[Horror History] Terror Time (The 2000’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 10 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 as well

The new decade/century/millennium forced horror to adapt practically from jump. After so many dire predictions, January 1, 2000 came and went without much mishap. Nevertheless, a seismic shift was on the way: the events of September 11, 2001, which many argue is when the 21st century truly began. 9/11 changed the global understanding of what it means to be afraid, and it set the cultural agenda for the following decade, if not longer, and horror movies of the time quickly began to reflect this new cruelty.

Hollywood, already facing a recession, was hit hard as filmmakers struggled to connect with audiences amid the collective trauma. Anyone trying to sell a horror film in the autumn of 2001 (as George Romero did with Land of the Dead) got rebuffed. Everybody wanted to make warm, fuzzy movies with uplifting, encouraging messages. There were even calls to ban horror movies in the name of world peace. But, by 2005 the horror genre was as popular as it had ever been. Horror films routinely topped the box office, yielding, as they always had, above-average gross on below-average costs. It seemed that audiences wanted a good scare as a form of escape from stories of war, suicide bombers, and devastating natural disasters, just as their great-grandparents had turned to the Universal monsters to gain a reprieve from the miseries of the Great Depression.

Those monsters had to change, however. Gone were the lone psychopaths of the 1990’s, too reminiscent of Osama bin Laden hiding in his cave. As the shock and awe of 21st century warfare spread across TV and computer screens, cinematic horror had to offer an alternative while still tapping into the prevailing cultural mood. The result was a mix of terminal terror, soldiers of misfortune, and the rise and fall of torture porn all competing against a wave of Asian-inspired horror and direct-to-DVD shlock.

Had it been released in 2002 as opposed to 2005, Land of the Dead would have been a very, very different film

The first mini-boom of the 21st century were knockoffs of The Blair Witch Project (1999). It was a particularly easy trend to hop on because it required the least in the way of budget and resources. There were no solid rules to follow here, aside from eschewing Hollywood gloss in the name of getting down and dirty with whatever tools you had on hand. First came parodies like The Bogus Witch Project (2000) and The Blair Underwood Project (2000), most of which had higher budgets than the film they were imitating. Soon after came copycats like The St. Francisville Experiment (2000) and Blood Reaper (2003), turned out by amateurs with camcorders walking around the woods wondering why their films didn’t reach the box office bonanza proportions of Blair Witch. The official sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) was a conventionally scripted affair that made little impression on audiences and strangled the franchise in its infancy. But there were a few zero budget, shot-on-digital-video efforts that showed imagination and ingenuity, most notably the Internet-themed The Collingswood Story (2002), the chilling Session 9 (2001), infection/zombie flick [REC] (2007), giant monster creature feature Cloverfield (2008), and the breakout hit of the decade, Paranormal Activity (2009).

Psychopathy continued to be a major theme even as the psychos themselves took on new form. Mary Harron filmed Bret Easton Ellis’s “unfilmable” novel American Psycho (2000), introducing filmgoers to Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a high maintenance Wall Street yuppie from the 80’s obsessed with pop music, designer clothes, and obsessive grooming. The film consigned the fearsome figure of the serial killer to the dead past, but other filmmakers failed to take the hint. The serial killer sub-genre now began to incorporate the famous faces of true crime with films like Ed Gein (2000), Ted Bundy (2002), and The Manson Family (2003). American Psycho was also an entry in the increasingly crowded “rubber reality” twist films following in the footsteps of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Fight Club (1999), and the bendy rug-pulling of The Matrix (1999). These sorts of twists, which relied on a warped mind or sense of reality, became commonplace in the early years of the 21st century. On some level, they may have been a reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11; in many films, there is an attempt to turn away from, revoke, or rewrite a reality that has become too much to bear. Into this category fall ghost stories like The Others (2001), Session 9 (2001), and The Orphanage (2007); time/memory gameplay like Memento (2000) and The Butterfly Effect (2004); psychotic subjective realities such as The Cell (2000), The Attic Expeditions (2002), Frailty (2002), and Identity (2003); murderous imaginary friends/ doppelgängers in The Machinist (2003), Secret Window (2004), High Tension (2004), and Hide and Seek (2005); and bizarre combos of the above themes with The I Inside (2003), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), The Jacket (2004), Trauma (2004), and Shutter Island (2009).

