The most terrifying thing about the 1990 horror film “Troll 2” isn’t just that it was made, but that it was made with such an unapologetic lack of filmmaking talent that it’s become a punchline for jokes about bad movies ever since, rivaled only by recent additions to the “so bad it’s good” pantheon as Tommy Wiseau’s midnight staple “The Room” or even something like “Birdemic.” Thankfully, actor Michael Paul Stephenson didn’t try to hide from his work in the film for too long (he was 12 at the time), and would go on to direct “Best Worst Movie,” a documentary that won over many with its study of the cult surrounding “Troll 2,” the film’s egocentric director who believed he made a masterpiece, and the film’s lead George Hardy – an Alabama dentist bursting with personality, who long kept his sole acting credit in “Troll 2” as a dirty secret in his past. The film picked up strong nods all around, and now Stephenson is back with a doc of a whole other variety.
“The American Scream” chronicles the lives of three sets of home haunters in the idyllic Halloween wonderland of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. A home haunter is the person on your block (especially if you’re out in the suburbs) who goes all out every year for Halloween, hanging skeletons from their trees, and creating elaborate haunted mazes for the children (and honestly, even adults) to wander through on Halloween night. In “The American Scream,” Stephenson offers a clever look at blue collar America, and an inspiring chronicle of the pursuit of one’s passion, embodied by Victor Bariteau – a man whose family is constantly pushing him to follow his dreams and employ his skills of making professional grade home haunts, akin to something you’d see at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, in their backyard, even if it means they have to make sacrifices. We caught up with Stephenson as his film begins to roll out in select cities, and before the film’s airing on Chiller Network come October 28th, to discuss the process of finding the right home haunters, and much more.
For Stephenson, transitioning from the personal nature of “Best Worst Movie” to “The American Scream” was a bit of a daunting undertaking. “I was sort of afraid to make another documentary, because as everyone knows ‘Best Worst Movie’ is so personal," he explained. "It felt as if it was going to be impossible for me to make another documentary that I felt as much of a personal connection to.” Additional fundamental elements provided deeper anxieties. 'BWM' was shot over the course of four years, while with 'Scream' filming took place over the course of a month. "So it felt like there was a ticking clock from the get go," he said. "I felt like we had one shot to get this story right that was a much different experience than again, ‘Best Worst Movie.'”
The stakes were certainly in place for Stephenson and his fellow filmmakers, including his executive producer and wife Lindsay Stephenson, cinematographers Katie Graham and Jesse Vanderpool (who lend the film a wonderful autumnal glow), and editor, also a “Best Worst Movie” alum, Andrew Matthews. Though it was one producer in particular that got Stephenson fired up about the project. “[Meyer Shwarzstein] called me up, and he’s a very enthusiastic guy, and he was more enthusiastic than normal and he said ‘I’ve got this really great idea for this documentary about home haunters,’ and as soon as he said that, he didn’t have to say anything more.”
Stephenson was able to relate to the idea of home haunters on a personal level. “I grew up in a small town in Utah, where Halloween was very big for our neighborhood, and a couple blocks away we had ‘the Halloween weird lady.' Every Halloween her home would transform into this crazy witch’s lair or castle. Every Halloween that’s where everybody wanted to be, and the feeling of community, and strangers wanting to be in this weird lady’s backyard, it brought back these really fond memories of being a kid.”
Though it was Stephenson’s current location that spurred even more of a yearning to create “The American Scream." “I have two daughters, and we had been complaining about our neighborhood and where we lived, because there was no sense of community and no Halloween," he said. "We were lucky to find two streets that actually trick-or-treated for Halloween. We thought, ‘maybe it doesn’t exist here in L.A.,’ but we wanted our kids to have that kind of the same experience we had growing up.”
Once Stephenson was aboard the project, his company Magic Stone Productions put out a call online for home haunters willing to be subjects in the film. “It just immediately clicked," he said. "As soon as we jumped into the material and looking for our subjects – you know people very passionate about the holiday were submitting [applications] from all over the country. As a non-fiction filmmaker, it was a fun place to be, yet it also speaks to broader and even more meaningful themes.”
Those themes, as Stephenson explained, were a mix of passion versus obsession all rooted in families, and small town America. “It’s a very playful world, but you’re dealing with people some would argue are obsessive. That’s always a fun line to balance.”