The True Story of The Amityville Horror Revealed! HIGH HOPES: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR MURDERS



Pros: A Comprehensive examination of a fascinating murder case; doesn’t get caught up in the ghost story

Cons: Awkward in the way the film is constructed; seems a bit like a self-serving project; clumsy reenactments

Just in time for Halloween comes a 90-minute (two hour with commercials) documentary on the Reelz Channel that’s all about America’s most infamous haunted house at . Contrary to what one might expect from a program of this nature showing up towards the end of October however, the 2014 doc High Hopes: The Amityville Horror Murders focuses not on the case relating to reported supernatural activity occurring on the property, but rather on the brutal crime that took place in the house in 1974. During that period, the iconic home with upper windows that resemble eyes was owned by the DeFeo family, which was made up of father Ron Sr., mother Louise and their five children: Dawn, Allison, Marc, and John Matthew. On November 12, 1974 and following years of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of his father (a man who reportedly had ties to the Mafia), 23-year old Butch entered the home and proceeded to kill every other member of his family with a .35 caliber rifle.

iconic house
The now-iconic 112 Ocean Avenue property.

The crimes earned Butch six consecutive life sentences upon conviction, but the typical stories told about the “” usually only start at that juncture. Writer/director Ryan Katzenbach’s High Hopes documentary, to its credit, operates for its entire run time as a sort of investigative report about the DeFeo murders, examining in detail various aspects of the case. Butch DeFeo over the years has offered up numerous conflicting explanations of what happened on the night his entire family was murdered, making it almost impossible to find the real truth at the bottom of the fabrications. It’s also increasingly difficult to make sense of the case due to the sensationalism caused by the fact that in the years following the murders, George and Kathy Lutz who had purchased the property, claimed that the house was haunted, leading to a best-selling book and a still-ongoing successful horror film . Katzenbach manages to cut through the hype and examine the crime itself, using the whole “haunted house” angle as merely a sidenote to a more serious and unfortunate story.

alleged ghost
Alleged ghost spotted during one investigation of the former DeFeo house.

The documentary begins with a sort of crash course history of all things Amityville Horror related, going over the basics of the criminal case, examining the history of the so-called haunting, and introducing the idea that the Amityville case has become more a marketing device than anything else. Following this introduction, Katzenbach begins a study of all the details in the murder case, starting with the rather startling history of the DeFeo family. Examining alleged Mafia ties and money laundering as well as the tales about how abusive Ron Sr. was to the rest of his family, Katzenbach paints a vivid picture of the situation leading up to the murders. While it’s difficult to feel any sort of sympathy towards Butch DeFeo (who admits in an in-camera interview during which he lacks any semblance of remorse, that he’s basically a manipulator and a liar), it is pretty easy to see a potential set of circumstances that led him down the path to murder his family. Aside from the abuse committed by a father who claimed to have pseudo-religious experiences in between bouts of extreme violence towards his own wife and kids, Butch was also by the time he was in his early twenties abusing drugs and alcohol quite heavily, leading him to increasingly unpredictable behavior.

crime scene photo
Ron Sr. and Louise DeFeo dead in bed.

By the time the murders are recounted in extraordinary detail based on one possible scenario of how they were committed, High Hopes heads into its money section, presenting a case of how prosecutors looking to land a quick conviction bungled up several aspects of the original case. In this manner, the documentary doesn’t play all that differently from a film like West of Memphis, which presented the frankly sickening story of how three outcast teens were (in my opinion, wrongly) . Writer/director Katzenbach obviously relishes the chance to present his own perspective on the criminal case relating to the prosecution of “Butch” DeFeo, and it’s probably during this section in which his film presents its best material and arguments. It seems like most crime films anymore have to have some sort of “miscarriage of justice” section just to seem legit, but examining the information provided here from a logical standpoint does seem to at least suggest that the police, prosecutors and judges had it out for Butch DeFeo from the start.

butch defeo
Butch DeFeo has invented numerous stories relating to the murders in the decades since his arrest. The documentary comes to its own conclusion, but is it actually the answer?

