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Michael Stephenson's first documentary, "Best Worst Movie," was about the infamously terrible "Troll 2" and the cult audience that has sprung up around it. Stephenson had a special connection to the story being told seeing as how he was the young star of the film, and many of the interviews in that film would not have been possible or nearly as personal if Stephenson had not been behind the camera.
As a result, it would be easy to assume that his connection is the reason that film was so good, but that would be a mistake. His second documentary, "The American Scream," is just as good if not better, and it indicates that Stephenson is a natural documentarian, a guy who is able to get his subjects to open up and reveal themselves and who is able to tell a great human story. This time, the subject is "home haunters," people who put on elaborate haunted houses or set up extravagant displays as part of their celebration of Halloween. The film is about to get a limited theatrical run, and it will also be airing on the Chiller network on Sunday, October 28, at 8:00 PM EST.
Fairhaven, Massachusetts is the setting for the movie, and Stephenson focuses on three separate home haunters. Victor Bariteau is the guy who treats his home haunting as a year-round obsession, a family man who channels all of his extra energy into this hobby that he loves so dearly, and his family has reconfigured itself around his love of all things Halloween. His oldest daughter has the same love of the scare that he does, while his youngest daughter is at least trying to figure out the appeal, and his wife puts in long hours and all of their free money to help him bring his dreams to life.
Then there's Manny Souza, who used to help Victor with his display and who realized that he wanted to do it his way for his own house. Manny's a lot less meticulous about things than Victor is, and while his haunt may not be as slick and well-planned, there's a sense of "let's just have some fun" to the way Manny does things that is charming to observe.
Then there's Richard and Matt Brodeur, a father/son team who have to be seen to be believed. Eccentric just barely begins to describe their dynamic, and their haunt seems to be a random collection of whatever vaguely scary things they can stuff into the corners of their yard. They are very funny when we first see them, but Stephenson isn't just out to score cheap laughs off of the outrageous Brodeurs. As with "Best Worst Film," Stephenson defuses those easy laughs by getting close to these people and showing them in all their uneven human glory.
The film counts down the month before Halloween, and we learn a lot from seeing the way each of these people approach their haunts during those 30 days. For Victor, it's time to kick into overdrive and we see what sort of toll it takes on his family. He's serious about this, although he seems to be afraid to take the jump to making this hobby of his into something he does professionally. He's got the skills and the imagination, and he thinks about his haunt in terms of overall presentation from the moment someone arrives in his driveway to when they leave. It's very telling when we learn later in the film that Victor's parents didn't believe in Halloween and never celebrated it with him as a child. There is a sense of overcompensation to the way he throws himself into it, but not in an unhealthy way. It's obvious that Victor is very family-driven, and even when things are at their most stressful during the final days before opening, there is always a sense that these people are united behind this dream of his.
Manny represents what I'm guessing is the average home haunter, a guy who loves doing it but who also puts a realistic amount of time and energy into it. In his case, it's a very joyous act, something that he does for the pure sugar rush of Halloween night. He's so easygoing, so pragmatically funny about how things come together, and it's pretty obvious why he doesn't work on Victor's haunt anymore. Even if he didn't do his own, he's wired so differently that I can't imagine it went well with him and Victor. Victor's very intense about each and every detail, and Manny is a "good enough" kind of guy.
By spending time with Matt Brodeur, what starts out as sort of amusingly odd begins to curdle by the end of the film. Stephenson neither damns nor supports Matt in the film. He just captures the way Matt sort of complains his way through life, his father supporting him way beyond the point where most people would throttle him. Matt seems to treat his dad poorly, but his dad seems to be used to it, and at this point, with their dynamic so well and truly ossified, all you can do is watch and marvel at the fact that these two continue to somehow function. As much as I laughed during their first few appearances, by the end of the film, the charm had largely worn off and I found myself interested but also somewhat put off by them.
What "The American Scream" does best is communicate the way passion plays a part in the lives of these people, and how passion is a matter of degrees. Victor and Manny and Matt all have a similar basic drive, but the way they express that drive is completely different in each case. I was moved by the way the film illustrates the support offered by family and community, and by the way it manages to convey these stories without excessive editorializing. Stephenson could easily have cut this film to more pointed effect, but he leaves the rough edges on the people we like and he shows us some redeeming points in the people we don't, and overall, what comes through is a curiosity about these people and a respect for whatever it is that they love.
It's not often you can point at a documentary as perfect October programming, but especially considering the flood of new haunting attractions across the US, with more seeming to pop up each year, it feels both timely and incredibly affectionate towards all of us who like to scare or be scared. This is a lovely, lovely film, and I am officially onboard for whatever Stephenson does next.
"The American Scream" premieres October 28th on Chiller Network, and if you're lucky, you can look for a theatrical engagement near you soon.