The Paranormal Activity franchise launched a lot of careers in the movie industry, but I'm not talking about acting ones. Instead I'm referring to producers, specifically Oren Peli (who also wrote and directed the first movie), Jason Blum, and Steven Schneider, who are among THE hottest properties in Hollywood right now. Between these three men, they've produced over thirty mainstream horror movies since 2007, earning well over A BILLION dollars in profit. Even more impressive, they've done this with “micro-budget” films, not a single one of them having a budget that exceeded ten million dollars. This is why no matter how bad it gets (and wow, is it bad right now), mainstream horror will never go away because it's basically guaranteed profit.
Today we're going to be taking a look at one of Schneider's latest productions, The Houses October Built. The film was actually based on a 2011 documentary by the team of Bobby Roe, Zack Andrews, and Jeff Larson, in which they traveled across the country exploring the growing phenomenon of Halloween haunted houses (better known as “haunts”) that go the extra mile to scare people by really amping up the terror. Along with their interviewer Brandy Schaefer and Bobby's brother Mikey, who handled editing duties, they drove around in an RV talking to people who ran the crazier haunts. It was a fairly interesting documentary, but then it took an inexplicable detour into fiction when they started pursuing a legendary place called the Blue Skeleton Inn and ended up getting killed in the end. It was jarring, to say the least.
Cut to a couple of years later and the idea came around to make a movie based out of their documentary, since it was a unique premise in the WAY overcrowded world of found footage horror. All of the film makers signed on to play themselves, Bobby was handed directorial duties, and on October 10, 2014 we had ourselves a movie. Was it any good? That's what I'm here to answer, so put on your best brave face and enter the dark hallway, because it's time for A Ghoul Versus The Houses October Built!
We open with a montage of haunted house owners and customers discussing their experiences with fear, much of it taken straight from the original documentary. A title card informs us what we're about to see was filmed by five friends on a cross country trip, while the ending footage was allegedly shot by employees of the Blue Skeleton. We see masked men loading Brandy into a car trunk, which somehow has a camera mounted inside of it. Oh found footage, you so crazy. She wakes up and begins to panic as we go back six days earlier to see how it all happened.
I know you've heard this criticism a thousand times over and will hear it a thousand times again, but this is SUCH a glaring flaw in all of these movies: WHO EDITS FOOTAGE LIKE THIS?! Okay, say a bunch of people did get killed while filming their adventure, and the cameras are found by the authorities. Someone is going to go through all of the footage for clues and whatnot, sure. Obviously to make their case, they're going to edit any highlights with evidence into one single video. Why the fuck would they do it out of order?! Or, even better, include any kind of shit that has nothing to do with the crime? Do we need to see our cast talk to each other for half an hour about absolutely nothing? This NEVER fails to take me out of the story, which is the worst thing you can do in a movie!
Six days ago in Tyler, Texas, our five friends meet up in a bar to discuss their plan of renting an RV so they can find the most badass haunt in America just for the sake of experiencing it. In real life the plot of this movie was supposed to mirror the documentary, but somewhere between creation and shooting it was changed to this. This is definitely less interesting than the documentary, as well as creating the typical plothole of why they feel the need to film EVERY FUCKING SECOND of their trip. How do you screw that up? You were handed the PERFECT explanation for cameras being everywhere and somehow drop the ball.
They attend their first haunt, in which Mikey makes an ass out of himself and pisses off the workers there, including one ominous looking clown. And yes, I realize calling a clown ominous is rather redundant. The next haunt has them shooting paintballs at a horde of oncoming zombies, which I find VERY offensive. On their way out Brandy happens to notice a woman in a porcelain doll mask standing near the road, who was also at the first haunt. Zack says that's impossible since that was a hundred miles in the other direction, Mikey having Jeff pull the RV over so he can go talk to her. She doesn't say anything, instead following him into the RV where she sits down and stares at everyone, ignoring everything they say to her. She then screams at them and leaves, in what I like to call BEST. EXIT. EVER. I also want to point out between each visit to a haunt they show more interview footage with various people, which makes zero sense since they're not making a documentary in this one.
