Film Review: ‘The Houses October Built’

the house october built Movie review

Five friends rent an RV on a quest to find the scariest Halloween 'haunted house' attraction in this routine found-footage thriller.

The found-footage horror subgenre has proved surprisingly durable and flexible for what at first seemed a one-note gimmick. But for every “Paranormal Activity,” “[REC]” or “V/H/S” that breathes new life into the form, there’s two or three along the lines of “The Houses October Built,” freshly hatched yet tiresome as a 10 re-watch of “The Blair Witch Project.” Though it has an intriguing concept — being shot and set among real-life seasonal “haunted house” attractions — Bobby Roe’s feature never transcends a predictable narrative trajectory to deliver much in the way of creepy atmosphere, let alone actual scares. Opening limited Oct. 10 (as well as launching on VOD and iTunes), it will doubtless make a bigger impact in home formats, where horror fans will doubtless complain that half the time they can’t make out whatever mayhem is supposed to be going on in the cast-handheld lensing.

After a brief prologue (which the pic eventually returns to) showing a woman locked in a car trunk, there’s a preamble mixing archival and new footage establishing that some 30 million Americans purportedly visit roughly 2,500 haunted-house attractions per year. It’s suggested that some patrons get more than they bargained for, between staff overeager to provide thrills (occasionally offing themselves by accident in the process) and others whom a background check might reveal to be all too genuinely malevolent.

Ostensibly playing themselves, the five filmmaker protags are alleged longtime Texas friends who rent an RV in order to do an “extreme haunt road trip” they’ll duly film, searching for the ultimate staged seasonal scares and hopefully finding a little “real” nastiness en route for investigative-reportage purposes. Their dialogue presumably semi-improvised, the group is amiable enough but under-characterized, with little for viewer to identify with beyond rote equation of plus-sized guy = designated funny guy (Mikey Roe), and a sole girl (Brandy Schaefer) along to provide sex appeal as well as fraidy-cat scream queendom.

First night out, their poking around behind the scenes stirs ire from one popular haunted house’s workers. As a result, they begin getting menacing, silent visits from familiar-looking “ghouls” at each evening campout, no matter how far afield they’ve driven. Lured by rumors of a notorious underground haunt sans fixed location called Blue Skeleton, they cross the state border into Louisiana. After an unpleasant incident at a Baton Rouge bar, and one protag’s subsequent abduction, the five find themselves set loose — each with a camera, natch, to record their own fates — on Halloween itself in a final sinister attraction from which there will be no escape.

There’s moderate interest in brief interviews with performers at the real-life seasonal funhouses (13 of which are thanked at the end), and in seeing how such enterprises have changed over the years: These days you’ll obviously find fewer actors in ghost sheets saying “Boo!” than macabre imagery borrowed from “Saw,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and heavy-metal culture. (Too bad the filmmakers didn’t include at least one moralizing-through-fear Christian “Hell House” for diversity’s sake, since those now constitute a popular industry unto itself.) Presumably the isolated last locale, in which leads are the ill-fortuned only “customers,” was shot by a sizable, separate Los Angeles unit crew noted in closing credits.

That climactic section is a letdown, however, the promise raised by scattered creepy earlier moments (when unwelcome masked phantoms repeatedly appear outside the RV) underserved by hectic jerky-cam panic and a lot of running around. The power of suggestion is one thing, but too much of “Houses’” ostensible payoff is equivalent to those moments in the original “Blair Witch” where confused viewers wondered, “Did something scary happen? Was it offscreen?” Nor is the menace of aggrieved workers developed into anything interesting, when pic might easily have suggested they had an agenda (even a Satanic one) larger than simply being yokels ticked off by pushy, camera-wielding city folk.

Tech and design factors are just adequate even within quasi-found footage bounds, but whatever effectiveness they have will definitely decrease when viewed in smaller formats.

Film Review: 'The Houses October Built'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Oct. 8, 2014. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production

An RLJ Entertainment/Image Entertainment release of a Room 101, Inc. and Foreboding Films production. Produced by Steven Schneider, Zack Andrews. Executive producer, Todd King, Matt Stein.

Crew

Directed by Bobby Roe. Screenplay, Zack Andrews, Roe, Jason Zada, from a story by Andrews, Jeff Larson, Roe. Camera (color, HD), Andrew Strahorn; editor, Jeff Hall; music, Mark Binder; special makeup effects, Christian Lau; sound, Matthew Nicolay; sound designer, Binder; re-recording mixers, Mark Binder, Nick Shaffer; assistant director, Larson.

With

Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe, Mikey Roe, Jeff Larson.
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  1. Deidra Boswell says:

    *spoiler!! I’m confused as to why they put the guys in nice coffins, at the end, and threw her in a pine box with the blood and guts in it??? Any ideas???

  2. Annette says:

    So these people are alive yes?

  3. Morgan says:

    This movie was so good.

  4. jenn says:

    I thought the beginning was great and loved the interviews. The end was very disappointing and a little confusing. I would have liked to see them stumble into one of the more extreme places where they tie you up and are allowed to touch you. I would have thought for sure they’d visit one of the places you’d need to sign a waiver for and then they could have gotten murdered so it wouldn’t feel so far-fetched.

  5. Emily says:

    Is this based on true event

  6. j says:

    they are not carnies Jon. They are Haunters. Way different culture. Offended.

  7. Jon says:

    Its called being subtle. I think you missed the genius of this movie altogether. The fact that it doesn’t over develop the story of the carnies makes it better. The interlude interviews with the actors hints that basically there is a subculture of borderline insane people who frequently work at and are attracted to these haunts. It is a sweet film because I could totally see that aspect of it being true and is essentially taking the viewer on a deeper and deeper journey into that subculture. Toward the climax, you are still never 100% sure if they are in a haunt or if it is real which makes the viewer identify with the exact feelings of the actors in the movie and adds a creepy, part psychological, part visual scare experience. And of course the ending, wow. Anyway, I liked it.

    • squeesh says:

      I liked everything about this film except the ending (genuinely spooky in parts, and fun to watch if you grew up going to haunted houses, like I did) which I thought should have been a little more original. That being said, a sequel has just come out, so let’s see if that’s worth watching.

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