heroin paraphernalia. Later, she describes a prophetic dream: "I see the end coming. A terrible, beautiful end." Franklin, who played one of the daughters in Amityville II, is a little broad but still achieves some motherly pathos. Ben-Victor is even broader as the bald patriarch in a loose tie who growls half his lines. He's an effective caricature, a silent majority schlub in the mold of Archie Bunker, verging on anachronism when he decries the "bleeding heart liberal media." His acts of physical abuse are even more bracing than the climactic bloodbath, because they feel less preordained. One challenge of basing a film on a high-profile massacre is that it needs to have a massacre in it. The Amityville Murders' last ten minutes satisfy this requisite as Butch ascends the stairs against flashes of lightning from the rainstorm outside. But the slayings and the sober epilogue that follows make for a flat ending to this relatively ambitious horror movie. Farrands seems most invested as a filmmaker when detailing how this unhappy family, in the words of Tolstoy, "is unhappy in its own way." Though he might not linger on the rhyme or reason for Butch's breakdown, he does write it with some emotional heft. The climax is the film's selling point, yet it's also an obstacle. As in the real Amityville, the DeFeos die their bloody deaths, and all their drama's for naught. It could never end any other way.