Over the years, the name Amityville has conjured up images of murder and the supernatural, with the infamous house’s formerly triangular-eyed windows casting a shadow on countless posters, movies and books covers. From the first horror movie in 1979, the box office has never tired of the Amityville name, attaching it to a continuing parade of movies and documentaries about what happened and/or didn’t happen in the house on Ocean Avenue. Indian burial grounds, pigs, possessions, clocks, lamps, demons and curses have all been tagged in the onscreen Amityville franchise.
Daniel Lutz even chronicled his short stay in “My Amityville Horror,” although the Lutz’s have gotten much more attention than the DeFeo’s tragic story. The name Amityville still attracts the curious to Long Island.
The most recent edition, 2018’s, “The Amityville Murders” sets itself apart from the haunted horde with its true crime docudrama style, telling the factual story of the DeFeos, the family that inhabited the house before the Lutz’s. Their earlier narrative hasn’t been told as much, given most books and movies focused on details of The Lutz’s 28 days of terror. With most movies using the Amityville moniker for attention and media muscle, “The Amityville Murders” can add itself to 1982’s “The Possession” as the real-life companion piece.
Cinematically, the Lutz’s were first, although the DeFeo’s tragedy unintentionally started the Amityville story with Ronnie (Butch) DeFeo Jr. killing his family. Their story was originally told in the highly fictionalized “Amityville: The Possession,” historically a prequel to “The Amityville Horror” with plot points used in subsequent movies, referencing the murders.
In 2002 Ric Osuna brought the real story to life in words with “The Night The DeFeos Died.” Ryan Katzenbach’s “Shattered Hopes” series also tells the nonfiction account in a three-part documentary, and much of that information is mirrored in “The Amityville Murders.”
Although Butch DeFeo’s story has changed numerous times, “The Possession” lightly glosses over the family violence and ignores the drug use, focusing on demonic possession, supernatural forces and unsubstantiated rumors of incest between Butch and his sister Dawn.
“The horror is the reality,” Diane Franklin says, the only actress that’s been killed in the same story, playing both daughter and mother. At 20, she played Patricia Montelli (Dawn DeFeo) in “The Possession” and now portrays Louise DeFeo in “The Amityville Murders.”
Franklin’s love of horror brought her back to onscreen Amityville. Growing up in Long Island, she’d heard the stories, jumping at the chance to play the family matriarch when asked. She also made sure the accent was represented. Playing Louise has given her a renewed perspective of her role as Patricia.
Sequels were much less common back then. “Every generation has their films and we never thought anyone would see Amityville 2, because everything was part 1,” Franklin remembers. For everyone that was terrified by the first two Amityville movies, her personal scary movie, as it was for many people, was “The Exorcist.”
Franklin says the music in horror movies is as much the killer as the villain. “When I did “The Possession,” they still showed dailies to actors. I remember watching the footage and thinking, ‘Why is this scary?’ A picture, clock, stairs, there was no music, a cross with a sheet over it. It didn’t feel scary to me. I saw the special effects makeup. To me it was like, ‘That’s a mask.’ I can see people being terrified, especially the incest. That’s real life terror, like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?”
Franklin loved the bloody water, unbreakable windows and her on-screen brother, Sonny’s makeup. “I thought it was creepy. His face cracks open and the weird [thumping] thing in his hand. That was really well done.”
Franklin’s been asked about the incest scene in “The Possession” for years, but she doesn’t mind. It brings new eyes and ears to the film. “New people listen,” she says. “I like to tell them about the film. It was an integral part of the story, based on a rumor of the murders. Half the movie takes place in the house and the other outside about the exorcism.”
She thought it was the only film that portrayed incest in a real way. Other films may have done it, but not as realistically. “To that extent, I’m glad there was nudity because that’s what made it so shocking.” Some of the lines were awkward. “I actually have to say, ‘My panties.’ How do you say that without laughing? It’s also awkward it’s incest. No one’s gonna talk, it’s gonna be in the moment, no dialogue. To me my character was frozen. You freeze, its denial, it’s not happening. You want to trust that person. That’s what happened with Patricia.”
Afterwards her character tried to comfort her brother. “It’s OK. I’m not ashamed. I wanted that closeness.’ To me I played it as if the devil was inside me a little. I don’t have a brother personally so I didn’t have a problem playing that part. Perhaps if I did I’d feel a bit weird.”
They pushed the incest angle for attention and curiosity seekers. TV, all 13 channels or so at the time, was still pretty tame. Franklin says you had to go to a theater to see something adult oriented. “They wanted more nudity and I said no. It’s interesting because I wrote about that in my book (The Excellent Adventures of the last American French-Exchange Student of the 80s).”
The bedroom scene cuts straight to the confessional in an effective manipulation of emotions from shock to shame. “That’s such an interesting thing to realize.” Religion was big in the ’80s due to horror movies and the satanic scare. “The Possession” leaned heavily on God vs. The Devil while “The Amityville Murders” dove into the layers of dysfunction the DeFeos had, showing the slow build of elements contributing to the boiling cauldron.
The confessional was shot before the bedroom scene. “The director had me go in and do my lines. He said I want you to run around the church. I didn’t know why. He wanted me out of breath. I never realized at the time what he was trying to accomplish. I just did it.”
All exteriors for “The Possession” were shot first in Toms River, New Jersey, with interiors filmed on a stage in Mexico. The body bag was done the second or third day and was a legit body bag. “I loved it. I wish we’d done it more. They unzipped it probably twice. How often are you witness to your own body bag? It didn’t give me the creeps.”
