Let’s face it: Halloween is just going to be different in 2020. Yes, it’s a holiday that’s mostly a state of mind, but certain activities will likely be too risky this year, including one of my favorite pastimes: haunts (or “spook trails” as we refer to them in the southeast). The thought of crowding together in a huddled mass of strangers is the only aspect of this that’s barely appealing in normal years, but this year? Forget about it. It’s a good thing a pandemic can’t take away one of my other favorite pastimes: watching horror movies, which takes on a different, special tenor in October, when everything just feels a touch spookier as the air chills and the days grow shorter. Lucky for us, the recent proliferation of films set around these haunted attractions should provide a fine substitute for this year, giving us ample opportunity to delight in watching others get scared in the comfort of our own home.
Or maybe you’re just a perpetual scaredy-cat who’s reading this in a later year, when COVID is no longer a concern and you just want to experience the thrills of a seasonal haunted house without the fear that one of these masked fools might actually be a chainsaw-wielding maniac. If you’re reading this, I’m glad we conquered the pandemic, but I hope the murder hornets didn’t inexplicably return in the final act.
While most of the movies on this list hail from recent years, they all have a distant, Kentucky-fried cousin in HAUNTEDWEEN, an incredible relic from the glory days of amateur, backyard splatter filmmaking. Shot on location in Bowling Green by a ragtag crew of college students and aspiring filmmakers, HAUNTEDWEEN is admittedly the umpteenth riff on Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. However, it’s the only one shot in the master’s hometown, and you’re not likely to find another one that feels like the charming product of DIY alchemy. The backstory is familiar: as a young kid, Little Eddie Bauer wants nothing more than to play a part in his family’s annual haunted house. Tired of just handing out tickets, he wanders into the place and inexplicably kills a girl who gets separated from the group. Eddie’s Mama is only slightly bemused by it all but insists they have to pack up and leave home. 20 years later, with dear old Ma dead from a heart attack, Eddie decides to return home, where a local fraternity is in dire financial straits. Seeking an opportunity to resume his grisly handiwork, he leaves a cryptic note allowing the frat to use his old stomping grounds for their own haunted attraction/kegger.
You can probably figure out the rest, but I promise you HAUNTEDWEEN is worth the price of admission. Between its colorful cast of hayseeds with thick accents, their shenanigans, and the inevitable bloodbath that ensues, there’s nary a dull moment found within these ramshackle walls. The Bauer house itself emerges as the true star, as it leaves you with the sensation that you’ve actually wandered into one of these backwoods, hillbilly haunts. I know that haunted attractions have become a big, professional industry boasting elaborate productions, but give me these homemade haunts — where you feel like most of the decorations and costumes were kitbashed between various discount stores — any day of the week.
THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT (2014)
The recent preoccupation with deadly haunts begins with this found footage creepshow that hinges on an indelible hook: what if one of these attractions was a front for actual bloodshed? A group of five friends documenting their trek across Texas in search of the ultimate haunt get much more than they bargain for once they catch wind of a fabled, off-the-beaten path attraction whose existence is carried on by cryptic whispers and shady internet backchannels. What starts as an idyllic quest — full of killer haunts and other seasonal revelry — soon descends into a horrific web of conspiracy and paranoia. The hunters become the hunted as they find themselves wandering off into increasingly rural holes-in-the-wall, a turn of events that precisely captures the almost forbidden thrills of some of these attractions. Believe me: sometimes, the trek out to these haunts — which are often nestled in otherwise desolate fields billowing between small towns — can be scary enough. The found footage approach only heightens the authenticity: for all intents and purposes, THE HOUSES THAT OCTOBER BUILT feels like an actual recording of a damned voyage that reminds us that maybe you should never go to Texas in search of a chainsaw massacre.
HELL HOUSE LLC (2015)
On the surface, HELL HOUSE LLC seems like it’d be more of the same. Here’s another found footage movie about a haunt that proves to be deadly when fifteen people are left dead following a malfunction at the titular hell house in Rockland County, New York. However, that’s the starting point for this faux documentary, which finds a crew sifting through the wreckage five years later to determine what actually happened. HELL HOUSE stitches together news footage, interviews with survivors, and footage from the haunt’s crew as they renovated an abandoned hotel with a shady history into their yearly attraction. The latter reveals an increasingly haunting ordeal when the crew uncovers what they’ve stumbled upon: the original owner was an alleged Satanist, meaning the place is actually haunted. Director Stephen Cognetti infuses this “found footage” with a creeping dread, largely resisting outright shocks and jolts in favor of a lingering, lurking terror that subtly builds to a boil. Far removed from the visceral shocks of THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT, HELL HOUSE takes a more supernatural, existential approach that’s no less bone-chilling and results in one of the best found footage movies ever made.
