Nothing blends the realms of fantasy and reality quite like a Halloween attraction, letting actors bring paying customers face-to-face with their deepest, darkest, most irrational fears. These attractions will push patrons as far as humanly possible, but a line is drawn at physical contact in most cases due to the scariest threat of all – legal action. Thrill seekers can search for the few places that provide a full-body experience outlined in protective waivers, but most of these attractions can only get you so far, leaving the most masochistic horror aficionados wishing for a Halloween miracle – until those fans watch The Houses October Built. Rules and regulations may sound like a bummer, but filmmaker Bobby Roe assures audiences that attractions have them for a reason, and we should be damn thankful that they do.
Looking for the ultimate Halloween experience, Bobby gathers four equally adventurous friends and sets out to create a documentary about their state-spanning terror tour. Starting out with some generic haunted houses and mazes, the group starts to hunger for an attraction with a little more bite. After hearing about locations that don’t exactly play by the rules, one of the guys starts to question a few of the locals about some off-the-radar attractions, finding out that a Louisiana joint might be just the thrill they’re searching for. Setting a course for the mysterious Halloween treat, the group starts to realize the experience might be a little more than they bargained for. Everyone loves a good haunt, but what happens when the workers don’t have an off switch?
Even though this is the billionth found footage horror film I’ve seen in the last few weeks (slight exaggeration), The Houses October Built makes proper use of the group’s account by blending true documentary footage with spooky carnival-themed horrors. Roe integrates a few local news interviews which add a hint of realism to the character’s troubles, establishing an underground seediness amongst attraction workers whose only job is to scare people nearly to death. Conversations are had about convicts working as actors, performers accidentally killing themselves in search of a scream-tastic performance, and owners use real body parts in an attempt for a perfect recreation, building a tense contrast when intercut with the gang’s exploring of these haunted houses. It’s like we’re given a personal tour of the country’s scariest Halloween attractions, but in addition to experiencing some impressive scare tactics, we also get the benefit of watching the film’s characters react (hilariously) as well.
Once the horror sets in beyond orchestrated amusement scares, The Houses October Built achieves an unsettling tone of found footage voyeurism that rarely opts for cheap jumps over crushing dread. Once Roe removes any implication of safety from the group’s haunted excursion, it’s like a switch is flipped and the final haunted house turns from a chilling stage to a gigantic coffin. Everything looks exactly the same, filled with masked actors and disgusting distractions, but the element of fear slashes any jovial notes that make haunted attractions such a laugh. The best horror movies are able to transform the mundane into nightmares, yet Roe jumps a level higher by confirming our fears on events that already have an inherent psychosis involved. Being unable to determine whether a performer’s chainsaw has the chain removed or not adds a palpable tension, but with a villainous cast already including killer clowns and porcelain dolls, our hairs are raised far before any torturous tools are introduced.
Despite featuring a wholly likable cast and a spook-tacular vibe, Roe’s rushed ending sends The Houses October Built out on an uncharacteristic “swing and a miss.” For everything Roe does to ensure audiences are treated and not tricked this Halloween, there’s an unsatisfying flavor left lingering by a short, abrupt and unfulfilling ending. For all the danger that lurks around every cobwebbed hallway corner, Roe ends on an incomplete note that doesn’t let a horrifying situation actually achieve its full potential. The first two acts are in a completely different realm than the final few minutes of claustrophobic terror, as the film ends on a cool concept without exploring its full potential. The switch from performance to reality chills your core, yet a bleak ending soaked in ambition burns with the intensity of a wet, soggy log.
Forget about my distaste for Roe’s ending though – The Houses October Built is a sturdy Halloween watch constructed with both fear and entertainment in mind. The ending itself only runs for a few short minutes, while the preceding hour and a half delivers all the jolts that a haunted attraction would without viewers having to leave their couches. Why risk being attacked by deranged carnies when you can just watch Roe and his friends traverse the dimly lit halls of America’s craziest Halloween attractions, especially when the resulting project is such a damn blast?
Despite sitting through an endless parade of found footage stinkers, every so often there's a movie like The Houses October Built that proves that the subgenre is far from dead.