Franklin appreciated the effects like the cross and mirror cracking and working with Burt Young, “Burt was intense and really into it. When he wasn’t shooting, he was joking around and friendly–we could trust him. Actors have to trust each other. If you don’t you can’t relax and be in the moment. Even the kids, I remember watching the bags go over their heads on-screen and got chills.” Young played Franklin’s on-screen father, Anthony, In “The Possession” also appearing as Brigante in”The Amityville Murders.”
Late in the movie, the demon morphs into evil Patricia to tempt the priest, “I thought it was a fun twist. They gave me my makeup, then asked me to have a fake serpent tongue. At a certain point I did the scene with a snake tongue. It would have been really cool to see in special features, whoever has the footage. I don’t know if it stills exists.”
Every day she woke up and had to scream on camera. “A funny thing, not for me but funny fact, I screamed so much I got a shock of white hair after I finished. It took about three months to shoot. My job was screaming and crying.”
Franklin remembers how both rifle-wielding actors approached their similar roles in different ways, Jack Magner (Sonny) and John Robinson (Butch) were both isolated in their prep. “Jack kind of avoided me, he was nice the day we met but after that, he had to go in his own dark world.” Robinson acted differently with the mother and son on screen relationship. “He opened up to me.”
She enjoyed playing both characters from different perspectives reacting to the same character and fate. She especially enjoyed doing Louise’s dream speech mid-movie, talking about feeling trapped with something ominious coming.
“The Amityville Murders” director, Daniel Farrands, was a huge fan of “The Possession.” Having seen it at 12, he never lost his appreciation of the film. One of Franklin’s attractions to the movie was its factual account of the events, “Besides flying pennies, the story was true.” It was familiar territory, as true crime is in Farrands blood, directing “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” and the upcoming “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.”
“The Amityville Murders” contains several winks, inside jokes and nods to “The Possession.” The movie also goes to a respectable length recreating details of the ‘70s look.
Franklin’s never been to the actual house and wants to visit if she does a convention in the area. “Not sure if they’ll let me in but we’ll see. That would be amazing, it’s almost like a calling, like I have to go because of all the films and being raised there.”
Her “Amityville Murders” death scene was shot several times with rosary beads falling for effect. “I loved that. The director said it’s gonna fall in slow motion. We did that a bunch of times. That was such a bizarre experience. I was on my stomach, shooting all day. Even though it was [fake] blood, it was traumatic. After that I couldn’t sleep on my stomach. I’d have nightmares. This film, the experience was very different than the other.”
She played Patricia very innocent; playing Louise she had to absorb the conflict and negative energy, making it a difficult experience.
Dawn’s (Chelsea Brickets) death scene got to her, not knowing how they were going to shoot it. “I didn’t know what they were gonna do.” Franklin was there the day they shot it, capturing the moment herself. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is total déjà vu.”
“The Amityville Murders” is the only DeFeo-era movie acknowledging the red room. As Stephen Kaplan’s book “The Amityville Horror Conspiracy” and vintage YouTube footage shows, it was just a storage closet painted red. The movie takes creative license making it an actual room to enhance the story.
Ironically, “Helter Skelter” makes a cameo appearance in the room. The Manson Murders and Amityville Murders arguably have had the longest media shelf life in true crime history, still resonating with Hollywood.
Franklin says the original “Amityville Horror” could be the forerunner to the modern day haunted house exploration genre. “Our story happened in ‘74 then the Lutz’s got scared out.” Franklin thinks there’s still bad energy there. “Part of me says just make it into a museum but it’s a residential area. I don’t think they could get permits.”
“The Amityville Murders” shows family drama, violence, drugs and spell conjuring all contributing to Butch’s mental collapse. “I think it’s the fact that they make it real. There’s so many people that can watch and say that’s my family or I know someone like that or aspects of it. The movie touches on what people might be experiencing. The abuse can turn against you. If you smack a dog it’s gonna bite you.”
Though the real Ronald DeFeo Sr. was a large man, Paul Ben-Victor played him with a different build, “He’s a great actor,” Franklin says. “We shot different scenes together. There’s a deleted scene I auditioned with, where the bird hits the window. I go outside and Ronnie’s putting bars on the windows and statues up. He says, ‘I had this dream and I know I gotta do this and protect the family.’
I say, ‘Let’s go to California and the life we always wanted.’ I’m crying.
He says, ‘I’m not leaving,’ gives me the stiff arm. We never shot it but it’s interesting to know, there were scenes meant for the film.”
They practiced the scenes where Ronnie attacks her and Dawn in the kitchen. “We did the scene, one of the shots, I was so upset, running towards him, I fell and kept going. I could tell the crew was worried. I kept grabbing him, there were more scenes but they didn’t want to distract from Dawn. They wanted to keep the focus on her being hurt, not me. We had some rough and tumble scenes.”
Entertainment’s in the family blood as Franklin’s son Nick is a musician in a band called Swatches and her daughter Olivia has a Snapchat show called “Apocalypse Goals.” Her “Better Off Dead” costar Amanda Wyss also did a horror movie called “The ID” Franklin really likes.
Franklin’s upcoming appearances include “High Holiday” with Jennifer Tilly and Tom Arnold, in which she plays a Southern mom, and a horror film, “Waking Nightmare” about a girl who murders people in her sleep.
“The Amityville Murders” is a great historical edition to the franchise and a great reference if you don’t know the DeFeo’s story. It’s also a great account of the facts on screen. Franklin is also curious if fans think “The Possession” holds up modern day, welcoming feedback.
Franklin says it’s her best work to date. “It’s my baby.” The blu-ray shows real behind the scenes reactions to scenes, cast and crew members. “It’s worth it to see it. I can’t stop talking about how awesome it is.”
“The Amityville Murders” is now available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime and VUDU.
You can find Diane Franklin on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.