The Houses October Built (2014)
Dir. Bobby Roe
Written by Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe, Jason Zada
Starring Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe, Mikey Roe, Jeff Larson
THE HOUSES THAT OCTOBER BUILT is one of the best found footage horror movies I’ve ever seen. Now, I’ll grant, that’s at best a backhanded compliment, like praising “the most tolerable root canal” or “most reasonable Fox News commentator.” The found footage subgenre does not enjoy the most stellar reputation around these parts, and it has not lacked for opportunities to prove that reputation is, if anything, overly generous. In the 18 years since BLAIR WITCH PROJECT came out (and especially in the ten years since the subgenre exploded after the huge profits raked in by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY), I’ve looked intently for any hint that this genre had potential to do anything more than save shameless horror producers a couple of bucks on cameras and equipment at the cost of the very soul of cinema itself. I mean, you know that, you’ve been on the journey with me. From the rare cases of actual greatness (NOROI: THE CURSE) to the absolute wastelands of content (THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY), from the interesting experiments (S&MAN) to the goofy larks (TROLLHUNTER), from films which were doggedly dedicated to working the concept (THE BAY) to the films which are almost comically lackadasical about it (THE DEVIL’S PASS), and, zen-like, through V/H/S, V/H/S 2, and V/H/S VIRAL, I’ve been watching these things, tyring to figure out if there exists any legitimate artistic merit to the conceit whatsoever.
And it’s hard to believe, but there was definitely a time when the subgenre really seemed to hold some promise of genuine revolutionary ideas. Back when V/H/S PART 1 came out --not so very long ago!-- I wrote,
“I think that horror, more than any other genre, might benefit from a found-footage bent; or at least a certain kind of horror might benefit. I mean, you’re not gonna be able to recreate the atmospheric lushness of a 60’s Hammer production or a well-made Giallo without the kind of sumptuous camerawork and faux-opulent production that gives them that unique gothic flavor. But, it might well be able to recreate the oh-shit-oh-shit-they’re-after-me grimy realism of films like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Those films have a reputation for being grueling crucibles of punishment without respite, and I have a feeling that a well-executed found-footage story might be able to recreate that unrelenting nightmare feel pretty well. More than anything, the found footage conceit gives good reason to construct long, unbroken takes which deny the viewer the relief of having editing swoop in and save them. It’s certainly possible to do this with conventional photography (see: CHILDREN OF MEN, KNOWING) but with the found footage gimmick it seems to so naturally insert itself into the way it’s filmed that you get the benefit of the immersive long take without the distraction of the director rubbing your nose in it (see: ENTER THE VOID)... And even though found-footage films will never be pretty like traditional films, there is a certain advantage to using the fixed perspective and the limitations of the media to keep your horror hidden. Most films have to rely on darkness or deliberately evasive photography to keep you in fear of what you don’t see -- here, it’s a natural effect of the shaky cam and glitchy video quality. That certainly opens up some new possibilities for good fright scenes”
A mere five years later, that kind of optimism seems pretty naive. Despite the overwhelming proliferation of the found-footage subgenre, there has been a dispiriting lack of ambition on the part of most genre filmmakers to experiment with the medium or to utilize it in any sort of imaginative or unique way which might take advantage of the format. If anything, it’s been more of a temptation to just shoot the same played-out exploitation concepts, except minus the exploitation because the shaky camera obscures anything that might be called genre goods. There have been bright spots -- Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s masterful sequence in V/H/S 2, the solid, gritty THE BAY, Ti West’s little experiment in subtly shifting motivated perspective in the original V/H/S-- but they have been spectacularly few and far between. Even when one or another turns out pretty decent --[REC], say, or BANSHEE CHAPTER --there’s always that nagging question about what role the found footage conceit played in its success. Did it enhance the experience, or did it just make a film which would have been good anyway uglier and more visually confusing?
|the magic of cinema|
Nearly two decades after THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, then, THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT* stands virtually alone in its commanding use of the format as both an unambiguously effective conduit for creating fear, and also a means to subtly play with horror filmmaking and tackle (or at least address) some interesting philosophical questions about our attraction to horror. It’s not a modern masterpiece or anything, and it unfortunately stumbles right at the finish line and fails to deliver an adequate ending, but as arguments for the potential of found-footage filmmaking to rightfully stand next to more classic styles as a worthwhile artistic choices go, I sure can’t think of many other contenders which make the case nearly this strongly.
