The Amityville Horror was a book that spawned a series of films. That book was based on a real-life incident on Long Island, New York, which has since become America's most infamous haunted house. The family who claimed to experience paranormal phenomena there consisted of a man, his wife and her three children. My Amityville Horror is the never-before-heard account from the family's eldest son, but this documentary isn't just an examination of what the eldest son witnessed. It's also an examination of the son himself. His name is Daniel Lutz and after 35 years essentially in shadows, this is him finally coming into some light. This is his introduction to the world.
Since the story broke in the late 1970s, Amityville has been a consistent source of speculation and entertainment. Recently, Hollywood took yet another stab at it with a film remake starring Ryan Reynolds in 2005. In July 2011, ABC News aired a TV special called Beyond Belief that addressed the story. In March 2012, the cable channel Chiller aired a special called Real Fear: The Truth Behind the Movies that also addressed the Amityville case. The parents have since passed away and the youngest child refuses interviews, so both those TV specials featured interviews with the family's middle child.
Both specials also focused on the horror elements of the case, the haunting aspects, in a crude attempt to be scary. They've either been indulgences or inquisitions over the existence of ghosts or demons. Yet, filmmaker Eric Walter lays out in the first five minutes that My Amityville Horror, which Walter actively began in 2009, is not going to be like any of those other productions. Yes, we're going to get Daniel Lutz's testimony, which includes some very disturbing and possibly supernatural events, but it's not about what physically happened to him. This movie is more about what mentally happened.
As we see in the first five minutes, Daniel Lutz or Danny meets with a psychologist, a therapist. It would be cliché to say Walter wants to put the audience into Danny's head. Through Walter's way of conducting his interview with Danny, no other conclusion can be drawn. What Walter is doing, which most observers or interviewers have not done, is some head-shrinking. It might be an obvious move, but Walter facilitates a reunion with Laura Didio, the investigative reporter from the local TV station who was originally assigned the Amityville case and who first met Danny when he was a little boy. Unlike most reporters, Didio had befriended the family, but she hadn't seen Danny in 35 years, so her reunion with him also helps to further reveal what's in this guy's brain because as natural for a reporter in this position she asks some probing questions.
There is a resistance from Danny to reveal what's in his head. The man who is in his mid-forties says he's been running away from what happened 35 years ago. "I didn't want to be the Amityville Horror kid," Danny says. Danny rather works in his garage. He fixes up and drives his vintage cars. He plays the guitar and creates music. Yet, there is one signature shot that Walter captures of Danny literally standing in the shadow of the Amityville house, which is figurative of how this man has felt for decades. The house and the events inside cast darkness onto Danny. If not darkness, then perhaps it's a grayness or lack of brightness and color, which Walter reflects in some of the cinematography here both through natural and artificial lighting.
Danny's interview is shot with a lot of black space and the exteriors look very cold. Seeing Danny bundled in warm clothes, there's no wonder, but, despite the weather, we get the sense that there is coldness to Danny. It's not coldness meaning that he's totally standoffish but there is an austerity to him. Some of this is seen in his first interaction with the psychologist. There's an awkward tension between the two at the start that's actually an early source of humor.
Not a lot of humor is found in the movie but in the interest of full disclosure I was involved in the making of this documentary and I can say that Danny is not always this austere and haunted guy. He can be quite charming and humor-filled. That engaging, light-hearted, fun and joking side does come out in moments. Danny and Didio visit Lorraine Warren, a self-described demonologist and psychic, and Danny's asides to the camera of which he is aware are at times very hilarious, but, what comes across most in Danny is a serious man of faith.
It's through watching him that it's clear that Danny is also what I would consider the perfect subject for any documentary filmmaker. One of Walter's favorite of that kind of filmmaker is Errol Morris who was a master at finding perfect subjects and getting them to tell their stories, often directly into the lens and often with complete ease and earnestness. Thanks to his history and extensive knowledge of Amityville, which he accumulated prior to ever meeting Danny or getting this opportunity, Walter is able to coax the Amityville kid to spill with perhaps not the same ease but certainly earnestly and more forthrightly than any other stranger could.
When Danny is telling his story, it's obvious he is a very good storyteller, which may or may not be a good thing. A professor interviewed verbalizes at the end what is evident from almost the very second that Danny appears on screen. The professor says, "When you watch him tell these stories, he looks very believable and he tells the story in a way that there's almost guarantee to get other people to believe him..."
Because of the traumatic things in his life, Danny repeatedly says that he has no control. Listening to his story, which adds more dimensions and new details to the haunting with which most are familiar, it's ironic because Danny has or will have complete control of the audience. This helps due to Danny's story being such a fantastic one. Some might not accept it. Many probably won't, but, as Danny tells it and speaks about it, he is very convincing. If it were an account that the audience merely read in a newspaper of which Walter provides numerous clippings, the audience might just brush it off, but when you see into Danny's eyes, hear his voice, the sincerity and the passion in it, the assuredness, the audience might just think twice. Danny is someone who is innately captivating, so it's up to the audience to decide because even if he were fibbing, Danny could pass a lie detector with flying colors.
My Amityville Horror
Premieres July 22 at the Fantasia Film Festival.
For more information and future screenings, go to My Amityville Horror - Official Website.