Over the past decade, a few low budget horror films have changed the face of the genre, pushing the boundaries of scares with a ‘realistic’ documentary style of filming. ”The Blair Witch Project” lead the way with the idea of ‘found footage’, a concept which ‘Paranormal Activity’ pushed even further.
I recently saw ”The Houses October Built”, another horror film which is innovative in it’s documentary style and realistic tone. The film follows a group of haunted house fans who travel through Texas visiting the top Halloween houses, and interviewing the actors who work inside them. They discover some scary facts about these actors, and caution the audience about entering the more extreme houses.
I sat down with producer Zack Andrews to talk about the making of the movie, and their plans to get it out to a wider audience.
In Australia, we don’t really have these haunted houses. We’ve got the cheesy ones at carnivals but we don’t have these specific Halloween ones. Can you explain a bit about them and why you wanted to make a documentary about them?
Growing up in Texas – basically our whole crew is from Texas. We all had this experience of being like a little kid, you know, 12, 13 and wanting to go almost like live out a horror film. These haunted houses gave you a place where you pay your $20 and then for a moment you’re almost inside a movie and having these characters jump out at you and scare you and give you the visuals that you have only seen in two dimensions, you know, it all kind of comes to life.
It sounds scary.
Yeah. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart to go through these haunted houses. That’s for sure.
But you’ve always loved them?
Yeah. I have always really enjoyed, you know, from haunted hayrides to haunted mansions to trail rides, just everything that gives you the feeling of you may be in danger.
It sounds like my worst nightmare. When you set out to make a documentary about them what was your intention going in? What did you want to find out?
At first we thought, this would be something that’s very cool because we’re basically able to shoot on these million dollar sets and how the production value would be for a limited budget, we would still be able to get some really cool things. And then the more and more we interviewed the people behind putting on these shows, we realized that’s where the real story was. It wasn’t so much about the visuals of a haunted house and that experience but more about these people, what makes somebody want to have their profession in just building haunted houses and scaring people.
For some people that’s all they do.
Yeah. We really found out that these people are super into it and it really is their whole life. For most of us who love haunted houses, you usually you don’t think about them until October but these people live this 365 days a year.
Did you encounter any problems with wanting to go and shoot in these haunted houses and interview these people?
We thought that we may and so we had our production slate. We had 10 haunted houses and sometimes we were double booked for certain nights but we never ran into any problems. Everyone welcomed us with open arms. We really appreciated not only the scare actors but the owners of the house. These are their businesses and to open their doors to us and really give us all access into not only their business in their haunted house but also the people that worked there lives’. These people really shared some of their back stories and really shared the inner workings of their own head sometimes for better or for worse.
How did you get the budget together?
Just through me and the two co-directors, Bobby Roe and Jeff Larson.
Just did it all yourself.
Yeah. We just put it in, the upfront cost of forming the production company. We had to rent an RV and plane flights and things like that.
We did. Of course because of the nature of the narrative that we’re telling. A lot of it depended on what people said but we knew kind of what we wanted them to say and hopefully they would be open and revealing about a lot of what they think about and what they want to get out of their profession per se and then that just kind of led us into some places that we feel like we found out things that even 60 Minutes doesn’t know about.
Do you think that’s because you guys are fans?
I think so. I think people could see the genuineness of us and kind of opened up to us and felt like maybe a kindred spirit. We put on haunted houses and these people are making a documentary about haunted houses so maybe it kind of came together.
Would you classify it as a documentary or a horror?
It’s definitely a documentary but it’s also scary like a horror film. If you love haunted houses and Halloween, you’re going to love this documentary. If you aren’t into that kind of thing then don’t go see this.
It seems like the horror genre is a place where people are getting really creative with low budgets.
Why do you think that is?
Because I think it’s something that – it’s easy to elicit emotion in horror films. I think that someone that maybe has a lower budget can kind of go and go for the fear angle whereas going for the love angle might be a little bit boring without some of the like race to the airport scenes and just some of those standard romantic comedy set pieces that I feel like you need in order to keep maybe a slower movie like that going. With horror, if you can get into somebody’s head or there is kind of soul and what they are afraid of then you don’t really need money. It’s just about touching that nerve.
