Michael Stephenson’s BEST WORST MOVIE was all about finding a common ground and shared love of what is admittedly one of the very worst movies ever made, and how the people involved have come to find some measure of happiness through it. Stephenson, who was in TROLL 2, used that movie to come to a kind of catharsis and put it to good use. The result is one of the most charming and heartwarming documentaries out there.
Stephenson doesn’t lose that sense of empathy for his latest film, THE AMERICAN SCREAM. Passion comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and for three families in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, that passion comes in making the best Halloween haunted houses that they can.
For Victor Bariteau, it’s not even a choice, really. Bariteau makes haunted houses like Mozart wrote symphonies, and while he is a consummate perfectionist, it’s his goal to scare the neighborhood every year. It’s something of an obsession for Victor, and it’s affected his home life – the house is full of clutter, his daughters are caught up in his passion, and his wife Tina, while supportive, would like nothing better than the house to be free of all the plastic skulls, tombstones, and fake blood that seem to clutter every room. For Victor, Halloween is his everything – his upbringing prevented him from really celebrating the holiday, and now he participates in it with a vengeance. Victor is so passionate that he visits haunted house conventions for the latest goods; his dream is to make haunted houses professionally but Victor is under constant threat of being laid off, and right now the money situation that the family struggles under makes it impossible for Victor to do that.
A few blocks down the street lives Manny Souza, who isn’t nearly as obsessed as Victor but no less committed. It’s not a competition with Victor for Manny so much as it is that he’s inspired by Victor and what he’s done, and he wants to experience that fun for himself. He’s generally loved by the community and they all pitched in to help one year when Manny suffered a heart attack.
Then there’s Matthew and Rick Brodeur, a father and son living together who want to take part in the festivities as well. Problem is, they’re mostly broke, Rick is getting up there in age so he can’t help as much as he’d like (not that that keeps Matthew from giving his dad more tasks than he does himself), and they don’t have any particular skill at this kind of thing – certainly not on the level of Victor and Manny. But they love Halloween, and the kids, and try their best.
THE AMERICAN SCREAM follows these three families as they prepare the month before Halloween, and each of them perseveres through trying times and difficulties to make the best haunted house that they can. It’s not for money or for any kind of fame – it’s for the love of the holiday, and the looks on the faces of the people lucky enough to walk through each of the haunted houses. As Victor puts it, “Being scared makes you feel alive,” and each of these families wants to have their passion recognized, as we all do. For some people, it’s writing a great novel, or making a great movie, painting a wonderful piece of art. For these families in Fairhaven, they want to make you scream. For them, this is the ultimate reward.
Stephenson treats everyone with respect, but none of these people are perfect – Victor is a perfectionist and is never satisfied with his work; Manny gets a bit tyrannical with his kids when he enlists them to help, and Rick Brodeur is getting too old for the manual labor that Matthew subjects him to. But for these people, these struggles are everything. It’s a universal truth that we are all passionate about something – I wouldn’t want to know the person that wasn’t. It’s their passions that drive them, and to see their passions realized and validated is an incredibly powerful thing. When Victor’s haunted house makes a young boy cry in fear and terror, you almost want to high-five the guy. There’s a joy in what these families do to celebrate Halloween that is very contagious, and while I don’t think I’d go to the lengths that these families go to make one, I understand the yearning that they have to go as far as they do.
THE AMERICAN SCREAM is a terrific documentary, one that assures us all that life lived in pursuit of a passion, no matter how seemingly trivial, is never a wasted life. That’s a message I can completely agree with. I wouldn’t want to live any other way, and I can’t imagine how anyone would. These families have the same struggles as many of us, but they refuse to live lives of quiet desperation, even if it’s doing something as little as making someone scream. In that scream lies victory.
THE AMERICAN SCREAM will be playing on Chiller the last week of October, and also will be released theatrically throughout October and November.