Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Location, location, location: The Houses October Built

I had heard rumblings about this independent film and thought it would be something worth checking out eventually. A couple weeks ago, my former student media adviser asked me if I had seen because he was interested in it, too. This caused The Houses October Built to zoom up my watchlist. I caught through Amazon for $3.99 and, unlike some haunted attractions, was worth the price.

The premise is simple: five friends rent an RV and spent the five days before Halloween visiting haunted houses in the south looking for the most extreme house they can find. Zack is the instigator. He has heard of an underground haunted house that is so brutal and sadistic that it can't be advertised. As some of the "real-life" haunt workers attest, they do everything but actually kill you.

This is another found footage film and, surprise surprise, Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Insidious) picked it up for distribution. The best found footage (think The Blair Witch Project) try to make viewers think what is happening is real. The actors use their real names (and in this case, the actors, writers, directors are the same people; director Bobby Roe is Bobby in the film) and the mix of interview footage with action footage helps convince us that this could be a documentary instead of a fictional film. Unfortunately for The Houses October Built, this is 2015 and we're all in on the joke. The good news, however, is that I am fully convinced that the interview footage and most of the interior haunted attraction footage is of real haunts and real employees. The locations and the "actors" are too good for a film of this budget to be able to afford to put all of that together on their own.

In a way, it's brilliant. Save money by using previously existing--and scary as all get-out--sets, convince the owners/operators/actors to play along, and you are golden. Do real interviews then feed the on-screen folks a few lines to advance your plot. Cheap but effective.

Equally effective is the lack of gore. The lack of blood and guts makes the ending that much more ambiguous and I love that (check out the Amazon comments for people who did not like the ending. They'll spoil some of it for you, but the journey is still fun). It's easy to get mad at an ending such as this film has, but guess what? Anger is an emotion and if you leave angry, the filmmakers still win. If you are angry enough to talk about it, they win again.

What truly wins in this film is the slow build-up of creepiness. The jump scares stay in the haunted houses for the most part. The creep factor is allowed to build and leaves you wondering when something is going to happen. And like a good haunted house, the final act hits hard and fast. Some might find it too slow, but I enjoyed the pacing of the film and at 92 minutes, it would have been easy to rush to the ending. These folks held out as long as possible and I dig that.

The Houses October Built is not, however, a great film. It will not change the horror genre like Paranormal Activity did. That ship has sailed. And like my last sentence, the film is full of cliches and stereotypes (weird Southerners; fat horny bearded dudes; the guy who can't stop until he knows the TRUTH), but within the confines of the story being told the cliches fit. And while I mentioned the lack of gore, you'll still have to keep the little tikes away unless you don't mind an awkward strip club scene with big fake boobies. Big fake boobies aren't my thing, but again, Roe and company used what was available to them.

As I told my adviser after watching The Houses October Built, if you have work to do, do your work. But if you have an hour and a half of free time, this isn't a bad way to spend it.

(And for the most extreme--but legal--haunted house in America, visit Freakling Bros. in Las Vegas and get a ticket to the Victim Experience.)

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