You probably wouldn’t guess that from the opening, though, since it begins unencouragingly with a bunch of indistinguishable bros (and one significantly more charismatic woman) mugging for the camera and making dumbass jokes and playing pranks on each other on-camera like real people allegedly do in the crazy upside-down world of found footage horror. But even right away, you can’t help but pick up that there’s an unusual sense of easy chemistry between these people. They definitely seem to be performing for the camera, but that is what real people do, --especially real people not used to being filmed-- and the way they relate to each other seems surprisingly genuine. You really get the sense that these people know each other and really have been working together for some time on their stated documentary project: to travel America documenting their search for “the most extreme haunted house.”
And it’s reasonable that you would get that impression, because that’s exactly what we are looking at. Director Bobby Roe (Bobby Roe, THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT, “Raven’s Baseball player, uncredited” in SUPERMAN RETURNS) really is a director traveling in an RV visiting various “haunted attractions” along with Zack (co-writer Zack Andrews, THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT), Mikey (Mikey Roe, THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT), Jeff (Jeff Larson, THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT), and Brandy (Brandy Schaefer, “Dancer, uncredited” in two 2001 episodes of Ally McBeal, THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT). These are all real people, really doing this real thing; Bobby and Mikey really are brothers, the people they interview are sometimes so real that they have to blur out their faces. It feels precisely like what it is: some ambitious (not artistically or intellectually, but definitely young and hungry) indie filmmakers trying to grind out a product on the cheap and have some fun on the way. You can absolutely imagine catching 20 minutes of this while flipping through cable channels and finding it exactly the kind of mildly interesting but shallow filler they would show some Thursday at one in the morning to fill another hour of the endless black hole of 24 hour cable programming. The fact that it seems kind of shoddy and superficial doesn’t come off as a bug, but a comforting sign that you’re in familiar territory. It feels disingenuous and artificial in exactly the way that real life, mediated through the medium of low-effort cable TV content, feels disingenuous and artificial. In other words, so fake it feels completely real.
And yet, of course, it’s also not real, because we’re not very deep at all into our exploration of the hidden inner life of seasonal funhouse workers before little threads of fictional weirdness start snaking their way into the picture. But the brilliant thing here is that they are, at least at first, completely woven into the fabric of the obviously real but grotesquely extreme world of independent haunted attractions, and consequently it becomes nearly impossible to immediately identify what is real and what is fiction. There’s an early scary moment when they antagonize the somewhat unbalanced workers at a haunted attraction, only to find their escape blocked by some intimidating clowns who stand menacingly and silently in front of their RV. I honestly have no idea if this moment is real or not; it’s pretty disturbing behavior, but still safely within the bounds of possibility, especially since we’ve already been learning through interviews with the staff of these events that they’re a pretty weird lot who take this business real seriously (one apparently real boss cheerfully describes them as “pretty far out there,” another awkwardly has to explain that he doesn’t do a background check on his employees and is, uh, “looking into doing that in the future”). It seems just crazy enough I’d believe it. On the other hand, as the camera pans through one of the many haunted houses we tour with the crew, we encounter various costumed characters, including a creepy silent woman in a cracked doll mask (Chloe Crampton, THE BRITTANY MURPHY STORY). She fits in with the other real-world masked characters so completely that you think nothing of her… until she suddenly turns up again hundreds of miles later, creepily standing outside the RV. “Isn’t that the girl from [the last haunt]?” they ask, half laughing, half uneasy. They don’t yet realize that their banal reality is being subtly infiltrated by horror movie fiction.
