On the night of November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. took a high-powered rifle and murdered his entire family as they slept in their house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. At his trial, DeFeo claimed that “voices” in the house commanded him to kill. The next family to own the house lived there less than a month, claiming to have been driven out by supernatural forces. Documentary filmmaker Daniel Farrands’ directorial debut in a scripted feature is a prequel to The Amityville Horror, the 1979 hit based on Jay Anson’s nonfiction book about the house and its hotly debated legacy. That movie spawned a cinematic franchise. Actor John Robinson plays Ronald “Butch” DeFeo in the new movie, and talked with me about recreating The Amityville Murders.
Having spoken to Robinson’s co-star in The Amityville Murders, Chelsea Ricketts, the first question that presents itself is how did he bring himself to shoot her?
“Tell me about it,” Robinson says. “It was in the first week of shooting. It was terrible. We’re super-close buddies – it was not fun. I did not enjoy that part. The whole time I was kind of like going like ‘Oh yeah, I’m having fun,’ not totally anticipating that part was not going to be so fun.”
Butch DeFfeo claimed to hear voices, and of course everybody knows that the house was supposed to be haunted or actually possessed. We also know that Butch DeFeo was a drug abuser. In preparing to play this man did Robinson have to take one of the side of the fence or the other? Did he play DeFeo as possessed by demons, a drug addict or was he just insane?
Robinson warms to discussing the subject of craft: “The last part you just said – ‘Was he just insane?’ Where does the insanity come from? And for me, with Butch specifically, we can talk about all those versions that he gave us as to why it happened. You know he’s sitting in jail now, famous for talking about it. But for me, at the end of the day, what we know was that he was a young kid who was violently abused by his father in a time when he was told he couldn’t be anything but what his dad wanted him to be. And so for me that state of going crazy was at the heart of how I could picture it. Like what I knew how to portray. The other parts, the supernatural parts were interesting – the notion of this area being a sacred ground for Native Americans and the idea that maybe what had taken place there is this kind of postcolonial guilt coming out of the ground, personifying these horrific images that came from the hauntings – but also the actions of Butch himself. Maybe there was an ancient spirit coming up in saying ‘Enough is enough,’ because you guys stole this land and look what you’re doing to it. To me that was kind of an exciting element that we got to add to the story as well as what a lot of people have theorized and said that there is something going on in respect to the Native American ancestry that’s strong in that area.”
Did Robinson talk to Butch DeFeo, who is still alive, while preparing for the part?
“No, I didn’t talk to him,” Robinson says. “I felt a big responsibility to play him in a way that wouldn’t just make him look like a monster, and I hope people seeing the film will see him as a real kid. Because I think his story is, as strange and bizarre as the actual killings were, we live in a nation where young white boys are murdering and killing people a lot more then any other ethnicity. So, can we empathize with them, I think is the question. I had empathy for Butch and I hope that our movie shows a real kid who is in a tough spot and ultimately he comes to the end of the violence that was happening. Horrific, psychotic outbursts are coming are coming from something.”
Is it fair to say that there was stress involved in playing Butch?
The answer isn’t just a yes or no: “Yeah, I mean I wasn’t like ‘Yeah this is going to be a cakewalk and I’m going to have fun shooting this,’ but, you know it’s still fun. I hadn’t done a lot of horror films so it was fun to get into the genre. I was shocked to see the film. I was like why I’ve never gotten to play a character like that, and the people that came up to me after were like, ‘Dude, you were so scary!’ And that was exciting for me – to be like why yeah that genre, the magic of Cinema, the lie to tell the truth, it’s quite fun to be able to scare people.”
Robinson also had the chance to work with veteran performers Lainie Kazan and Burt Young. What was it like working with them?
“They were awesome,” Robinson says. “They were so cute and fun to have on our set. It was like having the Rat Pack come in and jam around and tell stories and laugh about stuff. It was super fun. We were really boring compared to them. They were awesome I wish we had them longer.”
So what is it about this particular story which is so enduring? Why is it that this story has persisted so long, and has generated so many sequels and now a prequel?
“The original which was like a really radical shift in horror films, this American horror. this kind of oozing walls, right that made The Amityville Horror so popular. Luckily we got to tell the original story of what happened in that house, so I thought it was kind of weird talking as though it has been done, or that we were doing a remake. I thought that there was something that fit today, that we could talk about the original story itself.”
How did he enjoy doing a period piece?
“I love that period so much.” Robinson says. “How the clothes the props I’m walking into a set that was totally seventies I loved it…I’m jealous. You had like hair spray, you know.”
What’s next for John Robinson?
“Well, I am about to become a father,” with evident pride. “Actually so I’m preparing for that and I’m starting to produce on my own. I’ve been living in Europe for the last few years so I’m trying to create my own roles, and work with directors whose stories I want told. I am actually producing a film with Gus Van Sant who actually brought me into film.”
The Amityville Murders opens in theaters, On Demand and Digital on February 8, 2019.