Day three brings us Zack finding mentions online of a really extreme haunt that requires a password of some sort, and he's convinced he'll find it in the backwoods of Texas. Yeah, that's a million dollar idea there. They head to the Terrorplex, where Zack encounters a man in a bloody bunny costume while he's out in the woods turning a tree into an impromptu bathroom. The bunny chases him around with an ax for awhile, and then walks away laughing. Zack is still game after this to go into the Terrorplex, which looks FUCKING AMAZING. Like all the other haunts featured in the film, this one really exists and is located in Mansfield, Texas. They film makers were able to save a small fortune by filming in these real life locations, as it saved them having to build any sets of their own.
With two days to go to Halloween, they visit a horror themed strip bar because there was no real other way to work boobs into this thing and DAMMIT, all horror films need boobs. That scene almost felt like I was watching another Andy Sidaris film. The boob requirement out of the way, they pull up to the Phobia haunt. They aren't allowed to film there so we don't get to see anything that happens, but Zack does manage to find the location of the Blue Skeleton from a couple of locals, learning it's in Louisiana. They all go to bed for their big day tomorrow, unaware a man in a skull mask breaks into their RV to film them and steal Jeff's driver's license. In the morning Zack finds the footage has been posted to a haunt chat room, showing it to Bobby who sternly warns him not to tell the others or else they'll want to go home. Shouldn't YOU want to fucking go home too, Bobby?! You can tell a movie is about to happen, everyone is fighting to carry the famed Idiot Ball.
The two are unable to hide... whatever the hell is going on for long though, as Mikey finds a raw heart that someone left in their fridge. Zack throws it out and they hit the road, where he gets some more information about the Blue Skeleton. They have to go to a bar in Baton Rouge and ask for a man called Giggles, which turns out to be a bar filled with freaks in costumes. After Brandy nearly gets assaulted in the ladies room, they leave but are STILL determined to find the Blue Skeleton. It's movies like this that make you wonder what it'd actually take to make everyone realize their current course of action is UNWISE. Like at this point I could seriously see Jeff or Mikey get butchered with a chainsaw and the rest would still press on.
Case in point, the next scene finds their RV COMPLETELY SURROUNDED by a gang of costumed freaks, some even climbing on their roof. Our Fab Five GTFO, but still don't seem that fussed about everything. Even Brandy, who was nearly gang raped in a bathroom, just gives everyone the silent treatment instead of DEMANDING they drive her home. The morning takes us to the day of Halloween, where someone throws a pumpkin at the side of their RV. Zack, who is the genius of this group, goes outside to investigate and finds a note tied to the stem saying “Carve me”. He does just that, finding an invitation to the Blue Skeleton inside. They also find some silver skull masks stuck to the outside of the camper, one for each person.
They drive down to Bourbon Street, the location listed in the invitation. Zack and Bobby are both fully on board with this, while everyone else is just like “eh, whatever”. This is a group of people I want to see die violently. Since it's Halloween, Bourbon Street is PACKED with party goers and Jeff eventually loses track of his friends. He ends up in an empty alley, where Porcelain Girl, Scary Clown, Bloody Bunny, and a couple of others appear out of thin air and begin to advance on him. First person shaky cam takes over from here so it's hard to tell what happens in detail, but he gets beat down and dragged away. Back on the streets, Zack tries to call him but only gets his voice mail which instructs them to drive out to a road in the middle of nowhere to find the Blue Skeleton. AND THEY DRIVE OUT THERE! Yes, let's absolutely NOT get the cops involved in the slightest or anything.
God, maybe there's a plot twist coming that Zack is secretly working with the masked freaks because then this movie would start making sense. They drive out to the dirt road, a bus pulling up to greet them. Skull Mask steps out and looks at them, Zack getting a text saying if they don't come out within sixty seconds then Jeff will die. Zack leaves the RV but no one else does, so more masked men break into the camper and remove everyone by force. Hoods are placed over their heads and they're marched onto the bus, driven out to a mystery location while the skull masks film them. Everyone is led off the bus except for Brandy, who is told to count to thirty, remove her hood, and take the camera to film what she sees. She obeys, seeing a small house outside that she enters.
The film pretty much goes off the rails from here, as we alternate between the actors (all with their own camera) wandering around the house going “What the fuck?” and “How do I get out of here?” while encountering the masked denizens of the place. This goes on FOREVER as I try to count the number of times someone screams “Fuck!” but give up when I realize I can't count that high. At long last the editor gets as bored as I am so brings the film full circle, cutting to the opening with Brandy being stuffed into the trunk of the car. She wakes up in a coffin, being buried alive by the masked men. We get brief shots of Bobby, Zack, and Mikey also waking up in similar predicaments. Brandy screams and screams for help as the dirt gets piled on deeper and deeper, and guess what? That's the end! Fuck you audience!
Cue the credits.
Introducing the “How Found Footage Is Your Found Footage?” Meter:
- Introduce a cast of young, white people that are all long time friends (+1)1a. HUGE bonus points if any of the main cast are minorities (+3)
- Spend the first act of your movie showing us how stupid the cast is by either:2a. Putting all of their trust into a complete stranger they just met that is so shady even Helen Keller could tell they're up to no good (+1)2b. Putting all of their trust into one of their friends, despite the fact this friend is equally stupid and/or has a deathwish (+1)
- Have whatever situation the cast has gotten themselves into be completely preventable at this point, but have them make it worse by any means possible (+1)
- Spend the second act having shit get real, as the audience starts heavily rooting for their most hated character to die first (+1)
- Disappoint the audience by having that character continue to survive, while less detestable characters are bumped off during the third act (+1)
- Finally kill off the most hated character, leaving only a Final Girl and possibly a weak and/or dying male character (+1)6a. Bonus points if the male is a nerd (+2)
- Have Final Girl ALMOST make it out alive, only to die horrifically in the final shot. Do a hard fade to black (+1)7a. Bonus points if after the fade to black, we get some kind of footage of a character talking that is an ironic echo of the events we just saw (+2)
0 – There is no way this movie exists, so this is clearly a dream1-2 – DAMN! Instead of wasting your time directing movies, you should be using your miraculous creativity to cure cancer or something
3-4 – Probably the next groundbreaking movie in the horror genre
5-7 – Pretty familiar territory, but at least it was arranged uniquely enough
8-10 – How many times have I seen this movie already? I've lost track
11-13 – Adam Sandler is jealous of your total commitment to lazy film-making
14 – Congratulations, a PERFECT SCORE! You must be so proud of yourself, making one of the most predictable and formulaic movies since the last Expendables sequel!
And there you have it! The last eight years worth of found footage films, every single fucking one of them. This movie scored a 9, which is bang on. You know what's funny about that list? I composed it in my head while thinking of another Oren Peli produced film, the Chernobyl Diaries, but that's how trite this formula is. It really doesn't help we basically have three men making the bulk of the genre, they have a mathematical equation to print money and they know it. As I just proved, people will still watch because they're cheap and readily available. I bought this movie for twelve bucks brand new, that's at least ten dollars cheaper than most new releases.
Why did I buy it when I obviously have quite the disdain for these types of movies? The 2011 documentary sounded fascinating, haunted houses are something I'm very interested in and have never seen much coverage devoted to them. I figured that was worth the price of admission for a double bill featuring another found footage film, and I still stand by that. The documentary had WAY too much of the filmmakers bickering with each other over where to go next, but the actual interviews were very fascinating. It's a shame it turned into fiction at the end, because that really made you doubt if any of it was real. However, I did some research after watching it and learned everything up to the Blue Skeleton Inn was a real place.
The film itself though... blegh. The five actors are childhood friends who all grew up together, so they had some great chemistry with each other that helped make up for their questionable acting talents. Porcelain Girl looked cool, and the shot with all the freaks surrounding the RV was suitably nice. And thus ends everything nice I have to say about the movie. Discounting how everyone was too fucking stupid to live, it was just boring. It's almost impossible to create any kind of atmosphere or connection between characters when you can never see the one holding the camera, which is arguably the biggest failure of found footage.
And did you notice I never ONCE bothered to point out how nothing really made that much sense? How were the Blue Skeleton Crew able to know exactly where the leads were going, much less race ahead of them to set up shop? Towards the end of the movie it's implied the bus has been bugged, but that had to have happened when they broke in to plant the heart, right? They'd already been following them hundreds of miles previous to that. And why did they choose these five morons anyway? Because Mikey got on the roof of that one haunt that WASN'T EVEN THEIRS? Why would they go to all of that trouble to kill five people when it would have been much easier to just find people in Louisiana? You KNOW a movie is boring when I don't even care about any of these key plot points.
Things just plod along in, and this one was even worse due to its recycling of footage from the documentary. If you haven't seen the documentary it's not a big deal, but if you have you're reaching for the fast forward button quicker than usual. How weird is it that a movie about haunted houses would be one of the least scary films I've ever seen? I would avoid this movie at all costs, but would give the documentary a shot if you have even a passing interest in horror. There's some good stuff in there up til the end.