Full disclosure: I had a huge bias going into The American Scream, as it's a documentary about folks in my home state of Massachusetts who dedicate their lives (and a hefty portion of their available funds) to create haunted houses for trick r treaters to walk though on Halloween night. If there's any time of the year I get really homesick, it's late September and October, when the weather is perfect and I can bust out my (now small) collection of comfy light sweaters, sipping on Dunkins and eating a seasonal donut while enjoying the foliage and whatnot. So the subjects in the film might as well have been talking to me directly, or at least singing some Meat Loaf or something, just to further prove that this movie is seemingly tailor-made for me.
But even without those personal sweet spots being hit, this is truly a wonderful film, and unanimously loved by just about everyone I talked to (the worst I heard was that it was merely "good"). At festivals, polarized reactions are the norm, but unless everyone in the audience was a Halloween fanatic that can't wait to start putting up the decorations and, er, watching horror movies every day, I think it's safe to say that just about anyone with a soul and/or heart will be swept up by this account of three different families in Fairhaven, MA and their attempts to make the perfect (or the "good enough") haunted house in time for Halloween night.
The main focus is the Bariteau family, whose patriarch Victor is a perfectionist that seemingly spends every waking moment working on the various props and monsters that will overtake his yard (and house?) come October 31st. He works as an IT guy whose job is about to be outsourced to India, so you really feel for the man - this is the only thing he has to look forward to, really. Scouring yard sales and the like for things he can use to improve on his previous year's arrangement, you root for the guy not only because it seems like the thing will be pretty awesome, but because if it falls apart for whatever reason, he'll probably sink into depression. Granted, he has his family (all of whom tirelessly assist him; his older daughter is shown to be a budding "house haunter" herself), but take it from me - when your day job is dull and unfulfilling, hobbies like this can be literal lifesavers. And his wife makes a strong point - he's not out gambling or doing drugs with his spare time and money - he's doing something that not only makes him happy, but gives hundreds of strangers something to look forward to (for free!) every year. In other words, he's a hero even before we learn a little more about why he focuses so much on this particular holiday.
Manny, a friend of Victor's who runs his own maze two blocks away, has his own reasons for doing it, but he's not quite the perfectionist his pal is. Not that you can tell from looking at it - it seems pretty damn professional to my eyes, if a bit looser with the idea of any sort of theme. While neither of them are doing like, "a haunted spaceship" or "evil funhouse" or whatever, Manny seems like he'll throw up anything horror-related (including a Bates Motel sign), whereas Victor looks to be a bit more selective. Then again, this might just be something that we "see" as a result of editing; for all I know Victor had a guy with a Jason mask and a Freddy Krueger glove wandering around his mad science lab or something.
But every documentary of this type needs the character who isn't quite as skilled as the others, and that's where Matt and his father Rick Brodeur come in. I'm not sure if they do it for a living or not, but they work as party clowns (complete with lovably HORRIBLE jokes and gags, like an umbrella with cats and dogs hanging from it) for most of the year. However, come about a week before Halloween, it seems, they go about setting up their own little maze, with Glad bag walls, paper-mache aliens, and two demon babies on a see-saw. It's obvious that they're neither as ambitious nor skilled as the other guys, but it doesn't make their efforts any less sweet, and since putting together a prop doesn't come so easily to them, it makes their successes all the more joyous when they occur - getting that damn see-saw to work resulted in the biggest cheer of the night, I think (and there were a lot of them).
We also get into all of their personal lives a bit; Victor's job troubles, Manny's health issues and Rick's friendship with a female pal who is clearly in love with him but he "sees her as a sister" (one of the audience questions was whether or not he's come to his senses yet - sadly he has not). Obviously these things take a toll on them, and temperatures flare up (this film is the Planes, Trains and Automobiles of documentaries as it leaps from a PG to an R with just a single scene), which helps us get even more invested into the success of their respective haunts. That said, I wouldn't have minded a bit more with Manny, as we don't get to see his family nearly as much as Victor's, and early on he talks about this sort of localized app that will create a map of all the haunts in Fairhaven, but we never see if it takes off (or even if the Brodeurs' maze made it on there). I guess since their mazes are a bit similar (there's a montage of all three on Halloween, and while the Brodeurs' sticks out, I had trouble telling the other two apart) and Victor and Rick provide a pretty good yin and yang, his role got a bit reduced in the editing. Indeed, at the end we get an epilogue about Victor, but not even a text prompt letting us know what the others are doing for Halloween 2012.
Otherwise, my only "complaint" is that it's a documentary produced for a 2 hour block on cable (Chiller!), and thus it only runs about 90 minutes instead of several hours. It's rare to see a movie where you realize it's just about over and you feel the same disappointment you get on an actual holiday when the last guest leaves, but that's precisely how I felt when it began winding down. I could have easily watched more of Victor's attempts to finish his newest big prop (an Egyptian demon), or of Manny welcoming guests to his maze, or even of Matt sorting through his soda can tabs (something that baffled me so much I had to ask about it at the Q&A - apparently they donate them to the hospital for some sort of charity, but I still don't know why he is sitting there STIRRING the damn things for a hefty chunk of one scene*). They're all my favorite type of people in the world - those who want to spread the joy of Halloween - and if I still lived in MA I'd be making my plans to drive to Fairhaven on the 31st. Instead I'll probably just watch this again when it airs on Chiller later in October. I implore you to do the same.
But I'm glad I got to see it on the big screen with a huge crowd first, for a reason summed up in the film itself. Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Halloween is a community holiday, where friends and strangers come together to celebrate something awesome, and thus even though it's obviously a bit of a departure from the usual Fantastic Fest programming, I am stoked that I was able to see it in this environment. And it's another winner from Michael Paul Stephenson, who was behind the equally charming Best Worst Movie. If he wants to be the go-to guy for unusual documentaries that relate to my favorite topic, I couldn't be happier about his career choice, and I can't wait to see what he tackles next.
*I have since learned that he is stirring the tabs with a magnetic wand to separate aluminum from steel, as only one kind is accepted.