My Amityville Horror
(IFC Midnight; US theatrical: 15 Mar 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 15 Mar 2013 (General release); 2012)
Even if he hadn’t been part of one of the most notorious and controversial ‘true’ horror stories of all time, Daniel Lutz would have issues. An admitted victim of abuse and torn between the accidental celebrity he achieved and the Hell he had to live through both during and after, he wouldn’t need the house formerly known as 112 Ocean Avenue to drive his dysfunction. No, Daniel is an angry, angry man, and it’s not just the constant need to defend himself and his family that fuels said ire. Yet for the first half of the frightening, insightful documentary My Amityville Horror, we get one of the few firsthand accounts of what happened during the 28 days prior to the family fleeing their suburban Long Island home. Along the way, however, verification turns to vilification as Daniel decides that his dead stepfather was more of a threat than anything he experienced in that notorious house.
For those unfamiliar with the facts, George and Kathy Lutz were a seemingly normal family who found a bargain when they decided to buy a house that was formerly the site of a horrific crime. Ronald DeFeo, Jr., then 23, took a rifle and murdered six members of his family in cold blood. When confronted with that fact, the Lutzs seemed nonplussed. Moving in, they soon found themselves overrun by frightening and often disturbing paranormal activity. After four weeks, they abandoned their new home, vowing never to return. The events that transpired became the source for one of the ‘70s most sensational books - The Amityville Horror. Served up as a expose of what truly happened to the Lutzs, the bestseller became a water cooler talking point and a playground rite of passage. Everyone read it, and everyone had an opinion on its authenticity. It’s a subject that still gets debated today.
Thus we have My Amityville Horror, and Daniel Lutz’s “testimony.“Those looking for clear cut answers as to what happened in the infamous home during those dire 28 days may have to look elsewhere. Daniel is a decent enough guy, and very, very troubled. He confirms some of what happened - levitating bed, swarms of flies, foul odors, objects moving on their own - and makes a convincing case against a hoax. But he doesn’t fully believe in the supernatural element, that is to say, he believes his horrible stepfather was responsible for much of what happened. In Daniel’s words, George Lutz was a domineering, destructive presence in his life, a man with a lifelong passion for the paranormal and occult and a deep seated desire to abuse and confuse his adopted kids. He forced his last name on them, and when the lights went out at night, he forced other things as well.
Of course, George is not on hand to defend himself (he died in 2008) and My Amityville Horror is not really in the business of full blown confirmation. Director Eric Walter provides explanations as well as psychic support for his subject, but for the most part, he simply lets Daniel talk, even when said first person narrative becomes antsy and accusatory. This is not a happy man. Daniel remains haunted by Amityville, and not just the blood dripping from the walls in various rooms. So if he wanted to finally “come clean,” to expose the entire charade as an elaborate hoax along the lines of The Hitler Diaries or the Last Will and Testament of Howard Hughes, he could easily do so. He was there. He knows. So his motives remain suspect even as his story stands strong.
Walter also wants us to make up our own mind, to see if Daniel is talking about ghosts or a guardian out of control. This is a psychological character study, a chance to peer inside the troubled mind of a semi-famous individual to see how much of their overhyped tale is true. For the most part, we believe Daniel if only because he is so invested in the story. He believes it, and that’s all that matters. Confront him and he grows aggressive and defensive…and don’t dare question his faith, or ask him to take a lie detector test. This is a take it or leave it proposition. Daniel doesn’t take kindly to criticism since he feels, rightfully or wrongfully, that he is his own biggest detractor. He gets why people would view him suspiciously. He just doesn’t want you to disrespect his alleged life experiences.
As a result, the overriding aftereffect of My Amityville Horror is frustration. Granted, Daniel is an interesting enough subject and he clearly holds the camera. What he has to say is compelling and competent and not the ramblings of some fool. He clearly has his issues and isn’t afraid to acknowledge same and when the POV changes from the house to the man of it, we are still solidly invested. But with a backstory this sensational, with a wealth of material both pro or con, Walter had a chance to do so much more here. He could have taken on the cultural impact of the Amityville case, addressing how many of the so called ‘experts’ only know the story from what they’ve read in Jay Anson’s book or seen in the crappy adaptations and extrapolations of same. This was a chance for something definitive. What we get, instead, is something as incomplete yet intriguing as the original tale.
As with many myths and legends, we will never truly know what happened inside the Amityville house. For many, the story will always stand as a prescient example of Me Decade media overdrive. Long before there was an internet or a completed cable presence around the world, the Lutzs were a whispered about cautionary example of messing with forces beyond one’s understanding or control. It was like a real life Poltergeist, which clearly drew inspiration from the notorious case. Perhaps someday someone will do the entire Amityville case justice. It’s ripe for reexamination and reevaluation. Until then, we get the potent and the piecemeal, and Daniel Lutz’s saga is certainly that. He knows what happened. What does it say about My Amityville Horror that, by the end, we aren’t sure about same.