Monday, October 27, 2014


'Tis the season to be scary
The found footage gimmick will not die, but two seasonal offers provide minor thrills

by Don Stradley

There is so much to like about The Houses October Built that I dread describing it as a painfully slight  idea stretched out into a feature length movie, or as just another found footage tale with a grim ending.
Yet, there have been few horror movies in recent years that have been so watchable.

The story concerns a group of five friends who spend the week before Halloween touring the best haunted house attractions in the South.  They are looking for the most extreme experience possible, but after indulging an endless parade of people in  clown masks and backyard zombie makeup, they are on the verge of giving up hope. Then, in a smart twist, sinister characters from the various haunted houses crop up along their journey. They're on the roadsides, lurking in the woods, even breaking into their van and tampering with their camera. This, in itself,  is a pretty good idea.  Are there supernatural beings lurking at some of these attractions? If you play at being evil long enough, will that attract some genuine evil entities? 

There's also  a tense undercurrent that touches on classism, as the group's search for real "back-country" danger begins to grate on the nerves of the haunted house workers they meet.  I was set for a Deliverance type of situation, where these five effete characters find themselves in a no-man's land with dire results. While that's sort of what happens, it doesn't quite hit with the force promised by the movie's first two acts.  Instead, the Edgar Allen Poe-like climax feels like a sophomoric grab at fatalism.
Director Bobby Roe (who also acts in the movie) does a commendable job with some thin material.  He wrote the screenplay with Zack Andrews (another actor) and Jason Zada. There's a feeling that none of these guys are actually writers, but just buddies who sat around one Friday night with a six pack of Lone Star saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if this happened?" Still, Roe shows some strong directing chops. Part of the movie's power derives from the use of actual haunted house attractions, the employees of which seem not far removed from carny workers. Unfortunately, by the fifth time you've seen some jerk in a clown mask standing in the shadows, you've had enough.  Kudos to the little girl in the antique doll costume, and the person in the bunny suit swinging the axe; they were unique and should have been in more scenes.
Give some credit to writer/director Eduardo Sanchez for trying to make Bigfoot scary againThe big critter is the star of Exists,  a mildly interesting 'found footage' horror movie about five young people from Texas on a country getaway. As they ride through the backwoods to find an abandoned hideaway where they plan to do some partying, they accidentally hit an animal with their vehicle. The creature, whatever it is, seems to limp into the woods before any of them can get a look at it, though it leaves a nice chunk of fur on the front fender.  It's not long before the five friends are being stalked and terrorized by what they believe is a genuine Sasquatch. 

Sanchez was one of the creative forces behind The Blair Witch Project (1999), and he uses some of the same techniques here that made that earlier movie so thrilling.  Unfortunately, what felt new back then feels rather old hat by now. There are many scenes shot through what feels like night vision glasses, a lot of choppy editing, and since everyone in the movie seems to own a camera, we get the standard found footage gimmicks, namely scenes where people are running and breathing heavily. It's tempting to give Sanchez a pass because he was there at the beginning of the found footage phenomenon, but the gimmick is deader than a doornail and he does nothing now that he didn't do 15 years ago.
The cast of Exists isn't given much to do besides call each other 'Bro,' and hide in the cabin and wait for Bigfoot to kill them.  Roger Edwards, a 34-year-old black actor from Oakland, is perhaps the most annoying. He's probably the sort of actor who looks back at Steppin Fetchit and winces at the indignity of the stereotype, but doesn't realize that when he stands on the roof of the cabin and bellows at Bigfoot, "Hey, muthuhfuckuh, where you at?" he's nothing more than a modern stereotype that, with luck, will someday be scorned as well. 
The one saving grace of the movie could be Bigfoot himself, played by Brian Steele, an unknown actor who has made a career out of playing various creatures since the 1990s, including a stint on the old 'Harry and The Hendersons' TV show where he played a friendlier version of Bigfoot. He's ferocious here, and because the cast is so drab, we end up rooting for him to gut them all.  I also loved the sounds of Bigfoot howling in the forest. It was not only creepy and melancholy, but it was the best dialog in the entire movie.

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