Arts Desk

The American Scream, Reviewed

For some, Halloween is a serious occasion. They drop serious dough on elaborate costumes, plan parties, and deck out their homes with gory decorations. But for Victor Bariteau, Matt and Rick Brodeur, and Manny Souza—the subjects of Michael Paul Stephenson’s documentary The American Scream—Halloween is much more than that. It’s a way of life.

Following his excellent 2009 debut, Best Worst Movie, the fascinating and hilarious investigation of the cult fandom surrounding Troll 2 (in which he starred as a child), Stephenson continues to expose niche cultures and the odd characters who believe so adamantly in them. This time, he shifts focus from the movie widely regarded as the “worst film ever made,” to the bizarre subculture of amateur haunted houses, or as they’re called, "home haunts."

The film centers on Bariteau, a computer programmer and devoted family man in the sleepy seaside town of Fairhaven, Mass. By day he’s a malcontent desk jockey, but by night (and during every other free moment he has) he’s a borderline-obsessive craftsman, dedicated to transforming his yard into a professional-grade spook-maze with an anal-retentive level of attention to detail.

His story begins with 30 days until Halloween, and he’s already a mess of nerves, putting in 15-and 16-hour days to finish up some of the elaborate props he’s planned for this year. His wife is less than thrilled about the time he invests in it year-round, but she's learned to deal with it. After all, the houses have helped him bond with his two young daughters, and he's only spending a lot—not all!— of the family's money doing it.

The film also follows a few of Bariteau’s home-haunting buddies in the neighborhood: Souza, who caught the haunting bug from Victor, but isn't as obsessed; and the Brodeurs, a bumbling father-son duo cut from the same cloth of the Beales in Grey Gardens. They are both the funniest and most pitiful characters in the movie; their level of craftsmanship is elementary at best, but their devotion is unquestionable. Stephenson does a superb job capturing their unique bond.

Employing a certain vérité approach, The American Scream plays out like Death of a Salesman-meets-kooky-A&E-reality-show (think Hoarders), but it's sincere, not exploitative. Through his sensitive direction, Stephenson makes clear that to these guys, family matters most.

As the film winds down, we learn that Bariteau has lost his programming job. But he doesn't wallow in self pity—no way. It's just the opportunity he needs to take a shot at going pro.

The film shows Saturday, Oct. 20 at midnight as part of the Spooky Movie International Horror Festival at AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Buy tickets.

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