It is a truth universally acknowledged that any horror film purporting to be based on a true story, more often than not, is taking the meaning of the words ‘based’, ‘true’ and ‘story’ to the very breaking point of their definitions. From a marketing (and therefore wholly cynical) approach it is not hard to see why many films emblazon the ‘true story’ disclaimer during the trailer/opening/closing credits; if the audience believes that something really happened to the characters in the film, it automatically becomes a fair percentage scarier – there’s a reason why a horror character such as Leatherface is scarier than Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees: Leatherface was based on infamous American killer and body-snatcher Ed Gein. While The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the character of Leatherface were very loosely based on Gein, and his crimes, the fact remains that Ed Gein was a real person, and therefore by this logic so is Leatherface. Although, Gein was not a supernatural bogeyman able to survive 8 films worth of being shot, run over and imprisoned at the bottom of a lake until a teenage girl with psychic powers brings him back to life (I know, that old chestnut).
The cliché is that real life is often much scarier, more depraved and morally bankrupt than anything the movies can cook up. You only have to take a cursory glance at the news to see the value in that truism. But often the film versions of ‘based on true events’ happenings are so different from the original tale of woe, the film makers have decided to profit from, that the finished product is frequently markedly different. In a new series for Diabolique I am going to look into the true stories behind the horror portrayed on the screen. What better place to start than the Russian Doll of ‘true events’ films: The Amityville Horror – a film based on supposedly “true” events occuring after an actual event that moved further and further away from the source material the more sequels and remakes churned out on the original premise. (The focus of this piece will be the original 1979 film and the 2005 remake of that same film – no incest or haunted lamps, I promise).
The True Story:
On Wednesday 13th 1974 six members of the DeFeo family (two parents and four children) were murdered in their beds at their home of 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, Long Island, New York. Surviving son Ronald DeFeo Jnr. alerted the authorities, but it soon became apparent that he was the likely perpetrator of the crimes; despite his insistence that a hit man had targeted his family, a tale that was proved false by the police, and by DeFeo himself, who did admit at one point to killing his family and burning evidence. At his trial his lawyers lodged a plea of insanity. DeFeo claimed that he heard voices in his head and thought his family were plotting against him. But was eventually found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to six concurrent life sentences of 25 years to life. Despite various attempts at appeal over the years he is still in prison. DeFeo is currently held at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Beekham, New York.
The ‘True’ Story:
In December 1975, a mere month after Ronald DeFeo was sentenced to prison, George and Kathy Lutz moved into 112 Ocean Avenue with their three children. They lived there for just 28 days before fleeing in terror, due to a series of horrifying paranormal incidences that plagued them during their time in the house. They were aware of the murders committed in the house a year previously and requested for a priest to come and bless the house. When doing so, the priest claimed he heard an imposing gravelly voice telling him to ‘get out’. George and Kathy were unaware of this incident, but soon the presence made itself known through a laundry list of supernatural occurrences; including: green ooze appearing on the walls, the doors and windows of the house being ripped off their hinges, mysterious ‘hoof – prints’ in the snow – supposedly made by Jodie, an imaginary friend of the Lutze’s’ daughter who took the shape of a pig, the family dog acting strangely, odd smells, family members being attacked in bed and swarms of flies congregating around the house.
The book The Amityville Horror was written by Jay Anson and recounted the events that happened in the house, as told by the Lutze’s themselves. It became a best seller. However, it soon became apparent that there many discrepancies between that the Lutze’s claimed and what actually occurred. For example, the ‘the hoof prints in the snow’ event supposedly happened on a day that records show there was no snow. There are also no records of the police ever being alerted to any incidents or visiting the house during the Lutze’s stay there; despite their claims to the contrary. Also, the next occupants of the house stated that the locks on the doors and windows had not been replaced and they (and the many other owners of the house since the 1975) have never experienced any paranormal phenomena of any sort. It eventually came out that Ronald DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, had concocted the haunting along with the Lutze’s in order to secure a new trial for his client. George and Kathy Lutz strongly denied this, maintaining that their experiences in the house were real up until their deaths (in 2004 and 2006).
The Film (1979 Version):
The Amityville Horror, based on Jay Anson’s book of the same name, was released in 1979. Starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as George and Kathy Lutz, and Rod Steiger as Father Delany, it was directed by Stuart Rosenberg, and based on a screenplay by Sandor Stern (Jay Anson also adapted his book for the film but his screenplay was passed over in favour of Sandor’s). It is a fairly straightforward retelling of the story the Lutzes’ recounted to Jay Anson; The DeFeo’s die, the family moves in, a lot of weird shit happens, they leave. There are certainly embellishments, such as the focus on the ‘hidden’ room in the basement (which was in fact a small cupboard where the DeFeo children stored their toys), the attacking of the priest by flies and George Lutz falling into a hole filled with black sludge. Ironically, one of the things The Amityville Horror (the film) is best known for, and one of the clichés it gifted to the horror genre, is bleeding walls, which the Lutz family refute never actually happened. Screenwriter Sandor Stern has stated that he wasn’t that interested in penning an entirely accurate account of what allegedly happened at 112 Ocean Drive, and just wanted to write a decent screenplay. Despite being slightly mauled by critics when released, the 1979 version of The Amityville Horror was a box office success, going on to become one of the most successful independent films of all time.
