One doesn’t expect any haunted house to be particularly well constructed, but few are as ramshackle as “The Houses October Built,” an incredibly sloppy found-footage flick that’s awful enough to give Halloween a bad name.
The premise of the obviously ultra-low budget flick is actually promising: five twenty-something pals (Zack Andrews, Brandy Schaefer, Bobby Roe, Mikey Roe and Jeff Larson), equipped with apparently ubiquitous video cameras, go off in an RV in the last days of October to visit “extreme” haunted houses. Their ultimate goal is to find one in particular, a mysterious place that constantly changes locations and can be found only by following a series of social-media clues that if rightly interpreted, will disclose where it’s to be found this year. As they proceed from place to place, they find themselves visited by increasingly spooky role-players whose actions grow more and more threatening, until an incident in New Orleans forces them to follow a final set of instructions into a genuinely menacing trap.
The picture has some virtues, mostly limited to the documentary footage of real places the crew visits (material that does in fact make you wonder about the mental stability of some of the folks who man the places) and talking-head interview excerpts in which workers and customers glibly recite rumors about practices at some of the joints that are especially unsavory (like using real body parts in exhibits), or accidents that have led to death.
But the central drama is frankly a bust. It’s a major problem that the five protagonists aren’t a particularly likable bunch, and that they seem to actually grow dumber as the plot thickens. It’s also a stretch to believe, as the script asks us to, that a small army of weird-minded souls would follow a quintet like this all over Texas and Louisiana to terrorize them and eventually lure them to a fate that might make you think back to lots of earlier horror shows. And the narrative has a meandering quality, with episodes—like the assault on Brandy in a grubby roadside bar—that seem to have to purpose but to repel. Simply put, the tension is supposed to build, but it never does; the result is a curiously flabby trip that commits the cardinal offense of any horror movie—it grows progressively boring.
The ending might also make you wonder just who’s supposed to have cobbled together this retrospective account of the misguided trip. Presumably not Zack Andrews, the co-writer who also acts as the guy spearheading the expedition and prodding his comrades to soldier on—unless what happens to the group at the end is meant to be understood as a trick rather than a treat. Nor can it be any of the other members of his band, for the same reason. Can it be that their tormentors are supposed to have done so? If that’s the case, was the effort meant to represent a sort of memento of what they’d done? If so, why wouldn’t they appear in it to celebrate their success?
Of course, demanding logic of a horror movie is rather like whistling into the wind. But if you can’t expect some sort of narrative coherence or character development, it’s not unreasonable to ask at least for a modest degree of technical competence. “The Houses October Built” offers none. The found-footage device is always employed to cover a multitude of visual sins, but here it’s really taken to the limit, with a cascade of blurry shots, clumsy edits and muffled sounds, so that it’s sometimes impossible to discern what’s supposed to be going on. Perhaps that represents an effort to camouflage the inadequacies in the script, but if so it doesn’t work. On the other hand, the picture often settles down for desultory conversations that are as pointless as they are uninteresting. As for the acting, when the five chums are just rambling on in obviously improvised scenes, they come across as natural even though the dialogue is basically dull; but when they’re compelled to go into truly thespian mode, it’s amateur night all the way.
Halloween has become such a big deal nowadays that it’s understandable that distributors should want to throw scary stuff up on theatre screens for teenagers to devour. But there’s really no justification for bringing a hapless piece of schlock like this to the multiplex. Skip it and go to an actual haunted house instead; it’s likely to be far more entertaining.