Reason for filming: A group of life-long friends rent an RV and go on a road trip the week of Halloween, to try and discover the most extreme haunt experiences possible.
What’s the horror: haunts gone wild
Does the dog die? No animal cruelty
Gore factor: None
Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. This is another one I can watch at any time.
The Houses October Built is an interesting found footage film with a lot going on all at once. It’s part documentary (there are real interviews with real haunt workers), part horror story (just how much of what’s happening to these characters is a part of the ‘extreme’ haunt they’re trying to track down, and how much of it is the work of true psychopaths who are out to cause them harm?), and part social commentary (the protagonists make a lot of assumptions about the ‘backwoods’ haunt workers they encounter in the small towns they pass through, and it’s at least hinted at that their privileged unawareness is part of what causes their trip to go awry; there’s also the issue of how the four male characters’ slightly toxic masculinity at times puts the one female friend in danger)This is not a universally-loved found footage film by any means, but in my opinion everything melds together in a pretty satisfactory way, even though at times it can feel scattered or even slightly out of control. It’s an interesting mix that creates a pretty unique found-footage experience.
A lot of the enjoyment of this movie hinges on how you feel about the five characters you follow through the film. It’s a road trip story, with five Texans (shout-out to Texas!) who rent an RV and film themselves going on a week-long road trip across both Texas and Louisiana, looking for off-the-beaten-path, more-scary-than-usual haunted attractions. A lot of time is spent with these characters in the RV cutting up and discussing what they want to get out of the trip, and if you don’t find them likeable or their chemistry engaging I can’t imagine you would enjoy watching this one. Personally I find them all likeable (although some are more likeable than others, but that’s necessary to move the plot along when things start getting dicey – someone has to be the asshole that keeps pushing the more cautious characters into sketchy situations) and I find their chemistry to be very natural and charming (two of the characters are real-life brothers, and several of the cast members really are friends). We spend a lot of time with these people in their journey across Texas in their rented RV, so being able to tolerate them is pretty essential to enjoying the film.
The film starts off with some actual news reports of haunted house tragedies that have occurred in recent years – the haunt worker who accidentally hung herself for real while working but who was already dead before it was discovered, the haunt worker who was actually an escaped murderer. And who knows how much interview footage they actually recorded during the making of this thing, but they definitely picked the more chilling segments to intersperse throughout the movie, such as the dude who described his experience as one of “getting out of my own fucked-up headspace and taking out all that aggression on someone else for a few hours.” Yikes.
Each aspect of the film – the haunts themselves, the interviews, the characters’ reactions to their surroundings – escalates over the course of the movie, and if nothing else, this is a movie that knows how to build tension. The first few haunts are impressive, but more fun than scary, yet each successive attraction grows darker and more disturbing. There’s a shift from the concept of a haunted house patrons want to enjoy to a terror experience they have to endure, and the boundaries of what is acceptable to portray and impose on people are subtly, but constantly, being pushed. Throughout this descent, there are also many warnings about the various stages of danger these people might be in, with the one female character, Brandy, being the most vulnerable. At one point, a character in a haunt starts whispering her name and telling her, “Brandy…you’re donna die.” At another point, some shady male characters who appear to be working with an extreme haunt (it’s unclear to what extent they’re involved) traps her in a bathroom and threatens her. There’s another incident where someone sneaks into the RV and films the gang while they are sleeping, and whoever is behind the camera takes a particular interest in Brandy, even reaching out and pretending to caress her sleeping cheek.
At each escalating stage, it’s unfortunate that Brandy’s friends fail to recognize not only that Brandy might be an actual target but also her growing discomfort with what’s going on. After the two men trap her in a bathroom, we hear Bobby saying to the others, “We can never leave Brandy alone again,” which is NOT a realistic solution to the problem. When the video that was taken in the RV ends up online in a haunt chat room, the dude’s response is “don’t tell Brandy, she’ll freak out and want to leave.” Perhaps the best example of the men’s inability to recognize that they are in over their heads and are actually not able to protect her, we hear Zach yelling to some haunt workers “Don’t you touch her!” while he’s got a bag over his head and his hands tied behind his back. In response to this command, the haunt worker simply kicks him to the ground, and Brandy is left to deal with the situation alone.
None of the men come across as assholes, and they genuinely care about each other as friends, including Brandy – they are just clueless about the fact that they are getting themselves into a situation they can’t control. In fact, they simply seem unable to conceive of the idea that there are situations they can’t handle, even as the evidence that indicates the opposite stacks higher and higher. There are points throughout the journey where most of them express doubt about whether or not they should continue, with the exception of Zach, who, as the organizer of the whole trip, is the most insistent that they all see it through to the end. It’s one thing to seek out extreme haunts when we know that’s what we’re going for, but it’s another thing to be surrounded by a bunch of assholes out in the woods, complains Mike at one point. It’s all part of it, Zach reassures him. We just have to go with it. But by the time the final “extreme” haunt begins. it’s clear even Zach is nervous and feigning more confidence than he actually feels.
