October 16, 2012

MY AMITYVILLE HORROR (2012) - a documentary about Daniel Lutz

The legend continues...

The London Film Festival screened this smartly-produced new documentary at NFT3 last night. I went in almost completely 'cold', knowing only that one of the Lutz family children was interviewed. Hoping that it would expose the original Amityville horror as a hoax, once and for all, I was in for a few surprises.

If you haven't seen the The Amityville Horror (1979) or remake (2005), here's the story so far... In 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered the six members of his family that he lived with. The following year, George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moved into the same house in Amityville, Long Island. There, loud noises, swarms of flies, eerie figures (and much, much more) disrupted their lives. They only stayed a few weeks, before fleeing in the middle of the night, leaving all their belongings behind. Their short stay became national news, selling magazines, books and then a series of films - all of which blurred the real events with constant retellings. Throughout it all, George and Kathy Lutz stood behind their original story until they both passed away.

Daniel (left), George and Kathy Lutz
With interviews old and new, relevant video and audio archives interviews and carefully chosen photographs, we now hear the story from the perspective of the eldest of the three children.

Daniel Lutz, now in his forties, confirmed many of the famous supernatural events from the original book. He'd the seen the swarms of flies, he'd been thrown up a flight of stairs, he'd seen the fanged pig with glowing eyes, his bed had levitated... I was immediately confused. I'd assumed the parents had concocted the stories to get out of debt, and kept the children away from the press to leave the story-telling to the adults.

Once again, we're presented with an enigma. Someone deadly convincing that they're telling the truth. This time, with seemingly nothing to gain, no movie rights, no book to sell. Living a life where the continuing attention has only made his life harder.

With no hard evidence, we only have the witnesses. The other two children wouldn't be interviewed for this film. Every supernatural event in the house left no useful trace and no convincing photographs. As he tells it, even the dead flies conveniently, immediately disappeared.

But Daniel also has further twists and revelations to add to the tale - events from before and after he moved into the house with the spooky eyes...

Eric Walter - writer, director and courageous interviewer
Young filmmaker Eric Walter was at the screening, telling us how he'd always been fascinated by the Amityville horror story, and extensively studying the evidence of it as a genuine paranormal event, particularly in online forums. He talked about the huge divide between the believers and disbelievers that still exists today. An insightful parallel is the divide between Christians and atheists - and this viewpoint is particularly relevant in one scene in the documentary.

Walter, describes himself as an agnostic with regards to religion and takes the same stance with his approach to the Amityville house. I don't think Daniel, who contacted him through the website, would have agreed to be interviewed and filmed if Walter was a firm disbeliever. But who in their right mind would tell Daniel to his face that they didn't believe him? He's very intense and intimidating, to say the least.

Daniel Lutz as he appears in My Amityville Horror
From the moment that George Lutz entered his life as a stepfather and forced his surname on the whole family, Daniel disliked him. Arguing with and antagonising him, even running away from home. If half the things in the book are true about George's behaviour in 'that' house, being possessed and acting erratically, forcing the family to march around, ten-year old Daniel would have reason to be scared as well as angry.

My own take can only be based on intuition - Daniel may have been thrown up the stairs, smacked across the hands and knocked around his bedroom, but by George, not by demons...

I think it would be in Daniel's greater interest to expose it all as a hoax. To finally unveil the mysteries of the Amityville horror. That would be a better, more saleable story than supporting the same events over again. The mystery here is as strong as ever. He's a very convincing spokesman. But that makes no sense to me.

He's interviewed by a psychologist, a reporter who has followed the story since the beginning, and by the director (Daniel looking straight to camera), an approach that made me feel quite uncomfortable, like I'd been locked in a room with him for two hours.

After over thirty years of Amityville horror books and films, the documentary assumes that the audience knows a little about the basis for the story. It doesn't waste time telling it all over again, but may confuse newcomers a little. 

Currently appearing in festivals - it's too early to know what kind of wider release this will get in cinemas or on video. So keep following their updates...

I'll talk more about my own take on The Amityville Horror phenomenon, starting back when I first saw it in the cinema in 1980, and looking at how it's been sold as "a true story"...

October 11, 2012

Man of a Million Faces - Martin Landau in conversation

Martin Landau in conversation
Q&A at the BFI South Bank, October 9th, 2012

I've been watching Martin Landau for decades in TV and film. As a teenager, I was scared by him as 'The Man Who Never Was' in The Outer Limits and impressed by his leadership of Moonbase Alpha as Commander Koenig in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999. It has remained a treat to see him in everything from religious epics to sleazy horrors. Even after winning an Oscar in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) he's never stopped working - more recently cropping up in The X-Files movie (1998) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). A chance to see him in person wasn't to be missed...

As the closing event of the BFI South Bank's Alfred Hitchcock celebration, Martin Landau appeared in a conversation that raced through his incredible acting career. The initial reason being that his first big screen role was as James Mason's henchman in North by Northwest (1959).

