Written by: Zack Andrews, Jeff Larson, Bobby Roe, Jason Zada
Directed by: Bobby Roe
Starring: Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, and Bobby Roe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I’m not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted houses. I’m afraid of what real human beings do to other real human beings."
If there’s one October tradition I wish I could carve out more time for, it would be haunted trails. A long-time staple of my teenage years, these local attractions are now lost in the shuffle of horror movies and football (despite one resting about a mile from my house). Nothing captures the spirit of the season quite like these cozy slices of Americana: typically nestled in the sort of backwoods most people go out of their way to avoid, these haunts provide a specific thrill that lands somewhere between harmlessness and actual danger. We know they’re fake, yet even the most hardened enthusiast hopes to be terrified by something that dares to go beyond the usual assortment of chainless chainsaws and overzealous “scare actors.” The Houses October Built explores this attraction that lures millions of people out to the thousands of spooky, middle-of-nowhere haunts each year and twists it into a terrifying warning about courting fear. Sooner or later, you may get exactly what you wish for—and more.
Some ominous “recovered” footage from October 2013 captures the exploits of a group of friends seeking out extreme haunts in Texas. Compelled by urban legends and whispers in online chat rooms, they trawl the state in search of an almost mythical, off-the-map attraction that stretches the line between fantasy and reality. As each of the more popular, mainstream stops fail to truly scare them, they burrow more deeply into backchannels. Fellow enthusiasts insist their hunt is not in vain, sending them on a wild goose chase across the Texas-Louisiana border until they finally receive increasingly ominous confirmation: it turns out that maybe these hunters and voyeurs have become the hunted, stalked by a haunt troupe looking to take their scares a little too far.
When The Houses October Built opened with the above quote, I balked a bit. Honestly, this sort of grim, realistic stuff isn’t exactly my ideal viewing for the Halloween season since I tend to prefer more supernatural and, well, fun fare. Thankfully, though, The Houses October Built doesn’t exactly revel in grime and grit—sure, there are some gratuitous, seedy detours through Halloween-themed strip clubs and hole-in-the-wall dives, but even these add to the authentic ambiance. As someone who once traveled an hour’s distance to the middle of nowhere for one of these spook trails, I can attest that director Bobby Roe (who also stars) perfectly captures the “what in the hell are we even doing?” sort of sensation that comes with this kind of trip: the sinking feeling that you’ve maybe taken a wrong turn, the creepy looks from locals, the seemingly endless miles of roads surrounded by desolate fields. The Houses October Built may be at its best when it captures the moments of anxiety and anticipation between stops.
The stops are also pretty killer, too. Shot at actual attractions in Texas, the film is a decent substitute for actually visiting such haunts, many of which are ridiculously elaborate and professionally done. Even though the plot is rather loose during the early-going here, there’s still enough fun to be have with these proxy trips through zombie shooting ranges and demented funhouses. Roe has provided a nice sampling of the range these attractions can take and captures them in all their chintzy glory: the homespun sets, the anxious, chilly crowds waiting in line, the unexpected frights and the accompanying laughter. If The Houses October Built were just a documentary about the local haunted house scene, it’d be a worthwhile little trip.
Eventually, however, this trip takes some dark turns for the worse. Roe hints at the dark side of these attractions from the start with news reports and interviews detailing some of the grislier rumors surrounding them: tales of actors actually killing themselves or assaulting patrons, or gossip about certain haunts willing to push their visitors to the limits. The creeping, supposedly mythical terror becomes reality when the group begins to have ominous encounters with scare actors that are both rowdy and downright creepy (yet fantastically and memorably designed). Some even seem to be stalking them from stop-to-stop, invading their privacy and leaving unnerving trinkets, like a hunk of rotting meat in the refrigerator. Driver's licenses begin to disappear, and, suddenly, the group finds themselves doing absurd things, such as tracking down a guy named “Giggles” in a seedy Baton Rouge bar (note that this is likely a common—and inadvisable—occurrence during any time of the year in Baton Rouge).
Despite the growing feeling that they are treading down a dangerous path, the group pushes on. Sure, it’s kind of a classic bad horror movie decision, but it’s pretty understandable in the context. Some people can’t resist chasing the forbidden thrills promised by a good haunt—especially the ones that go out of their way to be elusive. Eventually, it’s not a matter of if something terrible is about to happen to this group—hell, it’s not even a matter of when, as the film obviously counts down to Halloween to mete out their doom. It’s simply a matter of what horrible fate awaits down the dark alleys on Bourbon Street and the lonely, desolate crossroads out in the bayou. Even when the film finally departs from any semblance of fun, it remains gripping in its chilling imagery, as viewers become trapped and lost in a deranged funhouse, enveloped in darkness and surrounded by real chainsaw-wielding maniacs—and worse.
Not everything about the finale works—the camerawork is a bit too authentically frenetic and obscures the proceedings, and the cast of characters are simply living up to their expendability. The latter is a bit more forgivable in the sense that this group isn’t the true stars but are rather audience surrogates, existing mostly to capture the excitement of the hunt and provide the requisite screams. No laughter follows, however, as the notion of cheap thrills disappears down every turn, left in the dust of old country roads leading you further and further from civilization. The Houses October Built almost feels like a misnomer since houses still imply some sense of comfort. In fact, the film accomplishes exactly the opposite by stranding its characters—and its audience—in the middle of nowhere, wishing they could laugh off this bone-chilling terror. Maybe I'm just fine missing out on this stuff every October after all.
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