Nothing says October like a good romp through a haunted attraction. Some people friggin’ love these, and The Houses October Built explores the dark, seedy underbelly of an industry that is absolutely bonkers. What exactly drives people to work in these? Why do people enjoy them so much? What makes some masochists look for more and more extreme versions of the spook house? This film follows a group of amateur filmmakers who try to answer all of these questions, and ultimately get more answers than they may have been looking for. If you haven’t seen this, give the trailer a watch and decide if it’s your cup of pumpkin spiced chai before heading down to our spoiler-filled deep dive on what the movie has to offer.
Reviewed by: Jake
The plot of The Houses October Built is simple. A group of friends documents themselves in the days leading up to Halloween as they seek out the “most extreme scare” they can find by traveling around in an RV to various haunted house attractions. They ask around at each venue to try to get as much information as possible from the fright actors and proprietors on where the really juicy shit is going down. Haunted houses that display real dead bodies/pieces of dead bodies? Want. Extreme scare attractions that remove the barrier of actor/visitor and invade your personal bubble? Bring it on… until they get too deep.
Along the way, our intrepid crew meet some seriously messed up people, but things begin to take a turn for the creepy and sinister when they discover that one of the actors from a prior visit has somehow followed them hundreds of miles, only to show up outside their rig in the middle of backass-nowhere, TX. She dons a porcelain doll mask and does very little other than look around and shriek.
It’s about this time that the group hears of something called “Blue Skeleton”. No one seems to know its exact whereabouts or what it is that this mysterious group does, but eventually some intel leads the crew to Louisiana. They uncover more info in Baton Rouge and eventually wind up on Bourbon Street (aka the last fucking place any right-minded person would want to be) on Halloween night, tracking down vague clues and looking for someone who wears - you guessed it - a blue skull mask. Among the fracas, one of the members strays down an alley to come face to face with little miss porcelain again. He’s quickly assaulted by clowns and taken hostage. Typical clown stuff, honestly.
From here, things rapidly devolve as the group is willingly captured and tries to play along under the assumption that this is the ultimate scare they’ve been seeking so desperately. You could say they find it. If their idea of “ultimate scare” included being run through a house of horrors where one of them is bludgeoned to death and the others are buried alive, then they were dead on it. Good work bozos. Happy Halloween! Or Samhain or whatever these blue bones mother fuckers would prefer to observe it as in their twisted gourds.
What the Movie Does Right
Kudos to this movie for originality on multiple fronts. First of all, the idea of using haunted houses as a backdrop for a horror movie is a simple but effective starting point. But where this movie really shines is in the approach to that premise. I’m not the biggest found footage fan on this site, but to view this movie through that lens is really smart. It allows the viewer to go through the attractions and get in the right mood, and it lends some believability to the crew and their documentarian efforts. The main example to point out is the interviews that take place in the film. The group (primarily Brandy Schaefer) interview various people behind the attractions as they visit each site. The added realism of getting these characters on film is a huge boon. It’s the first horror movie I know of that took a Borat approach to things. These are real people being interviewed at actual attractions. Most of them have no idea it’s for a legit movie.
This is where I’d be remiss to not mention that this is a remake. The original Houses October Built was made in 2011 by the exact same crew and was a huge success in festival viewings, but to get that distribution deal there was a strong desire to refilm many of the main plot elements with more powerful equipment. The crew originally shot the whole damn thing in SD and I actually like the scenes that are still in that format, as they add a bit of grime and realism to the whole thing. Most of these scenes in this version are the interviews, as the central plot shifted during reshoot from seeking out a haunted house with a dead body inside to seeking out “extreme haunts”.
The other main thing this movie has going for it is the acting. And I use the word acting loosely because this is about as free-flowing as it gets. I mentioned the Borat approach this flick took to filming. That means almost everything was improv. The cast, which was comprised entirely of real-life friends, has an easy chemistry and natural believability as a result and I’m not sure it could have been captured in any other way. Add to it the fact that what you see in the 2014 version is essentially their second rodeo, and it’s even stronger for it.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Found footage films live and die by a couple key things. The one we most commonly harp on is the reason for filming. I don’t have a lot of nits to pick with that in this movie, actually. Most of it is shot by the crew and their reason for filming is solid the whole way through (for the most part). Either they are documenting like I’d expect them to or they are being told to document by Blue Skeleton members. There are a couple small exceptions to this but I’m willing to let them go.
The other big thing, however, is the “how does this film exist today and how did it get to me, the viewer?”. This is sort of the forgotten element of found footage that sort of fell by the wayside as the genre gained popularity in recent years and people stopped having the capacity to assume they were witnessing true events. Regardless, I find found footage films to be significantly weakened if they don’t attempt to answer the second question. This one does not. How did this end up seeing the light of day in the format we view it in? Who cut the shots together so deftly as to capture perfect timing for key events to occur and play for both laughs and scares? Was it the Blue Skeleton folks? If it was, why? Wouldn’t that significantly undermine what they do in oh so many ways? This aspect of the film left me with a ton of questions and was very hard to swallow.
The good news here is that this is about all I’d like to hammer home on the negative side of our review. I did also find some of the cuts between the original 2011 interviews, which were done in SD, and the HD sequences to be a bit jarring, but the ultimate effect was to make me want to watch that original version even more. Not a terrible thing.
Story: 7 - This is a simple story and I’m a little surprised there isn’t a deeper pool of similar films out there. Kudos for originality on the approach, however. The Borat-method of storytelling is an excellent one that I have not seen much of in the genre.
World-Building / Immersion: 5 - Found footage can be very immersive when done correctly. There were a lot of sequences of this movie that I thought were incredibly immersive. It’s a tale of two aspects of the genre, however. The curiously overproduced cuts and inability to answer the how/why this exists seriously hurt the world I’m supposed to dive into as a viewer.
Scare-Factor: 6 - There’s fun scare here and there’s disturbing as fuck scare here. These are married really well. The scenes when the group go through various haunted house attractions are disorienting and fun in the same way one of these haunts would be in real life. The addition of a sinister group that begins way out on the periphery and slowly oppresses the crew is really well done, too. This won’t have you losing sleep, but it’s easy to feel what it’s going for.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6.5 - Props and costuming in this movie were expectedly great, and much of that credit should be given to the attractions themselves. I loved the porcelain doll character as well. Primarily, however, this is a judicious lack thereof type film. No big budget monsters or gore.
Overall: 6.5 - This is a movie that I would wholeheartedly recommend to a fan of the genre. It’s original and, for the most part, fun. I think it loses something due to the mish-mash of scenes from the original version that were cut into the re-shot version for wide release, which is a shame. This isn’t a crippling factor, but it made me wonder how much of the originally intended experience was still intact. It might be an interesting exercise to watch both this and the 2011 version and make that judgement for yourself. I’m sure both are, at minimum, worthy additions to October-themed horror.