Movies You Missed: Haunted Homes and Serial Killers | Live Culture

Movies You Missed: Haunted Homes and Serial Killers

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From Serial Killer Culture: David Van Gough with one of his Sharon Tate paintings.
  • From Serial Killer Culture: David Van Gough with one of his Sharon Tate paintings.

This week in movies you missed: Why do people spend months turning their homes into Halloween scare houses? Why do they flock to tours of Jeffrey Dahmer's Milwaukee haunts? Why do they collect the autographs and artwork of serial killers?

Two recent Halloween-y documentaries, The American Scream and Serial Killer Culture, explore these questions about the fascination of fear.

What You Missed
In the small town of Fairhaven, Mass., trick-or-treaters can visit three elaborate houses of horrors created by passionate amateurs. Directed by Michael Stephenson (Best Worst Movie), The American Scream profiles them, with a special emphasis on family man Victor Bariteau.

An IT guy by day, Bariteau grew up in a religious home where Halloween wasn't observed. Determined to make up for lost time, he bought his home largely for its perfect trick-or-treating neighborhood. Now he painstakingly crafts gruesome models and animatronics to scare his neighbors, while his wife, two daughters and pet ferrets help out, with various degrees of enthusiasm.

From The American Scream: Victor Bariteau and his daughter.
  • From The American Scream: Victor Bariteau and his daughter.
Serial Killer Culture profiles a thriving subculture of artists and collectors who fixate on serial killers the way other people fixate on movie stars. Among them are John Wayne Gacy's long-time art dealer, a "metal murder" band, the owner of a "dime museum" of creepy curiosities, and the young woman who runs the aforementioned Dahmer tours.

Director John Borowski takes the unusual step of using himself as a subject, since he's the auteur behind three profiles of famous killers. That should give you a sense of the slant of Serial Killer Culture: While a few of Borowski's subjects do wonder why people find torture and murder so fascinating, the film is basically a celebration of their hobby.

Why You Missed Them
Neither documentary appears to have had a theatrical release. Both are available on Netflix and Amazon Instant.

Bariteau at work.
  • Bariteau at work.
Should You Keep Missing Them?
As a horror fan, I'm deeply curious about why some people love to experience terror in a safe context, while others want nothing to do with it. These aren't great documentaries: Both are rambling and overlong, with more affection for than insight into their subjects. Still, here are seven things I learned:

  1. Constructing giant spiders and arranging piles of bones is a great form of family bonding. But watch out when something doesn't work and Dad has a meltdown.
  2. Rick Staton, Gacy's art dealer, deserves his own movie, because his self-justifications and doubts are rich terrain for, say, an Errol Morris. When he first visited Gacy in his cell, Staton says, "I hated him immediately." Nonetheless, he kept visiting the notorious child murderer, even allowing Gacy to flirt with him. While money was one obvious motivation — those clown paintings sold like hotcakes — Staton also cites the allure of "safe danger," comparing the killer to a caged animal.
    Rick Staton displays a painting Gacy created based on a photo of Staton's son. That, he acknowledges, really creeped him out.
    • Rick Staton displays a painting Gacy created based on a photo of Staton's son. That, he acknowledges, really creeped him out.
  3. When serial-killer obsessives are accused of turning killers into celebrities, they blame the media for heroizing the killers first. They're right, but that doesn't exactly exonerate them for jumping on the bandwagon.
  4. If you ban your kid from trick-or-treating, he may just become obsessed with it for life.
  5. I wish I could un-see the photo of Sharon Tate's dead body that features prominently in a segment of Borowski's film on Manson-fixated artist David Van Gough. Borowski keeps the image on the screen as Van Gough explains the symbolism of his paintings, theorizing that the killers posed Tate in a way reminiscent of ancient Egyptian figures. I'm usually not squeamish, but the combination of horrifying visual and dispassionate lecture made me want to stop the movie. While I believe artists should be free to depict whatever they choose, there's something deeply repugnant about treating a real person's death like an art object.
  6. Most of the people who take the Dahmer tour are young women "dragging their boyfriends," according to aptly named entrepreneur Amanda Morden (Mord means "murder" in German). Yet they're the only female fans of "serial killer culture" represented in the film. I would have liked to hear from others. Considering that most serial killers target young women, they might have had enlightening things to say about why they're into this and where they draw the line.
  7. According to a cannibal on last Sunday's episode of "The Walking Dead," in a post-apocalypse world, "Either you're the butcher or you're the cattle." Is the serial-killer fascination a way to identify oneself with the "butcher" and distance oneself from the "cattle" without actually, you know, butchering anyone? Discuss. 
Verdict: The American Scream: no scares, no cringes, some sweetness and light.
Serial Killer Culture: no scares, tons of cringes. I felt dirty after watching this movie, but I can't say it didn't make me think. As someone who wrote a whole novel about a serial killer, how far removed am I from the people who correspond with actual killers and prize their clothing and autographs? How do we acknowledge the widespread fascination with sociopaths while giving victims the respect they deserve? Where do we draw the line? Yes, many people are inexorably drawn to bloody accidents. Yet I don't think anyone, including the media, should treat relics of actual crimes cavalierly for shock value.

This Week in Theaters
Guillermo del Toro produced the kids' animation The Book of Life. The Best of Me is the latest Nicholas Sparks weep-athon. Brad Pitt commands a WWII tank in Fury.

At the Roxy only, a star-studded ensemble cast bemoans the internet in the latest from Jason Reitman: Men, Women and Children. Also, an indie documentary called American Bear.

At the Savoy only, the Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Two Faces of January.

This Week in Your Living Room: Venus in Fur, X-Men: Days of Future Past.


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