Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Bobby Roe
Writer: Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe, Jason Zada, Jeff Larson
Producer: Steven Schneider, Zack Andrews
Stars: Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe, Mikey Roe, Jeff Larson
Five friends searching for the most extreme Halloween haunt in America discover a secret attraction rumored to be the ultimate experience in terror entertainment.
Decades ago, Cleveland, Ohio had an outdoor Halloween attraction in its heavily-wooded Metroparks system featuring scare actors bursting from trees throughout an expansive stretch of dark forests and hilly terrain. As a child with a morbid imagination reared on WUAB’s “Bad Moon Rising” and “Full Moon Fever” seasonal horror movie marathons, I remember thinking at the time, “what’s stopping an actual chainsaw-wielding maniac from hiding in these same woods and slaughtering people for real?”
That idea of real-life serial murder masquerading as a Halloween haunt people pay money to experience is a perfect fit for a fright film premise. Someday, someone is going to strike the right vein in that concept and mine the ore for a rich, Halloween-themed carnival nightmare along the lines of “The Funhouse” meets “The Blair Witch Project.” Despite its well-intentioned mixture of authentic Halloween haunt documentary and “found footage” fiction, “The Houses October Built” comes up short of being that movie.
“The Houses October Built” had its first festival screening in 2011 and at the time, positioned itself as being more in line with a straight behind-the-scenes Halloween haunt doc like “The American Scream” or “Monsters Wanted” (review here), but with a moderate fictional twist. In the three-year gap between debut and distribution, the film underwent retooling to deemphasize the documentary while amplifying the “found footage” flavor for improved commercial appeal.
Five friends rent an RV and set off with the stated objective of finding “the most extreme haunted house in the world.” Thus they begin a six-day trek in the week leading up to Halloween to visit “as many haunts as (they) can, all across America.” For ambitious goals involving “all across America” and “in the world,” it’s odd that their entire planned route only includes locations in Texas until an unexpected diversion to Baton Rouge on the final day.
The quintet visits various haunted house attractions and briefly converses with an employee or two before rubbing someone in clown makeup the wrong way and moving along to the next stop on their Texas tour. In the meantime, trip leader Zack works underground connections on the Internet and in person to locate the mysterious “Blue Skeleton,” a haunt rumored to be so extreme and so secretive that it has no permanent location and requires an invitation and a password to enter.
Buildup is always problematic for “found footage” films, and it proves to be the first stumbling block for “The Houses October Built,” too. Perhaps as a side effect of recutting footage into a traditional narrative instead of straightforward documentary, there is a stiltedness to the editing that makes it read as though every off-topic interchange amongst the group is being joined mid-conversation. The camera turns on during noisy moments filled with non-sequitur nonsense such as amateur raps, poems, and drug-related, munchie-craving hysterics that might be amusing if the audience were more familiar with everyone’s personalities.
At least when “The Blair Witch Project” (review here) occupies its first act with townspeople interviews and gratuitous shots of traveling through the forest, the scenes work to fill in the backstory or augment the atmosphere. In this case, the lead-up plays as time-killing in-jokes that don’t do much to establish endearing characters. They feel like friends, but the viewer doesn’t feel that same sense of belonging in their circle.
In several printed interviews, filmmakers Bobby Roe and Zack Andrews remark how they squeeze production value into “The Houses October Built” without spending their own cash by filming in locations already decked out with spooky setups, outfitted actors, and ready-made scares springing from the shadows. This is a brilliantly novel approach from a producer’s perspective, although it doubles as a key example of how genuinely bright ideas don’t always shake out in the movie’s favor.
As lamentable as lame jump scares are, there is a reason why they are employed so often in horror movies: they are effective. The combination of a carefully-positioned camera, a well-timed edit, and an amplified audio sting creates a sensory experience designed to elicit a physical response in the same way that a rubber hammer to the knee always produces a kick.
Similarly in conception, haunted house scares are precisely engineered to work best in that specific environment. Turning a patron around a corner and drawing attention towards a certain direction positions a person uniquely for a meticulously-crafted parlor trick. Skilled technicians, magicians, and stagehands have perfected some of these setups through years of experience.
Taking a camera through a maze should recreate the POV perspective. Except haunts aren’t designed for two-dimensional scares. Layout and staging are rigged for in-person visits, and they don’t translate the same way through a lens. It’s about as close to feeling like the actual experience of going through a Halloween attraction as watching someone’s distorted YouTube video is to being at a concert recorded on a cell phone. Trips through the haunts themselves in “The Houses October Built” read as a mishmash of blurred images in the dark and garbled noises.
“The Blue Skeleton” finally comes into play during the climax. Again, it should be a solid diving board for first-person horror with a realistic tint. But characters who don’t demand an emotional investment from the audience and mythology not making an effort to fully add up (how/why are creepy clown guy and porcelain-masked girl keeping up with the RV’s travel plans?) make for a combo that doesn’t have sharp enough teeth to pull off scares that should be inherent in the Halloween haunt hook.
A degree of improvisation is virtually required in all “found footage” films to tap into that organic feeling of naturally occurring events and realistic atmosphere. “The Houses October Built” is a project that trusts in its core idea to come together on its own through sheer strength of concept, and the filmmakers are not wrong to hope/suspect/plan for serendipity to be on their side. Unfortunately, good intentions and competent execution in this case go just so far, only to be unmet in the middle by a concept that cannot be recreated onscreen as effectively as one might suppose.
Review Score: 45