In the opening scenes of the new Magic Stone Productions film, The American Scream, we meet Halloween-obsessed family man Victor Bariteau who lives with his wife and kids in the perfectly horror movie-worthy New England setting of Fairhaven, Mass.
But the film is not a body-count slasher type film. It's actually a heartwarming documentary by the makers of the similarly surprising and endearing picture Best Worst Movie. This time around, the camera crew follows amateur "house haunters" like Bariteau, who spend the majority of their energy throughout concocting new pieces for their backyard haunted houses.
"We put out a national search for the nation's home haunters to submit their work," explains Scream director Michael Stephenson. "We went across the country meeting the Top 12. And then I came across a picture of Victor's daughter Catherine posed with this giant tarantula figure he built. I knew we had to visit Fairhaven."
After meeting Bariteau's family, Stephenson says he knew they had found their "Lucky No. 13" in Bariteau, who eventually became the central figure of the film. As he recalls, "His daughter came downstairs with this cardboard box full of mutilated Barbie dolls, all burned and bloody, and I knew we had our family."
"Halloween is about strangers," explains Bariteau. "There's no other time of year that does that. Thanksgiving and Christmas are about family, but Halloween is totally about strangers."
Through the documentary, we also meet fellow Fairhaven resident Manny "The Halloween Guy" Souza, who was so inspired by Bariteau's displays that he launched his own annual backyard house haunt. And then there's the award-winning clown, Matt Brodeur, who shares the duties of building his backyard haunted house with his aging, long-suffering father, Rick.
Stephenson coaxes honest vulnerability from his subjects that reveal the very human struggles that underlie the obsessions these men share about building the single best night possible for the strangers who come to their backyards each October 31.
"Halloween is about strangers," explains Bariteau, who first learned to love the haunt after spending an entire Halloween scaring trick-or-treaters on a porch dressed as a scarecrow. "There's no other time of year that does that. Thanksgiving and Christmas are about family, but Halloween is totally about strangers."
That juxtaposition of the individual, family and community lies at the heart of this movie that ultimately explores how these men prioritize their passion with the people closest to them. As the days tick down heading up to the big night, Stephenson expertly reveals the effects that house haunting has had on personal lives and relationships with families and neighbors.
"Seeing it on screen, you really see how tough it is for your family and what you put them through," admits Bariteau, whose accommodating wife, Tina, is shown throughout the film coordinating volunteers, baking cookies, applying makeup and keeping everyone's priorities straight on Halloween night. "My family really is amazing. I see that now."
Souza says he learned the meaning of community firsthand when, in 2010, he suffered a heart attack just prior to Halloween. Wanting to show their support and gratitude for his selflessness throughout the years, several Fairhaven residents pitched in to complete and manage his haunted house that season.
Both Bariteau and Souza admit that being in Austin for Fantastic Fest and seeing their stories up on the big screen is a "dream come true." Souza even got to decorate the empty storefront next to the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse for a special Fantastic Fest Haunted House Hellbash that followed Sunday night's world premiere of the film, complete with fog machines, motorized skeletons and silly string.
As much fun as they've had in Austin, it is almost October, and both Bariteau and Souza are itching to get back to Fairhaven to keep working on this year's Halloween haunts.
They'll be taking the Sunday night before Halloween off, however, to catch the premiere of The American Scream on Chiller TV, where the general public will get a chance to experience that which Fantastic Fest audiences have already given their hardy seal of approval.
Meanwhile, Stephenson is currently working on a new film, a horror comedy penned by Alamo Drafthouse's own Terror Tuesday programmer Zack Carlson. The film, called Destroy, is about a noble vampire hunter combing the Bavarian hillsides staking potential bloodsuckers. You can absolutely look for this one at a Fantastic Fest near you in the future.
The American Scream enjoys an encore screening at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse on Thursday, Sept. 27 at 11:45 a.m. as a part of Fantastic Fest. Otherwise, you can wait and catch it on ChillerTV on Oct. 28.