The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Houses October Built

If you've ever been to a “haunt” - one of those local haunted attractions that pop up in virtually every other town come Halloween – you know it can be a really fun experience. Some of them are very creative. I once attended one where eight of us were guided through an old school building. It was pitch dark and we all had to hold onto a rope to stay together. Once we entered each room, the lights came on and some sort of horror-themed scenario played out in front of us. I jumped when Pinhead from the Hellraiser flicks suddenly materialized two inches from my face, nearly poking me in the eye with his pins. At the same time, I remember being most freaked out not by the fake stuff, but by the possibility of something real. What if someone in here is crazy? What if someone goes too far? I thought to myself. Apparently, the makers of the “found footage” chiller The Houses October Built have had similar thoughts.

The movie opens with either real or very convincingly faked news footage pertaining to haunt incidents: employees getting too aggressive and hurting people, convicted sex offenders being discovered working in them, etc. Just enough to kick things off on a creepy note. Then the main story begins. A group of five friends hop into an RV, video cameras in hand, intending to visit and document the most extreme haunted house attractions they can find. They attend several, all of which are intense, but there's one in particular they want to check out. It's by invitation only, in a remote location, and comes with a reputation for skirting the line of ethics. As they try to gain access to this particular event, strange individuals in masks start stalking them. Have they already entered the show, or is something more sinister going on?

By far, the biggest asset The Houses October Built has going for it is authenticity. It was filmed in real locations and (seemingly) at real haunted attractions. Early scenes are fun, showing the characters entering some very distinct, unusual fright exhibits, the quirkiest of which involves a zombie strip club. The movie also has a few clever and genuinely spooky ideas in its back half. The terror in the story comes from the characters not knowing whether they're just experiencing an extreme performance or are legitimately in danger. Director Bobby Roe and co-writers Zack Andrews and Jeff Larson (all of whom also star) devise some effective fright moments that play on this uncertainty. They make you ask whether you'd continue forward in this situation or run away screaming.

While there's much to admire, the film also falls victim to the pitfalls that plague many found footage movies. Like most of them, it spends much more time trying to maximize the first person perspective than it does in developing the characters. You never really know who these people are, so the interactions between them are subsequently flat. This makes any scene not set in a haunted attraction kind of dull. There are also way too many distracting shaky-cam scenes. As I've said before, found footage movies always seem to devolve into someone running around with a camera yelling Oh my God! Oh my God! What the hell was that?! This one is no different. When you can't tell what you're looking at, it's not scary, it's frustrating.

In the end, The Houses October Built just doesn't go far enough. There's a great premise here, and individual moments are undeniably effective. But without protagonists to care about – or the ability to see what's happening in a fair number of scenes – the potential impact is blunted. Some viewers, myself included, may additionally think the story eventually comes down on the wrong side of the “fact or fiction” issue, but that depends on what you personally find frightening. I like and admire the concept of The Houses October Built, and the filmmakers show great promise for the future. Ultimately, though, the movie doesn't quite nail what could have been a slam dunk.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: The Houses October Built is in theaters, and also available on VOD and iTunes.

The Houses October Built is unrated, but contains adult language, nudity, and extreme violence/gore. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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