Ronald DeFeo, Jr. may not be a household name but he’s someone who was indirectly responsible for a lot of cinematic schlock.
Of course, that’s the least of DeFeo’s crimes. When the 69 year-old DeFeo passed away in March, he was serving a life sentence in the state of New York. That’s because, back in 1974, the 23 year-old DeFeo grabbed a rifle and killed his entire family while they slept. When he was brought to trial, DeFeo claimed that he heard Satanic voices that urged him to kill his parents and his siblings. His lawyers tried for an insanity defense, though the prosecution successfully argued that DeFeo was lying about the voices and that he was in full control of his actions on the night that he killed his family. After being convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, DeFeo sometimes claimed that he had been possessed by the devil and sometimes said that he committed the murders in self-defense and then other times, he said that he did it because he was hoping to inherit his father’s money. Out of all the excuses that he gave for his brutal crimes, DeFeo’s claims of being demon-possessed were the claims that everyone remembered.
Years later, the DeFeo house — which sat in Amityville, New York — was purchased the George and Kathy Lutz. The Lutzes made a small fortune by claiming that the house was haunted and that they had been forced to leave their new home by demonic spirits. (Their claims were apparently supported by paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren of Conjuring fame.) The Lutzes told their story to Jay Anson, who wrote a book called The Amityville Horror. That book was later turned into a movie and the success of that movie led to a series of sequels and spin-offs. At last count, there’s been at least ten books written about the Amityville case and there have been 30 films that, in one way or another, claim to be connected to the Amityville haunting. Few of those films share much, other than a haunting and the word “Amityville” in the title. There’s not a great deal of continuity to be found in the Amityville films.
One of the latest of the Amityville films, 2018’s The Amityville Murders, deals with the actual murders that supposedly started off the whole cycle of possession and violence. (1982’s Amityville II: The Possession also dealt with the murders, albeit with Ronald DeFeo renamed Sonny Montelli. Two of the stars of that film — Burt Young and Diane Franklin — appear in The Amityville Murders.) John Robinson plays the bearded and withdrawn Ronald DeFeo, Jr. Chelsea Ricketts plays his concerned sister. Paul Ben-Victor plays their abusive father. The film covers the general facts of the DeFeo murders while trying to have it both ways as to whether or not Ronald was in control of his actions. Ronald DeFeo is portrayed as being genuinely unbalanced but, at the same time, potentially demon-possessed as well. The talented John Robinson does a good job of playing Ronald and there’s a few effective shots of his looking unbalanced but, for the most part, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in a dozen other Amityville-influenced horror films. As well, since you know from the start that Ronald is going to end up murdering his family, there’s really not any suspense to be found in the film. Instead, the entire movie is just about waiting for Ronald to pick up that rifle and start shooting people, including two children. It’s more than a bit icky, to be honest.
Whenever it comes to an Amityville prequel, the main question is always just how stereotypically the DeFeos are going to be portrayed. It only takes five minutes for DeFeo, Sr. to admonish Ronald with, “Oh! Watch how you talk to your mother!” Every cliché about Italian-American family life is present in The Amityville Murders, from the father hulking around in his undershirt to the mother decorating the house with religious iconography to the superstitious grandmother. Watching the film, I found myself imagining Tony Soprano watching a cheap Amityville film and exclaiming, “Oh! The mouth on this fucking kid over here, like he’s possessed by the devil or something!” The Amityville Murders hints that the DeFeos themselves may have had mafia connections. Indeed, before he decided to blame demonic possession for his crimes, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. claimed that his family had been taken out by hitmen from New York.
This film was directed by Daniel Farrands, who also directed The Haunting of Sharon Tate and The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. The Amityville Murders is neither as well put-together as the Sharon Tate film nor as offensive as the Nicole Simpson film. It’s somewhere in between, just another link in the endless chain of Amityville films. I will say that I personally think Farrands is a talented director and I’d like to see what he could do with a budget and a decent script. The Amityville Murders has its share of impressive shots, even if the end result isn’t exactly the last word in Amityville horror.