For America at large, “The Amityville Horror” connotes the bestselling book and 1979 movie blockbuster, in which the real-life Lutz family moved into their dream home in Amityville only to flee after 28 terrifying days of oozing walls, fly-covered windows and demonic voices. Dedicated horror fans might remember how the Lutzes’ ostensibly true story later fell apart under close scrutiny, and how a judge in one of many lawsuits called the original book “a work of fiction.” Whether true history or hoax, “The Amityville Horror” became one of the most famous haunted-house stories of all time, inspiring more than 20 films over 30 years.
Long Islanders, however, remember the distinctive Dutch Colonial house at 112 Ocean Ave. (the address has since been changed) as a place of at least one indisputably real horror: The DeFeo family murders in the late fall of 1974.
“The Amityville Murders,” which arrives in theaters and on video-on-demand Feb. 8, is the rare title in the long-running film series to focus on the DeFeo massacre. Written and directed by Daniel Farrands, whose credits include two Amityville-themed documentaries for the History channel, “The Amityville Murders” presents Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. as an alienated young man with an abusive father who, in the wee hours of Nov. 13, 1974, used a hunting rifle to fatally shoot both parents, two brothers and two sisters in their beds. Though much of the film derives from fact — such as DeFeo walking into a local bar to say his family members had been shot — “The Amityville Murders” also raises the possibility of supernatural forces at work.
“Here is this young man who was a victim of horrific abuse,” says Farrands, echoing the standard explanation for DeFeo’s crimes, but he also asks: “Was there something in this house that was causing him to hear voices, to act out, to do these violent things?” Farrands notes that the most puzzling aspects of the murders — that all victims were found face down in their beds and nobody in the quiet neighborhood heard the gunfire — have never been satisfactorily explained.
Farrands, 49, born in Providence, but raised in Los Angeles, says his fascination with the Amityville story began early. “I was raised on this diet of '70s horror films and always heard that it was a true story — or maybe it wasn’t a true story,” he says. Self-guided research led him to the DeFeo murders, which according to legend had imbued the house with a kind of evil. One of the creepier details from the book and the original film, for instance, is George Lutz’s inexplicable habit of waking up at 3:15 a.m., which he later discovers to be the estimated time of DeFeo’s murders.
“For many years I thought: It’s such a fascinating and tragic story,” Farrands says. “I wanted to be able to dramatize it in some way.”
Meanwhile, Farrands pursued a career as a filmmaker, scoring a success with his screenplay for “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers” (1995). Other projects followed, including his two “Amityville” documentaries and the 2009 horror film “The Haunting in Connecticut,” on which he served as a producer. Last spring, Farrands says, he met with a production company called CineTel, and by summer he had begun photography on “The Amityville Murders.”
The film features John Robinson as Butch DeFeo, Chelsea Ricketts as his sister, Dawn, and veteran character actor Paul Ben-Victor as their violent father. Fans of the “Amityville” films will recognize two familiar faces, Diane Franklin (“The Last American Virgin”) and Burt Young (“Rocky”), who appeared in 1982’s “Amityville II: The Possession.”
“The Amityville Murders” was filmed in Los Angeles, largely at a private home built in the Dutch Colonial style, an architectural rarity for the area. Farrands says he and the crew strove for accuracy, recreating the tile of the real house’s foyer and producing mock-ups of the oil paintings that hung on the walls along the stairway. To create the house’s distinctive exterior, with the two attic windows that sometimes look like empty eyes, Farrands says a little computer trickery was necessary.
“It’s important to acknowledge history, and I think this movie does that,” Farrands says. “It’s a scary movie, that’s for sure. But it’s important to remember the DeFeos, and that they were a real family who had their lives ended by one of their own.”
One Amityville, many interpretations
Because Amityville is a real place, there are few if any legal restrictions against putting it in the title of a scary movie. As a result, there are at least 20 “Amityville” movies, from major-studio productions to TV movies to straight-to-video releases.
- The Amityville Horror (1979)
- Amityville II: The Possession (1982)
- Amityville 3-D (1983)
- Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (1989)
- The Amityville Curse (1990)
- Amityville: It's About Time (1992)
- Amityville: A New Generation (1993)
- Amityville: Dollhouse (1996)
- The Amityville Horror (2005)
- Amityville: The Awakening (2007)
- The Amityville Haunting (2011)
- The Amityville Asylum (2013)
- Amityville Death House (2015)
- The Amityville Playhouse (2015)
- Amityville: Vanishing Point (2016)
- The Amityville Murders (2018)
- The Amityville Legacy (2016)
- The Amityville Terror (2016)
- Amityville: No Escape (2016)
- Amityville Exorcism (2017)
- Against The Night aka Amityville Prison (2017)