Initiating society’s collective loss of innocence and the fracturing of the nuclear American family is a powerful conflict that compellingly drives many intense dramatic films. The horror genre, in particular, has thrived on that influential struggle for decades, as can easily be seen in the classic franchise, ‘The Amityville Horror.’ The series began in 1979 with director Stuart Rosenberg’s Oscar-nominated movie, which starred James Brolin and Margot Kidder. The drama, which chronicled the Lutz family’s alleged supernatural ordeal in their new home in the title town, was succeeded by its prequel, 1982’s ‘Amityville II: The Possession,’ which was only loosely inspired by the DeFeo family murders.
A new retelling on the DeFeos’ deaths is being told in the recently released horror film, ‘The Amityville Murders.’ The movie’s writer-director-producer, Daniel Farrands, made his feature film helming debut on the drama, in an effort to depict the DeFeos as they may have been in real life: a loving but flawed family who violently lost their lives. The feature was made by the filmmaker after he penned, produced and directed The History Channel’s acclaimed two-hour documentary on the Amityville haunting. The project led Farrands to reignite interest in the ‘Amityville’ feature film franchise, and he then served as a producer on the previous Amityville-inspired feature, 2017’s ‘Amityville: The Awakening.’
Courtesy of Skyline Entertainment, ‘The Amityville Murders’ is now playing in theaters and On Demand and Digital, including iTunes. The movie’s distribution comes just months before the upcoming 45th anniversary of the notorious real-life murders of the DeFeo family in Amityville, New York.
‘The Amityville Murders’ chronicles the last few weeks of the lives of almost the entire DeFeo family, which is led by haggard mother, Louise (Diane Franklin) and emotionally and physically abrasive father, Ronnie (Paul Ben-Victor), and also includes children Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts), Allison (Noa Brenner), Marc (Zane Austin) and Jody (Kue Lawrence). The oldest son, Ronald Jr. (John Robinson), who goes by the nickname of Butch, is seen as a disappointment to his father. The young man stays at his family home, however, in order to protect his younger siblings from the harsh treatment their father is accustomed to giving them.
Throughout the end of October and beginning of November, 1974, Butch becomes increasingly agitated while he remains sick at home. He doesn’t quite understand the distress he feels towards his mother and siblings at first. But he soon starts to suspect that the combination of his father’s disapproval and the supernatural conjurings that he and Dawn are practicing in the basement, as they suspect that their home is sitting on an old Native American burial ground, is causing his emotion turmoil. After staring to see what he feels are spirits around the house that are urging him to kill his parents and siblings, Butch eventually takes a rifle and shots his entire family to death on the night of November 13.
Robinson and Ricketts generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘The Amityville Murders’ during individual phone interviews. Among other things, the actor and actress discussed that they were both drawn to star in the drama because they’re interested in exploring the psychological elements that drive characters who are based on real people who went through such a traumatizing experience. The performers also expressed their gratitude to Farrands for offering them the creative freedom to explore the frightening sides of society, and how those elements negatively influence families like the DeFeos, who are struggling to stay connected.
The conversation with Robinson began with him explaining what drew him to the character of Butch, as well as the overall story, and how he became involved in starring in ‘The Amityville Murders.’ He noted that he “was excited about playing a character who had experienced so much trauma. In the horror world, we tend to celebrate the gore,” he pointed out.
“But for me with this film, it was exciting to explore the psychological elements of Butch DeFeo’s story. He was a kid who was really going through a lot; he was trying to fit in, and figure out his place in the world. His father was so abusive, physically, if not mentally, as well. I was interested to see where that took him, and obviously, that was this incident that everybody has been focusing on for so many years,” the actor also noted. “There has been so much written about him and his story, as well as the hauntings. So I was excited to revisit the story now, in 2019, and see how we still relate to it today,” he added, before sharing that he also pondered the ways that he could humanize what happened to the DeFeo family.
Ricketts also began her conversation by sharing what drew her to the character of awn, as well as the overall story, and how she became involved in starring in the horror film. “My agent-manager initially sent me the script, to see if I was interested in auditioning. We’ve seen so many different versions of ‘The Amityville Horror’ films, but what drew me to this version was that the writer-director, Daniel Farrands, did a different take on it,” she explained.
“Daniel allows audiences to take away what they want, including what they think went down during the murders, from the movie. They can question if the house was haunted, if there were voices in Butch’s head, or if the family abuse combined with his drug abuse, convinced him to do these things. So that initially attracted me to the film. I was also interested in the fact that Daniel created such family dynamics,” the actress divulged.
