By Doug Gibson
Documentary film-maker Michael Paul Stephenson of Magic Stone Productions, who had a fantastic debut with "Best Worst Movie," the documentary that explored the cult obsession with the film he starred in, "Troll 2," mostly through the eyes of dentist cum actor George Hardy, has made another impressive documentary that explores obsessions, fandom, persistence and sacrifice. "The American Scream" takes an inside, personal look at home-haunting enthusiasts, focusing on three families in the neighborhoods of Fairhaven, Mass., a mostly working- middle-class community where the houses possess far more age, and character, than generic big houses found in the suburbs.
The neighborhoods, with starter and family homes stitched tight together in streets teeming with children, are ideal for home haunts and trick-or-treating. Most of our neighborhoods have at least one home a street decorated well for Halloween, but Victor Bariteau, IT man for a financial firm by dad, takes his home-haunting beyond what most of us could even imagine. Blessed with a wife, Tina, who puts up with his year-round obsession, and two daughters, one of whom is a chip off dad's block, he literally spends thousands of dollars and what seems like 20 to 40 hours a week preparing for, with great detail, a haunted home spook alley that appears to have as much thought put into it as a professional haunted house.
Within and outside the Bariteau house, virtually all extra space, as well as a healthy chunk of essential space, is devoted to props and preparation for a one-night show for Fairhaven residents that will yield no revenue, but tons of satisfaction for Victor. He's a dogged eccentric that the viewer can't help liking. A survivor of a mother who raised him as a Branch Davidian (his family left before Waco), Victor was denied a childhood with Halloween, or birthdays, or most other holidays. In one scene, his childlike delight in finding a real, "used" coffin for only $200 captures the positive vibes he gets. Watching how eagerly he cultivates one daughter's shared interest in his haunts, one gets the impression she also represents the friends he was rarely allowed to have as a child. In one strong scene, he cites community involvement as a key reason for loving Halloween. It's a tribute to Victor's personality and dedication that he literally has a small company of friends who volunteer long hours to help create the haunt. At one point, Victor, with pride, mentions that his kids are celebrities in their schools as a result of his labors.
And that applies to his wife, Tina. It must be a rare woman who can accept such a full-time hobby obsession of her husband's despite the budget, time and clutter concerns that comes with it. At one point, she matter-of-factly defends her acceptance when she tells director Stephenson that he could be wasting the money on "season football tickets." There's a reason why Victor was so fortunate in choosing a wife. Tina can see that the home-haunting makes her husband a better man, a better father and a better spouse. There's a powerful scene where Victor, suffering from what pros call "haunt-stress" just prior to Halloween, loses his cool for just a moment. Tina is upset but barely shows it. Victor, as a loving spouse does, senses it, quickly hugs his wife and apologizes.
The other families featured in Fairhaven are also very interesting. Stephenson is very skilled at capturing how haunt-housing makes the obsessed haunted decorators, spook alley playwrights, performers and designers better people, better loved by by family and friends, and respected in the city. Home-haunters Matt Brodeur and his dad Dick are two eccentric, woefully out of shape oddballs who literally provide sustenance to each other through their share obsession of house haunting, as well as another sideline, working shows as clowns, often as pirate clowns. As one close friend tells the filmmakers, Matt the son takes care of dad, a retired engineer who appears to be suffering badly from diabetes. At the same time, Dick the dad provides a home for his son as well as the means and the location to oversee their shared home-haunting obsession-hobby. Watching the two work together, with their gripes, quirks, successes and squabbles, is both amusing and touching. They are equals, more Ernie and Bert than father and son, and as close as two old lifelong friends can be. Both thrive off the other. One of the best scenes captures the pair, in hectic fashion, trying to put together a seesaw that lifts ghoul dolls -- attached to the seats -- up and down.
The third family is headed by home haunter Manny Souza, a beefy municipal worker who is ably assisted by his wife, Lori and what seems like an army of relatives complete with many kids. Souza is a gruff teddy bear; a strong scene is a trek to a farmer with many kids to collect a pickup truck full of corn stalks to use in his family's spook alley. The stalk-gathering is overseen, with gruff thoroughness, by Manny.
Souza, as well as the Brodeurs, are not as deeply invested in home haunts as Victor Bariteau. There's a scene where Victor talks very wistfully of how only his responsibilities of keeping a roof over his family's heads, as well as financial security, keeps him from a dream of of graduating from home-haunting to the pay-for-scares of a real haunted house. He so desperately wants to take that next step.
Souza, who is mildly critical of Bariteau for being too obsessed with Halloween, does admit to having once cared more about his hobby. A heart attack stemmed the frenetic-ness of his passionate activity, and he describes, with tears of gratitude, how moved he was by how his family and friends picked up the slack so the Souza house would not miss Halloween the year of his illness.
Stephenson moves the 90-minute plus film through the month of October, with day-until-Halloween listed on the screen. It pays off with an effective holiday climax. The viewers, by now very interested in how the home haunt spook alleys will be, are not disappointed. The atmosphere in the Bariteau house is equal to an opening night, with last-minute preps and fixes, eager, nervous performers, and long lines of trick-or-treaters already waiting.
However, as interesting as the haunts are the personal stories of the Bariteau, Brodeur and Souza families, their interactions and the familial support systems within these unique persons. There is also a bit of pathos, as Victor is facing imminent layoff due to work exports, Manny's heart attack has made him more aware of his mortality, and the earthly bond that sustains the Brodeurs may not last long due to dad's poor health.
Home-haunting is not a term I was too familiar with, but Stephenson's "The American Scream" leaves me wanting to get another spook alley fix. IMDB info is here. The movie's website is here. The film will air on Chiller TV on Oct. 28.