This mixing of real and unreal recalls the interesting-but-not-entirely-successful 2006 documentary/horror film hybrid S&MAN, which also artfully blends a real documentary about ultra-low-budget horror directors with a fictional mockumentary about a real serial killer infiltrating that subculture. The difference is that S&MAN may have more pointed intellectual ambitions, but THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT blends truth and lies much more seamlessly. It’s awfully hard to tell exactly where reality stops and fiction begins here. Unlike S&MAN, where the actor playing the villain immediately stood out from the real-world weirdos, authenticity and artifice are stylistically indistinguishable here, and you have only logic to tell you, at some point, where the fiction starts.
Which, of course, was once something of the holy grail of the found footage conceit, but since then has become a prize only rarely pursued by those who dabble in other aspects of the subgenre. It was certainly present from the inception of the concept, though: in retrospect it may be hard to believe anyone took it seriously, but it’s worth remembering that the great granddaddy of the whole subgenre, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, spent considerable time and effort creating an elaborate metafiction about the legitimacy of the “found” footage (almost certainly originating the term in the process) and seriously trying to convince viewers that what they were seeing really was real. I don’t think most people were fooled, but at least some people seemed to sort of believed it at the time, or at least enough to justify some public debunking which seemed to sort of disappoint fans. And BLAIR WITCH was hardly the first to court faux-authenticity as a cornerstone of its strategy to titillate viewers. An arguable forerunner of the V/H/S series, the FACES OF DEATH anthology series, absolutely billed itself as the real deal in a shady marketing ploy to sell their corny antics to disturbed weirdos long before the internet made finding footage of real death so easy that I’ve managed to do it unintentionally (and unwillingly) on more than one occasion.
Now, HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT, unlike those other examples, never makes an effort to out-and-out lie to you about the reality of what you’re seeing; like Orson Welles’ famous War Of The Worlds broadcast, it never pretends to be real, it just does such an uncommonly excellent job of mimicking the particular rhythms of a familiar medium that your mind is primed to accept it without much scrutiny. By the end, the content has long ago crossed lines of believability which clearly mark it as fiction, but the style never acknowledges that fact, and even while your rational brain knows that this can’t be real -- that it never even claimed to be real-- a part of your brain can’t quite let go, allowing an eerie dissociative anxiety to pervade the whole experience.
And it is definitely an experience. There is an unavoidable immediacy to the film which is, if not unique to this sort of motivated POV filmmaking, at least a major advantage of it. We see what they see, and only what they see, enveloping the viewer in the shared reality of these characters and embedding us in this experience right along with them. So what if the characters are indistinguishable? They’re just vehicles to experience this shit for us, and their banal sense of humdrum reality just bolsters our natural suspension of disbelief and heightens our sense of being present on this journey with them. And that makes for a surprisingly intense ride, as the tendrils of strange and threatening forces, unseen but imminent, start to invade our comfortable journey.
In some ways, then, THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT is really a kind of summary class in the lessons learned about found footage filmmaking since BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Small annoyances with the subgenre which have lingered unaddressed for years are efficiently resolved here, and the format is remarkably fine-tuned in small but important ways to simply work the way it ought to. It’s always clear who’s filming, for example, and it’s always feasible that they would be filming (they’re making a documentary, after all). Little things like that help enormously to make the action and geography clear and comprehensible, and provide some protection against the whole setup seeming immediately phony and alienating. Most of the time it’s pretty ugly, of course, but that’s ok-- even when the dreaded shaky cam inevitably comes out, the implications which the camera carefully intimates through fragmented images are enough. One of the chief complaints with found footage has always been that the incoherent visuals frustratingly obscure the good stuff, but here when things get visually incoherent it seems more like a strategy to allow our imaginations to run wild. We’re trading visual elegance for insinuation and immediacy; frequently an unwise tradeoff, but this time it works out. We see all we need, and we can imagine the rest -- especially as the unusually zippy pace keeps us moving briskly from one spooky image to the next, without the usual interminably uneventful buildup to a finale that most found-footage films employ.