The Film (2005 Version):
The 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror, directed by Andrew Douglas and starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George as George and Kathy Lutz, promised to be more faithful to Jay Anson’s original book. Whether this was the original intention, or not, something obviously changed during production. Or the writer (Scott Kosar) read an entirely different book to the rest of the world. The idea that this version is closer to the book than the 1979 film is laughable. For a start Jodie, the imaginary friend and demon pig of the original book and film, somehow becomes Jodie DeFeo; the ghost of one of the murdered DeFeo children (there was no Jodie DeFeo, and the Lutzes’ never reported seeing ghost children during their time in the house). The film also built on the passing mention in the original film about the house being built on an ancient Indian Burial Ground (which itself is untrue), while turning the ‘hidden basement room’ into a torture chamber in which the devil worshipper John Ketchum (someone who certainly didn’t exist in this form) imprisoned and tortured Native Americans. This is complete fabrication, as is the plot point John Ketchum’s spirit is possessing George Lutz, driving him so insane he will kill his family. Is perhaps not surprising that the real George Lutz filled various lawsuits against the makers of this film for defamation of character, among other things, when they portrayed him as a Jack Nicholson in The Shining rip-off, who is cruel to his stepchildren, kills the family dog, builds coffins for his family and then chases them all over the house with a shotgun trying to murder them. The Amityville Horror remake, like many other films in the mid 2000’s glut of horror remakes, did well at the box office and then was promptly forgotten about, for the best part.
Are The Films Any Good?
Disregarding the faithfulness to the original source material, and whether the audience believe the Lutzes’ story or not, the question remains whether the films themselves are any good as, well, “films”. In this regard the 1979 version wins hands down. It has some unsettling scenes (the part where George Lutz sees Jodie the demon pig notwithstanding, that has not aged well, nor has the concept of a demon pig in general), the house itself is an imposing presence, the cinematography good, the score is unsettling – and has a myth all of its own, as being a rejected score to The Exorcist; something proved to be untrue. The acting, especially from Rod Steiger as Father Delany, veers towards scenery devouring at times. Compared to other supernatural films of the era, such as The Omen, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, Amityville does look a bit silly, and dated by comparison, but for me it is still a solid film.
Conversely, the 2005 remake is just an amalgamation of all the uninspired jump scares that typified horror remakes of this time. Loud musical stings are not scary, making the audience jump in their seats is not the same as really scaring them. Adding torture chambers, dog killing and ridiculous contact lenses for Ryan Reynolds is not scary. And it’s infinitely more silly than Jodie the demon pig. Ultimately, it failed as a closer account of what was reported in the book, by a very long margin, and it failed to be a scary film by an even longer margin.
The Amityville Horror case is enshrined in American folk lore, whether it is true or not. The Lutzes, while stating that both the book and the film versions changed and embellished events, maintained that supernatural events drove them from their home on 112 Ocean Drive, and their story never wavered. While Ronald DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, claims that he and the Lutzes’ came up with the story together is certainly entirely plausible, Weber himself is hardly a credible source. George Lutz in particular was obsessed with making sure the world knew about it, and seemed to spend a great deal of his life since the late 1970’s, until his death in 2006, lodging and fighting various lawsuits in regards to the case. If it is a hoax, he was certainly playing a very long game with it.
While I have been trying to look at it from an entirely objective standpoint, the evidence against it being true is very damning. Luckily, as human beings have endless scope for imagination there is always the ‘what if’ factor, which is surely fuels the fires of belief after all these years (For the non-believers among us, I recommend watching the episode ‘The House That Bled to Death’ from the 1980’s Hammer House of Horror television programme as very cynical homage to Amityville).
One fact that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the whole thing happened just after The Exorcist became a massive sensation, and demons and ghosts were very much at the forefront of American cultural consciousness, which may account for the amount of people who were willing to believe in Amityville. It was part of a zeitgeist and, for better or worse, gave us one hell of a good story, one decent film, several terrible ones, and with one more to be released in 2017, Amityville: The Awakening, it seems the well hasn’t run dry quite yet.
While the focus of the case is always the Lutzes’ ordeal, the actual true tragedy of the whole affair is surely the murders of the six innocent members of the DeFeo family on that terrible night in 1974. A human did that: not a ghost or demon, and no amount of oozing walls and mysterious hoof prints will top that as the scariest, and most tragic, thing about the whole affair.