When September and October roll around, haunted houses set up shop all across the globe. People love to be scared, and they love to push their own boundaries; that’s why “professional” haunted houses seek to outdo each other every year, trying new things and coming up with creative scares that blur the edges between fun and reality. And then there are the extreme challenges, which sometimes feel more like boot camp for people who have something to prove. The Houses October Built, released in 2014, proposes a mockumentary about people who drive around trying to find the most extreme haunts; they’re often disappointed, but as they get closer to a mythical project hinted at by other haunt-goers and forum users, they find that they’ve potentially stumbled upon where reality and make-believe cross over into darkness.
The film takes place a few days before Halloween as a group of friends leaves on their road trip. They’re all excited about experiencing haunted houses, but one of them is a bit more interested in the extreme aspect of these scares. He wants a less safe experience; he wants a house where it’s unclear whether the events happening are real or fake. He wants potentially real dead bodies, organs, and untrustworthy backwoods types who don’t necessarily follow the rules of “no touching.” They’re out to document these creepy haunts and to find the best one before Halloween ends.
It’s an interesting premise that works best with the found-footage format. Clearly, The Houses October Built is influenced by The Blair Witch Project first and foremost; despite the differences in the storyline, the elements remain pretty much the same. Over the course of 90 minutes, the group basically just documents their experiences in different haunted houses, the fun and the terror of going through them. Anyone who loves Halloween and/or haunted houses will find these excursions fun just because of the first-person experience. But as the group gets closer to the famous Blue Skeleton haunt, their nights get more terrifying as they continue to see members of previous attractions stalking them.
There are a number of spooky scenarios, one of the creepiest being a woman who shows up at their camping spot wearing a terrifying baby-faced mask who boards their RV and screams at them. It’s a simple setup but it works because of the tension built in the moment, something that director Bobby Roe does rather well.
It all culminates in a solo torture chamber for every member of the group, each of them experiencing their own haunted house of sorts. The Houses October Built brings up some interesting questions about haunted houses, highlighting the potential for shady goings-on in places that might not necessarily have background checks for their workers.
The film’s biggest flaw may be its documentary presentation, which sometimes takes viewers out of the moment with interviews with haunt managers and scare actors. The documentary footage has also been edited to start in medias res, a strange choice that doesn’t add much to the narrative. Still, The Houses October Built is surprisingly effective and it’s a film that benefits from its first-person experience. It’s a great choice for a Halloween eve, too.
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