Sorry to keep prattling on about Netflix, but I need to call attention to their documentary section. In the last week alone, they’ve added two solid titles to their Canadian catalogue. The first is Keanu Reeves’ film vs. digital exploration Side by Side, and the second – which I’ll be talking about now – is Michael Paul Stephenson’s The American Scream.
Stephenson, after wowing audiences with Best Worst Movie in 2009, is back again with a behind-the-scenes look at “haunters”. Haunters are people that go above and beyond when it comes to celebrating Halloween. I'm not talking about people who shove a pumpkin on their front stoop October thirtieth, I mean those certain individuals that turn their entire property into an amusement park attraction every Halloween.
Stephenson follows three families living in the town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts as they prepare for the big day. The first family, led by the patriarch Victor, are the Bariteau's. His elaborate setups take months and several volunteers to construct. Even though the members of his family are willing participants, there are more than a few points where their relationship seems a little strained. Let's just say Victor has a very understanding wife.
The second haunter is Manny Souza, and his kin. He is not as meticulous as Victor and believes in quantity over quality. It’s really quite amazing to see how much stuff he has acquired – at little or no cost from junkyards and yard sales – and put to use in his backyard haunt.
The third is the father and son team, Richard & Matt Brodeur. They have neither the resources nor the finesse of the first two groups, but their enthusiasm seems limitless. I felt a bit bad for them, as the documentary tends to use them as the comic relief. Right from their intro, when Manny describes them as “peculiar”, Stephenson portrays them as lovable losers, which can be a tad uncomfortable at times. I don't feel this was in any way a malicious choice, rather just the easy – or perhaps, more specifically, lazy – one.
Despite that, I have to applaud Stephenson's talent for populating his films with genuine subjects. These people make real sacrifices for their passion, and any resulting tensions melt away once the big night arrives. It was very touching and satisfying to see how much joy their efforts brought to the community on Halloween night.
As the doc was finishing, I fully clicked into the title’s play on words. This small patch of New England really has achieved the fabled American Dream. You could see it on the faces of the people lining the streets. And, in this case, it is largely due to Halloween. Victor sums it up brilliantly when he says,
“Halloween is intensely special to me. And it feels very different from every other day. It's a community thing. It's not just a family thing. Thanksgiving & Christmas are family holidays. Halloween brings a whole community together. You're not going to see that any other time of the year.”
Stephenson has produced another heartfelt effort here. The American Scream will make you laugh, cringe and, most importantly, start counting the days until Halloween.