After receiving the script, Ricketts “auditioned and met with Dan. I was lucky enough that he wanted to work with me, too, so I signed on to play Dawn.”
With ‘The Amityville Murders’ being based on the real-life story of the DeFeo murders, Robinson also shared why he was interested in uncovering the turmoil that occurred between the family members, particularly the character he plays and his father, interested him. “I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is a pretty calm place, and I didn’t really know any kids who grew up with domestic violence in their house,” the performer admitted. “I was a teenager when the Columbine shootings happened, so I feel a responsibility to keep talking about domestic violence, specifically for young boys. I wonder, what kinds of pressure are these boys under to leads them to commit these crimes? I also wonder, what can I do to change young boys’ lives?”
Having also “spent some time in Upstate New York, as well as New York City, there seems this harbored masculinity there. From an West Coast perspective, there seems to be a certain way that boys have to be a man, and be tough, in New York,” Robinson also revealed.
Starring in a movie that’s inspired by a true story also influenced the way Ricketts approached preparing to play her character. “As soon as I saw the script, I was interested in it, because I’ve always been interested in true crime. I’ve seen so many documentaries about the Amityville case, especially through Dan’s work, so I was very aware of the DeFeo murders prior to signing onto this film,” she shared.
The actress added that “In terms of research, I did as much as I could. I watched as many documentaries and interviews as I could. Of course, I also watched all of the previous features, and gathered as much information as I possibly could. It was definitely important to me to show Dawn’s youth, and how young she actually was. I think when stories get told, and then rumors get started about them, we will never truly know what happened. But it was important to me to tell her story as truly as I could.”
The process of collaborating with Farrands as the writer and director helped Robinson build his portrayal of his character throughout the shoot. “It was great that Daniel was both the writer and director, and had also done so much research on the subject while making his documentaries on the story. He has also written a lot of other horror pieces, and is so interested in the actual story of Butch,” the actor shared.
“It was a great experience for me to work with him, because he gave me the tools to show the bad side of our society. We worked to bring it out, because it’s not only scary, but because we could also maybe affect our culture by talking about it.” Robinson added that he thinks Farrands “will be working as a filmmaker for years, because he loves this genre, and knows how to make things scary.”
Ricketts described her experience of working with Farrands on the film as “amazing. He’s so passionate, and cares so much about the Amityville and what happened. He’s made documentaries about it, long before the feature. He’s really passionate about trying to find out what really happened, and he knows so much about it.”
“Having Dan leading us through that made it so much easier. He made this space that allowed us the freedom to create things on our own as actors. But at the same time, I knew I could trust him to steer me back, if I was veering off in a direction that wasn’t Dawn,” Ricketts also divulged. “So knowing that he had my back made it really wonderful to work with him.”
The performer then admitted that “As an actress going into a project in which you’re playing a real person, it can be intimidating. There was pressure of wanting to do Dawn justice, and not just show a version of who I think she may have been. I tried to tell her story as truthfully as I could.”
The actress also embraced her experience of collaborating with the rest of the cast, particularly Robinson, once filming began on ‘The Amityville Murders.’ She admitted that she thinks “John is incredibly talented. He’s one of those actors who makes your job incredibly easy, in the sense that he’s so present. He also made such present and bold choices when he made his decisions in developing Butch. He’s so good at what he does, it made it easy for me to play opposite of him. It wasn’t difficult to be in scenes with him; he’s such a giving actor.”
While the horror movie is mainly set in the DeFeo family home in the title Long Island town, ‘The Amityville Murders’ was actually shot in Los Angeles, Robinson revealed. “We filmed in Koreatown, of all places. We found this house in a little quiet neighborhood,” he also admitted with a laugh.
“The crew was able to remodel the house, and make it look like the Amityville house. We had one little part of the front house, which served as the facade of the house in the film.” He added that the crew also built “sets inside of the house, which served as Butch’s room, which was really spot-on. I had access to photos of the house from the ’70s, so I was able to see every room in detail, from the fake wood floors to the shag carpets, and we were able to recreate that. That really helped create the ’70s vibe, and made us feel as though we were there, which was definitely helpful.”
Ricketts also chimed in on the experience of shooting the period drama on location in the house in Los Angeles. “The set felt so ’70s to me, so the environment really helped all of us actors get into the space of who these people were.”