Each year when the air turns crisp and the leaves turn gold, brown and blood red, they come out of hiding. They’ve lurked all year, waiting for October to roll around so their brand of terror can be unleashed across the United States on neighborhoods impatiently waiting to see what new terror will be unveiled. Ghouls, goblins, axe-wielding maniacs and freakish creatures from other planets and dimensions will converge on Halloween. No, I’m not talking about Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers or Leatherface, I’m talking about the men and women who create elaborate haunted houses that neighbors line up around the block to take part in every Halloween. Michael Paul Stephenson’s (director of “Best Worst Movie”) terrific documentary “The American Scream” zeroes in on three such haunted houses (and their creators) in the small town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
I really, really enjoyed “The American Scream.” It’s exactly the kind of documentary I’m drawn to; a small story about a person or niche we may never have met, tells an engaging and entertaining story and doesn’t take itself too seriously yet still manages to speak to some truths about the human condition. All of the people (and their haunted houses, mazes and Lord-knows-whats) profiled here have very different designs and the motivations for basically killing themselves to create a haunted house; each individual storyline is totally engaging in its own way. “The American Scream” does a great job blending heart and soul with fun and terror in its peek at “home haunters” on their biggest day of the year.
In “The American Scream,” we first meet the undisputed King of the Fairhaven haunted house, Victor Bariteau. This is a man who takes his hauntings seriously. He’s a perfectionist with an artist’s eye and the passion of a decorated war hero who manages to have a day job and an amazing family supporting him. He shares his tiny house with a wife and two incredibly understanding daughters, as well as the costumes, masks and detritus of years worth of past haunted houses. Bariteau is a genuinely nice guy and his story comes through the clearest as we get to know him and his motivations for creating his yearly masterpiece.
Next we meet everyman Manny Souza, an overweight city worker who was inspired by Bariteau to make his own creation. Much, much less of a perfectionist than his “mentor,” Souza’s backyard haunted house looks more like a white trash junkyard than an organized carnival, and that’s o.k. Souza discovered early on that he just wants people to have a good time and while he admires the work and dedication of Bariteau, he also realizes that very few people pay attention to finite details and are just going for the gut-punch scare. However, like Bariteau, Souza has very sincere and sweet reasons for his haunting ode to Halloween and, much like Bariteau, his wife and kids are along for the journey.
Lastly we meet an odd father-son combination in Matt and Rick Brodeur; here “The American Scream” gets a bit slippery. As a documentary filmmaker myself who’s dealt with subjects that are more than a little, shall we say… peculiar… I know it’s extremely difficult to not come across as exploitative or making fun of them. Stephenson manages this tightrope act, but just barely. The scenes with the Brodeurs work because I genuinely believe Stephenson’s trying to show the sweet side of a strange relationship. However when you meet people as odd as Matt and Rick Brodeur and a camera is cast on their day-to-day routine, it’s just impossible not to laugh at them or wonder just what the hell is going on with their lives. I mean, an entire industry of “real-life” TV has been created on making fun of people much like the Brodeurs but I think “The American Scream” does a very admirable job of letting the humor in situations shine through without seeming to exploit the family.
“The American Scream” is a fun, sweet, well-made documentary. We meet the characters a few months away from Halloween and a natural excitement builds as the peaks and valleys of construction escalate. Along the way the motivations of why these people go so crazy to put on a show for total strangers become clearer and it’s refreshing to see people who are doing things for personal, and altruistic, reasons. These people aren’t motivated by money or fame but are going for personal moments that are unforgettable. As Halloween approaches we want all of them to succeed and as the big night winds down, we too exhale and applaud the wild ride the filmmakers and characters have taken us on. “The American Scream” is a passionate look at passionate people who might be a little bit nuts but for all the right reasons.
“The American Scream” is playing currently on the Chiller Network and is also available to stream on Netflix Instant.