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The Amityville Murders Movie Review

Long Island Tedium

Since surprise 1979 blockbuster "The Amityville Horror" cast a spotlight on the story of the unfortunate Lutz family and the haunting that allegedly drove them out of their Long Island dream home, audiences have been inundated by no fewer than 20 films presenting various facets of this surprisingly enduring story. We've seen a speculative take on the events that preceded the haunting ("Amityville II: The Possession"), splashy attempts to goose the story ("Amityville 3-D"), a silly made-for-TV movie ("Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes"), frenetic reboots ("The Amityville Horror (2005)"), and more vaguely connected direct-to-video offerings that you can shake a planchette at ("The Amityville Curse," "The Amityville Asylum," "Amityville: It's About Time"). Given this vast body of celluloid and digital work, it's hard to imagine that there are any corners of this story left to explore. Nonetheless, "The Amityville Murders," in limited release this month, attempts to find another angle.

Does it succeed? Not really. The latest "Amityville" chapter goes back to the beginning and offers a fairly straightforward take on the grisly murders that shook the Amityville community a year before George and Kathy Lutz bought the large white waterfront house in the New York suburbs. In November of 1974, six members of the DeFeo family were shot to death as they slept in the house, and troubled eldest son Ronald Jr., aka Butch, was eventually convicted of their murders. The paranormal turmoil raised by the massacre is assumed to be the main cause of the terror that the Lutz family experienced in the house that they lived in for less than a month in 1975. However, DeFeo's potential motive for the murders has never been fully explained.

"The Amityville Murders" weaves its storyline from a number of theories about the crime. While arguing that the prevailing influences were some sort of demonic entities residing in the house - we see them as vague black shadows, hear them whispering in the walls, and revisit the now well-trodden trope of troubled and vengeful spirits arising from nearby Native burial grounds - "Amityville" also leaves space for other possibilities: Was it a mafia hit relating to stolen money? A violent reaction to ongoing parental abuse? Did Butch murder his family while on a botched LSD trip? Was he an undiagnosed schizophrenic?

"Amityville" starts off at a party celebrating the concurrent birthdays of two of the DeFeo siblings: 18 year-old Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts, "The Reunion") and 23 year-old Butch (John Robinson, "Cut Off"). A voiceover from Dawn sets up the uncomfortable family dynamic, and we see it played out as her grandparents Nona (Lainie Kazan, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2") and Brigante (Burt Young, "Rocky") arrive and quickly take charge of the party with flashy birthday gifts. Dad Ronald Sr. (Paul Ben-Victor, The Wire) seethes with poorly-suppressed resentment while mom Louise (Diane Franklin, "Better Off Dead") meekly bears up under her mother's showy presence.

Butch and Dawn briefly escape by sneaking some of their friends into the "red room," a creepy basement crawlspace with concrete walls painted a garish crimson. The pair shows off a game they used to play as kids, using a weird chant to summon spirits that make their presence known by levitating coins. Ronald Sr. bursts in and rousts the startled teens, then takes out his frustrations by punching Butch. Cut to Dawn and Butch upstairs; she comforts him and uses her makeup to disguise his wounds. It's clearly a familiar pattern.

"Amity" takes these dysfunctional dynamics and expands on them, and there are moments when the non-supernatural elements alone are horror enough. Ronald harrangues Butch about his drug use and his lack of ambition and bullies Dawn, chasing out some neighborhood boys who have dropped by and then shouting that she is a "whore." On Halloween the house is ransacked and Ronald comes home to find his personal safe open and a large bag of cash missing, and he flies into a paranoid rage. As the stress ratchets up so does Ronald's abuse of the family. When Butch, pushed to the edge, makes a failed attempt to shoot his father, Ronald exhibits his warped values in a chilling moment, praising his son's willingness to pull the trigger: "You made me proud tonight, son."

That said, you don't look to the "Amityville" films for psychological family portraits; you come for the old-fashioned scares, and writer/director Daniel Farrands knows this. His credits include "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers," the gothic horror "Havenhurst," "The Haunting in Connecticut," and the upcoming "The Haunting of Sharon Tate." But with "The Amityville Murders" Mr. Farrands overdoes it, piling on the portentous music and eerie sound effects, often aggressively underscoring scenes that would be eerie enough if left unvarnished. It's sufficiently creepy to watch Louise sneak into her son's room and unearth a sketchbook filled with smudgy drawings that would unsettle even the calmest parent; trying to punch up the moment with a barrage of screechy violins is just overkill. Likewise, the smoky grey "shadow demons" that float around near Butch on occasion seem unnecessarily literal. The place is haunted; got it.

What does work in "Amityville" is the acting - well, some of it. John Robinson is a standout as Butch, convincingly channeling the angry young man who grows visibly more disturbed until he's a sweaty, shambling, pale-faced and empty-eyed wreck who seems capable of any sort of horror. Paul Ben-Victor offers a convincing portrait of frustrated middle-aged aggression; his barely-concealed rage makes him the gravitational center of any scene he's in. As Dawn, Chelsea Ricketts displays a believable sibling chemistry with her troubled older brother. And, it's always a treat to see Lainie Kazan; she makes the most of her scenes here, whether it's bossing around her meek daughter or fascinating the children with dark stories about the Italian legend of the "strega" who demands sacrifices on Halloween night. It's also worth noting the wink intended with the casting of Burt Young and Diane Franklin, both of whom appeared in "Amityville II: The Possession." However, Ms. Franklin, one of the darlings of 80s cinema, seems to have lost her timing, seeming out of step with other actors in ensemble moments and overplaying her solo scenes.

In the end, "The Amityville Hauntings" is plagued with ill-considered decisions and an ultimate lack of anything new to say. There's an odd tonal shift at the end when actual news footage of the crime scene and Walter Cronkite's solemn reporting of the story are intercut with shots of the actors, and it's played out against schmaltzy music that suddenly seems to evince concern for the victims we've been gazing at for the previous 90 minutes. Echoing the decision to incorporate all possible theories of the crime, this last stretch seems committed to having it both ways. Like the DeFeo home's artlessly cluttered interiors, "The Amityville Murders" just doesn't seem to know when enough is enough.

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