Editor’s note: This review was originally featured as part of our Fantasia Fest 2012 coverage (and later during Fantastic Fest), but now it’s out in limited release and on VOD, so we’re bringing it back for a third time.
We’ve all seen The Amityville Horror, or at least we all should have by now. I highly recommend correcting any possible woeful oversights on your part in this regard. Those who have seen it are most likely aware that the film was based on a true story. The Lutz family moved into a house in Amityville, a suburb on Long Island, in 1975. The house was rather affordable largely due to its sinister history. The previous owners of the house were the DeFeo’s. A little over a year before the Lutz family moved in, Ronnie DeFeo shot and killed six members of his family in a brutal massacre that still haunts the local community. Shortly after they arrive, the Lutz family experience a series of unexplained events that seem to suggest a paranormal presence. Twenty-eight days later they flee the house, leaving all personal belongings behind. Later they would come forward and make their story public, a movie based on their experiences is produced and would go on to be a horror classic.
Over time however, aspersions have been cast on the validity of the Lutz family’s story. A paranormal research team was unable to uncover anything strange in the home in the aftermath of the Lutz exodus, and none of the subsequent residents experienced anything out of the ordinary. The word “hoax” began to creep about. As time separates us further and further from the tale of that notorious homestead, the more dubious the reaction to the Amityville story seems to become. Enter filmmaker Eric Walter and his documentary My Amityville Horror, which just saw its world premiere at Fantasia Fest. Eric convinced Daniel Lutz, one of the children in that iconic haunted house, to come forward and tell his story after all these years. The doc tracks Daniel’s troubled relationship with his stepfather George Lutz, the events of those fateful twenty-eight days, and how Daniel has been unalterably changed by the entirety of the legend of his former home.
The most face value approach to watching My Amityville Horror is to settle in with the expectation that all doubts about the haunting will either be confirmed or dashed by some eerie, incontrovertible firsthand proof. That would speak to an exploitative and cheap motivation for making this documentary that I honestly don’t feel is possessed of Eric Walter. This is not as insubstantial and fleetingly thrilling as some Unsolved Mysteries episode. Instead, this is the story of the complete destruction of a human life at the hands of tragic events, however sensationalized they may have become. Sure, it’s creepy to hear his accounts of beds levitating and apparitions, both formless and strikingly specifically formed, the real emotional weight of the documentary is delving into this man’s shattered existence. It’s a character study, a profile of a man burdened with unimaginable pain and a nightmarish past. A man whose very identity was molded and dominated by darkness. We empathize with him even as we smile at his oddball behavior. In this way, and I mean this as a compliment, My Amityville Horror reminded me very much of Winnebago Man.
For those whose primary interest in My Amityville Horror stems from fandom of the 1979 horror film, those who crave that tingly feeling on the back of the neck, you will not be disappointed. The exploration of the mythos of that house is thorough, nearly every incident that found its way from the Lutz account into the film is discussed on a more first-hand basis. Some of the actual newscasters, therapists, paranormal researchers, and distant Lutz relatives are interviewed, and several original family photographs are showcased. There is even a photograph taken from inside the house in which we see a ghostly, child-like figure standing in a doorway. Daniel is reluctantly, but overwhelmingly, forthcoming. He is angry, he is filled with bitter spite for his late stepfather, and he reveals insights about this supposedly perfect family that paint a very different portrait of the Lutz’s. Sadly, there is clearly psychological shrapnel embedded deep in Daniel and it can make accepting his every confession and assertion a difficult task. But whether you believe all he says or not, it’s clear that A.) he really does believe it and B.) something very ominous and dark did happen in that house whether it was the fault of ghosts, demons, or simply troubled individuals on this plane of existence.
If I have any complaint about My Amityville Horror it’s that the editing choices can sometimes belie the tone the director is trying to achieve. One of the most gut-wrenching and thought-provoking scenes in the doc is the one in which Daniel pays a visit to one of the paranormal investigators who examined his abandoned home. This is a woman he had not seen in many years and whose conviction in the supernatural transcends any personal views on the subject and allows her to be a truly fascinating interviewee. They get into a heavy discussion about the nature of faith and the possibility that George Lutz’s forays into dark magic invited demonic presences into the home all those years ago. At the height of this enthralling discussion, one of her pet roosters crows from upstairs, eliciting a roar of laughter from the audience. Sure, that rooster was not prompted to engage in its biological function at that precise moment. But by not editing out that audio, or editing the visuals around it, you’ve squandered the organically foreboding tone for something silly, which only further complicates the discussion. This is not an isolated incident unfortunately, there are several quick cuts to closeup shots of Daniel playing an electric guitar and the sound of someone yelling at the crew from the street can be heard just as Daniel is dramatically returning to his old neighborhood. It’s frustratingly clunky.
These issues illustrate Walter’s inexperience as a filmmaker, but thankfully the meat of the documentary is interesting and provocative enough to subdue the technical faults. It is a film that adequately examines the line between reality and sensationalism and humanizes a story that, even in its mere forty year history, has become a cultural campfire tale. I look forward to the next subject Walter decides to tackle.