The rise of the Internet meant 2000s horror fans could more easily access and explore international horror, and there was a particular fascination with Asian horror. In contrast to Western horror, which has fluctuated with various trends and cycles within the horror, Eastern horror has maintained a consistent focus on the psychological and the supernatural with only a few rare exceptions. Asian horror draws heavily on the spirit, perhaps because predominant Asian belief systems like Buddhism, Shintoism, and Islam are more open to the concept of the dearly departed leaving some trace of themselves behind, hence the predominance of ancestor worship. The struggle to cope with the massive and senseless loss of life in the name of terror may have had a factor in the increased fascination with Eastern-inspired horror. Whatever the reason, a flood of ghost stories in the pattern of Ringu (1998) from Japan, Thailand, China, and South Korea flooded the market in the early 2000s. Lank-haired, big-eyed, malevolent girl ghosts were everywhere, as were curses spread through viral means and investigative female protagonists learning secrets that would eventually destroy them. And almost all of them had downbeat endings. The most successful of the bunch included The Eye (2002), Unborn But Forgotten (2002), Dark Water (2002), The Grudge (2004), Pulse (2001), Phone (2002), and Into the Mirror (2003). Western cinema soon began to not only import these types of films, but try their own hand at them as well. First the conventions were paralleled in What Lies Beneath (2000) and The Mothman Prophecies (2001), then they were outright imitated in Feardotcom (2002), They (2002), and Gothika (2003). Eventually, Hollywood figured out they could remake the original Asian films for an American audience that had never seen them. With The Ring (2002) and Dark Water (2005) succeeding at the box office, Hideo Nakata (director of the original Japanese versions) was brought in to helm The Ring Two (2005), a direct sequel to the American film and in no way a remake of his Japanese Ringu 2 (1999). Other prominent Asian movies of the decade that didn’t fit the ghost mold included the puzzlebox Spiral (2000), schoolgirl zombie bash Stacy (2001), Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002; Oldboy, 2003; Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, 2004), and Takeshi Miike’s controlled and chilling Audition (1999).

The ultimate slow burn with the ultimate reward

British horror also enjoyed a renewed international interest in the early 2000’s. Rob Green’s The Bunker (2000), in which Nazis are plagued by guilt-induced phantoms, paved the way for a number of horror stories with wartime settings. They all led up to the World War I-set Deathwatch (2002) and Neil Marhsall’s werewolves-ate-my-platoon feature Dog Soldiers (2002). Additionally, fans of war-horror could also get their fill with haunted submarine flick Below (2002) and the Korean Vietnam spooker R-point (2004). British horror mimicked the the teen-centric Dimension movies with a few efforts like Long Time Dead (2001) and Nine Lives (2002) but mostly they took old themes and revamped them for the modern age with The Hole (2001), The Last Horror Movie (2003), Lie Still (2004), Severance (2006), Wishbaby (2008), and Black Death (2009). Breakout hits from the U.K. were Marc Evan’s reality TV slasher My Little Eye (2002), Danny Boy’s fast zombie/apocalypse shocker 28 Days Later (2002), Edgar Wright’s surprisingly pertinent Romero nod Shaun of the Dead (2004), and Neil Marshall’s cave terror film The Descent (2005).

Meanwhile, Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy (1999) kick-started a new trend for action-oriented horror/fantasy films that brought the monster movie into the new millennium. Playing with the tradition of dark superhero films that began with The Crow (1994), Sommers followed up his successful first outing with Imhotep with The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004), which resurrected many of the classic Universal monsters by pitting Hugh Jackman against Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and involving Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley) and the Wolf Man (Will Kemp). The action-horror boom continued with efforts like From Hell (2001), Queen of the Damned (2002), Underworld (2003), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Constantine (2004), The Brothers Grimm (2005), and a remake of The Wolf Man (2010), as well as a number of Blade sequels. These are slick, glossy films that do their best to imitate the effectiveness of the Spider-Man and X-men films they were going up against, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the strongest result from this trend was Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2003) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), though far more interesting are his pure horror creations from the decade: The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007). Reviving classic monsters with odd, self-reflexive efforts didn’t last long, however, though Tim Burton and Johnny Depp managed a respectable result with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). The monster/fantasy hybrid films were designed to work in an era dominated by the Lord of the Rings films. This is perhaps most evident in two foreign superproductions from abroad: France’s Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Russia’s Night Watch (2004). The best variant on the classic mode of the werewolf, however, was the small, cleverly written Canadian teen-centric Ginger Snaps (2000), which even managed a few interesting sequels.

