Fantastic Fest Review: THE AMERICAN SCREAM Wears A Big Bloody Heart On Its Sleeve

The makers of BEST WORST MOVIE are back with a surprisingly moving doc about Halloween, haunted houses and the creative impulse.

I wonder if it's a coincidence that the three best films I've seen at Fantastic Fest delve into the urges which drive creative passion and self-expression. Holy Motors re-imagines different facets of the filmmaker's life as a series of performances, turning what could be an academic exercise into something exhilarating and kind of heartbreaking. The Final Member challenges us to see the humanity behind three men's very peculiar brand of legacy building. In a way, that's also a perfectly apt description of The American Scream, a touching, sweet film which follows three "home haunters", people who spend most of the year prepping their homes for one day of scaring and delighting trick-or-treaters, only to start the cycle anew the next day.

The film tackles a subject lesser filmmakers might have simply ridiculed. Admittedly, it's comedic fish-in-a-barrel: grown men spend countless hours of their finite existence in service to a holiday aimed primarily at children. As their passion consumes them, we're invited to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Victor Bariteau, an IT wage slave on the verge of unemployment, sinks a whole lot of money into his "home haunt", buying coffins and building state of the art displays which, 364 days a year, take up a great deal of space in his modest Massachusetts home.

Victor makes no money from this endeavor, his wife tells us. It's just his hobby. And it's contagious: after over a decade of tricking out his house, neighbors like Manny Souza and Matt Brodeur have thrown their hats into the ring. There's an inherent comedy in seeing Manny and Matt, both blue collar salt of the earth types, hurl themselves into their unlikely creative outlet. Each of the three men are good-natured, decent individuals with varying degrees of actual skill, a spectrum which also provides a lot of laughs. (Matt and his father, clones separated by 30 years, working together on a paper-mache monster is a moment of legitimate slapstick.) As October 31st nears, the men scramble to get their respective haunted houses in order.

Director Michael Stephenson's follow-up to Best Worst Movie improves on his first film in every way, not just thematically but aesthetically. It's beautifully shot, capturing the distinctive crisp autumn of New England. The editing is often brilliant, assured but delicate, delivering laughs and tears on simple, perfect cuts. The laughs are earned and warm. It's most impressive that the film never takes an easy or cheap shot at its subjects. No rivalry between the men is presented; there is no King Of Kong-esque villain. Director Stephenson doesn't seem to have a mean bone in his body, and his genuine affection for these colorful characters turns the film into something much more human.

Halfway through the film our cynicism toward these men and their obsession is challenged as we discover their private motivations. Stephenson forces us to see the men not simply as obsessive oddballs, but real artists, dreamers who have turned their pain into joy. We leave the film not only full of affection, but maybe a little envious.

The American Scream debuts October 28th on Chiller.

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