It never reinvents the wheel, exactly, it just seems to have an uncommonly solid understanding for the mechanics of the medium, and how to get the most impact out of them. Like Ti West’s influential segment in VHS 1, for example, they get a lot of mileage out of a sudden unmotivated camera shift. While many found footage films like DISTRICT 9 or THE DEVIL’S PASS ask you not too think to hard about who is shooting this and how it’s being done, THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT’s** commitment to being fastidiously clear about which perspective we’re getting means that when we suddenly see something we should not be seeing, it has a real gut impact. It’s a simple thing, but to do it requires a certain level of sophisticated consideration (or at least intuition) about how motivated POV impacts the meaning of images. And that’s how a relatively benign shot of characters sleeping instead becomes an image of intense horror -- we get a sudden jolting sense that a line has been crossed. For the characters, obviously, but I think instinctively we also feel it in the medium itself.
And that line is the final thing which makes THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT an interesting film; it’s a movie which is deeply interested in the lines we draw to protect ourselves, and the seeming paradox of our fascination with pushing those lines. After all, this is precisely what our protagonists are engaged in; they want to experience extreme states of fear, and they’re going to great lengths to push those experiences further and further. This movie must have the most uses per minute of the word “extreme” since Surge went out of production (tear emoji). These folks --or at least the director-- want something which pushes the limits, which walks them right up to the line of genuine danger.
But of course, there is a line; the “haunts” go “right up to the point of… they won’t let us touch them or bash ‘em over the head and drag ‘em off anywhere, so I have to stop at that point,” as one haunted house workers (a real one, I’m nearly but not entirely certain) explains. Scaring is all well and good, but we don’t want anyone to get hurt (we don’t have the insurance for it). But if there’s no real danger, what exactly is transgressive here? “What is an ‘extreme haunt’?” somebody, I think Mikey, asks. “I don’t understand how far you really can go without hurting somebody.”
|Turns out, exactly this far. After that, it starts hurting.|
But, that’s the point, right? We want to know we’re safe. And that means creating a superficially extreme experience without losing our sense of control. Of course, few things frighten us more than losing that sense of control. Without control, even the most mundane situations become terrifying: “That’s invading my territorial bubble, I tend to freak out if you start to tie me up…” says the same haunted house worker, thinking aloud about what he would consider going “too far.” But that is most definitely not the kind of experience we’re after. We want to go up to the edge, but only when we’re sure it’s on our terms. The crew here, of course, eventually finds themselves on the decidedly wrong end of that equation, and discovers that there is definitely a limit to how extreme they want things to get. Oh, big tough guys suddenly aren’t so gung ho about taking this to the next level? I thought you liked being scared!
They’re talking about these “haunted attractions,” of course, but they could just as easily be talking about horror movie aficionados like me. I’m too old to get much out of that sort of bravado now, but there was definitely a time in my life where I, too, would have said I wanted the most extreme experience. “We want the real stuff, the FACES OF DEATH stuff!” says a haunted house patron, neatly bridging the gap between a movie peddling its phony gore as reality and the real world haunts’ offering of phony scares. Why does he want that, why did I want it? In an interview about the movie on nerdist.com, director Bobby Roe speculates,
“I think it makes you feel like a kid again. I think that’s been the main thing that we’ve seen, I mean even adults, people who are 30 years old and they dress up again and it’s not just about, I think it’s more of a creative thing. I think it makes you feel 12 years old but the fact is that when you’re 12 years old, that was enough for you to trick-or-treat or go to JC’s haunted house or the charity haunted house and now as an adult you want it upped a notch. Now they’ve gone back to the touching or the spitting blood, they’ve really upped their game, and I think that a lot of places that we see that have upped their game the most are the places without the big budgets. Not your Universal Studios, not your Knott’s Scary Farm, it’s the Ma and Pa’s in Georgia, Texas that really have to up their game because they don’t have the budget for giant animatronics so they get really, really creative.”