31 might not be Rob Zombie’s finest hour, but it does boast about fifteen of his best minutes. Set on Halloween night 1976, it opens on an idyllic portrait of backwoods ’70s Americana: Wolfman Jack howls on the radio as a group of carnival workers barrel through a countryside landscape dotted by tourist traps and dime-store decorations. I can never quite explain how Halloween feels, but these 15 minutes come close to exactly bottling it up and imprinting it on celluloid. As for the rest of 31: It’s a perfectly fine, if not somewhat perfunctory effort from Zombie that sees the auteur projecting his idiosyncratic brand of redneck sleaze schlock onto a funhouse mirror that warps and exaggerates his style for better and for worse. Not content to simply stage a film where unsuspecting Halloween revelers stumble upon a deadly haunt, he twists the premise into a “Most Dangerous Game” riff as this grimy, grungy house of horrors unleashes a veritable freakshow to terrorize the captured carnies. You likely already know where you stand with Rob Zombie, a filmmaker whose reputation is synonymous with his polarizing reception. As someone who generally admires and respects most of his work, even I have to admit 31 can be exhausting in its abrasiveness, and it doesn’t help that the whole thing feels a little bit like faded glory. If you find yourself on the other side of the fence with Zombie, maybe watching the Dr. Satan dark ride sequence in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES will suffice.
HELL FEST essentially takes the premise of these films — what if a haunt turned out to be deadly? — and reimagines it in the spirit of an ’80s slasher. It might be set in contemporary times, meaning it looks a little slick and packs a little sass, but make no mistake: this is very much in the tradition of those unpretentious splatter movies of a bygone era. A group of friends visit Hell Fest, a roving, regional, and absurdly elaborate attraction and soon discover one of the haunt’s actors is no actor at all. Instead, he’s a maniac who may be responsible for a rash of nearby slayings. That’s it—that’s the movie. And it rules: HELL FEST delivers suspense, bloodshed, and even a little showmanship (look no further than Tony Todd appearing as a demented MC at one point). The title haunt itself is also incredible, and director Gregory Plotkin luxuriates in the lavish production design, practically inviting the audience to traipse through its sumptuous, candy-colored landscapes as the camera prowls about, capturing the essence of Halloween in every frame.
Being released in 2019, HAUNT naturally feels a little derivative because it’s caught in the increasingly growing shadow of this little subgenre. It, too, is about a group of friends who decide to visit a haunt on Halloween night, only to… well, you definitely know by now. In this case, the haunt’s once again off the beaten path, virtually unadvertised unless you happen upon it. Its attendants insist that patrons sign a waiver and give up their cell phones before entering, and the whole thing just has the air of danger. Going inside feels like it would be a bad idea, which is exactly why these college students can’t sign on the dotted line quickly enough. HAUNT is the most solid, steadiest riff on this theme: there’s a dramatic subplot that’s a little heavy-handed, and the gore is mostly just sufficient. However, the haunt itself is absolutely killer: lorded over by enigmatic psychopaths in evocative masks, it features the usual assortment of gags you’d find at what I’d call a middle-tier haunt. These aren’t the elaborate, professional productions that garner nationwide fame, but they’re also not community theater level productions put on by family members in their backyard (not that I’m knocking those, having participated in them numerous times). In short, somewhere between HAUNTEDWEEN and HELL FEST, there lies HAUNT, which provides a good enough excuse to take in some seasonal production design while enjoying a few good scares.
Technically, only a climactic stretch of TRICK unfolds in a haunt, but I’m giving this one a shout-out because Hollywood did my boys Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer wrong after DRIVE ANGRY. And while their first collaboration since that Nic Cage hellraiser isn’t quite their best — it has a janky rhythm (there’s like three prologues) and it tries to stuff in an entire movie and a sequel’s worth of material (you get the Halloween night killing spree and a hospital massacre) — it’s an admirable, ambitious take on slasher movies. You could do much worse in this genre than biting off more than you can chew, plus the haunted attraction sequence is unquestionably the best part of TRICK. Not only does our masked maniac (the eponymous Trick, a preternatural slasher who returns each Halloween to terrorize small New York towns) stalk victims within a haunted maze, but he also terrorizes a repertory screening of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD hosted by Old Man Talbott (Tom Atkins). Even if TRICK doesn’t stick its landing, it at least allows us to imagine the bliss of spending Halloween night in a cozy suburbia where Tom Atkins runs a diner and hosts a horror-thon each year.
Tags: Gregory Plotkin, halloween, Haunts, Horror, Jamie Kennedy, Malcolm McDowell, Meg Foster, Omar Epps, Patrick Lussier, Richard Brake, Rob Zombie, Scott Beck, Sheri Moon Zombie, Todd Farmer, Tom Atkins, Tony Todd