The most terrifying thing about the 1990 horror film “Troll 2” isn’t just that it was made, but that it was made with such an unapologetic lack of filmmaking talent that it’s become a punchline for jokes about bad movies ever since, rivaled only by recent additions to the “so bad it’s good” pantheon as Tommy Wiseau’s midnight staple “The Room” or even something like “Birdemic.” Thankfully, actor Michael Paul Stephenson didn’t try to hide from his work in the film for too long (he was 12 at the time), and would go on to direct “Best Worst Movie,” a documentary that won over many with its study of the cult surrounding “Troll 2,” the film’s egocentric director who believed he made a masterpiece, and the film’s lead George Hardy – an Alabama dentist bursting with personality, who long kept his sole acting credit in “Troll 2” as a dirty secret in his past. The film picked up strong nods all around, and now Stephenson is back with a doc of a whole other variety.
“The American Scream” chronicles the lives of three sets of home haunters in the idyllic Halloween wonderland of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. A home haunter is the person on your block (especially if you’re out in the suburbs) who goes all out every year for Halloween, hanging skeletons from their trees, and creating elaborate haunted mazes for the children (and honestly, even adults) to wander through on Halloween night. In “The American Scream,” Stephenson offers a clever look at blue collar America, and an inspiring chronicle of the pursuit of one’s passion, embodied by Victor Bariteau – a man whose family is constantly pushing him to follow his dreams and employ his skills of making professional grade home haunts, akin to something you’d see at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, in their backyard, even if it means they have to make sacrifices. We caught up with Stephenson as his film begins to roll out in select cities, and before the film’s airing on Chiller Network come October 28th, to discuss the process of finding the right home haunters, and much more.
For Stephenson, transitioning from the personal nature of “Best Worst Movie” to “The American Scream” was a bit of a daunting undertaking. “I was sort of afraid to make another documentary, because as everyone knows ‘Best Worst Movie’ is so personal,” he explained. “It felt as if it was going to be impossible for me to make another documentary that I felt as much of a personal connection to.” Additional fundamental elements provided deeper anxieties. ‘BWM’ was shot over the course of four years, while with ‘Scream’ filming took place over the course of a month. “So it felt like there was a ticking clock from the get go,” he said. “I felt like we had one shot to get this story right that was a much different experience than again, ‘Best Worst Movie.’”
The stakes were certainly in place for Stephenson and his fellow filmmakers, including his executive producer and wife Lindsay Stephenson, cinematographers Katie Graham and Jesse Vanderpool (who lend the film a wonderful autumnal glow), and editor, also a “Best Worst Movie” alum, Andrew Matthews. Though it was one producer in particular that got Stephenson fired up about the project. “[Meyer Shwarzstein] called me up, and he’s a very enthusiastic guy, and he was more enthusiastic than normal and he said ‘I’ve got this really great idea for this documentary about home haunters,’ and as soon as he said that, he didn’t have to say anything more.”
Stephenson was able to relate to the idea of home haunters on a personal level. “I grew up in a small town in Utah, where Halloween was very big for our neighborhood, and a couple blocks away we had ‘the Halloween weird lady.’ Every Halloween her home would transform into this crazy witch’s lair or castle. Every Halloween that’s where everybody wanted to be, and the feeling of community, and strangers wanting to be in this weird lady’s backyard, it brought back these really fond memories of being a kid.”
Though it was Stephenson’s current location that spurred even more of a yearning to create “The American Scream.” “I have two daughters, and we had been complaining about our neighborhood and where we lived, because there was no sense of community and no Halloween,” he said. “We were lucky to find two streets that actually trick-or-treated for Halloween. We thought, ‘maybe it doesn’t exist here in L.A.,’ but we wanted our kids to have that kind of the same experience we had growing up.”
Once Stephenson was aboard the project, his company Magic Stone Productions put out a call online for home haunters willing to be subjects in the film. “It just immediately clicked,” he said. “As soon as we jumped into the material and looking for our subjects – you know people very passionate about the holiday were submitting [applications] from all over the country. As a non-fiction filmmaker, it was a fun place to be, yet it also speaks to broader and even more meaningful themes.”
Those themes, as Stephenson explained, were a mix of passion versus obsession all rooted in families, and small town America. “It’s a very playful world, but you’re dealing with people some would argue are obsessive. That’s always a fun line to balance.”
