I felt right from the beginning I was going to enjoy this one – the production company has the brilliant name “Generic Movies, Ltd” and the title popped onto the screen with a barcode underneath it, a joke (so my wife tells me) on the proliferation of generic products and barcodes at the time – famously, a year after this movie, President George HW Bush had no idea what a barcode was, another nail in his electoral coffin.
“Scary Movie” really loaded the deck in its favour with the first few minutes too. There’s future Oscar nominee John Hawkes, in what must be his first starring role; plus the soundtrack features Butthole Surfers, whose early stuff is some of my favourite music. Hawkes is Warren, an extremely nervous and paranoid young man, who’s about to go into a haunted house with his “friends” (who just seem like people who insult him slightly less than everyone else). Haunted houses seem a fairly uniquely American thing- someone will convert their home (or a barn, in the case of this movie) into a series of rooms with various spooky goings-on, grotesque tableaux, and the like; then charge people entry. It’s a whole industry, and seems quite good fun to be honest, but it’s never made it to this side of the pond.
On the same night, a prison transport truck carrying mental patient / killer John Louis Barker overturns and Barker is nowhere to be found. After overhearing the local sheriff, Warren becomes convinced that Barker has taken up residence inside the haunted house and is trying to kill Halloween merry-makers, and his mental state deteriorates as he becomes “trapped” inside the house. Will he survive? Why are his friends such idiots? Why does the hot woman think he’s cute?
There’s a lot to like about this, which makes the fact the director was 19 years old when he made this even more remarkable (plus, even though I can’t find out, I guess he’s a relative of the great Roky Erickson, Texas psychedelic musician, which makes me like him even more). The sense of Warren’s increasing disorientation inside is well-captured, he does well with his actors and considering the no doubt miniscule budget, everything looks fine. The leader of a gang of leather-jacketed thugs gives us the movie’s best line, “If I wanted to hear from an asshole, I’d fart”. There is, of course, a but.
The film isn’t so much slow as devoid of incident for long stretches. The queueing to get into the Haunted House takes up more than half an hour when it could reasonably have been dealt with in about five minutes; plus, the repetition of Hawkes’ bugged-out eyes and the teasing stops having any extra significance after a while. Same goes for the running round the house – he runs through the same room multiple times and I began to get a bit bored of it all, like I wanted to shout at him to just run through a wall or something, anything, other than look extremely unhappy all the time.
It’s got a very curious denouement, one which I think would feel more appropriate in an episode of the Twilight Zone. In fact, this would work a huge amount better as an episode of that show – there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed, but it would make a really solid 45 minutes. All this is really disappointing, thanks to how much I enjoyed the opening of the movie – it felt like we were in safe hands, there was a light comic touch and it looked like a winner. Then it just slowly ground to a halt.
I got this film thanks to the internet – as far as I know, it’s never been released on DVD, and even a VHS release looks a bit sketchy. This is a shame, as despite my criticism of it, it’s a fascinating curio, filmed in the small Texas town where it was set, soundtrack full of amazing bands, and a very odd plot. Director Daniel Erickson went on to make a lot of music videos after this movie, but came back after a near 20 year absence with the movie “Eve’s Necklace” in 2010, a micro-budgeter (including the voice talents of John Hawkes, who presumably did it as a favour) with an all-mannequin cast. I almost literally cannot wait to find and watch this movie, it sounds amazing.
Rating: thumbs in the middle