Frankly that quote’s a little hard to parse (if the movie thing doesn’t work out, Roe may have a future as a speechwriter in the Trump administration), but I think what he’s grappling with are two impulses: one is that feeling fear has a surprisingly nostalgic component, the other is that it has something to do with the creative impulse.
The first point seemed a little silly --even trite-- until I thought about it a little and decided that he just might be onto something. When we’re young, the whole world is out of our control, full of things which are new and scary, even when they’re not intended to be. But as we grow old, we experience most things, everything becomes familiar and unsurprising and your ability to be frightened gradually diminishes, or at least alters. During October, I’m almost inevitably asked by someone what I think the scariest movie is, and the sad truth is that almost nothing you can put into a movie really scares me anymore. I can’t think of the last movie that really got my pulse pumping or got under my skin and invaded my dreams. And yet, I’m not so old yet that I can’t recall a time in my life when I could still feel that way. I vividly remember watching SUSPIRIA for the first time maybe a decade ago, or PULSE maybe, and being totally and completely absorbed into a perfect nightmare.
I don’t know if it’s exactly the fear that I miss, but I definitely miss the intensity of those days, the foggy memory of being completely and utterly absorbed, wholly immersed. Fear is such a basic emotion that it had the ability to do that to you, to command every single flicker of your mind and focus you intensely and perfectly. When we can experience that fear in a safe way, the effect is so powerfully centering that I think perhaps we experience something like what philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow, a sense of being in a zen-like state of perfect involvement in what ywe're doing. As adults, our attention and our anxiety becomes more diffuse, the things we fear broader and more persistent and ephemeral. I wake up every morning knowing that Donald Trump might very well start a nuclear war, or declare martial law, or ban women wearing pants, but I also have to get up and shower and brush my teeth and go to work. These horrors are simply too pervasive to capture the totality of my attention the way a scary clown or the murky darkness behind a closet door --or, much more pleasurably, a top-tier scary movie-- can for a younger person. Yes, I do miss it --how could I not?-- and I think I spent quite a few years chasing that dragon, trying to cook up harder and harder stuff that could bring me back to that sense of serene, perfect unease. As, I imagine, most horror fans do. When THE LOST BOYS doesn’t do it for you anymore, you graduate to CHILD’S PLAY, and when that seems tame you try HELLRAISER, and then maybe THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and then FACES OF DEATH and A SERBIAN FILM or something. But you can’t recapture it. Fear, like wonder, like passion, like imagination, is tempered with age, and as much as we ache for the intensity of experience we had as kids, all we can do is re-enact the rituals and try and remember.
It’s a point which kind of recalls the 2012 documentary THE AMERICAN SCREAM, which approaches the same conversation in reverse -- from the perspective of a guy who finds himself obsessively motivated to create his own “haunt.” He also brings up a sense of chasing childhood lost, again subtly suggesting our adult intuition that perhaps fear is the last kind of truly simple, unfettered emotion we’re occasionally able to experience, and that hunting it links us in some way to a sense of primary-colored, wide-eyed rawness that we left behind. But the documentary also speaks to another point Roe seems to be grasping at -- as much as fear is about the threat of destruction, finding ways to bring out that fear in others is also very much a task of intense creation.
We’re not just into being scared, after all -- we’re into scaring others too, into creating elaborate fantasies which have such immense power over people’s primal emotions. And not just the professionals, either -- it's relevant that at least one of our protagonists pranks his colleague by sneaking up behind him with a chintzy mask. Despite explicitly setting out to look for “extreme” horror experiences, the scared friend is irate over the simple gag, and the scarer is no more pleased when the tables later turn against him. Fear is about control, and controlling fear is deeply empowering, and that impulse runs deep enough to not only attract, but compel creative people to dream up new horrors. The actors and artists at the haunts, both in HOUSES and AMERICAN SCREAM, are driven to this by complex reasons they can’t entirely understand, which are both deeply generous and possibly somewhat sadistic. One can’t help but wonder if, a few thousand years ago, they wouldn’t have been shamans and witch doctors, people driven to try and symbolically express the inexpressible unknown --which is the dark heart of all true fear-- through masks and dance and fire and wild unhinged extremes. To use fear and wonder and that perfect, unifying, elucidating, focusing power it brings, to control people, to test their own self-control, to help unify a group and to conjure the unknowable Lovecraftian infinities lurking inside the minds of mortals.
