The American Scream – a documentary that pulls back the curtain on home haunting – is a wonderful, heartfelt celebration of Halloween. And what it excels in is its restrained focus. It’s not a wide-reaching look at the haunted attraction business, which it could have easily been. Instead, director Michael Stephenson wisely narrows his vision, creates more emotional depth and heightens the intimacy of the subject matter but he never loses out on “the moments” that make home haunting so damn fun.
Stephensen previously helmed Best Worst Movie, a look at the cult phenonmenon that is Troll 2, and applies that film’s sense of warmth, energy and sense of humor to The American Scream.
Stephenson’s documentary concerns itself with three different perspectives, coincidentally all from a Massachusetts town.
There’s Victor, a family man who – each Halloween – pours his heart and soul into transforming the outside of his house into a creepy maze. Not far from Victor, there’s Manny, another home haunter who take great pride in scaring would-be visitors. He’s not the detail-oriented artisan that Victor is, however, the thrill he gets from the process of creating a spooky experience is certainly the same. And, finally, in another part of town, there’s Richard and Matthew, a father-son team. Their haunt may not look as spiffy, but their hearts and determination are in the right place.
The American Scream hits all of the right beats as it delves into each haunter’s driving force, their work ethic, the frustrations they face and the impact their love for the craft has on those in their lives. For all, they’re living in some sort of shadow. Victor has a day job, but he’s cognizant of the fact that, some day, he could be let go and, certainly, his wife has financial concerns. And for Manny, he’s had health problems. Regardless, their respective adoration for what they do is unwavering.
Stephenson doesn’t spend much time looking at the technicalities of home haunting. It doesn’t focus on how particular props work or the most effective way to create a maze. It’s all about the emotional journey – the blood, sweat and tears that go into the biz, the frayed nerves that occur when the ticking clock they all face counts down to Halloween. It’s about the strengthening bonds that come out of teamwork. In Victor’s case, it’s a large family affair involving his wife and two daughters. It’s really hard not to connect with them as Victor frets over the creation of an Egyptian-themed prop he’s hand-creating or while his wife, decked out in a Halloween sweater, creates costumes as their oldest daughter makes her own props.
The documentary pushes all of the right buttons and is quite often hilarious (Richard and Matthew are an amazing duo). It’s a terrific reflection of small town struggles, dreams and successes and, in Victor’s case, something much more. I cannot recommend this documentary enough.