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.