Writer-producer-star Zack Andrews also points out you get a little high when you do it, because your brain releases powerful opioids. Which is a pretty dumb point, but let’s be honest, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt.
Anyway, the movie would be a much better exploration of those themes if it didn’t end the way it does. SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING-- Asking around about extreme haunts, our Scooby gang comes to the attention of a band of renegade nomadic haunters, who stalk and capture them and run them through a series of cool haunted houses against their will. This fits nicely with the whole theme of control, and the way that losing that control, or even any wavering in certainty about it (are the “Blue Skeleton” gang who torment them some kind of magic murder cult, or are they just rowdy guys in costumes giving our heroes the wild time they asked for?) drastically alters the experience. But then in the end, everybody just gets buried alive. Huh. It seems like there was probably a more thematic way of ending things, especially since (DOUBLE SPOILERS FOR THE SEQUEL) it turns out in the sequel that they survive, presumably because it really was just another “haunt” that only wanted to terrorize them (like they asked for!) and not murder them.
Ending it with the presumed opening of the sequel would have been a substantially better conclusion to this one, and I don't know why they didn't do it. Maybe they thought it seemed too much like a cop-out “happy ending,” but it’s obviously the conclusion that makes the most thematic and narrative sense for this story, and they should have just trusted their audience to understand that fact and not demand an arbitrary nihilistic ending. This way really smacks of hungry young filmmakers who understand that (SPOILERS FOR THE VANISHING) THE VANISHING is the greatest horror movie ending of all time, but don’t quite understand why and assume it would work just as well stuck at the end of any movie. This ending is grim, certainly, but not very cinematic or satisfying, so I really wish HOUSES THAT OCTOBER BUILT had the imagination to finish what it started. But then again, I’m not in control here, am I? If I really wanted to be scared my own way, I’d get up the courage (and the money) to make my own movie, like these guys here and like the “haunt” actors and creators and the obsessed suburbanites of THE AMERICAN SCREAM did.
Now that would be scary. Maybe it’s time someone made a found-footage movie about it. If HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT is any indication, there’s still hope for both the format and the genre to be interesting and effective enough to really give the next generation of young kids something to scream over.
*Minor point, but it should obviously be the HOUSE (no “es”) OCTOBER BUILT, which is a much stronger title. Yes, it’s less accurate, but (in horror, anyway) if you have to choose between clarity and poetry, always choose poetry.
**Gah, every time I type it I die a little more. HOUSE! Not HOUSES!!
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2017 CHECKLIST!
The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree
From The Producer of INSIDIOUS and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Oooh, that IS scary.
They don’t really seem to be houses, but it basically works, at least literally. You know what I think of that fucking “es” by this point.
Yes, the sequel came out just this October, but it doesn’t seem to be available yet.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Found-footage-clusterfuck, I guess “menaced by masked psychopaths” sub-genre, like THE STRANGERS or THE PURGE?
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
None, although I like Brandy Schaefer a lot and would love to see her go on to be a major scream queen.
Yes, they go to a strip club where the strippers wear zombie makeup
There’s a very uncomfortable scene where a masked weirdo follows Brandy into the bathroom and stands around menacingly, but no touching.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No animals, I don’t think.
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Yes, the “Blue Skeleton” mascot lady wears a cracked dollface
There doesn’t appear to be a religious component, but there’s a religious intensity to the “haunters” commitment.
Only the madness inside me which could make me write 5,000 words about some schlocky found footage debacle on Netflix.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate… leads to found footage.