Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson
Michael Paul Stephenson’s Best Worst Movie was an impassioned look at fandom and how people from all walks of life can come together and celebrate the terrible. It was incredibly sweet, endearing, and tragic; and it remains one of the best documentaries in recent memory. Stephenson’s follow-up, The American Scream, a spirited look at normal, hard-working individuals and their unique passion for home haunting, follows in the tradition of Best Worst Movie, putting the spotlight on individuals and their seemingly esoteric passion in a way that is filled with heart and the utmost respect for his subjects.
The American Scream follows three families in Fairview, Massachusetts, as they turn their homes into haunted houses in the month leading up to Halloween. There’s Victor, a family man with a day job as a systems administrator who wants nothing more than to make haunted houses professionally, sacrificing much to fulfill his dream; Manny, who simply does it because he loves it, donating all proceeds earned during the fest for cancer research; and Matt and Rich Brodeur, a father-son team who don’t mind cutting corners to get the job done in time for Halloween.
Stephenson approaches the subject matter delicately, letting the actions and words of his three subjects speak to the audience, rather than approaching it with a personal flourish, such as in Best Worst Movie. In this way Stephenson reveals himself to be a master at documenting the lives of seemingly normal people in incredibly amazing ways. With a beautiful score made possible by a Bulgarian orchestra and composed by Bobby Tahouri, the emotion comes through in spades, providing an intimate look at these families from seemingly disparate walks of life and how they’re all driven by a similar passion.
It’s incredibly revealing, particularly in the case of Victor, to see how this obsession impacts their lives and families. Victor’s wife, although concerned about financial problems brought about by the relatively high cost of his activities, supports him endlessly, even when the stress gets to be too much and Victor snaps at her as the deadline of Halloween looms. Matt and Rich’s relationship through their shared passion of Halloween haunting is explored, with Stephenson putting emphasis on the seemingly isolated life Matt lives by touching upon a potentially budding relationship with an old friend. Meanwhile, Manny’s altruistic approach toward home haunting is made tragic by discovering that a year prior he had a heart attack, prompting a revealing and haunting portrait of a man who lives with a fear that he might not be around to see his kids grow up.
All of this allows Stephenson to explore the nuances of such a simple yet bizarre activity, illuminating the trials and tribulations that befall those who choose to follow their passion regardless of the circumstances. By letting the characters speak for themselves, rather than through loaded questions or obvious interviews, we get a poignant look at the lives of these normal men doing something most take for granted. The American Scream is a beautifully impassioned piece of art, a look into the lives of the everyday people who strive to give back to the community in their own special way. It shows that drama can be found in the mundane, and Michael Paul Stephenson has found a way to capture it in an incredibly powerful and engaging manner.
4 out of 5