The found footage horror film The Houses October Built begins with documentary archival footage and inter-titles that describe how dangerous haunted house attractions can be.
This intro is appropriate, given that the film is a restructuring of a 2011 documentary film by the same filmmakers. It is seemingly impossible to find a copy of this documentary, so one can only assume that director Bobby Roe and company extracted footage from their doc and then added a fictional narrative on top.
I really wish I could find that documentary, because the real-life aspect of the film is the only really unnerving part of The Houses October Built. The concept that people hired to scare people in a haunted house turn out to be real criminals—real monsters—is what is terrifying about the premise. The plot that follows five friends being stalked by masked goons while they road trip to find the scariest haunted house in Texas is tepid in comparison.
Following the documentary intro, we are introduced to our band of travelers. They ad-lib what is meant to be lightly humorous and natural conversation so that we care about them, but it all comes off as painfully staged.
When they do make it to their first haunted house—the “Haunt House” in Caddo Mills—there is plenty of creepy handheld jump scares. Throughout the film, the crew films inside real life haunted houses and add some of their own actors into the mix.
There is some adequate tension in these early moments, when it becomes clear that something is not right about some of the “scare actors” in the attraction. Lingering moments where certain actors stand out add suspense once the jump scares fade away.
What continues to detract from these moments of suspense are the acting performances. Again, it all feels ad-libbed, poorly. The first real moment of tension in the film, when an actor in a clown mask stands in the way of the group’s trailer, is utterly ruined by the laughable line: “Guys, he looks really pissed.”
…He’s wearing a mask.
It’s one thing to give a pass to non-professional actors working in a found footage movie. It isn’t an easily forgivable transgression, but it can be done. What is less forgivable is a group of protagonists who have not a shred of personality among them and mumble their way through dialogue that does not progress anything.
Between every night of haunted house excursion is a day scene in which nothing happens. The stagnancy, at the very least, extends the film to feature length. We are also forced to sit through it.
What results is a film that has about 10 minutes of screentime that has any genuine tonal energy to it. With the intro and the first two or three scenes that feature the film’s antagonists, there is something thrilling to grab hold of. Everything around these disparate moments feels like a chore.
Not only this, but the motivations of our characters are so strained by the final act that it becomes farcical. Each scene oscillates between the characters being put on the verge of ripping their hair out from fear of the creepy figures surrounding this “extreme haunted house” society and them saying some off-handed line about how everyone needs to get excited about the experience they were just freaking out about.
There is no motivation for the characters to remain in the situation they are in. In fact, their initial goals are never clearly established. Why are they filming this in the first place? Whatever it is, why would it be worth sticking around until the bitter end?
What it comes down to is that there is so little narrative work being done in this film. With the plotting so shallow, the characters appear a joke.
Then there is the matter of the ambiguous ending. Tacked on as half a hopeful cliffhanger and half a thinker, it functions as an inert finale more than anything else. At that point in the film, the question of whether what is happening is real or part of an intense haunted house experience does not function as an adequate stick-with-you ending. It is just an underwhelming climax to a film that would have functioned better without the fictional narrative that preceded it.
The Houses October Built: D+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)