Retro Review: THE AMERICAN SCREAM (2012){0}

There are documentaries that focus on history, science and important current events, and obviously those are important. We will always need honest and objective filmmakers to educate us beyond the junk we’re taught in high school. But there’s also a sub-genre among documentaries that might seem slight, but is still important in some small way. I choose to call these the “human interest” documentaries, and if you’ve ever seen the amusing Spellbound, the very entertaining The King of Kong, or the heart-wrenching Dear Zachary, then you know what I mean. Documentaries that don’t exactly cover “earth-shattering” stories, but manage to find a small nugget of universal truth in even the plainest of people. 

A few years ago, movie geeks were treated to a very satisfying “human interest” documentary called Best Worst Movie, a film that detailed the “where are they now?” stories behind one of the worst films ever made, Troll 2. As an old-school fan of Troll 2, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed for Best Worst Movie, and I’m pleased to note that the filmmaking/marriage duo of Lindsay and Mike Stephenson are back with another rather charming documentary. The American Scream might not be as funny, as personal, or as “juicy” as Best Worst Movie, but it still works very well as a slice-of-life documentary that pays due respect to a rather obscure person: that guy who creates the COOLEST haunted house on the block every October. 

The American Scream follow three families in suburban Boston who sweat, slave, drill, hammer, paint, stress, and suffer for their annual art exhibit — and if you don’t believe that the privately-owned Halloween “haunt” on your corner represents art, then you’re the type of person who will most enjoy this sweet, honest, and passionate portrait of those who simply live for late October. Our subjects are three unrelated families (two very “typical” clans and one odd but very endearing father/son team) who put forth a lot of time and effort (and money) each year, simply so that neighbors and various trick or treaters can enjoy a nice, healthy series of simple scares. No money involved, no sponsorships or corporate interests; just an odd annual tradition that speaks to a neighborhood’s innate need for a little close-knit community.

The Stephensons also include a little background information on how “private haunts” get made as we accompany one of the artists to a Halloween convention, and of course we’re privy to numerous personal ruminations on the “why” of the process through several interviews segments. Then it’s time for Halloween night. If you don’t find some level of sweet satisfaction as these three families dazzle and impress their neighbors through the use of quaint, simple, clever scare tactics, then you might be better off sticking with the more “important” documentary films. Personally I think it is important to see normal Joe and Jane families working together for something that simply makes people happy.

(Disclosure: since being interviewed for Best Worst Movie, I have become personal friends with these filmmakers. They’re great people, actually!)