At this juncture, I should point out that from what I can tell, High Hopes was produced essentially by combining three short documentaries about the Amityville case that Katzenbach can been working on into one, longer and more comprehensive work. I say this because at a certain point, High Hopes really feels like its more or less abandons everything that it had been working towards and heads in an entirely different direction. Around the three-quarter mark, Katzenbach jettisons his previous arguments about how Butch DeFeo committed the murders with the aid of several accomplices and presents a “this is how it really happened” finale that makes a case for him doing the deed by himself. I can almost believe that this material was culled from the third and last short film since the way in which the feature documentary transitions into this material is very awkward and almost baffling: it’s not the best way to make a coherent, well-developed film, but I suppose it gets the job done. That said, it took me a second to realize that Katzenbach had essentially doubled back on himself and just assumed his viewer would be able to follow his zig-zagging train of thought, though the average TV viewer might not even notice the change in perspective and just “roll with the flow.”

amityville horror movie
Admittedly, the original Amityville Horror movie is pretty creepy…but still “Jody, the demon pig??”

It was also around this point when I made a pretty telling observation about the documentary. Though the film is narrated by well-known actor Ed Asner, the primary interview subject throughout the production is none other than director Katzenbach himself, who basically sits there and explains to the viewer how everything in the Amityville murder case went down. On one hand, it’s not totally unprecedented for a director to include himself in his own documentary film: many documentary filmmakers almost exclusively focus on their own journey to the truth as it were (Michael Moore comes to mind). In the case of High Hopes however, I really got the idea that this documentary as a whole was more or less a self-serving project (looking at reveals that virtually all his credits are programs relating to the Amityville murders – the guy seems more than a bit obsessed). This becomes especially apparent when, in the documentary’s final segment, Katzenbach himself conducts an investigation of the canal system that exists immediately behind the DeFeo home on Ocean Avenue in an attempt to find the long-missing second murder weapon. It really seems like the writer/director is pushing himself as a sort of criminal investigator and researcher and one almost gets the idea that Katzenbach fashions himself as a sort of neo Truman Capote in terms of how he’s represented in the film. When the discovery of a firearm at the bottom of the canal leads to an apparent, almost obligatory cover-up on the part of the Amityville police department, the positioning of Katzenbach as a sort of avenger for justice is complete, though I wasn’t completely sure I was willing to buy that assertion.

ultimate sad fact
The ultimate sad fact here is that the DeFeo children died horribly.  We shouldn’t forget that, no matter what Hollywood chooses to focus on.

As much as I could be overly critical of this documentary for its apparent ulterior motives, I have to say that High Hopes: The Amityville Horror Murders is pretty interesting for the material that it does present. This is a very comprehensive (though maybe not entirely objective) examination of the DeFeo murders, and the selection of archival video footage, sometimes graphic photos and testimony, as well as the contemporary analysis showcased here does a fine job of telling the story of this case and pleading the writer’s arguments. The film is well-organized for the most part and is generally quite compelling for a viewer. I rather appreciated the fact that this film not only doesn’t focus much attention on the whole “haunted house” angle, but that it actually goes a long way in proving that the whole “Amityville Horror” phenomenon (which began with Jay Anson’s best-selling 1977 novel) was a publicity stunt fabricated in order to make a profit for the folks involved. One would think that calling the haunting out as b.s. wouldn’t have been the best way to go for someone examining this case, but Katzenbach sticks to his guns. On the downside, the reenactments featured throughout the program are undeniably lousy: yes, they compliment the narration quite well, but the acting is awful and they just seem to have been completed very quickly in the most lazy, unimaginative manner possible. In the end, despite a few significant problems, High Hopes is perfect for what it is: an consistently interesting and compelling made-for-television documentary. This wouldn’t hold up against the best documentary films out there, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. For that fact alone, I’d call it worthwhile.

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7 thoughts on “The True Story of The Amityville Horror Revealed! HIGH HOPES: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR MURDERS”

  1. Andy, the content is as bad as the presentation. The startling history of the DeFeo family is largely made up by DeFeo and Geraldine Gates (who lied about meeting the victims and being married to DeFeo at the time of the murders, in fact she never met Defeo until 1985 when she visited him in prison).

    The claims of Ron Sr being so abusive and being on the skids with his wife so writing her a song to win her back are all fairytales. The supposed strife between Dawn and Ron Sr was also made up. There is no evidence she dated, let alone was in love with Billy Davidge (who was a year younger than her). Whether they dated or not, he graduated from Amityville Memorial high school in June 1975 and his family didn’t move to Florida until after DeFeo was convicted. So obviously Ron and the Nonnewitzes lied about Dawn asking them to bring her to Florida to be with Billy Davidge.

    Aside from the fact that Peter Defeo (Ron’s uncle) was in the mob the mob claims are all fairytales as well.

