The Amityville Murders Review: A Low-Budget Game of Horror Film Mad Libs

The Amityville Murders

The latest in the still-running series about spooky houses doesn’t let its doomed family bring anything new to the table.

We live in scary, uncertain times, so it’s good to find comfort—nay, spiritual terra firma—in the knowledge that there are still new Amityville movies. The world might be standing on the precipice of economic and environmental collapse, but in our dwindling time left, at least there will continue to be movies about families who move into that scary haunted house with the weird eye windows.

The Amityville brand is a study in determination. Never has a series persevered for so long, with so little in results. There are, to date, twenty feature films (not to mention numerous documentaries) with the “Amityville” name attached to them, and only two, the 1979 original and the 2005 remake of the original, were box office successes. Most of them haven’t made it anywhere near a theater, or four out of ten on the IMDb. Nevertheless, filmmakers keep trying, and the latest effort is The Amityville Murders, written and directed by Daniel Farrands, producer of the very good Nightmare on Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again, and writer of the very bad Halloween: the Curse of Michael Myers. Despite Farrands describing himself in the press kit as “the world’s foremost expert” on the Amityville story, he brings nothing new to the well-trod and long disproven story about the infamous Long Island house built on supernaturally bad land.

As may have been surmised from the title, this one is trying to go for the “prequel” angle, focusing on the murders that took place before the events in The Amityville Horror occurred, and are generally agreed upon to be the only thing from the whole story that really happened. That was, to a certain extent, what the first sequel, 1982’s Amityville: the Possession,was about, before it turned into a shameless rip-off of The Exorcist. What it also has in common is that it stars Diane Franklin, probably best known to 80s kids as Monique, the French exchange student of John Cusack’s dreams in Better Off Dead. It also features an ever-so-brief appearance by Burt Young, which feels like a weird sort of stunt casting suggesting that Amityville: the Possession is really the most popular movie in the series (if that’s the case, it’s only because of how utterly insane it is).

The Amityville brand is a study in determination.

Franklin is Louise DeFeo, married to abusive brute Ronald (Paul Ben-Victor, The Wire) and trying to oversee their passel of six children, the oldest of which, Butch (John Robinson, Elephant), is a troubled college dropout who spends most of his time watching television and either dropping acid or shooting up heroin. The DeFeos live in relative comfort at 112 Ocean Avenue, but that’s due mostly to the generosity of Louise’s parents, played by Young and Lainie Kazan, who actually uses the phrase “in da old country” in one scene. Even before all the ghosts and spooky things show up, this is an unpleasant family drama where characters endlessly argue with each other in broad, cartoonish New Yawk accents, and murder seems like an inevitability. The only thing it has over the very similar Amityville: the Possession is that at least no one is committing incest in it.

Butch and his teenage sister, Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts, Scream Queens), dabble in witchcraft—just a little, casually, like someone who occasionally paints a watercolor landscape—and inadvertently call forth demons who begin to wreak havoc on the house. They soon wreak havoc on the already disturbed and susceptible Butch as well, leading up to the events you already know are going to happen, because this story has already been told, time and time again.

So was it mental illness, too many drugs, or supernatural forces that drove Butch DeFeo to murder his entire family? Well, we’re never really sure. The real Butch DeFeo claimed all of them at various times, changing his story whenever it best suited his needs. The Amityville Murders seems to suggest that it was all three in congress, combined with the negative energy in the family. It’s a not terribly subtle way to claim your version is the closest to the truth, while still being able to bend it at the same time. But then again, considering the murders are foreshadowed through—I kid you not—a game of Mad Libs, this is not a very subtle movie.

Rather than a script, it uses a “Haunted House Movie 101” checklist: there’s a scene where someone finds scary, child-like drawings, there’s an animal sensing evil, unseen hands pounding on the front door, closeups of saint’s statues, an ominous Latin chant on the soundtrack, the last minute reveal of some sort of vague curse on the house. It’s not just been done countless times in other movies, but in other Amityville movies. The only (and I mean exactly one) thing it brings new to the table is using the DeFeo Family name to try to give it some air of legitimacy. It even recreates those famously awkward family portraits that hung in the house, and uses real life news footage and crime scene photos. Never mind all those sequels about haunted clocks and dollhouses, this is what really happened.

Well, maybe. But the only person who can say for sure is Butch DeFeo, and he’s said a whole bunch of garbage over the years. The best that can be said for the movie is at least it doesn’t depict his sister Dawn as the real murderer, dying after Butch shoots her by accident while struggling with the gun, another unproven allegation in his more than 40-year struggle to avoid being forgotten and left to the dustbin of time. It does, however, depict her as passively giving up and accepting her doom, calling back to an earlier scene that suggests the family was fated from the start to die in the house, which is, really, almost as tacky.

Of course, the scariest being in the house is Ronald DeFeo, who is portrayed here as an ogre who treats his wife like a servant, punches his son in the face at his own birthday party, bullies his children’s friends, and is in cahoots with the Mafia. In keeping with the film’s impressive dedication to not being subtle, he even says “Leave it to the bleeding heart liberal media to stick it to the last great American,” while watching television footage of Richard Nixon’s resignation in one scene. It’s a one note, grotesque portrayal of a man who was too busy being dead to defend himself, based largely on the words of the person who killed him.

Franklin does alright in a thankless role as fretful housewife and mother who tries her best to hold her family together, and gets shot in the back for her trouble. Robinson isn’t bad either, and is almost certainly giving more than this boring, lazy retread deserves. You might be thinking “Gena, surely this movie won’t end right where the original movie starts, will it? Would it really do something that clumsy and obvious?” I think you know the answer to that. Even after the heat death of the universe, Amityville movies will go on.

The Amityville Murders Trailer
Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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