Ever since the Lutz family's 28-day ordeal in their supposedly-haunted Amityville, Long Island home ended in 1976, the story has been a barometer for one's feelings about the supernatural. Believers maintain the house was possessed, possibly by the ghosts of the six people murdered by its previous owner, Ronnie DeFeo. Others maintain the entire story, levitating beds and all, is a hoax. Whatever you believe, there is one fact that director Eric Walter makes very clear and proves beyond a reasonable doubt: the incident resulted in one screwed up life. Daniel Lutz was the oldest of the three Lutz children who lived at 112 Ocean Ave. In the intervening 35-plus years he has become a resentful ball of clenched, suppressed rage. Walter is given enormous access by Daniel, whose facial tics and threatening glances seem like physical manifestations of his inner turmoil. Without Daniel, My Amityville Horror would be just another rehash of a story most people only remember from the 1979 film starring James Brolin. With Daniel, the doc is an oftentimes fascinating character piece that repeatedly tests our allegiances and our beliefs. Interest in the Amityville Horror has waned, but never disappeared. This film's limited theatrical release is a loss-leader to a warm reception on Blu-ray and streaming.
Walter approaches Daniel, if not the entire Amityville story, in a coy, devilishly clever fashion. The movie is about Daniel, then and now. Amityville is merely what made him the Daniel he is today. Although he claims he's finally ready to talk about his troubles and move past them, he is a reluctant narrator. And who can blame him? He's spent his post-haunted house life as "the Amityville kid", even though he's now a middle-aged, divorced father working as a UPS delivery man. Walter's interviews with Daniel comprise almost the entirety of the doc and as it progresses, our opinion of him changes. He seems sincere as he recounts the off-season swarm of flies and the self-rocking chairs that reportedly plagued the house. Then there are edgier moments when he looks so troubled, if not mentally unbalanced, that his memory and veracity are called into question. Walter embraces these grey areas. The moment we're about to pass permanent judgment, the game changes and Daniel's credibility is either restored or tarnished.
Daniel is definitely credible when discussing his late stepfather George Lutz, who moved Daniel, his two siblings and their mother into the house in December 1975. His bile rises at the mere mention of the ex-marine and primary beneficiary of the Amityville phenomenon. George, we are convinced, was a bad stepfather. He was also an amateur occultist, a revelation that will set off alarm bells in non-believers. So much of Daniel's internal anger is directed at George that maybe his horror house memories are just a transference mechanism that keeps him from being consumed by hatred. Indeed, is Daniel's pinky permanently deformed because a haunted window slammed forcefully into it? Or was it the result of a fight with his stepfather, an assertion admittedly not floated in the movie? Walter makes us wonder such things, and yet these questions don't take into account the corps of journalists and supernatural experts who descended upon Amityville back then and continue to debate it today. Walter tracks down a number of these players, including a reporter who first worked on the story and Lorraine Warren, the demonologist who originally investigated the case. Her home is a museum of paranormal and religious artifacts, including what she claims is the piece of the true cross, which only makes her a witness of questionable reliability.
My Amityville Horror wouldn't be worth making without Daniel and it wouldn't be worth watching without Walter. He approaches the project the right way and the production values are pro. Even at a tight 88 minutes, he includes tense, revealing moments where Daniel becomes testy with the documentary crew. Walter is dispassionate and teasing yet also respectful to an individual who is, lying or not, still quite troubled. Ultimately, we're never sure if Daniel is being truthful about what happened at 112 Ocean Ave. If he's lying, he's the world's greatest liar. If he's telling the truth, he experienced something that should change our very perception of the universe. If he's constructed a different truth to protect himself from terrible childhood memories, then he's a sad and tragic figure. Walter wisely doesn't make a case for either of these possibilities. Instead, he cedes the floor to a man defined by his "unfortunate gift." He is haunted in more ways than one.
Distributor: IFC Midnight (theatrical) / SundanceNOW (VOD)
Cast: Daniel Lutz, Laura DiDio, Lorraine Warren
Director: Eric Walter
Producers: Andrea Adams, John Blythe, Eric Walter
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 88 mins.
Release date: March 15 (limited and VOD)