1 out of 5
Directed by: Bobby Roe
Most reviews – and now including mine – agree that The Houses October Built has a pretty perfect setup for a found footage film: blending real clips of haunted houses and real interviews with their workers with the film’s fictional narrative of a group of friends searching for the most “extreme” haunt experience… which of course leads to something more extreme than they’d accounted for, and – hopefully for our filmmakers, I’m assuming – legit scares for the audience.
The effectiveness of how that setup is applied, and its resultant spookiness, is where the divide falls, and I’m on the side that found Houses to be almost completely incompetent.
Found footage rarely has strong characters, so I can’t necessarily dock the film for creating a lead “cast” of complete dickbags – dickbaggery also being a constant in these kinds of movies – but Houses rather doubles down on that by not even doing the diligence of a round of faux-introductions of who’s filming, who’s related to whom, whose idea it was to go on this haunted house tour… As such, when names are being shouted, there’s literally zero connection with whom we’re expecting to swing in to frame, and any time I thought I had pinned down “oh, this person is the filmmaker,” some other random guy from the group would make a comment to contradict that. Tangential to that is the “film everything” maxim found footage relies on. Any followers of the genre likely have come to accept this type of justification for keeping the camera going, but this particular film – while using that same phrase – forgets to justify the other cameras. We’re touring haunted houses; let’s film the haunted houses. Why, then, is there a camera also in the camper that they’re using for their road tour? Why do they take the camera into the bars they stop at along the way?
Narratively, one of the Randoms explains the general gist at the outset, but the awareness of some secretive, super-duper haunted house for which they begin a more targeted search pops up completely in the background, such that when it becomes a foreground topic, it doesn’t have any impact. It’s joining the conversation midway. And structurally, “spooky” things start happening prior to the mention of this house – right after the first haunted house they visit, they have a clown following them – which just felt off, and completely lacking the buildup that horror generally relies on. You could take this as a purposeful shakeup, and / or trying to frontload scares, or suggest that this fabled haunt was out to get them the whole while, but there’s nothing in the movie to suggest that. It’s more just “clowns are creepy, so let’s put a lot of them in the movie.”
Visually, the thing is also a mess. Shaky cam galore, fine, but there has to be a sense of when to bring things in to frame in found footage, in order for any scare to land – just hearing things off screen and then quickly panning over a fright mask ain’t gonna do much – and Houses has a whole bunch of off screen shenanigans, and Blair Witch amateurism with what’s on screen, but completely lacking the choice shots which can make that work.
That should cover anything that can be picked on, yes? But just as a final nail – and perhaps why I’m being directly hard on this movie, instead of trying to find some positives – for a flick made not all that long ago (2014 vs. 2020), it’s incredibly unenlightened. The one female character is protected at all costs, like a delicate flower, and the male leads love to sex it up and go to nudie bars and have it all on camera. I guess that’s a “real” capture of the douchebag lifestyle, but these are not people I wanted to spend any goddamn time with, and I hardly think that was the point; rather, the film seems rather celebratory of its douchebaginess, i.e. yeah, bro, you banged another one, high five! but bro don’t mess with my delicate flower girlfriend! Titillation can go part-and-parcel with horror, and it’s a weird relationship, but I do think there’s a way to include it in the genre without putting on a backwards cap and perpetuating this kind of nonsense.’