The source of this mysterious extreme haunt experience the group hears about and eventually finds – or rather, the haunt experience finds them – is sketchy from the beginning, and the film does a good job of making the origins of this climactic event unclear. There are hints from the first haunt stop that the group has made some enemies – at one point, Mikey finds a ladder and sneaks up onto the roof of the building, shouting an Almost Famous-like “I’m a Halloween God!” into a megaphone and inspiring a chorus of raucous cheers and applause from the hundreds of haunt-goers gathered below. It’s a silly, spontaneous, frat-boy-ish move that has no ill intent, but that seriously pisses off the owners of the haunt. In fact, haunt characters/workers from that first haunt (as well as each successive one) will make appearances at later attractions, sometimes even though they have traveled hundreds of miles since then; the camera will quickly pan past a familiar clown or creepy doll-girl or deranged rabbit that we know we’ve already seen at some past stop, but the images flash past so quickly that we can’t be sure. So – are they being followed from the beginning. and if so, why? Is it merely because they’ve managed to earn the ire of some haunt owners, all of whom communicate with each other using private message boards online? Or do they simply travel around from haunt to haunt themselves? Is it possible they’re all a part of this mysterious “Blue Skeleton” group the gang keeps hearing about and pursuing, the roving haunt attraction that’s so underground and extreme, its location changes from Halloween to Halloween, and can only be found through private channels?
There are other moments where the group’s journey into the seedy underbelly of haunt attractions highlights their own naivete about what they’re playing with. At one stop, the gang stops the RV for some beers before heading out to the evening’s attraction, and they encounter a haunt worker hanging out in the same area. They strike up an uneasy conversation, as the worker doesn’t appear to be all that thrilled to find them hanging out in what he clearly thinks is his camping spot, and things take a turn for the worse when Bobby starts talking about his fasciation with the haunts they’ve seen so far. He mentions how there are all these little kids working in the haunts, because out in the “backwoods” there are no rules and no one’s going to call CPS. “What you mean backwoods?” the haunt worker aggressively barks back, clearly unhappy with the label
As the haunted houses get darker and more death-oriented than your standard ghosts and ghouls (we go from aliens and evil clowns to rapists and mad scientists ripping people open on operating tables), Zach gets closer to locating the notorious Blue Skeleton, and eventually makes the connection he needs. This is when shit really gets weird. They’re given a location of some dive bar where they’re supposed to meet with a “Mr. Giggles” who will tell them how to make contact with the extreme haunt group, and this bar scene is worth the wait. The entire bar seems to exist for the sole purpose of creating a creepy atmosphere for thrill-seekers searching for extreme haunts; even on a weeknight every patron in the bar is dressed up as ghouls and behaving as if they always dress that way. A couple in rotted out clothes drags themselves slowly across the dance floor, some huge dude in a prison outfit and a face smeared with blood sucks on a brew, and two zombies sit at the bar counter smoking like it’s any other Tuesday night in the world. Everyone is in character from the moment the group walks through the front door until the moment they leave, and it’s bizarre. When the guys ask one of the zombies about Mr. Giggles, the huge prisoner-ghoul pulls up “Halloween Spooks” on the jukebox, and a demented clown – who eagle-eyed audience members may recognize as having been seen in previous haunts already – comes shuffling out onto the dance floor, bizarrely gyrating and wiggling towards their table. The look on Brandy’s face here says it all:
The guys are called outside to meet with the aforementioned Giggles, and Brandy makes the terrible decision to go to the bathroom. This is when the two zombie dudes decide to corner her in there, and she manages to push her way past them in time for Bobby and Mikey to question them. Brandy is shaken, and the guys decide they have to be more careful about leaving her alone, but sadly, they don’t decide that things have gotten out of hand and that perhaps they should quit their haunt journey while they’re ahead.
It may be too late for that, anyway; because the haunt now seems to be following them. Aside from being filmed one night while they sleep, they also find themselves surrounded by a whole host of costumed creepers a few nights later. A weird cow heart shows up in their RV fridge one morning, causing Mikey to barf into the sink clad in nothing but his hot pink boxer briefs – which is quite an image. On Halloween morning, a huge pumpkin is thrown against the side of the vehicle, with an invitation to New Orleans inside. When they throw open the blinds, they find five blue skeleton masks stuck under the windshield wipers. Mikey and Brandy are the most disturbed by this, but no one but Zach seems the least bit interested in pursuing the invitation. In spite of their obvious discomfort, all the pressure to be the one to say no way falls to Brandy, and she can’t bring herself to do it under the circumstances. She’s basically bullied into participating, and without her leading the opposition, no one else steps up to suggest they bow out. So on to New Orleans they go, blue masks in hand.