But the dominant force was still mainstream, studio-backed teen horror. Interesting, self-aware variations like Cherry Falls (2000) and psycho stalkers like The Watcher (2000) soon found themselves edged out by spoofs like Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th (2000), Club Dread (2004), and the Scary Movie franchise. Despite this, the fairly ingenious Final Destination (2000) managed to found its own franchise centered around contrived death sequences given metaphysical weight. It was the rare 2000’s horror film to birth a series and not immediately die in infancy. Countless franchise wannabes stalled after their inaugural installment–Bones (2001), Soul Survivors (2001), Darkness Falls (2003). Others eeked out sequels that went direct-to-DVD–Boogeyman (2004), Reeker (2005), and Vacancy (2007) being just a few examples.

An interesting outing, Cherry Falls remains both forgotten and relevant 20+ years later

The decent reception of the remake of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill in 1999 triggered a frenzy for raiding the back catalogue of past middling efforts and giving them a makeover for a second chance, namely Thirteen Ghosts (2001), Willard (2003), House of Wax (2005), 2001 Maniacs (2005), and The Wizard of Gore (2008). Into this category we might also put Ghost Ship (2002), which was not a remake but for some reason was designed to seem like one. These remakes weren’t the only old properties given new life in the 2000’s. The surprising critical and commercial success of Bride of Chucky (1998) got the powers-that-be behind the major slasher franchises thinking, resulting in such films as Jason X (2001), Freddy vs. Jason (2003), Beyond Re-Animator (2003), AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), and The Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). At some point, someone realized that halting the sequels and straight-up remaking the original entries to franchises that still garnered public interest would be far more profitable, as the remakes could be marketed as events. From this mindset came the remakes for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), The Amityville Horror (2005), The Fog (2005), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007), Prom Night (2008), My Bloody Valentine (2009), The Last House on the Left (2009), Halloween II (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Though some of these remakes succeed in their own right, many of them are just good lucking, slick productions lacking what made their namesakes interesting in the first place. While his masterpiece was being retooled, Tobe Hooper also got in on the remake game with a little remembered update of The Toolbox Murders (2004). George Romero, meanwhile, used the clout from the Dawn of the Dead remake to get financing for his comeback, Land of the Dead (2005). It wasn’t quite on the level of his first three Living Dead films, but it still had something to say. He kept it indie for the remaining entries in the series as well, Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). These, combined with Dawn and Shaun of the Dead, brought about a zombie apocalypse boom that saw several Resident Evil sequels, I Am Legend (2007), Dance of the Dead (2008), Dead Snow (2009), and Zombieland (2009) gain mainstream success while smaller, creative takes like The Signal (2007) and Pontypool (2009) enjoyed rave reviews among genre enthusiasts of all sorts.

Those enthusiasts were now getting in on the game themselves. Raised on 70’s and 80’s horror, the new generation of horror filmmakers moved into the filed in earnest in the 2000’s, each of them trying their own variations on established themes and igniting a debate about whether paying homage was enough to make a film stand on its own. This trend began with a little cluster of horror/road movies that rediscovered the unease of the flyover country that exists between America’s cities. Urban teens found themselves subjected to rural horrors and going up against the terrors of the sticks. The creature feature Jeepers Creepers (2001), psycho stalker Joy Ride (2001), vampire flick Forsaken (2001), and the ghostly Dead End (2003) were among the pulpier, lower-budgeted efforts, while bigger budget outings like Cold Creek Manor (2003) and The Skeleton Key (2005) updated 70’s plots about unwary townies moving into creaky old mansions for the modern, skeptical audience. Wrong Turn (2004) and Dead & Breakfast (2004) were combo efforts that used larger budgets to capitalize on “hick fear,” though both paled in comparison to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects (2005).

