Friday, March 8, 2019

Revisiting 'Amityville'

Among the sequel craze that started in the 1980s with Halloween and Friday the 13th, many might be surprised to learn that the modern-day horror film franchise with the most films to its name is The Amityville Horror. With a canon of 21 associated films (including sequels, reboots, and in-name-only knockoffs), The Amityville Horror franchise has eclipsed both Halloween (with 11) and Friday the 13th (with 12).
So it might come as a bit of a surprise when noted genre veteran Daniel Farrands—whose credits include screenplays for Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers and the 2007 adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, directorial work on a number of notable documentary features on film franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Friday the 13th, and numerous producer gigs—would mine the Amityville archives for his feature film directorial debut.
The Amityville Murders, which Farrands also wrote and produced, goes back to the real-life events that led to the original horror: The six gunshot murders at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, carried out by Ronald DeFeo on the night of November 13th, 1974. DeFeo, in court testimony, claimed that voices coming from within the house drove him to kill every member of his immediate family. Although DeFeo was sentenced to (and remains in) prison, a mythos developed around the house itself when the Lutz family, who moved into the titular residence in late 1975, fled after less than a month because of the alleged supernatural events that served as the source material for Jay Anson’s bestselling 1977 book of the same name, which was based on about 45 hours of tape-recorded recollections from the Lutz family. The book became the ’79 film starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, and Rod Steiger that went on to gross $86.4 million on a $4.7 million budget. In one of the longest-running acts of source material cannibalism, The Amityville Horror story has been artistically excavated, twisted and reconfigured, retold, and expanded upon for nearly four decades—with varying results.
Enter Farrands. Wisely, he opts to return to the scene of the crime—literally and creatively. Rather than add to the convoluted Amityville mythos, he chooses to revisit the story of Ronald DeFeo in what amounts to a proper prequel to the ’79 film. Diehard Amityville aficionados will note that 1982’s Amityville II: The Possession also attempted to loosely prequelize the pre-Lutz events, but Farrands’ outing is a more faithful retelling, coated with a nice period piece sheen.
The 1974 DeFeo’s are a suburban Long Island family whose outward picture-postcard success belies the dysfunction within. Patriarch Ronnie (an excellent Paul Ben-Victor) is the quintessential abusive husband and father, offering intimidation and beatings in private and paternal hugs in public. Wife and mother Louise (Diane Franklin) is that typical abused spouse who walks a fine line between trying to keep Ronnie’s rage at bay while facilitating some semblance of normalcy for her children. Eldest son Ronald (nicknamed “Butch”) is a directionless slacker and drug user while eldest daughter Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts) is smart, pretty, and protective of her older brother. There are three other siblings—Alison, Marc, and Jody—but they’re largely relegated to the periphery here, with Farrands choosing to focus his narrative on the DeFeo parents and their two oldest offspring.
Farrands spends time painting his cinematic picture of the DeFeo’s and their dysfunction—from Ronnie’s shady mafia dealings to Ronald Jr’s drug use and the especially volatile relationship between the two. At some point early on, both Lainie Kazan and Burt Young (who, in a nice wink to franchise fans, was also in Amityville 2 with Franklin) show up as Louise’s parents—with grandpa Brigante gifting Ronald and Dawn new cars on their shared birthday and Nona getting her hackles up when Louise casually mentions a possible West Coast relocation. “You’re going to sell my house?” she asks, practically drooling ill-omen. These early scenes are outstanding, even if the Long Island accents are a tad too exaggerated and the family’s Italian-Americanness bordering on caricature at times.
It’s revealed that Ronald Jr. and Dawn also mess around with the occult down in a little basement crawlspace with red cinderblock walls (aka the infamous “Red Room”). At some point, the dark forces within the house (it’s purported to be built upon land where the local Shinnecock Indian tribe had once abandoned their mentally ill and dying, an idea rejected by local Native American leaders) start their whispering through the walls and take possession of Ronald Jr. that culminates in the murders. The supernatural foreplay is effective although most of the visuals and set pieces will ring familiar to anyone who’s seen a Paranormal Activity film. Recycled but competent scares abound as the tension escalates.
Overall, The Amityville Murders hits its marks. Caveat: I’ve not seen a single Amityville film since the three-dimensional third so I may not be as jaded or franchise-weary as many reviewers seem to be. Farrands’s direction is solid, his pacing tight, and he really knows how to strikingly frame his shots. He also gets some major props for giving Diane Franklin a role befitting her talent. She’s been too-long relegated to shorts and subpar material in recent years for an actress of her stature and talent.
The standout here is John Robinson who does most of the film’s heavy lifting as Ronald Jr. He convincingly portrays a man slipping into madness, seamlessly shifting from anger and rage to vulnerability and melancholy with all the requisite raw emotion. It’s actually in considering Robinson’s performance where one might realize that Farrands missed a golden opportunity to muddy the waters a bit and aim higher with his franchise contribution. Instead of presenting the audience with a predetermined supernatural origin to Ronald Jr’s slip down the rabbit hole, layer in some ambiguity to suggest it might have been the drugs or PTSD from years of mental and physical abuse or even an undiagnosed mental illness like schizophrenia (the onset of which would correspond with the character’s age)—perhaps a combination of all these internal and external factors. When you make a movie based on real-life events and your audience knows the story’s ending from the outset, you need something else to make your mark. Leaving the audience pondering—and ultimately deciding for themselves—the origin of Ronald DeFeo’s eventual murderous snap would have added a decidedly cerebral element that would have elevated The Amityville Murders beyond the limits of its well-trodden zip code. 

No comments: