Film Review – The American Scream
For me, October is the best month of the year, because I love Halloween and much of the hoopla that comes with it. Not so much the dressing up and partying part, but the scary movies and books and pumpkin-flavored treats. Also, sugar. I am a big fan of sugar. I have not been to a haunted house in years (I am a little too high-strung from all the sugar to enjoy them), but was really interested when I heard the director of Best Worst Movie, a great documentary about the surprisingly enjoyable Troll 2, had a new film coming out about regular people who create home haunts, The American Scream.
Director Michael Stephenson focuses on three families in Fairhaven, MA, who spend the year preparing for their one-night-only haunted house extravaganzas. (It turns out, there is a whole industry supporting “haunters,” both of the professional and home variety.) Victor Bariteau is the most obsessed of the three haunters, and spends his entire year fixated on preparing for Halloween night. He is all about the details and strives to make his haunt as professional as possible—he even chose the house his family lives in because of the neighborhood’s trick-or-treatability. Manny Souza is a neighbor who originally helped work on Victor’s haunted house, but has struck out on his own for a more relaxed approach. He gathers a lot of material by dumpster diving, and is less concerned with details and more interested in creating a scary/fun atmosphere. Matt Brodeur and his dad Rick are the third family Stephenson portrays, and while they don’t seem to have the same skills that Victor and Manny have, they have the enthusiasm and drive to create something enjoyable for their community. The American Scream shows how each group creates their haunted house, how they operate differently, and what motivates each family.
I really enjoyed this movie. It’s not perfect—I would have preferred more information on the history and industry of haunted houses and maybe a little less swearing at construction mishaps—but it’s really good. The director views his subjects with compassion, and even the folks that are a little weird (and I would include myself in that category, so no judgments here) come off as well-rounded and interesting people. I love seeing folks with passion; no matter their focus, there is something wonderful about watching people do what they love. These are just regular people who have a vision and who would rather be following this path than just passively consuming media and thinking about doing something cool.
This documentary is one of the most honest and interesting portrayals of the artistic impulse that I have seen in a long time. Most films about artists drive me nuts. There’s usually a lot of nonsense about the artistic temperament, explanation of lame-o theory, or lionization of the artist as a heroic figure. By focusing on regular people, this film avoids those traps and allows the viewer to engage in the process by which each artist creates his work. Most working artists I know aren’t famous or rich; they are people with day jobs who pursue their passions and make sacrifices when they need to. It’s not glamorous; it’s just people showing up and doing the work because they think it is worth doing. This film shows that process for each of the haunters and lets the viewer see what motivates them.
Victor is the most complicated of the three haunters, and without his wife Tina, his two daughters, and various friends, he would never be able to get everything done in time. He is fully engaged in this project, and his family has made sacrifices to support his vision. His wife lives in a house not of her choosing, the oldest daughter accepts that he is too busy to build her a clubhouse, and the younger daughter doesn’t seem that interested, but pitches in out of love. This could be a recipe for disaster, but the Bariteau family pulls together to help Victor realize his vision because they understand the depths of his passion. Manny takes a much more relaxed approach and uses his haunted house as an excuse to spend time with his family and have fun. He is the assemblage artist who throws things together with a certain amount of skill and dedication, but the love of the process is his satisfaction. Matt and his dad Rick are the bickering amateurs, who also spend their time as clowns. (Not scary ones. Unless you think all clowns are a little scary.) They are a close-knit pair and their somewhat more slap-dash approach to their haunted house works well within the parameters of their relationship. They are the more experimental ones, wanting to do something new every year. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t.
This is a really fun movie, but I also found myself super inspired when it was over. It’s easy to get distracted from my own artistic endeavors, and seeing the folks of Fairhaven following their passion helped rejuvenate me. We all have passion, but what these folks have is discipline, and I can always use a reminder that hard work is worth it in the long run.
Final Grade: B+
The American Scream plays at the Grand Illusion Cinema in Seattle on Saturday October 6th at 9:00 and 11:00 PM.