Friday, March 6, 2015

The Houses October Built: A Bunch Of Assholes In Rubber Masks

(Just as a prefatory note, this one’s a little spoilery)

Okay, it looks like I’m going to have to say it again. I tried to be nice, I tried to be polite, I tried to be fair, and I tried to be subtle, but as it turns out, that didn’t work.


Yes, sometimes the premise and narrative style makes for raw, immediate, unsettling filmmaking. Sometimes it makes for interesting metacommentary. But increasingly, it’s resulting in dumb, shoddy assemblages of cliches that never cohere into anything good, or even scary. Sloppy, lazy filmmaking that uses the home-video schtick as an excuse for poor cinematography, lack of action or character development, absence of mood, or a well-developed story.

Case in point: The Houses October Built, which hangs a slightly mean-spirited story on this narrative conceit in such an artless fashion that it actively borders on contempt for the viewer.

We open on a title card explaining that the footage we are about to see was shot by a group of people who were traveling across the country to visit haunted house attractions...or by the proprietors of The Blue Skeleton, an “underground” haunted house. Okay, first, the title cards are rarely a good idea. They’re usually overwrought at best, and completely ridiculous at worst.

The next thing we see, after some gratuitous video noise, is a presumably unconscious woman being stuffed into the trunk of a car. So, you know, no points for subtlety. Apparently, we are about to see footage of bad things happening to some people. Which, no shit.

What transpires is largely the video diary of five people - four men and a woman - who are going to take a trip through the Southwest and South, visiting as many haunted house attractions as they can, trying to find the scariest, most extreme “haunt” they can. The guys are pretty much bros all around, named Zack, Bobby, Mikey, and Jeff. Mikey has a beard and is pretty much the drunken asshole who gets you all kicked out of the bar because he can’t not do something he isn’t supposed to. The other three are mostly indistinguishable from each other, except one of them is really into the idea of the trip, like it’s his mission or something. The woman is named Brandy and I think she’s dating one of them and/or is the sister of one of the others, who can fucking tell. She’s a woman, and ultimately, that seems to be her most important trait. These people are ciphers at best, and our introduction to them is them passing around the camera at a bar somewhere in Texas as they’re getting ready to board their RV.

Whichever one of them masterminded the trip is intent on going to as many of the home-grown, rural attractions as possible, under the assumption that the more “backwoods” they are, the more extreme they’ll be because they’ll be less concerned with liability or safety issues and it’ll be a purer experience somehow. This is exactly the sort of patronizing bullshit you’d expect from a bunch of city fratboys who decide to slum it for some rural color, and that’s pretty much how they interact with the locals they meet at each attraction. This leads to the people they encounter becoming increasingly more and more hostile to them while they troop on, mostly oblivious, all the while searching for “The Blue Skeleton,” sort of the holy grail of underground haunted houses, an invitation-only affair that you have to be in the know to attend.

Until people from one attraction show up at another. Or by the side of the road between towns. And when even these dimwits start to realize that maybe some bad shit is about to go down, that’s when the invitation to The Blue Skeleton comes.

Honestly it’s not a bad premise - haunted houses are getting more and more extreme, some like Blackout ride a line between haunted house, BDSM experience, and art installation in pretty uncomfortable ways, some like McKamey Manor pretty much making the attendees willing participants in a live-action recreation of the August Underground movies. Playing with that idea of pushing the envelope in sort of an arms race of extremity, combined with what is undoubtedly a sporadically regulated seasonal industry could make for a really disturbing exploration of a hidden subculture and the price you pay for turning over too many rocks in search of cheap thrills. Of being the fish out of water, suddenly aware that you’re stuck in a strange town with a bunch of people who mean you ill, and nobody really knows where you are. The problem here is in the execution, stem to stern

The whole thing is presented ostensibly as found footage - shot either by the protagonists or by the people running The Blue Skeleton, but some of the footage makes no fucking sense at all. If they're documenting visits to haunted houses, well, most of them don't allow cameras in the first place, so there's a big problem with the whole raison d’etre for recording right off the bat. Second, why the fuck do they have remote cameras installed inside their RV? For that matter, why are there remote cameras installed OUTSIDE the RV, on the roof and the grille and the side? And they are definitely supposed to be there - there’s a brief scene (becoming sort of obligatory in any multi-camera found footage film, I think) of the cameras getting installed and tested. Yes, we get it, we see the characters put them there, and it’s the filmmakers trying to quick-cheat conventional camera angles with a paper thin narrative rationale. There's no possible reason for the location of these extra cameras, and worse, they aren't even taken advantage of in a way that you'd expect - if someone places a camera somewhere, you expect it to capture useful footage, to be important to the story. Nope, they mostly just capture interminable footage of the highway and the protagonists slouched in the RV, bored with the road.