The most pervasive movement within horror during the 2000’s, however, was the so-called “torture porn.” Featuring grindhouse levels of violence and mutilation, the seeds of the sub-genre were planted with Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002), but were brought to fruition with James Wan’s Saw (2004) and solidified by Roth’s Hostel (2005). These are cynical, bleak films that force the audience to endure every minute of their numerous tied-to-a-chair-and-tortured sequences. Evoking the images of suspected terrorists imprisoned and “interrogated” at Guantanamo Bay, torture porn at once became horror’s hottest trend and its more derived deviation. Saw spawned the most successful horror franchise of the decade, with annually-released sequels developing the original idea into a serial-like story of labyrinthine complexity and increasingly elaborate set-piece kills. More life, intelligence, and interesting film-making tends to be found in foreign torture porn, however, particularly French films of the New Extremity movement like High Tension (2003), Them (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007), and Martyrs (2008). These are films made by grown-ups for grown-ups, and immediately earned sinister reputations for their frequent bans and limited availability.

I totally SAW that ending coming…not

Perhaps the last great boom of 2000’s horror was the vampire resurgence made popular by the Twilight series of novels and subsequent films (2008-2012), the outstanding Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008), and TV shows like True Blood (2008-2014) and Being Human (2008-2013). Though the vampire had an annoyingly sparkly day in the sun, it was the zombie who reigned supreme as the second decade of the 21st century dawned. Within that decade, horror would thrive thanks to increased attention to international efforts, generous budgets from major studios, a plethora of indie auteurs creating dynamic, challenging work, and a scarier, more complicated world that demanded scarier, more complicated horror films.

Read about all that and more in the final Horror History post that will examine the spooks and scares of the 2010’s…

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

Battle of the Haunted House Films (Not the Ones You’re Thinking Of)

@melmoy

We’ve seen a lot of haunted house movies out there. But there are precious few films about haunted houses—that is, the Halloween time attraction of staged scenes and complicit audience members. It seems to make sense. It’s a little too obvious, right? We expect to be scared inside a haunted house because it’s what we’re there for.  Things will jump around corners, spiders will drop from the ceiling, creatures might chase us down a hallway. The beauty of a haunted house film, in the traditional sense, is the uncanny, the sudden vilification of a sanctuary. But, a few gem films out there have mastered the art of making something incredibly obvious, still entirely disturbing. The Houses That October Built (2014) and Hell House LLC (2015) are two films that tackle the terror waiting behind the walls of a Halloween attraction, but they handle it in very different ways.

Let’s go chronologically.

The Houses That October Built is a 2014 film written and directed by Bobby Roe, who has since been tapped to write a film based in The Walking Dead universe. It follows a group of documentary filmmakers who are traveling across the country, visiting famous haunted attractions all throughout the month of October until their grand finale in New Orleans on Halloween night. Along the way, they find themselves stalked by an anonymous group associated with an underground, extreme haunt. Hell House LLC is a 2015 film written and directed by Stephen Cognetti about a production crew behind a new haunted attraction where, on opening night, a tragedy took place in the basement of the haunt that still hasn’t been fully explained.

The films have similarities and some stark differences. First off, both films feature a predominantly male cast with a single female in the group. It’s not a deep take, nor is it important to the plot, but in the larger conversation of how horror likes to feature diversity, both films—written by men—depict a group of young white men chasing a dangerous dream, with a single female in the group who gets some obligatory sexualization from at least one or more of the men around her. It’s frustrating, especially when parts of the film lean hard into the flaring tensions which usually means angry white men screaming at each other, occasionally throwing a shove or punch. Both films also focus on in this female as the final escapee/victim of the situation. With Sara (Hell House) being the only one to make it out of the house alive and Brandy (Houses That October Built) as the one holding the camera at the end. There’s an interesting psychological here to explore, the Halloween fantasy of a group of men secluded with a woman in a haunted attraction where she has no agency or place in the story until they are thrust upon her as the men around her drop like flies.

