(This review was originally published on October 19, 2012 at Reel Film News)
2009‘s “Best Worst Movie” showed us that director Michael Stephenson could make a relevant, widely appealing documentary out of some pretty obscure subject matter. That film, his first as a director, chronicled the making of a cult horror phenomenon called “Troll 2”, a so-bad-it’s-good 1990 B-movie in which he also ‘acted’, and one that needs to be seen to be believed. But the documentary was not entirely about the movie; what it also depicted was a small slice of American culture, as well as the life of a man named George Hardy who had a positive impact on others in his community. It had a refreshing, lighthearted air about it.
Stephenson captures the same essence in “The American Scream”, which touches down rather unobtrusively in the small suburban town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Three neighboring but very different families share an uncommon obsession with Halloween, the art of ‘home haunting’, as it’s called, which elevates the stakes of Halloween decoration to a level that would rival most revenue-generating, professionally outfitted attractions. Long before the autumn leaves fall, these folks are designing graveyards, buying coffins and hiring actors to populate their haunted houses, hoping to draw hoards of people, with no thought of financial gain. If you think you have a neighbor who’s a real fanatic, think again.
Though the subject of this documentary might deter the narrow-minded, I assure you that there’s more to it than latex masks and styrofoam headstones. Stephenson reminds us, quite simply and with much humor, that we all need something to keep us from getting too cynical. The people here – or ‘house haunters’, I should say – are introduced not as unreasonable, obsessive types, but rather as hard-working, community oriented folks who just happen to find solace in the art of scaring the crap out of people. When Halloween night rolls around, families will line up at their homes in droves like they’re at an amusement park.
Stephenson’s film becomes ensconced so comfortably in this lifestyle that you, as a viewer, might forget that there’s anything extreme about it. At the forefront of this observation, which begins 30 days before Halloween, is Victor Bariteau, a systems administrator for a financial firm who’s already been preparing for months. He has a workshop dedicated to the craft. “I don’t understand my reasoning,” he says. “It certainly satisfies some desire I have.” His oldest daughter shares his enthusiasm. The only Barbie dolls she has are painted to resemble legions of the undead.
Two blocks away, Manny Souza, also a husband and father, does the same thing, only with a more frugal approach. He’ll dumpster dive to get what he needs. Manny isn’t quite the perfectionist Victor is, and doesn’t strive to be. He believes whole-heartedly that while holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving are for families, Halloween brings the community closer together. Matthew and Victor Brodeur, a father and son team from down the block, fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
There’s an economic reality that the haunt-building citizens of Fairhaven share with the rest of us. Victor in particular, whose IT job is soon to be outsourced, would consider doing this professionally if it could pay the bills (there are paid ‘haunt consultants’, as we find out). They’re fortunate only to have a small remainder of the mortgage left. His wife Tina, who is his biggest supporter, is possibly also the biggest skeptic. “The fact that she puts up with me doing this is a blessing,” he says.
If you’ve ever been consumed by a craft, “The American Scream” will speak to you on some level – it certainly reached the kid in me who used to count down the days until Halloween. It’s a fun, mindful movie that doesn’t pass judgement. Even though I’m already finding ways to revamp my scantily decorated front porch for the season, “Scream” could ultimately have been about any outlandish hobby; what we really witness in this documentary is people in a small town coming together in their own unconventional way.