Written by: Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe
Directed by: Bobby Roe
Starring: Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, and Mikey Roe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I cannot believe you guys got me to do this again."
If nothing else, The Houses October Built boasts a killer hook, one that I can’t believe hasn’t been mined more often in horror movies: what if one those quaint backwoods Halloween haunts harbored some truly ghastly horrors that turned a night of revelry into a nightmarish ordeal? What’s more, writer/director/actor Bobby Roe’s film spins a genuinely disturbing tale out of the stuff of urban legends whispered amongst a group of friends, one that embraced the found footage aesthetic for all its gritty, transgressive potential. To watch The Houses October Built is to watch a travelogue gone horribly awry: what begins as an idyllic jaunt ends as a pseudo snuff film, complete with an unsettling ending that leaves viewers on a perfectly disturbing note.
Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly beg for a sequel, at least not the sort Roe has conjured up in The Houses October Built 2. Sure, I suppose you could easily imagine a follow-up chronicling another group’s exploits being derailed by the mysterious Blue Skeleton group, but even that would feel perfunctory at best. And yet I can only imagine it’d still be preferable to the direct continuation found in this sequel, which seems explicitly engineered to demystify the first film in an unfathomable turn of events. For whatever reason, this is a continuation that looks to burn everything down, only it does so for no particular—or even interesting—reason.
Quite frankly, it feels like the most disastrous course for this “franchise” to take, and it sets itself to raising the alarm quickly. An opening newscast reveals that the group’s ordeal in the previous film went viral, with Brandy’s experience being buried alive resulting in unwanted fame. Yes, it turns out she indeed survived the Blue Skeleton; even more surprising is that her fellow haunt enthusiasts also survived. Now, a year later, they’ve all decided to hit the road again both as a form of group therapy and as a money-making scheme. It turns out being nearly buried alive has its perks, as haunted attractions have the group appear in order to drum up publicity. After some prodding, Brandy reluctantly agrees to join up for another ill-advised trip through America’s most famous (and infamous) haunts before it once again goes sideways when her friends can’t resist chasing an ominous lead.
Déjà vu and absurdly bad decisions creep over The Houses October Built 2 like a fog, clouding its proceedings in such a way that you never quite cut through it. Obviously, the horror genre is a cottage industry that has thrived on both, but this particular sequel tests even my limits: from the hurried insistence on undoing the first film’s ending to the half-hearted premise, it’s hard to muster up much interest. I mean, if I had a near-death experience at the hands of a psychotic cabal, my first inclination wouldn’t be to retrace those steps, nor would I be in any sort of a hurry to seek out another mysterious lead. “Seek out Hellbent,” several folks portentously whisper to this group, who once again find themselves hunting down another ultimate “extreme” haunt, apparently forgetful that this almost resulted in their deaths a year earlier. You figure this group is just really that thick-headed or that the film is headed towards a truly deflating, ruinous climax to explain away such poor decisions.
Roe opts for the latter by trotting out an amateurish twist ending that might work within the confines of something that feels a little more playful. Here, though, it’s anathema to the sort of vibe the original film thrived upon: where The Houses October Built felt like a deranged campfire tale, this follow-up ultimately feels like a goof that pulls the rug from beneath the entire story. Suffice it to say that I’m really tip-toeing around spoilers, but believe me when I say few sequels have ever felt so purposely driven to upend their precursors like this one does. Sometimes—like with Book of Shadows—that can at least look fascinating; here, it’s just a head-scratching decision that caused my eyes to roll so far into the back of my head that I’m pretty sure I’m still scoping out my brain matter as I type this. If the first Houses aimed to obliquely pull the curtain back on the haunt industry, then this sequel does the same to its own predecessor, and, as you might imagine, it has sort of the same effect: whatever scares this premise once held have all but dissipated by the end here.
It’s a shame, too, because this premise really is as killer as ever, at least in the sense that it doubles as a terrific Halloween travelogue. In this respect, it’s even more impressive than the first film, as—in true sequel form—Houses 2 goes bigger and bolder. No longer confined to one corner of the country, the group crosses state lines in search of America’s finest haunts and Halloween celebrations. They survey an eclectic cross-section of “zombie runs,” decidedly bawdy “adult” haunts, pub crawls, and even pay a visit to the “Halloween Capital of the World” in Anoka, Minnesota. A “brain-eating” contest at one stop even allows for an appearance by hot dog chowing champion Kobayashi, which is most certainly a sentence I never anticipated writing, so Houses 2 at least has that going for it. Much like the first film, these visits give the film a shaggy quality; in fact, it may be even looser than the original since the actual plot (which once again involves the Blue Skeleton stalking the travelers) doesn’t come into focus until towards the end.
In many ways, that plot feels like a perfunctory turn of events this time—since you’ve been down this road before, you know more or less where it’s headed. And while Roe mounts a pretty decent climactic freakout within the Hellbent compound, it can’t outrun that disastrous twist lurking at the end, which only serves to obliterate whatever traces of intrigue might remain. To that effect, I wouldn’t even be all that opposed to further entries simply being dedicated to this crew (whose natural, easygoing chemistry remains despite this forced sequel) chronicling more real-life haunts—not that I can imagine a third effort. If the original didn’t exactly beg for a sequel, then this one all but shuts the door on the proposition.
The Houses October Built 2 has the unfortunate distinction of being the rare sequel that retroactively undermines what came before it. The original was one of the better surprises I’ve come across in recent years: I loved how it not only captured a perfect Halloween vibe but also threaded it through a terrific, lo-fi tale. Very little of that remains here, though I suppose the various holiday sights and sounds found here are still catnip for aficionados still jonesing for some Halloween spirit here at the end of the year. I wish I had something more encouraging to offer—believe me, I didn’t want my last review of 2017 (not to mention my first in six weeks) to be the bearer of such bad news, but Houses 2 is a bit of a bummer that squanders any potential this concept had to become an enduring franchise.
The Houses October Built 2 is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Supplements include deleted and extended scenes, a “Halloween Spooks” music video, and a photo gallery of the various scare actors featured in the film.
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