Let’s look at some more similarities: they’re both found footage. Ever since The Blair Witch Project popularized the medium in 1999, found footage has been utilized by independent filmmakers, likely because it’s so cheap. It’s easier to hand a camera off to an actor than it is to pay a few cameramen for omniscient camera shots, so steady cam work, or figure out how to get a crane shot. It’s also a way to skirt on creativity, no one is going to complain about the cinematography when it’s purposefully messy. No one’s going to compliment either, of course. But it’s become a quick way for film school hopefuls to get some stories out there and it’s mostly come at the cost of the medium itself. Found footage gets elicits something of a groan these days. Since Blair Witch, few films have found believable occasions for a camera to be capturing the escalating events and nuanced stories in between jump scares. Neither of these films are particularly engaging where that is concerned. In Houses That October Built, they’re putting together a travel documentary. Why? How are they funding this? Who is the audience? Doesn’t matter even though it should. In Hell House footage has been turned over to an investigative reporter that’s a series of home movies about the weeks creating the new haunt. Don’t know why we’re filming or why when someone wakes up in the middle of the night their first instinct is to turn on a camera before taking a drink of water. But whatever, in both instances we’re along for the ride, however contrived our reasons are for being there.

The content is where these films differ, and also where they are at their strongest. Houses That October Built takes on a fear we don’t really talk about: how vulnerable we are while in a haunted attraction. Dr. Margee Kerr cites in much of her work that the reasons we find haunted attractions so fun is the assumption of safety, the ability to play out a fantasy while knowing we can go to the bar afterward. Houses That October Built twists this. The characters are not safe, we’re not sure if the ghoul in makeup is holding a plastic knife or a real one, whether that’s real blood or not, if that person staring at them is part of the haunt or something else. And it forces you to think about that in your own experiences. This is especially true for the over 18 “extreme haunts” that utilize full physical contact and safe words. You sign waivers and assume the chain saw they’re waving in your face isn’t real. But what if it was? The demons in this film are ultimately human, a group of serial killers using internet forums and urban legends to lure people into their extreme, and fatal, haunted attraction. It’s clever and unsettling and knocks at the door of some real psychological questions about haunted attractions and the people who seek them out.

Hell House takes a very different approach. The terror of attraction guests is a quick jumping-off point, not much else. We begin with cell phone footage which, according to the lore of the film, is the only known footage of the night of a terrible disaster that killed 15 people, both staff and attendees. The footage is jumbled, the event confusing, but the meat of the film will ultimately take us back to that night and the truth behind it. This film doesn’t go as deep psychologically as Houses That October Built. It’s not exploring a subconscious fear. Ultimately, it’s little more, at the end of the day, than a haunted house film with a very unique setting and premise. But that’s also what makes it fun. The group is staying in a house of horrors of their own creation. If it dives in their psychologies and stories, maybe that element would be more pronounced. But, it’s ultimately a movie that is fun and creepy because the idea of sleeping in a haunted attraction is fun and creepy. The demons aren’t human here, there’s talk of satanic rituals in the building before they bought it, suicides and creepy histories. The end makes it clear something supernatural was going on the entire time. There’s no deeper meaning, it’s just some fun atmosphere and creepy scares.

That being said, a lot was left on the cutting room floor that would have made for a truly complex film. Through some Q&A on a reddit thread, director and writer Stephen Cognetti shed some light on the larger story going on in the film—a story that was largely cut out when the script switched to a found-footage documentary. The idea behind much of the film’s plot was cosmic forces and fate, if you can believe that. The original owners of the hotel were cultists who opened up a hungry gate to the other side. Those monsters seemed to never be satisfied. Alex and his crew are drawn to the hotel when their capital runs out for their haunt in New York City, the hotel luring them there knowing they’d bring with them even more souls to feed off of once their haunted attraction opened. It’s an interesting dive into similar predestination themes in The House on Haunted Hill, the agency of place memory where there is history, the way we line up for violent scares every Halloween and fake bloodshed can be bait to us like sharks—or more like minows. But, as Cognetti pointed out in his reddit discussions, it’s hard to get all of that into a tight 90 minute found footage film. Which begs the question: why do a found footage film if it sacrifices the better portions of your story?

