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Haunters: The Art of the Scare (Fantastic Fest Review)

Haunters: The Art of the Scare (Fantastic Fest Review)
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PLOT: A look inside the world of Halloween haunted houses, in particular "extreme haunts" that torment their guests to the breaking point.

REVIEW: The truth is creepier than fiction in HAUNTERS, an unexpectedly fascinating and unnerving documentary revolving around the strange phenomenon of extreme haunted houses in America. It’s not often I see a documentary that makes me squeamish on a purely visceral level, but HAUNTERS packs a punch, and this despite the fact that it’s ostensibly about a fun and usually harmless October pastime.

In case you were unaware, haunted houses have gotten a little more intense in the past few years. Everybody loves a good jump-scare during a stroll through a PG-13 haunt, like say the attractions put on by Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights or your local haunted hayride, but some people prefer their frights to come not with fun and goodwill but with genuine horror and torment. An extreme haunted house puts its participants through the ringer; gagging them, bounding them, abusing them physically and mentally. If you’ve ever wanted to feel what it would be like to be assaulted by a bevy of horror movie psychopaths, there are people out there who will gladly help you out.

Director Jon Schnitzer focuses the majority of his documentary on two “haunters” in particular: One is Donald Julson, a shades-wearing Halloween enthusiast who sets up a homemade haunted house in his parents' yard. The other is Russ McKamey, whose "McKamey Manor" has earned the reputation as one of the - if not the - most extreme haunts in the world. Both men love scaring people, but the lengths they’ll go to for such pleasure are quite different; Julson revels in frightening kids and families but believes at the end of the day that the experience should be along the same lines as the traditional haunts that have been popping up in the country for decades. McKamey, however, sees his Manor as something of a psychological bootcamp, where he puts his guests through such insane, brain-melting torments that, he believes, they come out the other side having conquered their fears. Indeed, even though they go through hell during their experiences (these nightmares can last for hours), a lot of the people eventually seem to either want to do it again or do it to someone else.

Both men are interesting (for Julson, his love of scaring people is clearly borne from issues he’s had with his family since childhood), but McKamey steals the show, for better or worse. Alternately charming and unsettling, he proves to be a polarizing figure for the people who meet him in the movie and for us, the audience. Schnitzer does a fantastic job of showing the man’s many sides, and though you don’t necessarily leave the doc feeling you know what truly makes him tick, you can’t say he’s either simply a grinning sadist who gets off on hurting people or a likable and misunderstood showman who just wants to entertain people. Startlingly, it appears he’s both.

HAUNTERS is superb at immersing you in the various worlds of these haunts, with plenty of interviews from actors, participants and haunters alike. Utilizing a steady stream of rousing music that perfectly accompanies the wild events on display, Schnitzer is admittedly more interested in the Russ McKameys of this world than the more genial examples, but after a while we can see why. Delving into every aspect of Russ’ process, the ins and outs of McKamey Manor and its history are wholly fascinating. (Wait till you meet their neighbor!) But when we see what really goes on inside those walls it is deeply troubling. These people are being tortured, no two ways about it, and the McKamey crew is getting off on it. Some of this footage sent chills up my spine.

If HAUNTERS is lacking in any department, I think it’s that we don’t get to see enough of the people who Russ employs to do his bidding. It’s briefly touched upon that he hired teenagers to do the work (what a bad idea that is), and then after getting rid of them, he ups the ante by hiring former soldiers (also maybe not a great idea). What must they be thinking as they’re choking or drowning someone in the midst of this sick game? Of course, there’s often just too much footage for a documentarian to fit into one movie, but I found I wanted to know more about these particular people than some of the other subjects we meet.

Still, HAUNTERS gives us plenty of food for thought, and it’s impossible to leave without wondering if you would put yourself through these trials... or if you’d rather be on the other side of the psychological torment. (Plenty of people will think, “Of course I wouldn’t participate” but plenty of people in this movie initially said the same thing too.) More than just a simple celebration/examination of this Halloween tradition, the documentary serves as an intoxicating study of our relationship with fear; how we react to this most powerful emotion and why we sometimes secretly crave it. HAUNTERS is a whole lot more than just a haunted house documentary, and it’s downright powerful.

Extra Tidbit: HAUNTERS hits Blu-ray/DVD October 3rd.

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