    The revisionist claims about how the murders went down are likewise false. Katzenbach took lies from DeFeo and tweeked them for his own purposes. Those purposes are to pretend he found out something no one else did. Since the truth was already published the only way he could do that is to pretend things went down different and present a bogus version of how things occurred. So it is even worse than you thought.

  2. There are 3 major revisionist claims presented about how the murders went down.

    The first was the bogus claim that Dawn was killed while out of bed. Katzenbach ran with DeFeo’s lie that he and Dawn struggled over the gun, that he beat Dawn and then shot her and placed her in bed. Katzenbach claims these claims are supported by the fact Dawn had a powder burn on her shoulder and that had she been shot in bed the blanket would have prevented a powder burn from being on her shoulder. Katzenbach ignores that Dawn had no wounds of any kind other than the bullet wound so had not been beaten and photos of her body clearly show the blanket was not covering her shoulder so that explains why the powder was able to get on her shoulder.

    His second claim is that Ron Sr was shot in the hall while charging Ron Jr. He claims police lied abou not finding any blood in the hall but offered no evidence to prove they lied and no reason why they would do so. Worse though the trajectory of the wounds prove Katzenbach’s claims to be impossible. Both wounds were to Ron Sr’s back and the path of the bullets reveals he was lying down when shot. The bullets went upward. The bullets would have gone in a down direction and been to Ron Sr’s front had he been shot while upright approaching Defeo Jr.

    Katzenbach should have an expert making the claims but doesn’t because experts would tlll him that he is totally wrong. Anytie someone challenges him on his movie facebook page he calls them a hater, rants like a child, deletes the debate and bans them so that no one can see his claims were shredded.

  3. The last major revisionist claim about the murders is the claim that another gun was involved.

    Police wondered whether a handgun was used since there was a holster found in the sewer with other evidence. However, the ballistics results ruled that out.

    8 shots were fired total, all 8 shots hit the victims, all 8 shell casings were recovered. The shell casings were from Winchester Western Super X .35 Remington 200 grain cartridges. That means the caliber of the bullets were .35 Remington and the weight of the bullets were 200 grains.

    All 8 casings were conclusively tied to having been fired by DeFeo’s 336C Marlin rifle by marks left on the casings . All 8 bullets were recovered and determined by the ballistic expert to have been .35 remington bullets fired by a Marlin 336C. Some bullets had enough markings to say for sure they were fired by Ron’s 336C but others could only be linked to a Marlin 336C. Since the casings were matched to Ron’s 336C that enabeled the expert to testify all were fired not just by any Marlin 336c but by DeFeo’s. One of the bullets that killed Louise was conclusively established on its own to having bene fired by DeFeo’s rifle. The other, item 33, was determined to have been fired by a Marlin 336C but required the shell casing to prove it was fired by DeFeo’s rifle as opposed to another 336C rifle.

    Many years after the murders DeFeo made up various lies including that his mother was only wounded from the first shot and that Bobby Kelske used a Colt Python to shoot his mother the second time and thus he killed her. He claimed the gun was melted down at the car dealership.

    Katzenbach chose to take DeFeo’s lies and revise them. He changed it to DeFeo himself using a handgun and tossing such handgun in the water. In the book High Hopes it was specifically mentioned that bobby Kelsek wrote up a list of weapons known to have been owed by DeFeo. Among them he listed a blued snubnose .38 special. Katzenbach siezed upon this and claimed DeFeo used this gun to shoot his mother the second time then tossed it in the water.

    What evidence was there to support this? None, Katzenbach simply amended a known lie. Katzenbach completely ignored that the shell casing was recovered and alleges that the police expert misidentified item 33’s caliber as being 35 Remington and that in fact it was .38 special.

    Katzenbach routinely asserts that item 33 was a bigger bullet than the other bullets and does so in this documentary as well. What does he offer to prove it was bigger than the other bullets? Nothing he just makes an unsupported claim.

    He then make sup the fiction that a .38 special bullet is larger than 35 Remington and just expects people to buy this because the number 38 is larger than 35. 38 Remington is a rifle round it is larger than a 38 special round which is a handgun round. Item 33 was a FMJ (full metal jacket) bullet. As already mentioned the 35 Remington bullets were 200 grain. FMJ .38 special rounds weigh 148 grains or less. Item 33 weighed 169 grains. It was not a complete bullet it was just a fragment of a bullet so originally weighed more than this.

    Just looking at this information alone it is obvious that Katzenbach’s claim that item 33 was 38 special is impossible, it was too big to be a 38 special bullet. Katzenbach’s suggestion that a 38 special is larger than 35 Remington is patently untrue.

