With Halloween a few mere weeks away millions of people are looking to get their scare fixes in. Whether loading up the Netflix queue with horror movies, checking out a Stephen King book out of the library or hitting a local “haunted” house or hayride attraction with buddies. The thing about your hardcore horror fan or adrenaline junkie, however, is it takes a hell of a lot to get the blood pressure to rise or the hair on the back of your neck to stand up with fright. A by the numbers affair with some pun riddled tombstones surrounding cheap, plastic props and the occasional rubber masked actor shouting “Boo!” is more likely to elicit derisive laughter than any sort of fright. Those that look forward to Halloween year round are always looking for the next big thing in fright, hoping to find an experience that is all too “real”, pushing just up to the line that threatens bodily and psychological harm on whoever enters. It’s why haunts like Blackout in NYC sell out night after night, despite (or maybe because) patrons have to sign a waiver absolving the company of liability. That’s the pull of the new found footage film The Houses October Built, which explores the phenomenon of extreme haunts.
Five friends load up the RV to go on an impromptu road trip the week before Halloween. The trip is the brainchild of Zach, who plans on filming everything that goes on. Zack has mapped out the locations of haunted attractions that have the reputation for making anyone that enters them to soil their pants. These are the places that are far off the beaten path, where the hired help isn’t really “acting” when they threaten to tear the flesh of the bones of the customers before eating it raw. Along the journey, Zack hears whispers of a legendary traveling haunt called the “Blue Skeleton.” As the crew continues their journey, things start getting Heart Of Darkness, as the carnies and haunters start to follow them from haunt to haunt, tormenting the crew behind the scenes.
House survives what might be the worst opening twenty minutes of any movie this year to become not only passable, but a damn near classic. It’s too bad the first act falls victim to many of the worst aspects of found footage films: brief introductions to cookie cutter characters you care not a whit for (the exception being Brandy Schaefer, who is quite good throughout the film) and the potential scares are marred by shaky camera movement while someone runs full steam ahead. When we get to the moment when one of the characters is pretending to be stoned and cracking himself up, I came a moment away from turning off.
Luckily, the film picks up steam as it goes along, culminating in the best final twenty minutes of any horror movie I’ve watched all year. Director Bobby Roe does a masterful job at not tipping the Blue Skeleton crew’s hand once they finally catch up with the documentary crew. As they force the friends to go through the final haunt separately, it isn’t completely clear if they are messing with them ala Blackout, or if they do indeed have murderous intent. It’s a terrific sequence that knows to not overplay its hand, allowing the tension to build to almost insufferable levels before chaos takes over.
The middle section of the film helps build toward the climax with some terrific sequences of their own. Houses has some smart insights on white, middle class privilege, as the RV crew we follow are essential bored adults looking to exploit what they deem a lower class of carnies for their own entertainment. While plenty of films examine the rush we as genre fans get from being scared, director Bobby Roe takes the time to explore why certain people want to scare the piss out of fellow humans. Brief segments with some of the attraction workers show a real undercurrent of anger and ill sentiment towards the patrons, and along with the lack of regulations, or even a simple background check in some instances, give the film a sense of foreboding and danger.
There are a handful of titles that should be staples for any Halloween themed movie marathon. In the past few years Trick ‘R Treat has become a go-to flick for everyone that loves the holiday. While The Houses That October Built does not quite reach the lofty heights of that film, it for damn sure belongs in the conversation. Do yourself a favor and check this one out this holiday season.