Most horror fans, and probably a good chunk of people in general, only need to hear the word 'Amityville' to conjure images of floating beds, 'cold spots', and other signs of supernatural presence. It almost makes you wonder why anyone would want to live in the upstate New York burg. The phenomenon that was created after the Lutz family went public about their experiences in what was to become the quintessential haunted house produced a media frenzy, one of the most popular horror films of all time, and an intense debate over the truthfulness of their claims.
My Amityville Horror presents the original haunted house tale in the form of a documentary dealing with Daniel Lutz, the eldest son of the family that was, according to them, tormented by otherworldly phenomena in their very own home. Lutz is a tremendously compelling character, interviewed for the very first time here, and he is absolutely convinced of the veracity of his and his family's claims. I can almost guarantee that even the most skeptical viewer will be swayed, even for a brief moment, by the aggressively convincing Lutz.
Towards the beginning of the film, we follow Lutz as he sits down with a psychologist named Dr Susan Bartel. These scenes are some of the most interesting in the whole piece because we truly see the conviction behind his claims. He is immediately defensive, attempting — unsuccessfully — to turn the session around on Bartel as he describes the phenomena he and his family experienced. He demonstrates, here, some classic signifiers of delusional, sociopathic behaviour. We're also introduced to the highly-religious previous owner of the Amityville home, who carries around what she claims is a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, as well as a spiritual expert who keeps a pair of 'identical twin' chickens (prompting more than one audience member to wonder how chickens can be twins — same egg?) which add to the surreal pastiche on display here.
Lutz's credibility is diminished somewhat by a particular sort of vagueness in his claims and a feeling of aggression throughout the film. When stories of child abuse and neglect are introduced, the holes in Lutz's stories are exacerbated somewhat and you can't help but doubt his bizarre assertions. Still though, there's that constant thread of Lutz's convictions running through the film which always bring you back to wondering what's real and what isn't. Eric Walter's careful handling of his subject and skillful presentation of the various interviews, and creative employment of spiritual mediums and other figures that analyze the claims of Lutz and his family prevent the film from seeming skewed towards one interpretation or another, like any good documentary does. It's this handling that makes My Amityville Horror an excellent character piece, and a study of how certain circumstances can create the necessary conditions for collective delusions. Even still, I can say with some certainty that I won't be buying property in Amityville any time soon.
We've been posting reviews of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival all week. You can find them the rest here.
This review was written by Sachin Hingoo, a freelance writer when he is not working at an office job that is purpose-built for paying the bills while he works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared on Mcsweeneys.net, the CBC Street Level Blog, Ohmpage.ca, and The Midnight Madness Blog for the Toronto International Film Festival. He has also been featured at Toronto lecture series Trampoline Hall (which is rumored to be excellent). His mutant power is 'feigning interest'. You can read all of his posts here.
Photo: Promotional photo of Daniel Lutz from My Amityville Horror