In 1974, in a small village on Long Island, Ronald DeFeo Jr. killed his family. A month after he was convicted, the Lutz family moved into the old DeFeo house, then fled 28 days later, claiming a haunting. In 2022, nearly 50 years after the murders, the entertainment industry’s money-hungry dominoes have fallen all the way down to the release of a movie called Amityville Christmas Vacation. Exploitation cinema has tried to milk a buck out of Bruce Lee lookalikes, sexy nuns and the delusional devout convinced of their own oppression in God’s Not Dead, but no franchise nor subgenre comes close to the sheer strangeness of the nearly 50 films using The Amityville Horror as their selling point.
Fewer than ten films comprise The Amityville Horror pseudo-canon built since the 1979 “based on a true story” original adapted Jay Anson’s 1977 book. Ten films with “Amityville” in their title came out in 2022 alone. Those movies range from Amityville Karen to Amityville in Space, both of which are such a far cry from the DeFeos and Lutzes that it’s hard to even call them “exploitation.”
And that’s by design. There’s a bit of common horror wisdom surrounding the plethora of Amityville movies, absurd in both amount and subject matter: Because Amityville is a real New York town, and because the DeFeo murders—and, I guess, the Lutz family moving in and then out, regardless of their transparent attempts to cash in on claims of ghosts and ghoulies—were all documented in the public record, they couldn’t be contained as alluring intellectual property except under the specificities of Anson’s book. Hence, why the movies have taken turns away from haunted houses towards haunted rideshares and, yes, even haunted sex toys: The nuttier the twist, the less worried anyone has to be about getting sued.
But if you leave the assumptions behind for facts—taken from the 1989 lawsuit Lutz v. De Laurentiis, which saw family patriarch George Lutz sue Amityville II: The Possession and Amityville 3-D producer Dino De Laurentiis—it’s plain to see that there’s an easy-to-follow Amityville game plan for ambitious indie filmmakers like Marc “Amityville Klown Kar” Pearce, Shawn C. “Amityville Shark House” Phillips, Thomas J. “The Amityville Moon” Churchill and Mark “Amityville Island” Polonia.
First, there’s the marketing. De Laurentiis and the production companies behind Amityville II: The Possession screwed up by trying to get away with this ridiculous tag: “The Night of February 5, 1976, George and Kathleen Lutz and their three children fled their home in Amityville, New York. They got out alive! Their living nightmare shocked audiences around the world in The Amityville Horror.”
You know the Lutzes weren’t going to stand for that, but the Amityville II folks figured that out and changed the marketing to scrub any mention of the Lutzes. They also included an extremely believable statement for a movie called Amityville II: “This film is not a sequel to The Amityville Horror.”
Got it. Totally. The Amityville Horror? Amityville II has never heard of it. But more importantly, the legal findings were that the public at large simply didn’t associate Amityville and horror movies set there with the Lutz family or Anson’s book. They associated them more with the actual murders and the rumor mill, which exist separately from the Lutzes and their PR tour. “The mass murder in the Amityville house and its supernatural legacy were well publicized at the time, drawing the attention of newspapers, magazines, television reports, the Church, and resulting in another book, Hans Holzer’s Murder in Amityville,” the opinion reads, “and even plaintiffs do not dare claim to be the proprietary owners of all secondary associations resulting from this publicity.”
Basically, neither copyright law nor the law of unfair competition gives you a monopoly on “widely publicized events of public interest,” especially if some of those events are widely contested, imagination-sparking spook-‘em-ups. The judges found the Lutzes’ claims amusing, and at times, tossed a little sass their way: “Appellants’ suggestion that they will prove at trial that The Amityville Horror is associated in the public’s mind with the names George and Kathleen Lutz, is ludicrous.”
But even if it was associated with those two litigious hucksters, that would only make the guidelines for future horror hacks more clear. It’s all summed up in a damning explanation that opened the floodgates to any would-be Amityvillains. “The second and third pictures were not about the Lutzes, who had no monopoly on the creation of horror stories set in the house where the DeFeo murders occurred,” it reads. “This case is nothing more than an unjustified attempt by plaintiffs to arrogate unto themselves the right to commercially exploit the name of the town of Amityville to the exclusion of the literary, artistic, and commercial worlds.”
That house? That town? That event? All up for grabs. The Lutzes, or any explicit connection to the 1979 movie? That’s where you’ve got to watch out.
Anson’s widow, Lesia, sued Harvey Weinstein in 2017 because Amityville: The Awakening was marketed as a sequel to the original (or maybe the remake—as always, the Weinsteins’ greed was more obvious than anything else) without ever attempting to license the book. As a sidebar, she also noted that because the film dabbled in her IP, its pathetic critical and financial reception—it made a whopping $742 in the U.S., about a third of the average monthly rent in Amityville—actually hurt the Amityville brand. That’s tough to do, considering the existence of movies like Amityville Bigfoot. But it also goes to show why, as is too rarely the case, it’s of paramount legal importance to include a Bigfoot in the first place.
But why have the last six or so years seen such an Amityville boom? It’s certainly not because people were clamoring for more Amityville. Siskel & Ebert were all Amityvilled out by Amityville 3-D, with Ebert saying, “You know you’re in trouble when they’ve made three movies and all you can think of to praise are the windows on the house.” Following up, Siskel provided this piece of prophetic insight: “Sequels probably give more bad experiences in movie theaters than just about anything that the movie industry produces.”
My best guess is that the Amityville land rush, in part, goes back to that Weinstein movie. Franck Khalfoun’s Amityville: The Awakening, the last film with “Amityville” in its title to see a full theatrical release, may have come out in 2017, but it was announced in 2011 and shot in 2014. With renewed interest in the franchise from established (if evil) producers timed to the start of the digital release boom, the stage was set for cheap indie filmmakers to ride its cursed coattails and snap up real estate when people typed “Amityville” into the search bar of their preferred rental service. The Asylum cranked out The Amityville Haunting in 2011, and it was all over for 112 Ocean Avenue.
The Awakening was delayed over and over and over again, which gave the mockbusters plenty of time to secure a foothold and thus, profitability. On top of that, it ended up being awful, further blurring the distinction of what a “real” Amityville movie was. If the Amityville movies that actually made it to theaters were that bad, there was no real reason to turn your nose up at Amityville Scarecrow.
Aside from that, its recognizable name continues to be a rare commodity in horror (long known as the best genre for a hardscrabble filmmaker trying to make a buck), as the film distribution landscape has become even more stratified between studio blockbusters and DIY efforts. As theaters have weakened even more over the pandemic, with the odd horror movie slipping through the animated blockbusters and franchise entries, of course 2022’s VOD market would look like an Amityville anti-tourism campaign.
I’m not saying that Amityville in the Hood (there’s cursed weed) is solely a product of late capitalism. It’s also a product of racism! But, it makes sense: In a film industry constructed to keep the little guy down, or at least to snag at least one little guy every two years to feed into the Marvel meat grinder, those simply wanting to make movies—and break even when financing their passion—have a reliable go-to subject. In a film industry obsessed with exploiting IP, its most profitable and accessible genre happens to have something that looks like a franchise, talks like a franchise and haunts like a franchise, but can’t be legally protected as one. As the Amazon search bar has become the new grindhouse marquee, cinema that can playfully fulfill a business need while requiring minimal effort or investment will dominate the digital exploitation boom filling up Tubi’s streaming library. The studios don’t touch Amityville because they’d want to own it, build off it, dominate it and suck it dry. But Amityville belongs to the people, and I’m thrilled that they’ve fully embraced its idiotic potential.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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