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A splendid look at not only home hauntings, but ultimately the humanity, community and DIY passion behind them, THE AMERICAN SCREAM is a perfect Halloween film. Michael Stephenson, director of BEST WORST MOVIE, nestles into Fairhaven, Massachusetts and three families whose annual tradition becomes all at once hilarious, heartbreaking and inspiring. Preceding its Chiller TV premiere this October 28, THE AMERICAN SCREAM is (deservedly) playing a host of theaters across the nation (including Brooklyn, NY's Nitehawk Cinema October 20 & 21). FANGORIA spoke with Stephenson, producer Meyer Shwarzstein and home haunter and star Victor Bariteau about living THE AMERICAN SCREAM.
FANGORIA: You spoke about the original plan for a broader
doc. Do you feel the specificity of it translates to it being more universal,
in the end?
MICHAEL STEPHENSON: Oh yea, absolutely. I think when we
first jumped into this and saw the subculture was so big, there was never a
feeling of, “We need to cover the subculture. We need to define this wide, big,
growing thing.” You get much more meaning examining a smaller story up close
and personal. That’s always where I’m driven more towards: characters and
ordinary people in a smaller light, as opposed to, “here’s a phenomenon. What
made this happen?” It’s an interesting point you bring up, because I do think
the meaning and the takeaway ends up being more impactful if you just focus.
FANG: I’m curious what the change was doing this as a tradition
every year, but then also here’s a camera and Michael following you as well? Much
of the film is in and around your house and family, but even going to work; that seems like an interesting ordeal.
VICTOR BARITEAU: Having them in the bathroom while I’m
brushing my teeth. That was definitely interesting [laughs]. The thing is, my
family took to them immediately. It wasn’t like having a camera crew in the
house, it was like having friends and guests. So, it was very easy to adapt. It
wasn’t an issue. It was a little nerve-wracking to me, at first, but very
quickly, it got comfortable.
FANG: On the other end of it, is there an adjustment period
where you feel invasive?
STEPHENSON: No, I didn’t really ever feel invasive, in part
because I was probably just presuming we were welcome, like, “We’re here!”
Also, Victor’s family is so accepting and so warm, and it was mutual. We felt
the same way as the crew, being there and being able to share in these small
moments; like the toothbrush and being at your house at 5 a.m. when you get up.
Those are the things that I really get excited about, although they’re small,
intimate regular moments people have. I never felt like we were being invasive
only because their doors were just wide open.
FANG: There’s a real love for DIY and the aesthetic of Halloween
present in the film. Do you all share that macabre sensibility?
STEPHENSON: For me, not so much. Honestly, and in terms of
do-it-yourself capabilities, I’m terrible. I can’t fix anything.
FANG: But there’s an energy.
STEPHENSON: Yes, and I’d look at these guys and what they
were doing and I’d marvel. I really honed in on the creative spirit of it all
and the energy behind that, because that’s something I can identify with.
Seeing these guys take a garage and I had a moment, where I was in his
garage—this was after it had transformed and I was holding the camera—and I
thought,” I’m not in a garage anymore. This is amazing, this is transformative.”
His backyard is small, the driveway’s small, but once it took shape, it was
like a totally different place.
MEYER SHWARZSTEIN: I’ve always been interested in Halloween,
and how participatory it is and how welcoming it is. I think that I found at
Vic’s house, not just the family aspect, but this group of friends that were so
committed to working at it and making it exciting and fun for everybody, it’s
just… I also like that it seems a very commercial holiday, but in the end it
can be done in a very uncommercial way, where it’s very localized and with
people, it’s the work of their hands. That’s really—there’s an essence of pride
and it comes through with all the people who come through the haunt, who can
appreciate something they haven’t seen before. And the intent and the spirit.
To me, it’s just amazing and I think that that kind of localized ingenuity and
creativity is the sort of thing we need to celebrate more. This film, I think,
gave us an opportunity to shine a light in the corner of the country, in a way.
But, it’s not to say there isn’t another corner that doesn’t have something
equal or maybe even more fantastic. That’s what’s kind of neat. It isn’t
telling *the* story, it’s telling a story. Anybody who appreciates their neighborhood
at any given time and has seen what people give to their neighborhood in
contributions, that’s what’s exciting about Halloween; the neighborly thing,
the communal aspect. It’s really weird, there’s one day of the year where it’s
okay to knock on your neighbor’s door and they’re going to open and say nice
FANG: In the years you’ve been home haunting, which has been
BARITEAU: This year. There was a change that came about a
few years ago when I worked at a professional haunted house, and I just saw the
way they did things. So, I started managing the home haunt like a professional
haunt. That really changed. But this year, it wasn’t just the experience of the
haunt, it was the experience of having them over, filming the entire thing. It made
me feel like this was more than just me. It was really something special. This
year, absolutely, was the best. Some of the props and stuff I’ve created in the
past have still been my best props, but it was way more than that. It’s way
more than art. It’s just a magical journey, this past year. It’s impossible to
explain. Having these guys here was like hitting the lottery. My stuff is going
to be seen by not only my friends and family and neighbors now, it’s going to
be seen by a nation.
FANG: And it’s going to grab them. There’s a scene in which
your wife has a voiceover while you work about how you’ve never loved sports
and the like. I could only think about myself, being interested in movies,
being an indoor kid, but also not having that know-how. So, watching you
construct and build, I thought, “Ah, someone’s doing it!”
BARITEAU: That’s something I forced myself to learn. I
signed up for classes at vocational school and learned carpentry. I didn’t have
somebody, I didn’t have my dad around to learn that sort of thing. I didn’t
have anybody, except an uncle who nurtured that in me. That was something
learned, something I forced myself to pursue.
FANG: Chiller premieres THE AMERICAN SCREAM at the end of
October, but there’s a growing spat of screenings.
STEPHENSON: We do have some special screenings, which has
been a nice surprise. This is such a great movie to watch together as a
community, because it ultimately celebrates community. Our plan is to compress
as much of that as possible into October and lead up to the television premiere
at the end of the month. Chiller, I can’t say better things about that network.
As a filmmaker, you’re always a little adverse as to, when you have other
parties involved, how that’s going to affect the story that you want to tell.
Chiller, what they’re doing and their commitment to original programming is
refreshing and their support for this project and this film has been nothing
but wind in our backs. I hope it works out for them. It’s something that they
haven’t done before.
SHWARZSTEIN: They were also the very genesis of the whole
thing. This all came about because they loved BEST WORST MOVIE and asked, “What’s
Michael’s next project?” I said, “I don’t know.” So, then I had this notion. I
said, “How about something about homemade haunted houses,” because I’ve always
been fascinated by the phenomenon. They said, “that sounds great,” and I
thought, “Oh crap, I hope Michael wants to do this.” So then, I called him up
and he said, “I love that idea!”
FANG: Now, is there an expanded version of the epilogue with
Victor’s move up to Ghoulie Manor?
STEPHENSON: Chiller is actually going to have a team the
first part of October. Everybody wants to know what happens. I would love to
follow it for five years. I’m hoping with the DVD release there will be some
supplemental follow-up on Ghoulie Manor and also some how-to’s—like “How to
make a crank ghost”— so that people who want to get involved, who have no clue
and no talent like myself, these are the steps.
For more on THE AMERICAN SCREAM, request a screening here and give a read to FANGORIA's glowing review.
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