Xavierpop Does @TADFilmFest – Ariel Reviews ‘My Amityville Horror’

My Amityville Horror is the first-hand account of the 112 Ocean Avenue horrors the public has been eagerly awaiting for 35 years. Well, sort of. Daniel Lutz, son of Katherine and Stepson of George, opens up for the first time about the events that would terrorize him his entire life. An attempt at documentary, it’s far too affected to unbiasedly tell the tale. With continued use of a non-diegetic soundtrack, constructed set pieces and props that force a sense of sympathy, and more information than you’ll know what to do with, it misses the mark. Rather than presenting the public with a clear, concise point, it becomes a jumble of perspectives – a kind of cinematic Choose Your Own Adventure. The end result is winding up exactly where you began – with little more knowledge, no questions answered, and a confused perspective.

The film consists of footage of Lutz going back through his tormented childhood. Alongside Laura DiDio, the Channel 5 reporter who’d been close to the family in 1976, they pick away at the scars Lutz’s spent decades trying to run away from. In their attempts to get Lutz’s memory on record for the first time, they pull testimonials from various experts in parapsychology, paranormal investigation, and psychology. They bring up the quotes and claims from investigative journalists of the time, as well as those who have since been intrigued by the events. What we’re left with is a plethora of opinions – all educated and relevant, but none leading to any kind of catharsis or cohesive conclusion, for us or Lutz.

Shot on the Red One, the film is beautiful to watch. Stellar depth of field, contrast, tonal range, and clarity, it’s gorgeous, especially for so simple and limited a film. That being said, this isn’t a nature documentary, nor is it one on art. The point is to tell the story, not to be pretty. It feels as if the majority of the effort went into production value as opposed to content. In the end, this leads it to feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Throughout the film we see Lutz at a table, with very deliberate set dressings and lighting. With the use of overhead lighting, a tone and mood is heavy handedly set, eliciting a very distinct reaction from the audience. The table in front of him is carefully littered with old family photos, cassettes very obviously labeled with the names of the Lutz family members (each presumably of their testimonies,) and a recorder in the very center.

Tactics like this are manipulative, and have no place in documentary, a medium intended to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That being said, the genre is hopelessly flawed. So much so that Documentary is now a genre, and no longer (or seldom) referred to as a medium. It’s part of the cannon of film, now, intended above all else for entertainment, with education and enlightenment increasingly taking a backseat. And this is a prime example of such devolution.

As soon as a filmmaker addresses an issue for the sake of a documentary, the subject matter is tainted. This is unavoidable. The intent of documentary is to render unadulterated fact through film. To educate the public, and give a voice to a cause or a people otherwise unable to speak or be heard.

Documentaries are supposed to be like shooting animals in the wild – the filmmaker is intended to capture the truth without the subject matter being aware of it. To avoid affecting fact. But it’s next to impossible to address a human issue with a telephoto-like distance. It’s not the same as shooting animals from great distances, where the intent is to capture their natural behavior. To humans this is called stalking, and is generally frowned upon in civilized society. As a result, the filmmaker must interact, unavoidably affecting the material.

However, there are ways to avoid further affecting the subject matter. Not only does Eric Walter seem to make no attempt to avoid this, rather he seems to dive headlong into the horror tropes that made The Amityville Horror (1979) such a successful film. He uses emotionally stirring set-pieces, which get a rise out of Lutz himself, as well as the audience. Also, most notably, he frequently uses dramatic, non-diegetic music, and in very specific circumstances. Whenever Lutz is particularly reactive, or is retelling a particularly emotional or horrifying memory, the music swells the same way it would before the kill in a Slasher film. The audience is fed heavy-handed emotional cues. This is a scary memory, this is a sad moment. It’s difficult, as a result, to distance the supposed fact behind Lutz’s testimony from the fiction that made the novelization and film so memorable. This causes irreparable damage that’s incredibly difficult to overlook.

As the film pushes forward with diagnoses from psychologists and therapists Lutz has been involved with, his sanity comes into question. They seem to allude to the possibility of schizophrenia. They also question the validity of his memories. As he was only a child at the time, the consulted psychologists suggest a child’s memory is far too fluid, and can only extrapolate things as it ages, seldom rationalizing that initial, imaginative rendering. Between these, and conflicting statements from paranormal investigators – some saying with conviction that there were undoubtedly forces at work there, while others insist the place was “clean” – we are left at an impasse.

Though seemingly created out of a desire to shed light on an already conflicted story, unfortunately Walter has only added to the confusion. Manipulating the footage he’s obtained, he’s shot himself in the foot, fraying the credibility of his pseudo-documentary. By overwhelming the film with hardcore believers and steadfast skeptics alike, he’s brought the discussion to a stalemate, most likely having done more harm than good to Lutz’s credibility.

In the end, he’s created an irrelevant film. We’re left right back where we started. But it is nicely shot.