MARCH 2, 2015
I almost wish I could give The Houses October Built a pass based on its concept (and even some of its execution), because it's kind of brilliant and more inspired than most found footage movies of late. Utilizing real "haunts" (the haunted houses or hayrides, zombie runs, etc that pop up just about everywhere during late September and October) to tell its story of five assho- er, people who are taking a tour of attractions in the days leading up to Halloween. They're looking for an underground group known as "Blue Skeleton" that is rumored to deliver the scariest experience ever, and seemingly pissing people off everywhere they go, allowing the movie two key assets that most FF movies lack.
The first asset is that this has more scares early on than most, because they're taking their cameras into the attractions which makes jump scares acceptable, plus they annoy the actors by filming, so there's almost always some sort of altercation that provides tension, at a time when most FF movies are still setting everything up and delaying the scares for logic's sake (as otherwise they'd stop filming). The other one is that the movie offers far more production value than most of its peers; the filmmakers all went to real attractions and either didn't care about release forms or had to put up a lot of those "By entering this location you're agreeing to be in a film..." notices, so the cast is kind of huge, giving it a scope that I don't think I've actually seen in a found footage movie.
But the huge cast is also part of the problem - there are just too many damn cameras, and our main group is too interchangeable for the movie's own good. It's hard enough to distinguish the four guys (one has a beard, that helps) at its center, but it makes it even harder when they're seemingly always running two cameras but not necessarily showing everyone else in the frame (and camera #1 never picks up camera #2, I don't think). Sometimes you can figure it out pretty quickly, other times the scene will nearly be over by the time you realize who is holding the camera, which is a pretty big issue, I think. It's a POV movie and you're not sure whose POV you're seeing. I've said before that I think too many modern FF movies falter by having the director or a regular cameraman shooting everything instead of one of the actors (which is why Blair Witch Project, where the trio of actors were the only ones to ever shoot anything*, works so much better than just about all of them), so it's a shame that this one just found a different way to shoot itself in the foot. That they're all kind of dickish doesn't help matters, but even if they were all super lovable I'd still spend a good chunk of the movie wondering whose eyes I was seeing it through.
Another big problem is kind of a weird one (spoilers ahead), which is that I wish it ended April Fool's Day style, with all of the terror our group faces being revealed to be a prank, that everything was indeed just the really intense haunted attraction that they were after (albeit way too elaborate). When the mysterious "Blue Skeleton" group finally catches up to them and kills/captures them all, it just feels like every other found footage movie that ends with most/all of the protagonists dying, where they had a perfect opportunity to do things differently - not to mention pull off perhaps the only satisfying "it wasn't real" ending in horror history. And the problem mentioned above is even worse here; it's bad enough when you don't know who is filming when it's just some random footage of a legit haunt, but kind of a major issue when it's someone being tortured.
Dumber still, the ending doesn't offer up the epilogue it should, which would be seeing our heroes' corpses used in a haunt. Earlier in the film, one of the characters explains that it doesn't bother him that he might be seeing an actual human leg in an attraction, because he wouldn't know - and he's right. It's dark, you're going through fast, and it's not like you're touching the things, so it's kind of an intriguing what if? scenario, and something the movie could have salvaged its bad ending with (giving one of them a tattoo on a body part that becomes a prop for audiences a year later would be the easy way to sell this concept). Or even having the heroes killed in plain sight of paying audiences (who would just assume it was part of the show) would be fine - basically anything beyond what they give us would have been better, as it's just plain baffling that it ends with something that doesn't pay off a single thing. What's the lesson to learn here? Don't go to haunted attractions? Be happy with the lame ones? I just don't get it.
The film is actually a pseudo remake of something the same team made three years ago (with the same title), but I can't find out too much about it - there's no review for it on its IMDb and director Zack Andrews is obnoxiously vague about how real/fake that one was, saying in an interview that he can't really explain that one's ending because his planned followup (this?) wouldn't work as well. So I guess I'd have to see it to know what he was talking about, but I won't be doing that. Even if I was interested enough to do so, it doesn't look like the original ever got picked up traditionally, so the only way to see it (that I can find) is on the bonus features of the 2014 one's DVD. Which I don't think is lying around in my house anywhere (I'm not joking; it's possible it is - I've won stuff at trivia that I've forgotten about), so I'd have to put effort into obtaining it. But for the record, it sounds like they did an S&Man thing where it's a legit documentary for the most part and then turns a corner once you're totally sold on the reality. It's probably better, honestly, but they didn't endear themselves to me nearly enough for me to want to sit through another 90 minutes of them swearing at each other (there are more F-bombs in this movie than there are in my house when I have to assemble furniture), so oh well. My advice: skip both versions and check out The American Scream, a legit documentary about homemade haunted house attractions that will make you yearn for the Halloween season, unlike this movie which made me glad we're far away from it and thus not currently being bombarded with similar nonsense.
What say you?
*Save for one shot early on where the guy explains Rustin Parr putting a kid in the corner, which was added later to help clarify the ending.