Beneath the fake blood and cheap masks of countless haunted house attractions across the country, there are whispers of truly terrifying alternatives. Looking to find an authentic, blood-curdling good fright for Halloween, five friends set off on a road trip in an RV to track down these underground haunts. Just when their search seems to reach a dead end, strange and disturbing things start happening and it becomes clear that the haunt has come to them…
I was at a function last week, and the subject of Halloween Haunts came up. I heard a story about an extreme haunt (It’s called “Blackout“), located here in NYC, where a plastic bag is placed over your head and you’re forcibly dragged away. You’re even fondled & mauled by strangers in Halloween getup’s! And if you don’t believe me, this is the first line in the contract you must sign before they’ll let you in: I have been advised and acknowledge that graphic scenes of simulated extreme horror, adult sexual content, tight spaces, darkness, fog, strobe light effects, exposure to water, physical contact, and crawling are an integral part of the experience of the House. This sounded pretty freaking abhorrent to me, but I understand that there are those who would gladly pay for this kind of experience (Hell, a few of my friends there had already gone through the experience – and loved every second of it). So I understood the premise behind The Houses October Built, a film about five friends who set off on a cross country trip in an RV, to find the scariest Halloween attraction ever.
The five of them, Brandy (Brandy Schaefer), Zack (Zack Andrews), Mikey (Mikey Roe), Jeff (Jeff Larson) & Bobby (Director Bobby Roe) are a affable group of twenty somethings, who seem to want nothing more than to have a grand old time on a cross country jaunt, taking in as many haunts as they can, in an effort to find the most extreme one. They’ve heard stories about one called “Blue Skeleton“, that’s about as extreme as you can imagine and moves to a different location every year. It’s not an easy place to find though, and those who do know about it are reticent to say too much about where it might be this year. But that doesn’t really stop our foolhardy five, and they merrily pile into an RV in search of some decent frights. Additionally, they’re recording their exploits, so guess what that means? This is a found footage movie! (Doc Rotten will be pleased..).
As the film progresses, the viewer essentially becomes the 6th member of this excursion, and the film does a good job of immersing the viewer into the entire road trip experience. It doesn’t hurt that the five principal actors are good natured & likable. They all share a nice, easy going vibe among themselves and it feels like they’ve all known each other a long time, this helps draw the viewer into the film. And since the first two thirds of the film essentially consist of a travelogue, with the five friends stopping off at different haunts, it’s a good thing that the characters are as likable as they are. I didn’t mind spending some time with them.
But things do happen as they’re travelling. They run into some extremely nasty haunt actors in scary clown makeup who aren’t too pleased with the camera the group is carrying around with them, there’s also a particularly creepy young lady dressed up in a porcelain doll outfit (whose eerie silence is deafening), hanging around. What’s even more upsetting is the fact that these performers seem to be following our band of spook chasers from haunt to haunt – from state to state. They eventually get a lead and discover that Blue Skeleton is located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and set off to visit the final haunt. Slowly (very slowly), the group comes to realize that maybe they’ve gone a bit too far, but one of them gets captured and the remaining four set off to rescue him.
The Houses October Built does a great job of making the entire experience feel like the viewer is part of it, as if we’re going through the attractions with the group. It also does a good job of sneakily spreading its scary bits throughout the film, giving the viewer a taste of what’s to come, but not too big a taste – more of a teaser. This could be construed by some as the film’s biggest fault as well, because it does take its sweet time getting to where it wants to go. But I didn’t have too much of a problem with this since I genuinely enjoyed the company of the principal actors. And every so often, director Bobby Roe, drops in a dollop of something just off kilter enough to warrant further interest in how the whole thing is going to end. The script (by Roe, Andrews & Jason Zada) feels largely improvised, but it kept me interested despite its sometime lethargic pace.
There will be those of you who are turned off by the overall pace of the film, and that’s understandable – it’s a slow film. But its pace is a purposeful one and it eventually leads us to its extremely upsetting ending. It’s obvious that Roe & company have done their homework because a lot of the film is reminiscent of films like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the sadly unsung Race With The Devil (1975). The former being the granddaddy of all found footage films & the latter one of the best horror films of the 70’s (That happens to take place in an RV that is). The fact that The Houses October Built cribs from both of these films successfully gives me the idea that Roe knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish with this film. And he succeeded.
But, as with most found footage films, the cinematography/sound is a bit lacking. These are standard tropes for the genre but it doesn’t mean I have to like them. Additionally, a few scenes seem to drag on a bit longer than necessary, and in a film that’s in no real rush to begin with, this could be an issue for some of you. But none of this should dissuade you from at least giving The Houses October Built a watch. It effectively conveys its frights slowly & convincingly, with a few scenes that are near perfect in conveying sheer horror (If you’re afraid of clowns, then this really isn’t the movie for you – trust me).
I enjoyed The Houses October Built a lot more than I expected to, especially once I realized it was a found footage film (the bane of my existence as a movie critic). Between this & Afflicted (2014), the genre has been practically reinvigorated for me – and that’s saying something. I guarantee you that after watching it, you’ll think twice about attending your local Halloween attraction.
The Houses October Built – 3.5 out of 5 shrouds.
RLJ/Image Entertainment will be releasing The Houses That October Built on iTunes, VOD and in select theaters on October 10th.