And some of these horror directors have been innovators of new filmmaking styles, like with Blair Witch Project, that kind of handheld found footage that really pioneered the way for films like Paranormal Activity, which was another great horror film…. And audiences are now more used to the documentary style…
I think those movies definitely paved the way for a movie like The Houses October Built because the audience is okay with watching that style. I think maybe 15 years ago, an audience wouldn’t be able to sit through thinking this is a documentary like that style of filmmaking. But now that we have seen Blair Witch and Paranormal and these other movies that have taken that style it opens the door to a documentary that shares that same camera feel with the audience. Just because you’re accustomed to that now, you have been groomed a little bit, now it opens the door for documentaries, as long as they are really entertaining and compelling.
Yours has that realistic hand-held style but it is actually real…
Yeah exactly. I feel like if you’re making a copy of something successful it just always is a copy. But if you can figure out a way to be innovative and creative and kind of tell – I mean there are only so many stories you can tell but the way you tell them is all different. I feel like by keeping this as a documentary and real instead of a big budget movie about going into haunted houses, I think there is just a genuineness there. It will make you feel uncomfortable I think the next time you go through a haunted house.
I’m not going. I was thinking about going to the haunted hayride but not any more.
We scared you away.
Yeah. You scared me away. So this film doesn’t have distribution yet.
What are your hopes for it?
I think we’re an interesting position because I feel like a lot of times with movies, if a movie is not good but yet they have great marketing and so they are trying to market, market, market and have this huge opening weekend. I feel like with our movie, I’m not afraid to show our movie to anybody. I think it really plays well for an audience. The question is marketing. I remember reading interviews with J.J. Abrams and he’s very guarded about marketing. He never wants to show anything.
The secret monster and secret ape.
Everything, he is so super secret with but he has the luxury of saying, “I’m J.J. Abrams trust me. Just go see my movie.” I don’t have that luxury yet. I really want the fans to do that for me. If I can get some people to blog about this movie and just talk about the movie and just say their opinion of it then that’s the kind of marketing I think that I want to go for with this. Given the nature of the film I think just trust your fellow moviegoers and your fellow horror filmgoers and haunted house and Halloween fans. Just check this movie out. I don’t want to ruin anything with too much information.
Because there is a twist in there?
I don’t know…
Would you describe it as a twist?
I don’t know if I necessarily say a twist.
Yeah. I think the only question is…we’re definitely working on a follow up to this. I think if I gave away too much information about everything in the movie then the follow up isn’t going to work quite as well. I think that’s all I can say.
I guess the one thing you’ve been doing to market it has been the film festivals?
Things like horror film festivals like Shock Fest in the weekend.
Is that where it becomes important to start to show it to an audience and get a following?
Yeah. It feels so nice to not be afraid to show it to an audience and not have to worry about any kind of parlor tricks to get the movie out there. It’s simple as just come see the movie. Afterwards, assuming that you like Halloween haunted houses I think you’re going to like this movie. I’m not worried about that side of it which is why we had the interview or we have entered it into some horror festivals. We recently we’re at Shock Fest in Hollywood. We won the grand prize which is called The Shocker Award for the best film of the festival. We’re really excited.
What was the reaction like? You said you were watching the audience.
It was really neat to see the parts that because I know everyone in the movie, things that maybe I just glossed over, the audience found really funny. I’m glad that if there was some chemistry onscreen or our inside jokes maybe aren’t so inside and actually people really responded well to. I think that’s important in a documentary to keep people – while I think there is going to be some parts in the movie that are very tense and suspenseful, there are definitely some comic relief type moments and that was nice to see that that worked.
You’re hoping to get to Australia as well?
Yes. We would love to. There is a horror festival there called A Night of Horror in Sydney. The director Bobby Roe has this obsession with Australia. I’m doing my best as producer to try to push the film in that direction. We have obviously entered that festival and hope to hear back some time early in 2012 to know if we got in.
Apart from seeing it at the festival, if people are reading this now, how do they watch the film or how do they get to see it? Anything they can do?
Right now, like I said, we’re going to go the festival route. I would say that’s going to be tough question for me. One of the studios could just buy this thing and put it out next Halloween. That’s going to be my answer. Somebody buy this movie and release it next October and then everyone can see it.
– ALICIA MALONE
Images by Karey Rinkenberger