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. Actress Chelsea Ricketts plays Dawn DeFeo, Ronald DeFeo’s teenaged sister, in the new movie, and talked with me about recreating The Amityville Murders.
Not to throw out any spoilers, but presumably people will know, that Ricketts is playing a doomed character. How did she feel about that and how did she prepare for it?
“I am such a fan of true crime it just intrigued me,” she says. “Probably mostly because I just don’t understand it but he [writer/director Daniel Farrands] wrote a script I thought that spoke to family dynamics. It told a different side of what may have really happened to this family and kind of a little bit more of the background of who they were it was important to me, to do Dawn justice. I don’t know if you know about Dan, but he’s like a super-passionate fan of the Amityville story. He’s made documentaries, way before this script existed – he was working on the Amityville documentaries. So he is about as knowledgeable on the topic as I think you can get. I definitely relied heavily on him to kind of just trust in his knowledge- that he would have my back in telling Dawn’s truth as best as I could because I really really wanted to do her justice.”
The movie is unsparing about the physical and emotional abuse that the characters of Dawn and her brother in the movie take from their father, played by veteran actor Paul Ben-Victor.
“Absolutely,” Ricketts agrees.
Where those scenes difficult to do?
Ricketts responds: “They were very difficult to do. I think it’s important to show people that I think the way it is real life, and it was hard to film, but I probably couldn’t have filmed it with anyone better than Paul Ben-Victor. I mean, he’s just a total pro. He was able to create the space where we were in character and in the moment, but I never felt in danger. I felt so safe the whole time, but it wasn’t easy because it it felt real like it was really happening even though it’s choreographed, I mean you’re really being thrown over the counter. Oh, yeah it was hard.”
To the movie’s credit, none of that looks fake. Of course shooting schedules are usually determined by anything other than what would be dramatically convenient for the actors…
“You know it,” she interjects, laughing.
So how far into the production were they when they actually did shot the re-enactment of the murders?
“I think we filmed that week one,” she says. “So I think that was like third and fourth day on set. So we we dove in quick and the truth is, you saw the movie, it starts quick with pain and the fighting and the drama. So of course the ending was probably the most difficult for me personally as an actress- it was the hardest stuff to shoot. But the whole thing, I mean living in that heavy kind of emotional world for the the entire duration of filming, was hard. But we filmed the ending at the beginning.”
It is easy to interpret the movie as portraying genuine evil spectres on the screen and not just hallucinations from a drug addict. But does Chelsea Ricketts buy into a supernatural explanation for what happened in Amityville?
“I think one thing that is really cool that Dan did in this film is allowing us all to make our own decision about what happened. I took away from it a building block set, family abuse and pain, mental health, drugs – that’s what I took away from it. I don’t know how much of the supernatural stuff I believe. I don’t say I don’t believe it, I just don’t know enough about it to say yes or no. But I will say some creepy stuff happened on the set,stuff that definitely made me go ‘Hmmm…Was that something or not…?’”
That certainly begs for an explanation.
“Oh, I’m happy to share,” she says cheerfully. “You know ‘the Red Room scenes’ – we filmed those on a bottom floor of the house we were shooting in. We were filming one of the Red Room scenes and the room itself was felt completely real,because it was so tiny and claustrophobic. When John [Robinson, who plays Ronald DeFeo, Jr.] and I were in there it was enough without cameraman and sound men – it was tight in there, very claustrophobic already, and spooky, and when we’re filming one of those scenes, well I don’t know exactly the correct term, but something happened, some pipe or something burst, and the entire bottom floor flooded. And this house where we’re shooting is beautiful – it was really really nice. So then it was like of course that happened! It was completely out of nowhere, and creepy because we’re in the headspace of the kind of dark scene in that creepy room. Some of the crew was like ‘I’ve got to get out of here, this is weird,’ but who knows?
Were they shooting at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York where it actually happened?
“No, we shot here in Los Angeles, believe it or not, they recreated the entire front of the house with an amazing set design piece. And the interior was all found here in Los Angeles.”
Lorraine Warren, whose exploits were the inspirations for The Conjuring movies, investigated the Amityville house and said it was haunted.
“Everybody does who’s been there,” Ricketts says.
Obviously, Chelsea Ricketts was not not around in 1974, when the events dramatized in the film take place. How did she enjoy filming in the period setting, without cell phones and no computers?
“I loved it,” she says earnestly. “I really did. I think it’s cool. I left my phone back in the trailer for the course of the entire film just to kind of live in that world. We truly lived in that house and lived in the space of those characters for the whole film. I thought it was really cool I loved that era, that time. It seems like it was really fun.”
The movie’s production design looks alarmingly like my high school yearbook, a point that gets a laugh out of Ricketts.
“I love that,” she says.
Two people who were around back then are cast members Burt Young and Diane Franklin, who play Dawn’s grandfather and mother respectively, who were both in the second Amityville movie.
“Yes,” she acknowledges. “It was pretty cool to have them, you know, original Amityville Horror actors back on board to do on another one, so that was really cool.”
Did she have a chance to talk with Burt Young much during his time on the set?
Yes, I definitely did he the on set with us for at least a full day. We definitely got to hang out with him and I got to be the fangirl a little bit, take some pictures – he’s very funny. It was definitely nice to have him on set to kind of break up some of the states of the drama that we were living in. He was nice.”
Ricketts did a number of episodes of True Blood during the vampire show’s popular run. I mention that it was one of my wife’s favorite shows.
She seems genuinely pleased. “That is amazing, that was one of my absolute favorite jobs ever, and I love that you brought it up. I still have my vampire teeth. Tell her that through a sort of random chain of events, I have my teeth!”
Consider her told. The Amityville Murders opens in theaters, On Demand and Digital on February 8, 2019.