Friday, April 24, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Houses that October Built (2014)

In the found-footage film The Houses that October Built (2014), a group of adult friends rent an RV and go to touring the American Southwest in search of the most “extreme” haunted house experience they can find. 

The film count-downs the last five days to Halloween of 2013 as the RV’s occupants -- Brandy (Brandy Schaefer), Zack (Zack Andrews), Bobby (Bobby Roe) Mikey (Mikey Roe) and Jeff (Jeff Larson) -- visit The Haunt House in Caddo Mills, Texas, the Terrorplex, Phobia (on U.S. Highway 248), and even a “Zombie Evacuation Route” in Arkansas.

The thrill seekers meet their destiny, however, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana -- on Halloween night -- as they press their luck and encounter a cabal of “scare actors” who have taken their seasonal shtick too far.

If you follow this blog regularly, you know how much I enjoy and appreciate the found-footage horror movie format.  I have found that the format offers great possibilities, and also pointed readers to some remarkable recent examples, including Final Prayer (2015), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2013), and the kick-ass Exists (2014).

So it saddens me to observe that The Houses that October Built is one of the more underwhelming entries in the popular sub-genre.

The reasons for the film’s failure are myriad, alas.

In the first case, The Houses That October Built is egregiously padded (and lengthened) with documentary and news reel B-roll footage. These intrusive moments consist of interviews with real life haunted house patrons and scare actors.  The actual “movie” footage is interrupted often by this material, and the interruption fails to add to the mood of dread, or contribute anything meaningful to the developing narrative. 

I understand that the point here is to interview real “extreme” personalities, and thus explain how it is possible for people to get carried away, and become murderers instead of mere role players.  But the material is self-defeating. We know from the way that the evil clown posse carries itself in the actual body of the film that it is dangerous, and lapsing towards violence, not entertainment.  The documentary footage simply slows down momentum, and re-states what is abundantly plain: our main characters are in danger, and have crossed a line into horror.  So the doc/news footage gets the movie to a 90 minute running time, but at a high price in terms of momentum and pacing.

Similarly, some scenes just don’t succeed because of poor staging. For example, a creepy little girl in a porcelain mask enters the RV, at one point, and stands inside it with the twenty-something occupants.  She suddenly screams loudly and eerily. But because of the way the scene is shot and cut together, it is impossible to gauge the reaction of the movie’s protagonists.  They don’t exactly freak out.  They don’t exactly panic.  They just watch as the girl screams, and then we leave the scene.  In short, the entire moment feels poorly staged, and poorly integrated into the action.  The scene never has the quality of featuring a single organic moment. 

It plays great in the trailer, though.

The greatest problem with The Houses that October Built, however, may just be the climax.

The whole movie plays with the premise of scaring visitors at these sometimes shady attractions, and the idea that same scare actors may take that job description too far. Yet the film ends predictably and disappointingly without really playing effectively with this idea or its possibilities. In short, the movie could have ended like The Game (1997), but instead ends like nearly every other found-footage movie ever made.  

If another creative route had been taken, the film might have mimicked the audience’s experience while watching it.  We would have believe we are seeing one thing happen, when something else is happening entirely.  Given the is-it-real or is-it-staged aspect of such “extreme” haunted houses, it proves disappointing that The Houses That October Built doesn’t have more fun with its denouement, or more wit about it. 

Also, the point of the story seems to be that these extreme haunted houses can take a good thing -- getting scared -- over the edge into real physical danger.  If the main characters had experienced grief, violence, invasions of privacy and other terrors short of dying we would have been left in a position to better understand the debate.

Is it worth it to get the scare of your life if you have to be tossed on a bus, blind-folded, and buried alive for a while…but eventually rescued?

Different people -- with different attitudes towards thrill-seeking -- would draw the line in different places, no doubt. 

But the way the film ends now, there is no debate about the issue the film purportedly involves. It’s an open and shut case of abuse and murder, not a story about a shady line between entertainment and violence.

And, like the creepy girl scene previously mentioned, the denouement of The Houses That October Built is poorly constructed and edited.  The climax depends entirely on cutting between several victims as they enter different attractions, all holding cameras. 

Because the characters are actually filming the action and not on camera -- we can’t see them -- it becomes impossible and highly frustrating to guess what is happening to whom, and where they are.

The climax cuts repeatedly between three or four different perspectives, but every perspective looks the same, pretty much. This problem in visualization could have been ameliorated by sending two individuals to each location, so we would have a person on-screen guiding us through the horror, not just an (unseen) character behind the camera, filming their individual experience. We don’t know any of the film’s characters well enough (other than the single female, Brandy) to be able to tell, by their voice, who we are “with” as we go through the attraction.

Despite a frustrating conclusion, excessive padding with documentary footage, and scenes that don’t really hold together, there are moments in The Houses That October Built that impressed me with their patience and development of suspense.  Late in the film, for instance, there’s a scene on a dirt road, during blackest night, when a bus of scare actors -- dressed as creepy skeletons -- intercept the RV.  The atmosphere here is genuinely terrifying, and I also credit actors Brandy Schaefer and Mikey Roe, especially, with solid performances.  They prove likable and distinctive (whereas most of the characters of interchangeable), and seem genuinely and truly frightened by the journey they undertake.

Another commendable moment of authentic terror sees an unseen voyeur creep into the RV by night, and film all the protagonists while they sleep.  This moment, like the one on that dirt road, are truly creeping.

I had the sense while watching The Houses That October Built that there was an effective horror movie in there somewhere trying to get out.  But just a few bad decisions -- involving the over-use of B-roll footage and a bad selection of shots at the climax, primarily -- had scuttled a promising effort.

1 comment:

  1. I love found footage films, thanks for the reviews. I think that critics who deemed FF films a fad were severely mistaken.
    You bring up zeitgeist when describing certain eras of horror. And it would seem to me that the zeitgeist of the early 00's was torture. Bush's adoption of morally ambiguous acts were very much everyday news. Inescapable really. Hence we had torture porn. Saw, Hostel, etc. Torture porn has been proven to be the true fad. The sub-genre is all but dead under Obama.
    However.... there seems to be no zeitgeist in regards to found footage. Or if there is, it eludes me. Young people and mobile devices , that is cultural, not topical, and it would therefore seem that Found Footage is going to be a lasting genre all its own similarly to that once fad-like genre called the teen slasher.