Year 4 of my annual October horror marathon and I picked a movie that genuinely has a scarier clown than Pennywise. One of Reddit’s whispered horror darlings, The Houses October Built is a no-budget slice of seasonal fare that avoids most of the logistical pitfalls of that jackbooted genre, found-footage (yes, it should be fucking hyphenated).
A group of friends (in an homage to FF ancestor Blair Witch, the cast of unknowns play characters with the same first names) are on a road trip through the Deep South touring haunted houses. Not quite a thing I grew up with in the UK (unless you count a shite ghost train shuffling in and out of the world’s flimsiest fake house backdrop), those pee-infested scare factories have held a special place in my heart since I moved to the US. They are by turns inventive, cheap, expensive, loud, and a labour of love for the set designers, techs, makeup artists and actors. But, most of all, it’s a friendship bonding experience that culminates in the person in front of the group yelling at everyone for making them go first and experiencing all the scares upfront, because fuck you, Tom.
Back to the movie, which starts out as a pseudo-documentary with spliced-in news segments about dodgy goings-on in haunted house troupes, but then sheds all that when it becomes clear that this is just a group of amateurs amateurly filming their non-professional home video.
Granted, this merry band of scream-seekers charms with warm, natural chemistry, but this could have used the fake docu-angle to give us two movies for the price of one. Their odyssey is genuinely interesting, and the unspoken seediness and ghetto-regulated underbelly of the haunted house industry is something that could have had a light shed on it, all to make for a smarter movie without having to blow their microbudget. Good plot costs nothing.
What you can’t skimp on, though, is good sound. There are some one-liner gems throughout this movie, but we can’t fucking hear any of it because of the film’s admirable insistence to adhere to found-footage realism and its naturally spackly, stereoless sound. Again, another snag that could have been avoided had our protagonists been documentarians as well as friends.
So all we have is plot, and it’s mostly linear. The first 45 minutes or so is good fun – drinking, seeing all the different haunted houses (excellent use of found-footage POV), a cow’s heart being left in their RV’s fridge while they sleep – but with the story being so one-note and painfully telegraphed, it’s obvious that one of their stops is going to be a sinister house of peril. So, when it finally gets there after a bulk of unnecessary build-up (save a brilliantly creepy dancing clown), it’s a bit of a disappointment: not much happens, you can’t see anything, and it ends rather abruptly.
Funnily enough, like the majority of most haunted houses.