I watched two found-footage horror movies on Wednesday. They had the following in common:
- References to Bigfoot
- An RV as a key setting
- Five idiot characters who don't know when to stop poking at danger
- Two characters who are brothers
- One brother with a distracting hipster beard
- Copious weed usage
The Houses October Built shares so many similarities with Eduardo Sanchez's Exists that I began to wonder if I'd been punked. The main difference is quality: co-director/writer/actor Bobby Roe and fellow screenwriters Zack Andrews and Jason Zada bring a new premise to the table--which equals just enough unpredictability and (dare I say it?) scares to make this direct-to-video effort worth checking out.
Right off the bat, the movie clears one of the sub-genre's major hurdles: it's presented as a documentary comprised of two sets of raw footage, which has been edited into a single narrative and spruced up with title cards. The million-dollar question is, of course, how that footage made it out to the wider world. But it's clear that the filmmakers at least cared enough to set the table for their audience, instead of expecting us to eat off the floor.
Roe and Andrews play two members of a five-person movie crew, who set out to find the most "extreme attractions" in America. They mostly visit haunted-house amusements in Texas, gradually picking up a trail of carnie lore that brings them face-to-painted-face with an underground outfit called The Blue Skeleton--a twisted band of nomadic psychos who stalk, torment, and kill unlucky thrill-seekers. As the filmmakers press on, they encounter more aggressive weirdos in smaller and smaller towns, and begin seeing familiar faces popping up hundreds of miles apart.
Roe and the writers bank on our having already seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(s), House of 1000 Corpses, and a dozen other horror movies featuring masked/deformed/inbred killers. They filmed at real haunted attractions, after all, which wear their creators' love for genre classics on the walls, in the costuming and prosthetics, and in the borderline personalities of some employees.* The story uses well-worn scare-beats (the creepy hitchhiker, the friend who gets separated from the group and runs into trouble), but there's always a zig or a zag waiting--a poke in the ribs to let our brains know that there's no good time to check out.
I won't get into spoilers here, but Roe, Andrews, and Zada smartly avoid the "Ten Little Indians" hallmark of most slashers. For our benefit, they escalate the dread with promises of wicked, primal-fear fates for our hapless heroes. I'm sure The Blue Skeleton gang got the Friday the 13th stalk 'n kill thrills out of their system years ago; they've evolved into a pack of monsters that take their time, twisting psychological knives into their prey before drawing the black veil.
Better yet, the protagonists aren't so annoying as to be unwatchable. First off, they're adults. Most of the crew look like early-thirties, young-exec types who want to score big with a slick viral video. They're not dumb teenagers, just Yuppies who think referring to Southern culture as "backwoods" is some kind of high-minded-liberal compliment. That said, their refusal to turn back when The Blue Skeleton begins invading their personal space is quite maddening, and screams of a contrivance designed to help them along to the climax.
As for this being a found-footage movie, it fares better than most, thanks to Roe's insistance on re-creating the haunted-attraction experience for the viewer. If you're timid about people in fright rags jumping out at you from strobe-lit black rooms, The Houses October Built is definitely not for you. If, however, you're busy this Halloween and can't make it out to an actual terror amusement, this movie is a surprisingly creepy and immersive alternative.**
*The Houses October Built cleverly incorporates real local-news footage from haunted-house tragedies and scandals, and blurs the line between what's real and what the filmmakers have made up to serve their story.
**I'm generously overlooking a scene towards the end, where a character literally yells at a blue glow stick in pitch blackness for two minutes.