Spooktacular! (2023)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2023


Last weekend I went to Universal Horror Nights, and as is often the case, I was dismayed at how it seems to be operating under the rule that no guest should be allowed to be immersed in the scary worlds the mazes attempt to scare you with. As it's housed within a working studio lot, you have to walk pretty far to get to some of the attractions, behind soundstages or through the bright lights of Springfield. You may wait in line for Stranger Things while Glenn Morshower barks orders about Transformers the entire time, and the mazes seemingly have more employees waving flashlights (to instruct you to keep moving, don't ever slow down to appreciate the production design!) than scare actors. It's expensive and not particularly good, and always makes me long for the days of Spooky World in Massachusetts, so I'm glad Spooktacular! was shown here a few days later, because if I saw it first and THEN went to Horror Nights, I'd probably be even more disappointed with it.

For those unfamiliar, Spooky World was built over the grounds of an old dairy farm in central Massachusetts, about a half hour west of Boston (and about the same southwest of my hometown). Launched in 1991 with just a hayride, the park expanded throughout the '90s, adding haunted houses, a creepy circus, and other fright-themed attractions, with the hayride serving as the centerpiece. Again, it was only a half hour away from the city, but it was far enough to feel "out of the way", with the location itself giving proper vibes of countless "stumbled on seemingly abandoned property" horror flicks. But it also had the horror museum, with props from movies like a Xenomorph suit and an OG Michael Myers mask, and in this museum you could meet folks like Kane Hodder, Tom Savini, or Linda Blair. So it was sort of a convention and a horror-themed amusement park Brundlefly'd into one memorable experience; an annual must-go destination for horror kids such as myself (it was only open in October, as Halloween hadn't yet become the two month event it is now). People would come from around the country to check it out, because there was nothing else really like it then.

It's a fact (well, a mostly true fact - Knott's was doing something similar since the '70s, though it was naturally an extension of a traditional theme park as opposed to an exclusively Halloween-tinged location) that the doc tries several times to explain, but with all these kinds of things so ingrained into our culture now, it's really hard to wrap your head around the idea that it was a wholly unique experience, and that such things didn't usually exist in Massachusetts. To us horror kids, the idea that we could meet Jason or Freddy (and I did!) without having to travel to Hollywood was a surreal notion. And we could do so after going through state of the art haunted houses? And then get a donut with hot cider? Incredible!

Luckily, the doc doesn't just cater to the nostalgia of folks like me who had been there. It gives a complete picture of how it began, the upbringing of founder David Bertolino, how it expanded through the '90s, covers a few unfortunate incidents (traffic jams caused by bigger-than-expected turnouts, a blown transformer causing the park to lose all its power, even the fabled "Perfect Storm" (the one from the Clooney movie) derailing a publicity stunt), and finally explains why the park first moved to a newer/lesser location and then shut down for good not long after that. Even I didn't know a lot of this stuff, so it worked not just as a memory generator, but a genuinely engaging history of an interesting topic, which is the goal of any doc.

And it's funny! The editor uses conflicting memories to great effect, with an employee touting the hayride intercut with Tom Savini laughing at how corny it was, or another employee noting that her marriage fell apart thanks to partaking in the cast members' frequent after-hours (or during-hours) rendezvous in some of the more out of the way spots in the heavily wooded area. And of course some of the old video clips feature priceless New England accents, which are always good for a chuckle (as a former resident whose accent occasionally resurfaces, I give you permission!). There's one moment where the "license to laugh" doesn't quite work though, as some on-screen text about Tiny Tim (a frequent guest) made the audience laugh, only to feel terrible a moment later when a followup note about his death appeared under it. But that said, it does mark a turning point in the park's meteoric rise, as a number of misfortunes (primarily some righteous townsfolk deciding to play hardball and reject previously approved permits to operate some of the houses) and the unsuccessful relocation to Foxboro (on the grounds of Gillette Stadium where the Patriots play) followed shortly thereafter.

Since the park operated before camera phones (or even high def video cameras), most of the footage of the park is blurry and even marred with tracking issues. But to make up for it, the rise and fall tale is illustrated with clips from Vincent Price movies, which works surprisingly well most of the time. As founder Bertolino considered Price a role model, it works to show him in clips from the likes of House on Haunted Hill, House of Wax, The Tingler, etc. to add a little "show, not tell" flair to the story so we're not always looking at talking heads or cruddy VHS footage. So when the townsfolk start coming after Bertolino and his team, we get a clip from Last Man on Earth, with Price trying to keep the monsters from breaking down his door. And some old phone messages about guest complaints are laid over footage from the same film as his character listens to reel to reel tapes. Sometimes it's a little corny, but for the most part it works really well, and as someone who firmly believes that Price's films embody the "fun but scary" vibe of Halloween more than any other, it's remarkably fortuitous that Bertolino felt that kinship with the actor, as footage of someone like Karloff or Lee wouldn't have yielded the same successful results.

Sometimes there are some narrative dead ends (they note trying to get Robert Englund to come, but instead of noting that the attempt was successful, they pivot to a story about how the "Horror House of Wax" at the park came to be), and the edit could be a little tighter as we see a few clips twice (such as John Krasinski gushing about the park on Seth Myers' show), but it was for the most part a terrific doc, smartly balancing nostalgia bait with an honest look at its history, as Bertolino is on hand to note a few of his less successful ideas. The allowance of humor and the Price clips make it far more accessible than I thought it would be to someone who had never been there or even heard of it, and despite the covid-era production meaning a lot of folks are shot via Zoom (plus the aforementioned VHS clips) it's quite professionally put together, impressive for a team with almost no documentary experience among the principals. And for two hours, I almost felt like I was there again, which is a feeling the Horror Nights of the world can't generate even when I'm doing very similar activities. Well done, and thank you.

What say you?

P.S. I can't find an embeddable trailer, so just go here to check it out.


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