    But it gets worse. A portion of Item 33 was clearly missing since it was not a complete bullet. Part of what was missing had touched the lands and grooves and had indentations from them. Since that area was missing the full number of lands and grooves the gun had could not be determined simply by looking at th ebullet. You would have to measure the lands and grooves and extrapolate how many there would be if the bullet had been whole. The fragment thus had, “8 lands and grooves remaining”. This means the gun that fired item 33 had more than 8 lands and grooves. How many over 8 again requires measuring and extrapolating.

    Katzenbach announces that 8 lands and grooves remaining is consistent with the bullet being fired by .38 special handgun. He doesn’t have an expert asserting this for good reason, it is false. At the time of the murders no .38 special in existence had more than 6 lands and grooves. A gun with 6 lands and grooves can’t leave 8 let alone more than 8 it can leave no more than 6. So the fact it was fired by a gun having more than 8 lands and grooves rules out the possiblity of it being fired by a 38 special.

    Anytime this is brought up Katzenbach bans the poster and erases the debate hoping not many will see it.

    had 8 lands and grooves remaining.

  4. By the way it still gets worse. Katzenbach was not content pretending that he found out that a handgun was involved he even wanted to pretend he found that gun.

    His divers found a gun that was not even 38 caliber let alone the model he was searching for and not even a model ever owned by the DeFeos yet he claims it was the gun used and used Defeo’s taped lie where he claimed Katzenbach found the gun he killed his mother with.

    He was searching for a blued snubnose 38 special. He found an Iver Johnson safety hammer automatic, third model top break revolver. There is no evidence the Defeo’s ever owned such a gun. It was not even a complete gun, all useable parts were stripped grips, cylinder, barrel etc) and just a broken receiver had been tossed in the water. Since this gun was offered in 3 calibers and the barrel and cylinder were missing we don’t know what caliber it was but we know it was not offered in 38 special so can’t have been 38 special. It was offered in .22 rimfire, .32 S&W and .38 S&W. All 3 of these calibers are smaller than .38 special. Katzenbach dropped the suffixes and now simply uses .38 caliber so he can pretend the gun he found was the same caliber he was searching for.

    That shows you the lack of integrity being dealt with.

    The gun he found when chambered in 38 S&W had 5 lands and grooves and the complete bullet weighs less than 150 grains so clearly can’t have fired item 33.

    For that matter, why would DeFeo take the time to take apart a handgun used for one shot but toss the rifle fully intact and still loaded in the water? Why would he toss the handgun in a different location? Why would he have had the handgun in its own pillowcase and to toss the pillowcase in the garbage instea dof in the swer with the rest? Why would he not toss the spent shell casing and extra ammo from a handgun in the sewer with the other unspent ammo and spent shell casings? Why would police lie and say they found a rag unrelated to the DeFeo household if in fact they had found a pillowcase linked to the DeFeos in the trash can? Katzenbach refuses to ever discuss such.

    He erases all debates on his website concerning the above because he had no ability to refute these points and hopes that there will be enough suckers out there who don’t learn the truth and will buy his claims.

    1. So glad you debunked things Katzenbach said. I did not know the DeFeos but I was good friends with the Lutzs before,during and after Amityville. I was in the house prior to them buying it, saw the bullet holes in the walls, sat at the table in Kathy’s moms house when Weber wanted the Lutz’s to contribute to the book he was writing. I convinced the Lutz that the supernatural part was their story. I contacted an editor I knew at prentice hall and they met with him and that is how the book came about. I was asked to go with them to San Diego and spent 7 month in CA while the movie was being filmed. I know that some of the book is fiction but I know based on my own experience that some is true. Weber was over his head in this case. I want to thank you because I have seen Katzenbach shows and it makes me angry when he claims to have the definitive story of High Hopes.

  5. Wow…sounds like Mr. Katzenbach should just stay off the internet if he can’t handle criticism; he certainly came across as a bit of a jackoff in the program.

    Thank you for your incredibly detailed explanation of facts beyond what was presented in the documentary. As mentioned, I was more than a little skeptical about the perspectives in the somewhat clumsy documentary (and in hindsight, realize I initially handed it a generous 3 and a half star rating…Oh well – half the fun of being a critic is realizing that you might have made a mistake), but reading your posts makes it seem like the whole of the program, even the parts I found provocative, are complete malarkey.

    Further investigation may be warranted on my part – I find this case to be fascinating for a variety of reasons, and as time goes on, it seems to get all the more murky.


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