The Houses October Built has a lot going for it, not lease the central premise, something that I had no idea was actually a thing. Apparently every Halloween, thousands of haunted houses or haunt houses or horror houses (they kept on changing the name in the film so I have no idea which one is the correct term) appear across America for people to stumble around in the dark to be terrified by other people in freaky masks. Its a bit like the Haunted Houses we in the UK occasionally have at fun fair, but as Americans take the whole Halloween thing for more seriously than we do they are actually good and sometimes even properly scary.
Unless of course this whole thing is made up for the film in which case 1) the budget for this film was much bigger than I thought as they go to lots of Horror Houses with a cast of hundreds and 2) I’m an idiot. I think they are real, what I’m not so sure about is whether some of them are prone to extreme violence and murder of the customers in order to get a proper sacre out of them.
The Houses October Built follows five friends (why is it always FIVE friends? And why does it always have to be a bunch of friends and not a family? Or a school trip? Or a band?) who decide to spend the week leading up to Halloween driving around the deep south trying out these Horror Houses and hoping they’ll find a particularly terrifying one. I mean, be careful what you wish for especially when there are five of you in Texas and you are in a horror movie.
All the actors have a nice, natural rapport with each other. Seeing as they are playing at least versions of themselves (the characters have the same names as the actors playing them) and two of them really are real life brothers this is not a surprise. I imagine that a lot of the dialogue was improvised and its done very well. And that is fortunate because you need to at the very least have believable actors because… oh yes you know what comes next…
The Houses October Built is a found footage movie. I’m tempted to just end the review there but let’s at least give these guys their due. In the early parts when they are going to the houses there are a lot of other people there. They have obviously just gone to a genuine horror house and filmed their footage there. This of course would have been much harder to do if they had shot it as more traditional movie because there would be no way to control the large crowds for example. Also with the found footage sub genre you basically don’t have to care much about lighting much so all those night time shots of hundreds of people partying can look rubbish and the filmmakers get away with it.
However, you CAN make traditional films whilst using a more verite approach in certain scenes. For example, when Dennis Hopper shot the Mardis Gras scenes in Easy Rider he just turned up with a camera and filmed a load of footage as needed. It was pretty well shot and had the advantage of daylight but still that free wheeling type of filming during real life mass crowd scenes can easily integrate into the rest of a formally made film. And Hopper and his crew were tripping their tits off whilst they were doing that.
You could argue that found footage is a cheaper way of making a film but again I could point you to some dirt cheap films such as the recent The Battery which is beautifully shot and cost about a quid to make. It’s not like their isn’t some talent going on here: the story itself is well paced and I can’t imagine that any found footage film is an easy task to edit together: there must be reams of footage, to whittle it down to a tense ninety minutes is no easy feat. And The Houses October Built is pretty tense. The slow build of reoccurances of some of the costumed baddies does build up to some rather unnerving moments, the girl in the china doll mask being particularly creepy.
No, I think the problem is that most found footage movies look like shite and this is no exception. You can certainly argue that this is intentional, it is meant to look like an amatuer has made shot it. But isn’t that the worst thing? Watching a film that looks amatuer-like, no matter how well the other areas of the story work, cheapens the whole experience. It does give a hightened sense of reality to these films and that no doubt adds to the atmosphre. But are any of these found footage movies as atmospheric or all encompassing as the best horror movies. Do they ever compare to, say, the mood and intensity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? I think not.
That isn’t to say that there haven’t been some really excellent found footage movies but there really is only so much shoddy camera work an audience can sit through. I don’t think there is a single horror fan out there nowadays who gets excited by yet another one of these films – just look at the collective moan the internet made when the new Friday the 13th film was announced as found footage. At least the producers listened to their audeince and did a u-turn on that idea. I just wish everyone else would too.
The Houses October Built is actually a pretty good horror movie, nothing too innovative or different but has a committed cast and takes a look at a cultural side of Halloween in America I was unaware of. Its just a shame its buried under the fog of found footage.