Stephenson quickly discovered that there was more of a subculture of home haunters than he could imagine, with people toiling away in their garages working on all sorts of spooky creatures and other such creations. “I think what was surprising, because for me, from the outset of this project – and it was the same with ‘Best Worst Movie’ – I wasn’t really interested in B-Movies or defining a subculture at all,” he explained. “I was more interested in the human aspect and ‘What does the director think about this movie [‘Best Worst’ Movie’] that is being celebrated because it’s bad? And is that really a bad thing?’ I’ve always been more interested on the smaller, slice of life, human side of things than the broad.”
Fairhaven, Massachusetts, was where the search for a home haunter who encapsulated all the characteristics Stephenson was looking for eventually led. Victor Bariteau is sort of the main character of the film from which the other home haunters follow, as he creates home haunts that would dazzle even those who’ve spent a few Halloweens attending Halloween Horror Nights or any major haunted house attraction, with the sheer ambition, scope, and artistry of his haunt. Yet, Victor wasn’t even the first choice. “It was complete, complete, kind of serendipity or luck that we found him,” he explained. From 600 submissions from across the country, they realized the greatest concentration of applicants came from New England specifically, so naturally they set the film there and found their main character. Victor didn’t initially make the final cut of people to feature in the narrative. “The day before I left to go and meet with the 12 I was considering, I came upon that picture of Victor’s daughter Kathryn standing next to the spider with a huge smile on her face. At that moment it was like, ‘Wait a second,’ that picture grabbed hold of me.”
Some comparisons have been drawn between Victor and Mark Borchardt of “American Movie” fame for their passion to accomplish a creative task (in Mark’s case, make a horror film entitled “Coven”) possibly beyond their small town means and at times putting stress on their personal relationships. Victor spends much of the documentary worrying that perhaps he’s spent too much of his family earnings on the haunt, with his supportive wife and kids at times feeling neglected or cast aside due to his passion. Stephenson said that making a character like Victor accessible to an audience isn’t necessarily difficult. “For me, the best characters are not black and white,” he said. “It’s not bad or good, all of us lie somewhere in the middle. I think the key to having a character that is accessible, and likeable, ultimately comes down to vulnerability. All of us have our weaknesses and strengths, and even though Victor is arguably obsessed and puts his haunt before his family, the flipside of the coin is, it’s the one thing that that family does year-in and year-out. It’s a keystone to their relationship as a family.”
While pull quotes on film posters are standard issue nowadays, so often people will spew some sort of semi-positive quote for a movie just to land on a poster or trailer. Though for “The American Scream” trailer, there’s one from Ain’t It Cool News writer Alan Cerny that stated, “[American Scream’] assures us that life lived in pursuit of a passion…is never a wasted life.” This was a quote that Stephenson picked himself while cutting the trailer and said epitomized the message of the film. “The one thing I want people taking from this film is that, being passionate about something is worth everything. I don’t want to sound silly, but ultimately you have one life to live. Sometimes I think people stop the progress towards their dreams just because of irrational fear. Sometimes you have to throw caution into the wind and go for it.”
Stephenson will continue to follow his own dreams, lining up his first narrative feature as director of “Destroy,” a horror comedy said to be in the vein of “An American Werewolf in London,” which follows a would-be vampire hunter who has left a string of staked corpses all across Bavaria, unaware that he’s actually been murdering innocent old men. Stephenson will certainly be playing around with moral ambiguity once again, only on a fictional basis now, and hopefully soon. “We were actually working on ‘Destroy’ when ‘American Scream’ came to us. Now my head, in terms of creatively, is on ‘Destroy,’” he said. The filmmakers has a tentative start date of April in mind and even mentioned that he’s thought of incorporating some of Victor’s production design-level talent on the film.
As for anyone who’s already seen “The American Scream” [mild spoiler alert], you’ll know that the film leaves off with Victor setting up his own, full-scale haunted mansion outside of his home about six months after Halloween – hoping to turn it into his own professional haunt for Halloween 2012, and fulfilling a dream he expresses throughout the film. Stephenson updated us on Victor’s progress towards that goal as well. “Victor took me to his pro haunt, where he’s leased this space that’s part of a mall. On the outside it’s sort of unassuming, because there’s a banner, and nothing very interesting about it – it feels like you’re walking into an old Best Buy – but then you walk in and it’s magical. He’s built a haunted mansion.” Stephenson said, “It is going well, the attendance has been good, and he has a big week ahead of him.”
“The American Scream” will premiere on Chiller network Sunday, October 28 at 8:00 PM ET and will be screening in select theaters through November. Visit AmericanScreamMovie for additional information on screenings.