Which leads to another problem - the pacing. Pretty much the entire first half of the movie is just the protagonists driving through Texas, going from haunt to haunt, alienating people and being out-of-town assholes the whole way, interspersed with long stretches in the RV full of nothing. It's not really a slow burn, it's more than nothing happens, occasionally interrupted by tiny bits of something, until the second half of the movie when things begin to escalate. And then the escalation is a problem, because we’re faced with an implausibility that makes having remote cameras on the roof of an RV look downright sensible. If these yahoos are being threatened by angry locals (which certainly seems to be the case), why on earth would the angry locals film all the shit they're doing to these people? The first scene in the film proper is a body getting thrown into a trunk, and we see the person starting to come to as the car drives off. Only this is all ostensibly found footage. Why the hell would you not only record yourself kidnapping someone but actually I swear I shit you not put a camera in the trunk of a car, especially if you're going to be using it to kidnap someone? It goes beyond laziness and an inability to commit to a narrative conceit and loops around to actively dumb. It didn’t just take me out of the moment, it set the moment on fire and pissed on the ashes. It made me angry with how dumb it was. And the very end of the film takes this idea one step further in ways that just scream “we didn’t just not pay attention to what we were doing, we actively stopped caring at some point.”

And if the unsympathetic characters and the gaps in narrative logic and the erratic pacing weren’t enough, there’s a pervasive aimless and lack of focus right when things are supposed to get really tense. When things do escalate, there's never really a clear sense of what's happening to the protagonists - there's neither a point where it becomes definitively clear that they've gone past the point of no return, nor is it really the case that things get worse and worse without them really noticing until it's too late. Bad stuff happens, and at first they disregard it because they don't live in a horror movie which, fair point, and then they disregard it even though most sane people wouldn't, and then it just becomes a matter of "we have to do this anyway, we've come this far" which is the hallmark of bad writing, because that's essentially shorthand for "there's no plausible reason why anyone would do this but otherwise we wouldn't have a movie so welp!" Basically, bad things happen, more bad things happen, and then the protagonists find themselves in a really bad place, stuff happens to them that we don't really get to see, one final really bad thing happens, film over, smash to black and title. With no sense of escalation, progression, or location of the protagonists in any kind of narrative space. First they're here, then they're there, then they're somewhere else. And there are bits of real menace throughout - some of the interactions with angry locals look pretty fucking real, and Brandy, as the sole woman with this group of guys, is singled out for some seriously ugly treatment at a couple of points. Credit to the film, there’s no gratuitous nudity (oh no wait, there is, when they decide to go looking for directions at a strip club), but the sum total of Brandy’s existence seems to be “get menaced by really creepy rednecks.” In a better movie, it’d be really unsettling, but here it just feels exploitative and gross.

At the end of the day, you've basically got a bunch of angry rural types in "scary" costumes menacing a bunch of out-of-towners to lethal ends, interspersed with a bunch of interview footage of haunted house workers who exist only to hammer home the point that oh yeah, weird bad shit could happen at a haunted house - people get injured, lots of these folks don’t have insurance, safety permits or inspections, people don’t vet employees and the people who work at them could be really unbalanced to begin with, so OOOH THEY COULD BE IN DANGER, and it's painfully obvious the first time, totally unnecessary the eighth, and actually kind of shitty and insulting to the people who live in the country and run haunted houses  by the tenth. The film never rises above the obvious, and as a result is never scary or even unsettling. It's like so many haunted houses that promise a genuinely frightening experience, only to deliver people in stupid costumes popping out and going "boo!" and expecting you to be impressed.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

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