The American Scream

The American Scream


Reviewed by: David Graham

Never ones to do things by half, Americans have made Hallowe'en the biggest festive occasion of the year, a billion-dollar monster of an industry that's only getting bigger even in these hard-bitten times. Director Michael Stephenson has followed up his crowd-pleasing cult-of-Troll 2 documentary Best Worst Movie with an affectionate portrait of three wildly different families living within a few blocks of each other in small-town USA, for whom the hobby of building a haunted house attraction has become an obsession that's getting exponentially more elaborate and extreme with each passing year. Stephenson's eye picks up all kinds of telling detail to build a life-affirming picture of these individuals' heroic foolhardiness, while the handling of the climactic scare-house footage is sure to have you howling with infectious glee, which bodes well for his forthcoming fiction debut Destroy, a nifty-sounding vampire-hunting satire.

Vic Bariteau is an average family man with a job in IT, whose one burning dream is to create the best Hallowe'en attraction possible with whatever limited resources and ingenuity he can muster. His enthusiasm has rubbed off on neighborhood pal Manny, who has gone from dutifully aiding Vic to cultivating his own display albeit with a more thrifty aesthetic. Then there's younger local upstart Matt Brodeur, whose ailing father Rick helps (and sometimes hinders) in his dubious attempts to put together a competing scare-house when the pair of them aren't working the party clown circuit. All three families face all sorts of problems as their efforts snowball into stress-inducing mania, the run-up to October 31st throwing ever more challenges in their direction as the kids eagerly await this year's new haunted houses. But at what cost will these three madmen stop and consider the effects their endeavors are having on themselves and their loved ones?

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Beginning with longest-running hobbyist Vic - whose undoubted flair for the pursuit is hindered only by financial limitations which he all too often ignores - Stephenson follows his subject around his congested suburban home, where horror props have spilled out from his basement workshop to take over the rest of the living space as well as what little spare time his supportive wife has. Aided by his adoring eldest daughter - a future horror icon in the making herself, balefully doling out zingers such as 'I hate Barbies. I love destroying them', as she practices a dead-eyed stare that's as winning as it is disconcerting - Vic crafts much of his display by hand, exhibiting genuine artistry that elevates much of his work beyond its inherent tackiness towards a standard that he hopes could one day see him go full-time pro.

As we learn more about the house-haunter subculture, it becomes clear how seriously some of these people take Hallowe'en; it's more than a day for childish fun to them, it's the undoubted highlight and focus of their whole calendar. Stephenson wisely waits before giving us the reason that it means so much to Vic: as the father-of-two opens up about his own childhood, it becomes painfully apparent that this one day is recompense for years of youthful hurt and ostracisation due to factors that were beyond his control but which have shaped his approach to trying to give his kids everything he lacked. A character who initially seemed so self-centered that it bordered on disturbing suddenly becomes overwhelmingly sympathetic, getting the audience onside for his subsequently spiraling efforts to outdo his previous displays and please his growing army of fans.

The other families chronicled initially seem to be given a little short shrift in comparison, but Stephenson balances the run-time between the three units pretty well, again biding his time before really pulling on your heart-strings as he reveals more about each of their situations. While Manny perhaps fades into the background a little - being the least eccentric and most openly rational of the three - his own crises soon have you re-assessing your point of view, Stephenson offering a sobering insight into his working class culture through the health and financial problems that have befallen him. His tearful appreciation for the family he so clearly lives for is bound to have audiences welling up themselves.

Next to this, Matt and his father Rick can come off as literal comic relief clowns, the camera often lingering on their haplessness to a cringe-worthy and rib-tickling extent that some may find exploitative, but even they are shown to have a personal dynamic that's unique and heart-warming, if a little less conventional than their more respected peers. Stephenson again subtly allows us to make observations about how a fundamentally shallow society has shunned these more socially awkward misfits, but their steadfast dedication to Hallowe'en and each other makes the shabby, childish results even more bittersweet.

The use of jaunty music and endless close-ups of trashy plastic props keep the action amusing all the way, while the editing cannily throws belly-laugh-inducing absurdity next to moments of genuine pathos to catch you off-guard and keep you involved. As the days count down towards the big night, things may drag and grow repetitive to some viewers, but tension expertly mounts and the frazzled countenances of our subjects grow both harrowing and hilarious, but it's all worth it to see the joy on their faces as the throngs of excited locals descend upon their domains to check out their latest creations. It's perhaps cruel to chuckle at the terrified looks on some of the children's faces, but the brilliantly spliced footage of the different displays' guests getting the frights (and having the times) of their lives really captures the moment, and sensibly refuses to allow us to judge each display against the other. They all blur into one fantastic fear-ground, leaving the audience as elated as Vic, Manny and Matt at the end of the night.

While Stephenson's points about the recession's effect on already struggling families - and the increased if contradictory need for this sort of escapism their desperation fosters - may be obvious, they're nevertheless pertinent and at least they're not pushed down the audience's throats, leaving a lasting impression of America's indomitable spirit. As the dust settles on another year of joy and tears, there remains little doubt that these individuals' addiction to house-haunting will only grow greater, but at the same time this could well be these simple men's legacy, as Manny humbly admits at one especially heart-breaking moment, and there's an optimism and passion to their devotion that is truly inspiring. While the subject matter may not seem appealing to those outside the horror community (and the US itself), Stephenson is telling a universal tale about the power of family ties and the liberating happiness having a hobby brings. Probably the most entertaining and charming documentary since Searching For Sugarman, if this doesn't move you, check your pulse - you may already be dead.

Reviewed on: 24 Feb 2013
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Three Massachusetts families pepare haunted houses for Halloween.

Director: Michael Stephenson

Starring: Matthew Brodeur, Victor Bariteau, Manny Souza, Lori Souza

Year: 2012

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US

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