by Dan Fields
© 2014 Image Entertainment
Found footage horror is played out, to the extent that an exhausting number of reviews begin with the complaint that “found footage horror is played out.”
See what I mean?
With that requisite disclaimer covered, Bobby Roe’s The Houses October Built is pretty excellent entertainment for this Halloween season. The notion of a POV camera going all meta-fictional on the phenomenon of live haunted house attractions, now simply termed “haunts” owing to the diversity of venues, turns out much better than it may sound.
Five friends – Zack (co-writer), Bobby (co-writer and director), Mikey, Brandy and Jeff – set out in an RV to tour and document the most extreme haunts out there. Most of them seem to be in Texas and Louisiana, by the way. While most are fairly traditional walkthrough attractions, other memorable outings include a hayride modeled on a zombie apocalypse, complete with paintball guns to pelt the legions of shambling ghouls. However, some of the “haunters” appear more aggressive and personally invasive than the rest. It even seems that certain characters are following the RV from one location to the next, across dozens and eventually hundreds of miles.
The ultimate prize is a secret, word-of-mouth haunt called Blue Skeleton, which stays off the maps by moving from place to place each year. Internet forums and in-the-know haunt clients are the only ways to get clues to its location. As the fatigue of the road, the constant adrenaline, and the nagging fear of being followed grows, the group begins to divide over whether they want to seek out the ultimate horror experience of Blue Skeleton at all.
The haunts gradually degenerate in tone, from spooky to petrifying to twisted beyond all measures of taste. A crawling sense of revulsion threatens to overtake the fun of the adventure. As any survey of real-life immersive haunts will demonstrate, some attractions are innovative and compelling in their construction, while others are just plain sick. It is difficult to determine whether the haunts in this film were original constructions or filmed in cooperation with actual working attractions, but a few minutes of internet browsing is enough to prove that the scenes in the movie are pretty darned authentic. To compound the mounting nastiness of the experience, the employment standards of these haunts are clearly bottom-rung. Unsavory types, still in costume as terrifying clowns and other dangerous freaks, begin to menace the group outside the bounds of the haunts.
After the first few “nights” set the tone, it is no great chore to guess where the rest of the story is headed. The impetus to keep watching will be the viewer’s degree faith in the most imaginative possible presentation of grim, inevitable consequences. After a certain point, the disorienting, semi-coherent logic of a haunted attraction begins to govern the movie itself, but the goal here is not to deliver a brilliantly wrapped spy-thriller conclusion. The key requirement is that tension and dread increase steadily to the climax. In this case, the payoff proves worth the investment.
Most found footage movies, and even conventional slashers, drag between sequences of terror. Such a movie’s appeal comes down to the aggregate charisma of the cast, and fortunately these actors have better than average chemistry. The dialogue is pleasantly natural, seeming improvised and not too on-the-nose while vaguely circling topics of fear and thrill-seeking. These people would be more fun on a road trip than most horror movie casts, despite their reckless headlong rush into unsupervised crowds of freaky, freaky people.
Before long, the line between being “in the haunt” and falling into actual physical danger has disappeared. Whether or not the increasing harassment is part of a harmless game, none of the successive encounters can be dismissed as wholesome or safe.
Sprinkled among the chapters of the narrative are snippets of interviews with various haunted house patrons and proprietors. They cite rumored accounts of sex predators and psychos employed in commercial haunts, as well as the general change in the philosophy in extreme haunts. Many attraction owners strive to deliver an experience “just short of killing you” according to the demands of the most hardcore clients. More than merely padding the film’s running time, these clips highlight the fragile divide between transgressive but harmless fun and authentic jeopardy. The unsettling question of whether patrons perceive or even care about the distinction remains alarmingly uncertain.
This is possibly the most well-constructed and frightening piece of found footage horror since Howie Askins’s 2012 film Evidence, and at very least since the lauded “Safe Haven” segment of V/H/S/2. The Houses October Built may not be altogether as smart as its ideas, but the moral is simple enough to perceive. If you have a sincere interest in being scared to death, there are weirdos running around out there who will gladly do their best to make it happen for you.