Movie Review: The American Scream
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
When Victor Bariteau responded to an online call for amateur house haunters willing to be featured in a documentary film, he didn’t quite know what he was getting into.
The Fairhaven, Mass., resident had spent the better part of two decades transforming his family’s home into a haunted house each Halloween, and he was excited about sharing his creations with a larger audience.
But when director Michael Stephenson’s cameras started rolling for the documentary “American Scream,” Bariteau grew a little curious.
“Originally I thought it was gonna be a compilation of the work,” Bariteau said of the film. “A week later I hear he’s interviewed my sister and I go, ‘Oh really?’”
Bariteau didn’t realize that Stephenson wasn’t just interested in the haunted houses, but the stories of the people creating the scares.
“I wanted to find characters. I love documentaries that are rooted in people who are, on the surface, ordinary people,” Stephenson said. “On the surface, the stories are seemingly about one subject matter and end up being about something else.”
The result is a sweet story of familial bonds tested by the excitement and anxiety surrounding a peculiar passion. Zack Carlson, programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse, co-produced the documentary.
Stephenson directed 2009’s “Best Worst Movie,” a documentary about the making of “Troll 2,” a B-movie disaster and cult favorite. “Best Worst Movie” detailed the near-manic energy and commitment actor George Hardy brought to the 1990 flop. The director wanted to take a similar approach to “American Scream,” a surprisingly touching documentary that follows Bariteau and other Fairhaven residents as they tirelessly transform their ordinary homes into spectacular haunted houses.
“That line between passion and obsession is interesting to me,” Stephenson said while in town with Bariteau earlier this fall for the “American Scream” world premiere at Fantastic Fest. “Also people doing what they want to do … chasing their dreams.”
Though the movie follows three men and their families as they undergo the months-long process of transforming their houses into showcases of ghouls and goblins, Bariteau and his family serve as the film’s heart.
Bariteau spends an astounding amount of money and time prepping for months in advance. And the whole family is in on the hobby that almost consumes Victor, his wife not batting a lash at the exorbitant expense and his eldest daughter whole-heartedly joining in the spooky fun as contributing artist and haunter-in-training.
Stephenson knew from the moment he met the Bariteau family that he had found characters who could help guide the storytelling.
“It was one of these opportunities where I was blessed and fortunate enough to follow somebody who was courageous enough to step out on that limb and go after what he wanted,” Stephenson said.
Bariteau took his initial steps into home haunting 18 years ago. But the idea had been planted before that. A close family friend lived in a Fairhaven neighborhood that played home to an unusual number of haunted houses, so Bariteau and his wife, drawn by the spectral spectacle, purchased a house nearby.
As with many niche communities and endeavors, the Internet served as a great source of inspiration for Bariteau.
“Once I discovered there were like-minded people online, that opened up a whole new world to me,” he said.
He visited websites and message boards that played host to an entire community of house haunters happy to share their tricks of the trade, helping Bariteau build his repertoire until nine years ago when he created his first walk-through haunted house. Over the years his vision expanded to the point that Bariteau’s wife calls the house haunting “an extension” of her husband.
Bariteau realizes he could have saved some of the money he spent on his house over the years and purchased a nicer home but admits that then “nobody woulda remembered us.”
And what of that sister?
“American Scream” does a deft job of exploring the genesis of Bariteau’s passion project through interviews with Victor and his family. Bariteau grew up with parents whose religious beliefs prohibit the celebration of holidays such as Halloween.
Though he respects that his parents were simply following their beliefs, he felt a great loss as a child, staring out the window as other kids would fill the streets, going door-to-door to collect candy.
Bariteau decided that if he ever had his own kids, he would make sure they never missed out on the experiences that he never got to have as a child.
With his house haunting, Bariteau has found a way to help not only his children but thousands of other people to form enduring Halloween memories. And along the way, there’s a little redemption.
“It’s very fulfilling,” Bariteau said. “I’ve more than made up for that now.”