I’m not entirely sure that found-footage was essential as a format for The Houses October Built, but I am certain that consumer-grade cameras was the way to go. We’ve seen this basic story done slicker on Hollywood production values: Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses involves a group of youngsters (including Chris Hardwick) looking for roadside horror attractions, only to find that the redneck clown in charge of one of them is also part of a family of murderers. Yet while that movie has its charms (or not, depending who you ask), the pleasures are in its very artifice – you know Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Karen Black are gonna ham it up, and they do. Never once do you think that Captain Spaulding is a real person who might follow you home.
I had to check the press notes to see which parts of Houses are authentic, and which are not – the redneck clowns you see on these Texas back-roads are the real-deal scary mofos who work at the haunted attractions off the beaten path. The movie we are watching is fiction, but there’s a lot of fact mixed in – documentary footage of alleged wrongdoing at Halloween attractions, and interviews about their appeal, are scattered throughout the film as transitional devices, and many of the haunted attractions our lead characters find on their road trip are indeed real, live presentations.
Brandy, Zack, Bobby, Mikey and Jeff are looking for Halloween attractions that go beyond the usual scares, hoping to recapture the fear you have as a child that one of these places might actually kill you. Wanting to document the journey, they rig their RV with cameras and hide some in their clothing. We follow them through various haunted houses, as their first-person perspective cameras allow us to vicariously enjoy the thrills as well (one particular hayride that allows participants to shoot paintballs at zombies looks amazing, and I totally wanna go). But they keep hearing rumors of the ultimate experience, one that moves around and is only known by word of mouth. As they try to find the clues that will get them there, some very pissed-off spooks from a house that caught them sneaking footage keep showing up and playing some nasty tricks…
Now, maybe it’s because I’m an entertainment writer, but it’s frustrating to know way more than the characters do about the subject they’re supposedly immersing themselves in. Most notably, they seem to have no knowledge of the new wave of extreme haunted houses that have sprung up in more recent years like Blackout. We go from the standard (and frankly, classist) tropes of scary rooms where clowns and chainsaw guys chase you to a secret one where your life might be in danger without any of the steps in between. What about the ones that give you electric shocks, or make you put tampons in your mouth (yes, those exist)? The ones that make you sign waivers saying you’re okay with simulated drowning, and offer you a safe-word to end the experience if you can’t take it? This trip has a huge step missing – it’s like going from jalapeno sauce to raw ghost peppers without stopping at habaneros along the way.
Now, with that objection out of the way, the vibe of this film is still pretty cool, and it really does expose how class-based so many of our horror tropes are. All the archetypes of “scare-actors” seen here are the sorts who’d actually be broke or downtrodden in real life: clowns, carnies, hillbillies, deformed children, old people with dementia – it’s hard not to notice, especially when, in the movie’s most genuinely unsettling moment, a local performer who’s been semi-friendly thus far asks our leads what they mean when they say “backwoods.” For all the jump scares, the fundamental disconnects of privilege and dignity in the independent haunted house game are shown in that scene for what they are. These locals offer up a funhouse caricature of their own lives to briefly distress more well-off customers, who’ll gladly ignore them the rest of the year. Again, consumer-grade cameras capturing some of these real folks gives an effect a bigger production couldn’t have faked.
But then we get into the found-footage element. We’re told upfront that this film was in fact found, which gives you an idea right there how things must have ended. We get an onscreen title counting down the days, Silver Shamrock style, to Halloween. What you always have to ask, then, is who (supposedly) put this film together, adding in the titles and the extra documentary footage? There is a strong hint: our leads complain at one point that there are no TV commercials for some of the attractions, and maybe, in the end, that’s what we are watching: a haunted house infomercial.
I’d like The Houses October Built to have tied things together a bit more in the end, but I can’t deny it was addicting to watch. With more budget and planning, I think there’s room to expand upon this world in a bigger way, and it’d be great to see that happening without compromising the low-fi intensity.
The Houses October Built opens Friday.