The American Scream – Review ★★★

american scream

Showing at Frightfest on Friday 23rd August, The American Scream is a documentary focussing on the lives of three families in the small, south coast town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts which comes alive on Halloween thanks to their efforts as self appointed ‘House Haunters’.

In the same vein as other hobbyist docs such as Trekkies and The Dungeon Masters, The American Scream acquaints us with the purveyors of unusual pastimes in a way that does not belittle or mock their dedication, but in fact serves to make their quirks relatable, understandable and even admirable.

This is director Michael Paul Stephenson’s second feature after 2009’s Best Worst Movie where he looked at the making of notorious horror B movie Troll 2 (of which he was also the child star,) its initial panning and subsequent resurgence as a cult hit. Here he is once again in his element, giving us insights into the psyche of each family’s driving force and the factors that motivate them to dedicate a vast amount of time and resources to such an unusual hobby.

Opening one month before the big night we are introduced to each of the families in turn, and whilst they all work towards the same goal it becomes apparent their rationales, commitment and goals are significantly different.

The Bariteau family are led by enthusiastic patriarch Victor, whose strict religious upbringing meant he was never able to celebrate holidays as a child. He is meticulous with his haunted house design, verging on obsessive and, along with his wife and children (with varying levels of gusto), has sacrificed significantly for his labour of love. Manny Souza and family salvage unused items for their efforts and see Halloween as a community event, bringing the town together for one night of the year, and father/son duo Matthew and Richard Brodeur are part time clowns, squabbling and bonding through haphazard attempts to create their own distinct humorous haunt.

With so many low budget mocku-horrors out there it is easy to forget you’re actually watching a documentary, half expecting some supernatural occurrences to start plaguing the town or a family member to lose it and wreak havoc in the build up to the pivotal night, which I suppose is a kudos to the film makers. The editing by Andrew Matthews is smooth and effective; the film effortlessly toes the line between observational and compassionate, whilst Bobby Tahouri’s score is at once jovial and joyously creepy, succeeding in drawing the audience into the foray of Halloween excitement.

But the real heart of this feature is the families; they sacrifice and support each other through thick and thin, allowing their lives and their homes to be enveloped by a mass of pumpkins, zombies, skeletons and fake blood all for the joy of others. Their passion is contagious and I would be surprised if it does not inspire some more amateur haunters to spring up out of the woodwork.

On the surface it would seem difficult to understand the concept of such a time consuming pursuit, particularly to those of us in the UK where less emphasis is placed on this holiday, and some elements may cause a few cause for concerns (a child dismembering and disfiguring Barbie dolls for example), however when the big night arrives and you witness the uproar their designs create it is quite hard not to get a small case of Halloween fever.

Overall this documentary is sweet in nature, balancing humour with surprising poignancy, leaving a warm feeling of appreciation for those people who are willing to go the extra mile for their families and their communities.

Katie Hall is the assistant editor at Critics Associated.