But Brooklyn-born Landau had started off as a fan of comic strips, becoming an amateur artist while soaking up the wide range of international accents in his local neighbourhood. Landing a job at a New York newspaper, he could have had a cushy career caricaturing stars of the stage by attending every major opening night at the theatre. But realising that this could be a lifelong rut, he turned down the job (leaving his mother in shock) and instead turned to acting. However, he still carries a sketchpad and pens (which he flashed from inside his jacket) and continues to draw.

With James Dean
On his doorstep was The Actor's Studio where he was deemed talented enough to rub shoulders with Lee J Cobb, Elia Kazan and his new best friend the young James Dean! Even now, he still enjoys giving his time to there, now as a tutor rather than a student. He also helps choose the new faces lucky enough to be enrolled out of thousands of applicants.

Back in the 1950s, a hit play took him to the west coast of America, where Alfred Hitchcock caught a performance and cast him in North by Northwest. Landau defended the director's cheeky comment that "actors are like cattle" and praised his hands-off approach, enabling actors to flesh out roles for themselves. Open to their ideas, Hitchcock would only interject when he didn't like something.

With James Mason in North By Northwest
In the role of the sneaky Leonard, Landau wanted a motivation for his hatred of Eva Marie Saint's character, and suggested to Hitchcock that he infer that his character was gay. Subtly suggested in his performance, at a time when the subject was still relatively taboo, the tactic imperilled the sexuality of James Mason's character!

A later question from the audience tested whether Landau considered his method acting was better than Cary Grant's more traditional approach. But Landau only had praise for the star's hard work (always available for long rehearsals) and professionalism (like being generous to other actors).

Two other major roles, in the epics Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told, should have cemented Landau's movie career. But Cleopatra flopped, lambasted because of its bloated budget, and many major scenes, most of Landau's best, were cut completely when Cleopatra was reduced from two three-hour movies, down to one four-hour movie. He noted that they were hardly going to cut out anything with Richard Burton or Elizabeth Taylor, who were scandalising the world's press with an openly extra-marital affair.

With Peter Graves and Barbara Bain
in Mission: Impossible
Instead, he settled down to a long run of quality TV work. His continued enthusiasm for science-fiction started with roles in The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. But he talked about turning down the role of Mr Spock in the original Star Trek (!!!) because he didn't want to play a character who had no emotions. Also, he would have had to turn down Mission: Impossible (that also started in 1966), which gave him the chance to play two (or more) characters every week, as master of disguise, Rollin' Hand. He noted that the Tom Cruise films are nothing like the TV series, each episode resembling "a puzzle".

With Catherine Schell and Barbara Bain in Space: 1999
His other big TV series was Space: 1999 (that started in 1975). A later question from the audience prompted him to confirm that he enjoyed the first season far more. Although it was cancelled after two, he said he would have stayed on for a third season if it had returned to the hard sci-fi stories of the first, rather than the less consistent approach backed by Fred Freiberger (a producer who also oversaw the demise of the original Star Trek).

After that, roles in the 1980s weren't so good for him, with a run of low budget movies and far less TV work. This 'fallow period' was broken by his Oscar-nominated work for Coppola's Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988) and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Landau finally won a supporting actor Academy Award in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.

Researching his role as Bela Lugosi, Landau surprised me with his incisiveness. Recognising that so many of Lugosi's films were available on home video, the audience might know more about the actor than him. Landau therefore watched over thirty Lugosi movies, as well as any available newsreel footage. Despite the awfulness of some of Lugosi's work (he cited the 1952 Brooklyn Gorilla), Landau praised the actor's continued dedication and seriousness in any role. He also visited all the places that Lugosi lived, noting the steady reduction in the size of the houses as his career dwindled.

A couple of hilarious clips from Ed Wood reminded us of its brilliance. Landau noted how Burton may have cast him knowing that the actor had himself been through bad times as well as good. I can't wait to see it again.

Landau provides the voice and mannerisms
of Frankenweenie's Mr. Rzykruski
He's back in London for the premiere of the new Tim Burton film. The feature-length version of Frankenweenie, Landau providing the voice for an animated character. Look out for interviews with him in the press and on TV over the next few days. This weekend he'll also appear over the weekend at Autographica at the Birmingham NEC.

Now 84, he needed a little help to ascend the three steps onto the stage, (there was no banister). He may carry a walking stick, but his energy sustained us all for two hours. He loved impersonating the actors and directors he'd worked with and mentioned many other names, to remember them rather than 'name drop'. Film clips were also shown from the Mission: Impossible pilot episode, the opening titles of the very first Space: 1999, Tucker, and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Unusually, the interview wasn't filmed by the BFI, so don't expect a record of the event to appear on their website.

Martin Landau interview in Movieline about his role in Frankenweenie...