January 01, 2013

THE AMITYVILLE HORRORs - based on a true story?

The most shocking aspect is that it's still presented as a true story...

A great premise for a horror film... A young family find a dream house but they've barely got enough money for it. Huge rooms, sea view, boat house... too good to be true. Then the estate agent tells them why it's all so cheap. A year earlier, six members of the same family were killed inside. But despite this, they can't pass up such a bargain and move in.

But the Lutzs' new home has starts to effect them all, especially the father (James Brolin) who can't get warm and gets very attached to his axe. Their priest (Rod Steiger) can't sanitise the house, warned off by a swarm of flies and then a mysterious illness. Their little girl tells them of an imaginary friend, a red-eyed pig. Visions and window-slamming become increasingly ferocious until they can't stay in the house any longer...

I first saw this around February 1980 in a suburban London cinema. But. The Amityville Horror really didn't work for me. I jumped when the cat leapt up at the window and that's all. It would have been cheaper to get someone to burst a paper bag behind me.

Even as a teenager, I needed (what I now know to be called) internal logic, even in a supernatural horror film. I just couldn't work out what I was supposed to be frightened of. A haunting? Poltergeists? Demonic possession? The mysterious events each hint at a different supernatural problem. 

James Brolin and Margot Kidder
After seeing SuspiriaThe OmenCarrie and The Exorcist, maybe my expectations were set too high. Maybe that's why the hype had stressed that this was all based on a true story. The only real edge The Amityville Horror has is if the audience believes that they're witnessing a reconstruction of some scary shit that actually happened. If any of this happened to you or me, it would be scary. 

This is now an extremely common way of unsettling audiences while inviting their curiosity. To say the film is based on a true story. Leading our imaginations to believe that every event we witness actually happened.

1980 UK poster 
But why did I think it was a factual account back then? When I first saw the film, I was already under that impression. Checking back through the adverts (posters, print and radio), only the book actually used the 'true story' claim. The movie advertising cautiously held back on such claims, while not dissuading the many magazine articles that repeated the claims that the book made were true.

The book had previously been a huge bestseller before the film was made, and had "a true story" printed clearly on the cover. Despite scepticism from serious newspapers, it made a great story for less fussy news outlets and magazine coverage.

This elaborate radio advert from 1979 (broadcast across London) really pushed the fact that the story is all true. I found this scarier than the film...

Despite such shaky foundations, this movie house of horror became a huge hit and spawned more books, many movie sequels and some truly awful TV movies.

After being so disappointed with the first film, I avoided most sequels, except one on TV. The continuing spin-offs indicated that it all still worked for many other people.

For me, Poltergeist (1982) presented a family in a very haunted house far better (a burial ground was also one of the many possible causes mentioned in the Lutz's book). Of course Tobe Hooper's film had well-realised scares, the full weight of Industrial Light and Magic behind the visual effects, and a story with far more consistent internal logic. And no silly stories about it being based on fact. I loved it.

Decades later, I actually got angry to find that I'd been duped. When I heard of a more concrete account of the Lutz's haunting, that it was an orchestrated hoax. Stephen Kaplan's book, The Amityville Horror Conspiracy. Himself a serious paranormal investigator, Kaplan was invited to check the Long Island house for paranormal activity when the Lutzs moved in. He agreed but then had his appointment cancelled. He became suspicious, and continued monitoring news reports and the many accounts of what happened presented by the Lutzs.

Yes, George Lutz bought the house. Yes, the family before them were murdered. But everything that happened to them in the house has many other explanations (smells, cold, changes in behaviour). Some of it was probably from their little girl's nightmares (the pig-demon). Kaplan notes how the details of how the Lutz's story changes in various news articles at the time, and even in various early editions of their famous book! he also fails to find any consistency in the timeline they describe.

Kaplan was concerned that stories like the Lutzs' gave paranormal research a bad name, being investigated and presented with such little care. Crucially, the late Stephen Kaplan's book is out of print, while the many other Amityville books continue to spread. There's more money in ghost stories.

2005 remake poster
After reading it, I was confident that the The Amityville Horror had been well and truly debunked. I was beyond astonished when the Ryan Reynolds remake appeared in 2005, and even had "based on the true story" on the movie posters. How could they say that? Changing "a" true story to "the" true story makes it all better? Not even the original movie poster had "true story" on it.

The remake is certainly scarier, half naked Ryan Reynolds is certainly sexier, and Chloe Moretz outacts the rest of the cast, even aged 8. The film adds many events that were never in the Lutzs' book. And after seeing Kaplan's evidence, such as a floor plan of the house, I laughed out loud when the cupboard under the stairs became a gigantic mausoleum. Who knew the Lutz's had their own Tardis in the basement?

My latest hope for truth was this new documentary in 2012, My Amityville Horror, a feature-length interview with the eldest of the Lutz children who was there when it all happened. Daniel Lutz's mum and step-dad have now passed away, and I'd hoped that this would leave him clear to disavow what I'd assumed was a money-making publicity scheme to get the family out of financial difficulty.

I was seeking closure, but instead, Daniel confirms that the unexplained events all occurred, with an intense and convincing ferocity. Or is it violent desperation? 

In conclusion, my remaining interest is in the original DaFeo murders and the actual mysteries around that case. In one horrendous night, six members of the same family were shot dead in their bedrooms. But surely after the first shot, the others would wake up and move around? And how did the neighbours not hear it all happening? 

An entire family being murdered was a rare crime then. I wonder if this case inspired Thomas Harris' Red Dragon (first filmed as Manhunter in 1986). While Harris did intensive research to portray police work so accurately, what real-life murders did he also study?

As for the Lutzs' story, my remaining interest is the psychological health of Daniel. If something supernatural didn't happen to him, what did? Did his father throw him up the stairs, and not a ghost? This is what makes My Amityville Horror a very tense and interesting watch.

My full review of the documentary My Amityville Horror (2012) is here.


  1. Great post! I am very interested in watching My Amityville Horror. I'll read your review next! Thanks.

  2. This new film looks good..but the original 79 film was silly and not scary at all!..more of a comedy at times!..and Helen Shaver needed lessons on how to scream and make it look real!..while holding her cheeks!