Halloween night in New Orleans is as insane as you might imagine, and in the chaos the man-child Jeff is the first one to pick a guy in a Blue Skeleton mask out of the crowd. Unfortunately, he thinks it’s Bobby, who is wearing the exact same blue hoodie as this guy, and he follows the dude into an alley like an idiot (sorry Jeff, but situational awareness is a skill you need to develop). Suddenly he sees someone else in the alley, and it’s the weird porcelain doll-girl from the very first haunt, along with a deranged rabbit we’ve already spied miles ago before shit got too real. Jeff turns around, and a whole host of deranged clowns and haunt workers from previous haunts are closing in on him. He gets the shit beat out of him, then he’s tied up and dragged off. And that’s the last we see of Jeff.
Back to the remaining four. Zach has called Jeff’s cell phone, which now has a message on it saying they need to meet someone at a random address out in the middle of nowhere if they want to see their friend again. Cut to the RV trumbling along in the darkness. Inside, the mood is grim. No one’s speaking, and everyone is some combination of pissed and terribly concerned. Mikey asks where in the hell they’re going, and Bobby stops the RV to yell at him about how he doesn’t know what to do, either. Any thought of this whole Blue Skeleton/extreme haunt thing being a game are gone now, and everyone’s starting to lose it a little. A car approaches them in the distance. It stops. For a moment nothing happens, but then Zach gets a text. Get out of the car now, it says, or your friend will die. Mikey is confused. This isn’t real, right? he asks Zach. I mean, let’s just go out there and get this over with, we know what this is. It’s the extreme experience they’ve been seeking, we the audience think, but even we are not sure. Is this a haunt, or are they all in danger? There’s no way to know.
And there’s not much time to think, because as soon as Mikey says he’s not scared because its not real anyway, Zach gets another text. You will be scared, it says. So…they can hear inside the RV now? I don’t have much nice to say about Zach about this point, but at least he takes it upon himself to be the one to get out of the RV and approach the waiting car, since this was all his idea in the first place. Shortly after he leaves, however, the RV is shaken and glass is broken; the remaining three fall to the ground and within seconds, several big skeleton-masked thugs break in and drag them all away. Oh dear.
There’s a bus ride with blaring music and everyone but Jeff – who really is never seen again – seated inside with black bags over their heads. Eventually the bus stops, and the three guys are taken outside, leaving Brandy in the bus alone with two skeleton-dudes. She’s weeping openly now, and begging not to be left alone. The guys shout and scream for her to come with them, but surprise surprise that no one cares. I’ve done my fair share of reading about the extreme haunt experiences, and when they are done properly, participants are give a safe word they can say at any time and their experience is immediately ended. But there are no safe words here, and it’s clear that whatever’s going to happen from here on out is definitely not going to be well-organized, safe, or possibly even legal. Thanks Zach.
To maintain the found footage conceit, Blue Skeleton is also filming the experience, and they give each person a camera to film everything that’s going on. That takes a big suspension of belief to accept, but I’m willing to allow it. We first follow Brandy into a creepy as hell dilapidated house where lights flash on and off, music blares out for a few seconds at a time before cutting off again, and doors slam at random. Zach appears to be locked in a darkened room with nothing but a blue light overhead, while Mikey and Bobby wander around in the dark looking for a way out. They are all IMMEDIATELY over it and asking if they can quit. No one answers. Eventually, they all end up getting the crap kicked out of them as their cameras cut out. It…doesn’t look good.
Cut to Brandy, unconscious and bloodied, being stuffed into the trunk of a car. She’s taken out to the middle of nowhere, where a deep hole has been dug into the ground. Simultaneously, the other three wake to find themselves locked into coffins. Cut back to Brandi, who’s laying in a wooden box. As the lid is closed on it, we see that there’s a camera inside. She comes to, but only after the lid has been closed, and we watch as she screams for help while hearing dirt being piled on top of the lid. They’re burying her alive. Likewise, we cut to the guys in their coffins, all banging and scratching, trying to get out. Then we cut to a shot of one of the Blue Skeleton guys, still wearing his mask. He looks directly into the camera, and it cuts to black. The end.
Some people are unhappy with this ending, calling it anticlimactic, but I think it’s perfect. To me it indicates they’re all going to be killed, and that’s the ending I still go with, even though a sequel was filmed that blows that theory all to hell (and as a sequel, it’s…not good). In my opinion everything points to this being the end of the road for the group, and the threats have seemed pretty real. So I choose to believe that’s how the story ends. It’s open to interpretation, however, which I think is what some don’t like about it. It also feels abrupt after so much skilled tension-building, but that doesn’t bother me either. Your mileage may vary, but overall I’d highly recommend this movie for something unusual that makes the most of the found-footage format in a unique way.