So, if I were to put these in a battle next to each other, who wins? Houses That October Built is psychological and unique and takes full advantage of its premise. Hell House is fun and atmospheric and the ideal lights off movie. The answer? Watch both this Halloween and decide for yourself.

31 by 31 Challenge #21: THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT 2 (2017)

@craiggors

Though the fount footage sub-genre and paranormal investigators motif had become stale by the mid-2010’s, The Houses October Built (2014) was a sleeper hit thanks to its realism and authentic presentation of the world of “extreme haunts,” full contact immersive experiences that blur the line between entertainment and psychological torture. And perhaps even physical torture. How does the sequel stack up? Let’s investigate…

Recovering from the trauma of their ordeal last Halloween–which involved kidnapping and apparent attempted murder–by the mysterious group the Blue Skeleton–who take “extreme haunt” to another level–five friends decide they must face their fears in order to move on with their lives. Heading back out on the road to visit more haunted house attractions, signs of the Blue Skeleton start appearing again and it seems that a new, fresh terror is just around the bend.

Houses 2, like its predecessor, is a meta-film. This go-around, it is also a love letter to some of the most famous names and faces in American haunt culture. The group travel to and namedrop real extreme haunted attractions, including Ohio’s “Haunted Hoochie” and Philadelphia’s “Terror Behind the Walls” (I’ve been, and I definitely recommend btw). There’s cameos from actual organizers, artists, and researchers that work with and in these haunts to create waking nightmares. It’s an illuminating peek behind the curtain for people who don’t know just how much organization it takes to put on these incredible attractions, and just how big their culture has become. In this fashion, Houses 2 is a send-up and celebration of all things Halloween, particularly in how this holiday can create a sense of community among artists, scarehounds, and horror freaks, much in the way the first film was as well.

There’s a fun turn the story takes this time around where our heroes’ documentary is inter-cut with voyeuristic footage of the group, letting us know that the true subject of this exploration is not the haunts anymore, it’s the people hunting them down. The retconning that resets the board opens the door to some inconsistencies and plot holes, and if you scrutinize too close you start to wonder why you should even care about any of these people because the film doesn’t make any sense but I think the trick here is to watch Houses 2 not as a horror film but as a horror documentary. It works far better this way, with each visit to a haunt just a chapter in a larger wrap-around story that the Blue Skeleton confrontation at the end ties up as neatly as can be expected.

The extreme haunt phenomenon is on the rise. It’s fascinating to experience, to read about in analytic texts like Margee Kerr’s Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (author and book both featured in this film), and to watch here in Houses 2. People are voluntarily paying to be subjected to potentially traumatizing experiences; the privilege to be emotionally rocked in the confines of a supposedly safe space. Is it a jaded mentality commonly attributed to millennials? Adrenaline-addicted experience-over-possessions mentality? Something else entirely? It’s titillating territory to explore, and The Houses October 2 is the perfect place to begin your hunt.

The Houses October Built 2

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #20: THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT (2014)

@craiggors

Found footage has been called a horror subgenre that burned bright and faded fast. Aside from a few milestones that utilized the format in creative and forward-thinking ways, found footage has mostly been repetitive, lazy, and uncreative. On the plus, it’s a great genre to work in for low-budget and indie filmmakers, a group of artists whose creativity is often more unrestrained than mainstream and studio moviemakers. It’s from these minds that we can still get creative found footage. Or, at the very least, a genuine effort to deliver something unpredictable.

Beneath the fake blood and cheap masks of countless haunted house attractions across the country, there are whispers of truly terrifying alternatives. Looking to find an authentic, blood-curdling good fright for Halloween, five friends set off on a road trip in an RV to track down these underground haunts. Just when their search seems to reach a dead end, strange and disturbing things start happening around them. Soon it becomes clear that the haunt has come to them.

Halloween and horror go hand in hand and diehard fans love to see horror movies taking place in, around, or about All Hallows’ Eve. It’s just our jam, and it’s why genre lovers have added The Houses October Built to their season lineup since its release five years ago, and why there seems to be a growing niche genre of Halloween-haunts-gone-wrong films. With the basest ingredients, Houses is a great Halloween movie. It captures the aura of autumn and the chill factor of this spookiest of holidays without being overly cloying about either. It feels and looks like real-world Halloween.

