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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 11.06.12] documentary

Michael Stephenson's Best Worst Movie (review) was a surprisingly touching documentary about the cult of Troll 2, renowned as one of the "worst movies of all time." Stephenson played Troll 2's obnoxious child protagonist, but he grew up on the other side of the camera. Years later he returned to the town where the film was shot to explore the film's unusual legacy, and found real pathos in the lives of the film's obscure cast and crew. I wondered at the time if the personal connection is what made Best Worst Movie so special. Did Stephenson's insider relationship allow him to get deeper into the subject than an outsider? Did the heart come from his nostalgia? None of this matters when evaluating Best Worst Movie, but the possibility of a freshman fluke seemed plausible. What would this filmmaker's next step be? The American Scream proves beyond doubt that Stephenson is a talented documentarian, regardless of his subject matter. His sophomore film is just as good as his debut, focusing on three "home haunters" in Fairhaven, Massachusetts and their annual efforts to scare the bejeezus out of their neighbors.

Victor Bariteau is the obsessive perfectionist, the mad artist with impossible dreams. His haunted house is an elaborate production. The end result is a one-night culmination of year-round planning and hours upon lonely hours in his workshop. As October 31st nears, he enlists and deploys friends and family in his campaign like a man who has read "The Art of War." His devotion to home haunting supersedes his day job in IT, and sometimes even his family commitments. He yearns to take his hobby to a professional level, but is limited by the realities of his financial situation.

Manny Souza is the community man, an potbellied Joe with a handlebar mustache who seems like he is mostly in it for a good time. He proudly boasts that his display cost $8, and is mostly assembled from repurposed junk. Halloween is about family tradition for the Souza household, and while they may not have the meticulous attention to detail that one can find at the Bariteau residence, they make up for it in spirit. Manny suffers from high blood pressure and heart problems, and hopes that his kids will pick up the torch if he has to let it go. He claims it wouldn't bother him if it all came to an end, but that twinkle in his eye says otherwise.

Richard and Matthew Brodeur are the bumblers, a spit-and-image father-son team that both appear to be a little touched in the head. Their displays look like flimsy death traps compared to Bariteau and Souza's work, but they seem to enjoy playing with paste in the yard and frightening children. Richard is in poor health, grunting and wheezing from one task to another. He takes care of Matthew financially, while Matthew takes care of Richard physically. But this arrangement clearly won't last forever. It's especially bizarre, then, to see Matthew spurn the advances of Barbara, a cheerful female friend who clearly wants to be his main squeeze.

These subjects would be easy to make fun of (especially the Brodeurs), but Stephenson approaches them with the same gentle acceptance as the oddballs from Best Worst Movie. There's no judgment involved, only an affectionate desire to document a particular niche of weird Americana. Despite their shortcomings, all of these people are motivated by family and community. Whatever personal drive led them to this particular brand of artistic expression, they are in it less for themselves than for the shared experience of Halloween night. As Victor's wife points out, everyone has a hobby, and her husband just happened to gravitate towards home haunting instead of sports or camping. If not this, he'd find something else to pour money into. Anyone with a hobby should find something to empathize with here. Stephenson emphasizes the heart of these stories, capturing documentary moments that can only happen when the subjects trust the filmmaker.

Stephenson also has a knack for dramatic structure, employing the 31-day October build-up to Halloween night as a kind of ticking clock. The stakes are higher for Bariteau than the Brodeurs, but it's clear that the psychological wellbeing of all of our subjects rests in the successful execution of their plans. This story may sound small, but it's huge to its characters, and that's ultimately what matters. The American Scream is a great documentary, and a triumph for Stephenson. It would appear that he is not content to rest on his laurels, as his next film is a narrative feature called Destroy. The IMDB logline reads: "a would-be vampire hunter leaves a trail of staked corpses across Bavaria, fully unaware that he's murdering innocent old men." I can't wait.

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