Director: Jon Schnitzer
Writer: Jon Schnitzer
Producer: Jon Schnitzer, Jinsha Moore
Stars: John Murdy, Russ McKamey, Shar Mayer, Donald Julson, Josh Randall, Eric Lowther, Lora Ivanova, Jason Blum, Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska
Creators, scare actors, and enthusiasts chronicle the Halloween haunt’s history from neighborhood backyards to extreme experiences.
Halloween haunts have a long, storied history dating back to cheapo amusement park attractions in the early 1900s through, of all things, a Christian recruitment revival in the 1970s. Knott’s Berry Farm commercialized the traditional concept by becoming the first theme park dedicated to seasonal mazes and masked actors. ‘Blackout’ later built out the extreme experience idea beginning in 2009. Enterprising creators have been innovating new ways to take haunts to the next level using controversial immersion tactics ever since.
That’s the basic extent of the informative lesson learned in “Haunters: The Art of the Scare.” Even though the movie markets itself as “a heart-warming and heart-stopping documentary” outlining Halloween haunt culture as a whole, producer/director Jon Schnitzer is evidently interested almost exclusively in covering extreme haunts. In particular, the film is so specifically focused on hauntrepreneur Russ McKamey and his infamous ‘McKamey Manor’ that Schnitzer may as well have made the entire movie about McKamey and nothing else.
The problem isn’t with McKamey himself. Well, there may be a real-life problem with McKamey, but that’s a different discussion topic. The many McKamey Manor segments are entertainingly engaging, sometimes shocking, but they dominate the overall narrative in an unfair, even unpleasant way.
Following what feels like 75% of the film’s first hour, “Haunters” seemingly finishes with McKamey and at last moves on to other subjects including how haunt dedication negatively impacts personal relationships or takes a toll on an actor’s body when an overzealous patron reacts unexpectedly. Then McKamey comes back into the picture, eliciting a “this again?” reaction as the spotlight swings in his direction once more.
“Haunters: The Art of the Scare” essentially has three main “characters” guiding the movie through its core content. Donald Julson, whose backyard project is only open to his neighborhood for four hours every Halloween, represents the passionate Everyman behind homemade haunts. Veteran scare actor Shar Mayer, often tearful when discussing her devotion as well as the literal pain it has caused her, illustrates the unseen sacrifices that go into making fright fantasies a reality.
Schnitzer deftly puts these people into some semblance of a loose storyline. Russ McKamey is thus manufactured into a de facto documentary villain in the same manner Billy Mitchell was in “King of Kong.” It actually works wonderfully.
McKamey, who will certainly be played by Noah Emmerich in the eventual docudrama when McKamey Manor finally goes far enough to accidentally kill someone, is presented as a maverick madman exploiting free child labor, psychologically scarring strangers for personal pleasure, and seemingly having no problem with a participant’s face dunked in a trash can full of dog sh*t.
Then Schnitzer masterfully manipulates sympathy by casually adding that McKamey Manor’s admission price is four cans of dog food donated to a greyhound rescue organization. “Awful!” momentarily becomes “aww!” before boomeranging back again as the pulled curtain really reveals how much McKamey makes his victims, albeit willing participants, suffer.
A fundamental issue with the emphasis on McKamey is how it heavily influences the documentary’s tone. An uplifting epilogue for Donald Julson’s story involves how the haunt helped mend animosity between brothers and led to an opportunity that increased his wife’s understanding of his hobby. Energetic music swells as local kids enjoy the basic “boos!” of ‘Nightmare on Loganberry’ while Donald oversees with a pleasant smile.
Cut to McKamey Manor, where genuinely horrified faces futilely scream to be freed from an experience that refuses to allow a safe word, vomit all over themselves, have that vomit shoved back in their mouths, and fall into unconsciousness from being waterboarded, spit on, or covered in cockroaches. This would work in another context. Watching it under an umbrella of trick-or-treat traditions however, isn’t fun at all. “Haunters” ends up with enough unrated extremes caught on camera to be unsuitable for certain audiences, which narrows its appeal when it could be so much broader.
It’s disappointing to see an entire entertainment lifestyle disproportionately represented by one possibly maniac man. “Haunters” has Universal Studios Hollywood ‘Halloween Horror Nights’ creative director John Murdy on hand, yet only uses him for two or three sentences. Film personalities such as producer Jason Blum and the Soska sisters seem thrown in for name value. They don’t have anything substantial to contribute, although I understand such inclusions make more sense in excised footage banished to the iTunes extras. B-roll otherwise fills itself with random footage of people screaming in night vision.
As an all-encompassing documentary about Halloween haunts, one star would be generous for “Haunters: The Art of the Scare” because of wasted and missed opportunities. 24 featured haunts are identified in the credits, though I don’t know where they all were and you’d be lucky to remember the names of more than four of them.
On the other hand, this same material would rate a much higher score if Schnitzer just eschewed what feels like obligatory bits that go by cursorily to concentrate on what he really wants to, which is McKamey Manor and extreme haunts. Quality content clearly exists here and the filmmakers have a knack for cutting together a slick package. It’s the presentation of being a true tour of haunt culture that makes the movie misleading.
Review Score: 60