If you're a vigilant watcher of Fox News (you shouldn't be reading this site) you may be aware of the so-called “War on Christmas”. According to the pundits there's a vast conspiracy to take away our freedom to sink our finances into further debt by denying us our God given right to purchase cheaply made pieces of plastic that will wind up broken and tossed into the garage sale pile six months after their unwrapping. While the hordes of the great unwashed line up around the block of your local Best Buy in the wee hours of Black Friday refute this nonsense, I would argue a holiday much closer to my heart is indeed on the decline. Each year Halloween appears to lose a little bit of its luster it seems there are fewer kids out trick or treating, schools put the kibosh on classroom parties and handing out candy and television cuts back on seasonal programming from a month long affair to an afterthought a few days before the 31st. The celebration of Halloween as a family holiday anticipated year round is a great part of what makes Michael Stephenson's (Best Worst Picture) latest documentary such a joy to watch.
The American Scream focuses on three families in Fairhaven Massachusetts that embrace the fine art of “House Haunting”. While many houses display a token Jack-O-Lantern on their stoop and maybe even use an old bed sheet to turn a lantern into a ghost, these three families pull out all the stops and transform their homes into full scale haunted attractions that for one night a year bring joy and terror to the hearts of the neighborhood children. Each household have their different reasons, methods and skill when it comes to creating their haunts and Stephenson allows each of them to their stories in a manner that is so warm and open I found myself getting teary eyed on more than one occasion as the film played.
Victor Baritone has turned his backyard into a haunt haven going on eighteen years, recruiting his wife Tina and his two adolescent daughters into the fold as well. The Haunt has become an all consuming passion for Victor, long transcending what started as a fun hobby as Victor spends any free time or disposable income scouring yard sales and online classifieds for objects he can turn into a prop in order to give his attraction a more professional appearance. As the big day approaches Victor grows increasingly strained as he sacrifices sleep in order to perfect his props and design and cracks from the ambitious expectations he sets for himself. Rather than have this lead to domestic turmoil, the Bariteau family seems to accept this as a matter of course, with the elder daughter pitching in by her dad's side (in one of the funniest moments she brings out a container of Barbie Dolls she's picked up at yard sales and tells the camera how much she enjoys mutilating them for the display with a breezy cheerfulness). There's an added pressure for Victor as he reveals his IT job of eleven years is getting outsourced (along with 400 others) adding to the family's burden. Victor grows wistful as he talks about his desire to turn his hobby into a career.
At the other end of the spectrum comes the father sun spectrum of Matthew Broduer and his elderly father Richard. Their a bit bumbling and comical. Their attraction is tossed together in a slap dash
fashion suing whatever material they can get their hands on and often looks like a healthy sneeze could up and blow all the props away. Yet whenever their antics or mishaps threaten to turn them into a punchline, Stephenson pulls out another instance of the father and son duo dressing as clowns entertaining children at the local Shriners hospital. Their struggles and ineptitude provide many of the film's highlight moments, yet Stephenson makes sure we're laughing with the Broduers, not at them. The film reveals the deep bond the two men, both of whom are completely dependent on one another, feel for the other. A telling sign as to how much their story effected the audience could be found in the form of the first audience post-screening question when Stephenson was asked if Matthew had come to his senses and returned the affection of a childhood friend who clearly wished to take things to a romantic level.
Existing in a happy medium between these two examples is Manny Souza. The blue collar family man takes tremendous pride showing off the attractions he built for little to no cost, yet despite his non existent budget Manny proves to be a craftsman when it comes to creating his props. He freely admits that he doesn't sweat the last details knowing that his audience will mostly take a quick look at each item as they pass through. What Souza loves most about his backyard haunt is the time it affords him to spend with his children and the knowledge that he's creating a special memory for them. In one of the more poignant moments, Souza's wife recalls the year before when health problems prevented Souza from working on his exhibit. A few calls from Lori Souza later found the neighborhood pitching in to get the haunt ready in time for the big night.
Towards the end of the film Stephenson gives the audience an in depth look at the results of all the families hard work with a nice montage of the neighborhood children and parents getting the crap scared out of them as they go through the haunts. This scene nails one of American Scream's greatest strengths as it nails the Halloween atmosphere in a small New England town. At least a thousand kids pass through the yards screaming like monkeys as the actors pop out of the set pieces to scare the bejesus out of them.
In a festival packed with films celebrating the extraordinary that pushes dramatic boundaries and expectations the most moving, affecting story stems in the form of a grounded trio of families. The American Scream is one of the warmest, most joyous works to come along ina long time, and is the perfect tribute to the holiday we all love.