Michael Paul Stephenson's first documentary, "Best Worst Movie," focused on the cult fascination with the cheesy '80s sequel "Troll 2," and unearthed the passion hiding beneath the admirers' histrionics. Stephenson's follow-up, "The American Scream," digs even deeper into the motivation behind absurd pastimes and finds a compelling encapsulation of blue-collar life. By portraying a group of "haunters," hobbyists who design haunted houses on Halloween, Stephenson draws a provocative connection between the holiday's encouragement of make-believe and the aspirational mindset associated with the American dream. Think "Death of a Salesman" with demons.
The main subject of "The American Scream" is Victor Bariteau, an affable family man in sleepy Fairhaven, Massachusetts, whose modest, cubicle-centered life gets rejuvenated in the weeks leading up to the Halloween. Having designed haunted houses in his front yard for nearly 20 years, Bariteau regularly devotes the majority of his free time (and a fair amount of his finances) to tinkering with ghoulish conceits. The story begins 30 days prior to the holiday and follows the driven Bariteau through his intense creative process of gathering costumes, planning the usual barrage of pop-up frights and enduring hours of carpentry with a level of commitment that borders on spiritual.
In some ways, it is: Having been raised under the shelter of religion and shielded from gothic obsessions, Bariteau's relentless attempts to up the ante reflect a desire to create a world that bends to his whims. His investment extends to his family, particularly his likeminded older daughter Catherine, who has a penchant for destroying dolls and dressing up in dark colors. To him, the stakes in making his haunted house effective are ridiculously high: "It's Halloween or nothing," he says.
Shot in a vérité style that follows Bariteau in tense planning stages while his wife struggles to play along, "The American Scream" eloquently captures varying frustrations and desires of the middle-class everyman. However, it immediately loses some appeal when Stephenson shifts focus to other haunters in the neighborhood. While the exploits of a nearby father-and-son duo hold entertainment value for their bumbling, quasi-autistic exchanges and the insular nature of their commitment, their situation never takes on the same levels of complexity allotted to Bariteau as his situation grows increasingly more stressful. However, with a darkly playful soundtrack and generally cheery tone, "The American Scream" never overstates the drama beneath its scenario, instead allowing the subtext to creep out.
In one running contrast, Stephenson juxtaposes the monstrous creations populating each haunted house and the bland, normal moments involved in putting them together. By showing the practical challenges of turning imagination into reality -- struggling to make eerie critters hold together with uncooperative glue and tweaking measurements inch by inch -- "The American Scream" highlights the broader exasperation involved in working toward a desired goal under the immovable constraints of time and money. Like the 2009 documentary "October Country" funneled through a pop-culture vernacular, "The American Scream" allows its central personalities to unearth the profundity of their lives.
Their cause is easy to root for, and the final Halloween celebration takes place with pervasive giddiness that validates their oddball dedication to the craft. But the epilogue provides a snap back to reality that calls into question the nature of their commitment and leaves the entire family's future up in the air, proving that there are some forces much scarier than things going bump in the night.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? NBC horror channel Chiller plans to broadcast "The American Scream" on Halloween ahead of a limited theatrical release. It should garner a fair amount of attention on television, but will deal with the same tough commercial prospects in theaters that most documentaries face.