As Dead by Dawn director Adele Banks said in her introduction, it is unusual to see documentary entries in a horror festival, but this is a very unusual documentary, an extended interview with Daniel Lutz, son of Kathy Lutz and stepson of George Lutz, who on December 19th 1975 moved with his parents and two siblings to 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, where they would remain only until January 14th 1976. The alleged events of that short span were the basis for the bestselling book The Amityville Horror, published by Jay Anson in September 1977 and filmed in 1979, spawning a long line of sequels and remakes.
Now with two children of his own, Daniel Lutz has chosen to speak of his experiences, both at the time of the residence and during the years of high profile media attention that the book and film generated and of the continued effect it has on him. He is also reacquainted with some of the individuals who investigated the case, most prominently Laura DiDio, the journalist who originally investigated the case for Channel 5 news who broke the story, also a co-producer on this documentary, and Lorraine Warren, who with her late husband Ed attended the house in March 1976 in their capacity as demonologists and suggested the house was occupied by malevolent spirits.
Whether or not the story that has grown to become the Amityville legend has any basis in truth or not, what is clear is that Daniel Lutz wants to move on and is seeking help to do so, but in an opening meeting between Lutz and a psychologist to discuss his personal history, it quickly becomes apparent that she is ill equipped to help him in any meaningful way – when he asks for her background, the most traumatic thing she has experienced, she is unable to offer anything more than the adjustment when her family relocated from another country when she was thirteen.
Speaking of his childhood, it is clear that Lutz adored his parents; he does not speak directly of their separation, but makes it clear that from the outset that his relationship with George Lutz, whose legal adoption of her three children was a condition of his marriage to Kathy, was difficult, describing him as having “no parenting skills at all,” who treated his newly acquired family in the way he had learned during his time as a marine drill sergeant, requiring his three stepchildren to address him as “Mr Lutz” or “sir.”
The contradictions and elisions of the documentary are par for the course in this case; more than thirty five years after the multiple homicide which was the background to the story, there are still unanswered questions as to how multiple rifle shots could have been fired in different rooms without any of the occupants waking up to raise the alarm, and Ronald DeFeo, still imprisoned for the crime, has never provided a consistent or satisfactory account of the night of November 13th 1974.
More immediately relevant to the case of Daniel Lutz is his contradictory account of the background of George Lutz, who professed not to have any foreknowledge of the paranormal prior to Amityville, yet his stepson insists not only that he found books on the subject in their previous residence but that he was first hand witness to demonstrations of telekinesis, and that he reported this in detail the same night to his doctor, who took notes of their conversation.
The unspoken question is what kind of a doctor would be taking such detailed notes of family life rather than medical history, and if Daniel Lutz was already undergoing counselling prior to the events, it calls into the question the validity of any of his testimony. After they left Ocean Avenue, the family initially went into hiding before telling their story, but the children were not interviewed, though Lutz states now he would have corroborated the story as told.
Daniel Lutz alleges that he was virtually abandoned by his family for a year during this period, left in the care of a Catholic school where he was mentally and physically abused, but what is undeniable is that while the Lutzes were, according to DiDio, initially reticent to speak of their experience (“one of the things that struck me is that the Lutzes were not seeking publicity”) by the time the film was released they had embraced the chat show circuit to promote it, actually appearing on Good Morning America alongside star James Brolin.
A telling comment to anyone of sceptical leanings is the oxymoron that “only reputable parapsychologists” were allowed access to the house and family, and Lorraine Warren asks Lutz whether he was baptised as a church, reassuring his affirmation by telling him “at least you had that protection,” before allowing him to kiss her crucifix which contains “a relic of the one true cross that Christ was crucified on,” which unfortunately she did not have at the time of the original investigation, conceivably because Ebay did not exist in the 1970s.
As a documentary maker, director Eric Walter handles the difficult task of negotiating the strong feelings, unproven allegations and frequently contradictory reports, and in many ways presents as balanced a work as might have been permissible to ensure the cooperation of all parties, but the absence of outside experts points of view is significant. Demonologists speak at length, but there is only passing mention of false memory syndrome, where subjects can be conditioned through repeated questioning and discussion about events they did not participate in to believe that they have witnessed, even experienced these events.
Having been under the influence of a strong willed disciplinarian such as George Lutz, who he alleges had an interest in mind control, then growing up seeing fictionalised and exaggerated representations of his already difficult childhood, is it not more rational to consider that rather than having experienced supernatural events, Daniel Lutz has been so persistently exposed to that version of events he has internalised them?
Towards the end of the documentary, Walter queries whether Lutz would be willing to take a lie detector test, without actually asking him to take the test; Lutz, who has previously indicated how difficult he finds it to talk of his past and how important trust is to him, is understandably angry, quite rightly saying he has spent his whole life being doubted and justifying himself, but that is to miss the point. No lie detector test will reveal the truth of what happened in 112 Ocean Avenue, only what Daniel Lutz believes happens, and there is no doubt that he truly believes that there was a malevolent supernatural entity that targeted his family during their residence in Amityville.
Dead by Dawn has now concluded for 2013, but will return in 2014