“The following footage was shot by five friends during an “extreme haunt” road trip in October 2013,” reads the opening caption of this found footage exploration of the peculiarly American phenomenon of the Hallowe’en funhouse, that seasonal crop which ripens just past the harvest, blossoming as the long summer nights drift to darkness.
Zack (Zack Andrews) wants to find the most extreme haunted house in the world, and to that end with his four friends Bobby (Bobby Roe), Brandy (Brandy Schaefer), Mikey (Mikey Roe) and Jeff (Jeff Larson), they set out in a camper van looking for thrills and scares. They’re not interested in ghost hunting in the conventional sense, an actual alleged haunted house, their pursuit is as superficial as they are, looking for entertainment and kicks rather than enlightenment or discovery.
As they progress through the houses, they notice that despite the distance they have travelled there are faces in the crowds which they recognise such as the porcelain masked girl a hundred miles from their first stop. Despite the trepidation some of the travellers harbour about the sinister silence of their shadow, the others become convinced that she is the key to the “off map” house they seek, the holy grail of spook houses known as the Blue Skeleton.
Directed by Roe from a script co-written Andrews and Jason Zada, itself an expansion of their own 2011 work of the same name screened at the Shockfest Film Festival, what should be a celebration of Hallowe’en and the joy of being scared is yet another horror which plays as a production line commodity, as soulless as McDonalds rather than the labour-of-love houses themselves.
With its UK premiere in the Night Moves strand of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Hallowe’en countdown has none of the catchy urgency of Season of the Witch and it lacks the drive, tension and style of the template of camper van horror, 1975’s classic Race with the Devil, criminally not available as a decent Blu-ray package on this side of the pond.
With minimal narrative to speak of as the five leads bicker and show off their multiple cameras (does every found footage film have a scene where the characters discuss their cameras in hopes the audience will say “they have their own equipment, it must be true?”), the bulk of the ninety minutes involves stumbling around in the dark, the unstable camerawork at least conveying the disorientation of the experience but offering none of the thrills.
While hugely variable from production to production and from performance to performance, interactive theatre can be a vital and unique experience and more engaging is the individuality and artistry of the performers discussing and reminiscing about their experiences, yet any time they are briefly interviewed the camera cuts back to the erratic footage of the tiresome, vulgar and self-indulgent victims-in-waiting; for a more genuine insight into the haunted house phenomenon see instead the genuine documentary The American Scream.
Rather than displaying any measure of substance with which the audience might relate and so care about their travels and their troubles, the quintet are generic yahoos devoid of wit or originality, and with a trip to a Hallowe’en themed strip joint before finally moving to lethargic torture porn, degrading to nothing less than watching other people trying to have fun and failing badly. Ultimately, all that The Houses October Built demonstrates is that found footage is long dead and rotted.