For the past three Halloweens I have been working at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, as part of the Terror Tram attraction. It's been pretty much the best job I've ever had, as the Halloween theming really gets me into the seasonal spirit (as if I needed help), and provides some great seasonal festivities now that I'm way too old for trick-or-treating and not social enough to get invited to any parties. Plus, I spend four nights a week roaming around the Bates Motel, listening to people scream in fright all night long (it's not the original Bates Motel from the Hitchcock film, but it was used for the sequels, along with the "Psycho House" on the hill behind it).
With this work experience in mind, I was looking forward to catching up with The Houses October Built, a horror film centered around seasonal scare attractions. I'd heard a few mentions of the film, though never an outright opinion. Sure, Netlix's spookily accurate rating algorithm predicted I would hate the film, but they've been wrong before (though correct more often), and that premise intrigued me. A group of friends in an RV on a Halloween road trip, on the quest for the ultimate haunted house. Not only did it sound like a great premise, full of potential, but it sounded like something I would love to do with my own friends.
Considering that I am still happily employed this Halloween, I am going to let discretion rule and refrain from speaking about my job very much. Let it be said, however, that I sympathized far more with the villains of this film than I did with any of the asshole protagonists.
When this film started my heart immediately sank as I realized it was going to be another found footage flick. I've said before that I'm a moderate fan of the genre, and my positive review of In Memorium shows that I still believe effectively scary movies can be made with consumer grade equipment and non-professional actors. And yet, here, I had a dim vision of how the film would play out, and I despaired at having to listen to unscripted, half finished conversations among this group of obnoxious twenty-somethings in an RV. An RV which, for some reason, has been outfitted with a handful of GoPro cameras, capturing every angle within, and some without, the vehicle. I was a little confused as to why a group of friends had brought along so many cameras, including a few handheld ones. It just seemed like overkill for a fairly casual vacation with friends. Researching this film I discovered that a more serious documentary version was made in 2011, and was reworked into new footage for the horror film that is currently streaming on netflix. This would explain all of the cameras, but unless I missed it there was never any mention of making a documentary in the film itself (it's quite possible I missed it).
I've already tipped my hand in regards to my opinion about this group, so it should come as no surprise when I say I found long stretches of this film difficult to sit through. One thing I dislike in found footage films is the tendency to edit within conversations. Instead of a full scene with the characters having a complete discussion, we get snippets of conversation. This sort of thing tends to be most prevalent in the early scenes of a found footage film, and it's intended as a shorthand in order to show us the character's relationships to each other in as quick a manner as possible. A little of that goes a long way, however, and when, 45 minutes in, The Houses October Built is still cutting away from conversations before they've concluded, or cutting into them mid-sentence, it's nigh intolerable. There's no rhythm, nothing to grasp onto as a viewer. Instead of falling into the flow of the film, we're kept at a distance.
Add to that the fact that this group is comprised of dull, shallow, self-obsessed jerks, and The Houses October Built becomes a bit of a chore to sit through. The unlikability of the characters wouldn't be a fatal flaw, though, if THOB didn't also treat them as if they were sympathetic. Throughout the film this group belittles each and every attraction they go to, insult every worker they come across by, usually, calling them 'backwoods' or 'inbred', ignore house rules at the attractions, repeatedly climb onto private property and disrupt the experience for others. At one point one of the group, the 'affable, portly party guy', brings a Scare Actor back to the RV and records the two of them having sex without informing her of all the hidden cameras pointed at her. Not to get all preachy, but that sort of frat-boy, chauvinistic behavior hasn't been appropriate for comedy for at least a decade. The film wants us to think it's just good fun, but of course it comes across as significantly sleazier.
So, OK, the characters are shits, but how are the scares? Well, probably about as good as you would expect a film about people walking through a fake haunted house would be, which is to say; not very good. The characters are, when they're not having snippets of conversation on the RV, walking through attractions designed to be scary in person, and filming them with handheld cameras. This group is remarkably easy to scare, and the camera is always suddenly jerked out of focus as they jump in fright when some 17 year old kid in a clown mask jumps out from a dark corner. This means we get a lot of canted angle shots of corners while we hear people scream, and then laugh, and then ask in a panic which whey they should go. There's also no fluidity to the editing, and instead of watching the camera glide through the maze we get disconnected shots of disconnected rooms. The film never reaches the heights of fear achieved by watching walkthroughs of horror mazes on youtube.
This is perhaps the film's most fatal flaw; there's no reason to find anything scary. We know the mazes are fake, the characters know the mazes are fake. Everything is store bought costumes, strobe lights, and hastily applied makeup. That's too much disbelief to suspend. And yet, these characters do get scared, each and every time, and they always react as if they don't have any idea of what is going on. Somehow, though, they repeatedly complain that they're sick of these lame, corporate scare mazes. They want something really terrifying. It's a weird complaint to make, considering how obviously they've been scared so far.
Throughout the film one of the characters has been hunting down traces of an extreme horror haunt that moves from town to town and state to state. He hears rumors about it on chat rooms, in conversations at bars, and from seasonal Scare Actors on the road. He even discovers a password needed to gain entrance to this mythical haunted house. As the film goes on they seem to be getting closer to this attraction, and there are brief moments of threat on the journey. For the most part this is meant to be creepy, but fails to attain that goal. It's hard to make a clown standing behind a tent threatening when we know all the clowns are just taking a smoke break. But there are a few moments; a creepy clown they piss off in the beginning follows them to their RV and stares at them menacingly. A girl in a creepy doll mask from one of the mazes is waiting for them by the side of the road, and screams wordlessly when they let her into the RV. Eventually it becomes clear that someone is entering the RV while they sleep, and they get threatening videotapes.
Strangely, none of the characters ever take this seriously. Or, I should say, some of them do, but are convinced by the rest of the group that it's all part of the mythical Blue Skeleton haunt they're tracking down. Another reason to not care about this group; they ignore even the most blatant signs of danger. But perhaps that's too unfair a complaint; people never think they're in a horror movie. How many potentially terrifying moments have each of us been in, and ignored because we realize life isn't like a horror movie? But there's a difference between not being scared of a dark basement, and not going to the police when someone films themselves holding a knife to your sleeping neck.
Eventually they find the Blue Skeleton, or perhaps more accurately the Blue Skeleton finds them. This is the big moment, when the true terror starts, and yet the same problems persist. It's all filmed half-heartedly, and it still just amounts to people in costumes jumping from out of the darkness and then backing off. In other words; exactly like all of the haunted houses they've been to before. Perhaps it would have been impossible to make a film about fake scares scary, but I can picture a film in which this all worked, and I'll tell you right now it wouldn't be found footage. The found footage aspect makes it all seem too fake, which of course it is, but an actual film would have made for an easier suspension of disbelief. As it is, The Houses October Built joins the long list of films that squander their interesting premises.