The reality factor, always a necessity for any convincing found footage film and rarely one that achieves its goal, is heightened by convincing performances from the capable cast. Zack (Zack Andrews) is the spirited ringleader always pushing the friend group into their crazy schemes and plots, Brandy (Brandy Schaefer) is the logical mom-friend happy to have fun but also always on the lookout for when its time to call it quits, and Jeff (Jeff Larson) is charismatic but underused. The life of the group and the movie is Mikey (Mikey Roe), an opinionated jokester who draws you into his onscreen presence. We all know guys like Mikey. They’re great to have around in large groups because they always make sure the fun keeps flowing. This is a seasoned group, committed to behaving how people actually behave (as far as the script allows, of course), which is unusual in most found footage fodder. 

The Houses October Built is a well-structured movie that doesn’t rely on standard scares, is brave enough to provide you with intelligent, capable protagonists who feel like individuals and not just “characters,” and an engaging story. Are there missteps? Of course. Some of the maneuvers feel flat or ill-thought out at times, but the movie is still a break from the pack. It’s not quite Blair Witch greatness, but I’d comfortably rank it alongside other strong found footage gems like Trollhunter (2010) and [REC] (2007). So even if you’re sick to death of found footage, give this one a try. You’ll be pleased with the Hallowed atmosphere, interesting, relatable characters, and terrifying sense of realism. Just, you know, maybe watch it after you’ve gone to your local haunted house. If you’re still around, that is…

The Houses October Built

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #19: HELL HOUSE LLC (2015)

@craiggors

It’s no secret in the horror community, and amongst general film fans, that the found footage sub-genre is drastically hit or miss. For every Cloverfield (2008) and Blair Witch Project (1999) there’s a dozen clunkers that waste the time, money, and brain cells of the viewer. Happily, Hell House LLC (2015) is no clunker, and while it may not have reached the exalted heights of REC (2007) or Paranormal Activity (2009), it’s achieved quite a cult status and accompanying fan base in the few short years since it’s release, not to mention two sequels of decent though not matching quality.

The film presents itself as a documentary featuring the recovered footage of a group of haunted attraction employees who opened a haunt, Hell House, in an abandoned hotel in Abaddon, New York, along with accompanying interviews and news clips speculating about the nature of a mysterious tragedy that occurred on opening night of the haunt that resulted in the deaths of several people. Through interviews with Sara (Ryan Jennifer), the only surviving member of the Hell House crew, we come to learn and see of the strange and sinister events that plagued the production of Hell House leading up to opening night, and we begin to piece together how and why everything went so horrifically wrong.

The buildup of tension is masterful in Hell House LLC, reminiscent of Paranormal Activity‘s use of title cards every time night fell and the resultant mounting dread. The use of different footage from varying sources speculating on the cause and nature of the tragedy at Hell House layers the mystery, each of them dropping subtle hints and clues for the audience to piece together an increasingly macabre puzzle. It’s an effective way for the filmmakers to manipulate the audience into feeling exactly what they wish the viewer to feel for any given scene and it works masterfully.

The characters aren’t too far from generic horror stock models, but they do break the mold in that, for the most part, they don’t make cliche or stupid mistakes, a welcome and refreshing change of pace. Though we don’t get to know any of them all that deeply, they’re a charming and likable group and it’s easy to feel for them when the scares start mounting. There are few, if any, jump scares to be found in the film. Director Stephen Cognetti uses a subtle hand to weave in quiet moments of terror that serve to elevate the story and tick up the suspense, a true slow-burn approach absent in much found footage but highly effective here.

It’s all about atmosphere in Hell House LLC, and the film is a perfect capsule of autumn in the northeast as well as the world of Halloween haunts and the community that supports and puts on haunted attractions. In many ways, the movie is more concerned with establishing and maintaining a sinister mood and an atmosphere of dread than with closing narrative loops, and the ending is offered to the audience with gaps to be filled by each individual viewer (or, I suppose, the two sequels that have followed). Those that like their mysteries completely unraveled may find this irritating, but there’s no denying that this is one hell of a tense and entertaining ride.

Hell House LLC

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror