‘The American Scream’ Review
“When you are scared, you are more alive,” says Victor Bariteau, the central subject of ‘The American Scream,’ Michael Paul Stephenson’s follow-up documentary to ‘Best Worst Movie.’ The quote, a nothing special bit of pop psychology ubiquitous in any discussion of “the horror industry,” comes as our hero is preparing to make a scary career change, and lands with an unexpected gravitas. Indeed, the final 20 minutes of this very micro documentary, which has less production value than your average episode of ‘Ice Road Truckers,’ is surprisingly emotional, as it celebrates the triumphs and agonizes over the burden of dreams. It slowly evolves from a quick expose on neighborhood kooks into something truly touching.
The kooks in question are three households in Fairhaven, MA, where, for whatever reason, reside some of the more dedicated “home haunters,” e.g. people who decorate their houses for Halloween. But “decorate” really doesn’t begin to explain the love and care that goes into it, especially for Bariteau, a very normal IT worker who moved his family to a specific (and too small) house because it looked like a good trick or treating block.
It’s not like Bariteau is pissing away his daughter’s college fund, but he certainly puts a great deal of time, energy and money into transforming his home and yard into a mini-amusement park experience. Down the block is Manny Souza, an older, gregarious gent and far less of a perfectionist, whose willingness to overlook details in exchange for just giving the neighborhood a good time represents an opposing philosophy.
In counterpoint, however, is the father-son Brodeur team. Speaking with thick Masshole accents and giving off a bit of a hoarders vibe, ‘The American Scream’ wisely chooses to stay ambiguous as to what (to put it bluntly) the eff is up with them. The mother is out of the picture, no one seems to work and while they definitely have plenty of spooky spirit, their eye for design has a bit of unintentional Dadaism.
The Brodeurs are, of course, the best thing in the film, evoking something of a ‘Grey Gardens’ gone ‘Munsters,’ but Stephenson bends over backward to ensure that his film never (okay, rarely) is laughing at them.
The first two-thirds of ‘The American Scream’ hums along, maintaining enough interest that, were it presented as reality TV you’d frequently check “last channel” on the remote as you clicked around during commercials. It shifts gears, however, on “the big night” as last minute design problems, performance jitters and stress accumulate. The movie builds to a euphoric climax cut to “In The Hall of the Mountain King” that transcends mere fun. You share in the pride of our three home haunters, as neighborhood kids scream and laugh, dashing any previous misgivings if, indeed, this was worth all the work.
Some digging into Bariteau’s unpleasant childhood explains a bit of his particular obsession, but I don’t know anyone who dislikes a quality haunted house. Thanksgiving and Christmas are for family, Bariteau says, but Halloween is for the community. And sometimes it’s good to invite everyone over and have a big party.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.