December 1975. Newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz, along with the latter’s three children, moved into 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville. Forewarned about the house’s bloody history (just over a year prior, former resident Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed his family while they slept) the Lutzes proceeded to move in and unpack. 28 days later they fled from the house never to return. Their claims of terrifying paranormal occurrences were lapped up by the media, inspired Jay Anson’s 1977 book The Amityville Horror: A True Story, and no less than 10 films, including the 1979 shockbuster, The Amityville Horror. Over the years the validity of the alleged occurrences has been the centre of intense debate and scrutiny, with the Lutzes branded opportunistic frauds. Prominent figures involved in the investigations, from journalists and parapsychologists, to news producers and psychologists, have since weighed in with their opinions, accusations and theories regarding the family and what they claim happened in the house. Eric Walter’s documentary is interesting because it features a subject who has remained silent about the whole debacle since his involuntary involvement in it as a child. Daniel Lutz was 10 when he moved to 112 Ocean Drive, and what becomes obvious from the outset of My Amityville Horror is that, regardless of what exactly occurred in that house, it has left him psychologically damaged beyond repair.
Lutz speaks directly to Walter in a series of disarmingly honest and brutal conversations and is reunited with various individuals who forged their careers out of the aftermath of the alleged haunting, including investigative reporter Laura DiDio and parapsychologist Lorraine Warren. He recounts what happened, or what he remembers to have happened, and interestingly, backs up everything his mother and stepfather claimed. What soon takes centre stage is the fearful relationship he had with ex-Marine stepfather George Lutz — “the biggest fucking asshole you could ever meet” — and how he dominated the family with physical and psychological abuse. George died in 2006 and isn’t around to defend himself, but others back up these claims, as well as those that he was involved in occult practices. Walter attempts to balance proceedings with various psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus, who acts as a voice of reason, discussing the impact all of this has had on Daniel, and the unreliable nature of memories. Loftus suggests Daniel misremembers events, the passage of time and his difficult teenage years blurring the truth. Elsewhere though, allegations are not countered and much of what is claimed comes off as one-sided.
Daniel frequently conveys a staunch sense of entitlement, and while it is easy to feel sympathy for someone who has had such a troubled and disruptive upbringing, he becomes increasingly aggressive and defensive as the documentary unfurls. In hindsight it becomes clear that while the world fixed its gaze upon his home and his family, it failed to see the adverse and deeply troubling effects these events were having on the Lutz children. That child is still beneath the hostile surface of Daniel, still struggling to reconcile himself with his past. In his own words, he didn’t get to tell his story first time around, and this is his opportunity. He seizes it with relish and appears to be powerless against the need to spit out his experiences and to hell with anyone who doesn’t believe him. True horror emerges in the form of domestic abuse and deep-rooted familial strife, with the revelation that Daniel was sent to stay in a strict Catholic boarding school at the mercy of overzealous priests, whom he claims attempted to exorcise him on more than one occasion, while his parents gallivanted the globe promoting their traumatic paranormal experiences.
Whether or not 112 Ocean Avenue was haunted is debatable, but there’s no denying that some very questionable things took place behind those creepy, staring, quarter-round windows, things that have psychologically scared Daniel Lutz. My Amityville Horror poses many questions, but by the film’s conclusion, very few have actually been answered.
My Amityville Horror is available on DVD from 28 October