Thursday, January 15, 2015

In short: The Houses October Built (2014)

Friends Zack (Zack Andrews), Brandy (Brandy Schaefer), Bobby (Bobby Roe), Mikey (Mikey Roe) and Jeff (Jeff Larson) are going on a road trip, visiting various haunted house attractions in the run-up to Halloween, filming whatever they encounter. The attractions our protagonists visit become increasingly disturbing, featuring moments where the line between make-believe and something much more disturbing and real becomes more than a little blurred.

Internet hints and rumours lead the friends on the trail of a mysterious “extreme haunt” that seems to move from state to state with every year. That sounds like a thing to look for when you’re as low on self preservation instincts as these people are, so go and look for it is what they do. Unfortunately for our heroes, what they are looking for might already have found them, and it might care little for the fine differences between the anything goes space of the haunted house attraction and the outside world.

Bobby Roe’s excellently titled The Houses October Built makes pretty fantastic use of the basics of POV style horror, adding some choice bits of verité by using some real roadside haunts as locations, and telling a simple yet effective story that really works best told in this style. The real haunts add quite a bit of veracity to the proceedings, making the slow approach of the worse things awaiting our protagonists that decisive bit more plausible, playing with the fact that the particular home-made character of the attractions gives their horrors a more authentic and therefore potentially more disturbing feeling than a slick corporate production could provide. It’s a bit like the difference between Poltergeist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the latter of which Houses makes repeated nods towards).

Roe is also very clever in the way he integrates his – or the production’s, for in this kind of indie production, where half of the cast is also involved in the writing, not to speak of the direction, the distinction is rather difficult to make – own pieces of creepiness into the original houses, emphasising the blurring lines between showmanship and reality even further.

It does of course help that these pieces of creepiness are designed with a keen sense for the disturbing schooled on the modern campfire tale. Simple and highly archetypal masks – skulls, and clowns, and creepy girls – abound, and the shadow of what we imagine a snuff film would like (Last House on Dead End Street?) lies heavily over the proceedings. The escalation of the film’s real threat works just as nicely, again using simple means to great effect.

Now would probably be the point where I’d have to grumble about he film’s characterisation, but for the plot at hand, the sheer basics the film provides are just about enough, and the actors are definitely competent enough for the characters. I might have wished for some kind of explanation beyond stupidity for the way three out of five of our characters rush headlong into obvious danger where most people would be running into the other direction but the point didn’t really encroach upon my enjoyment of The Houses October Built too much, given how well it does everything else (with extra bonus points for starting with a Walter Jon Williams quote).

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