Terror Films' Scare Zone Is Breath Of Fresh Air For Horror Fans

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Evolving from the carnival fun houses, wax museums and gory Grand Guignol theater of times past, the first recorded haunted house intended to separate fun-loving All Hallow's Eve ghouls from their hard-earned pocket change was the Orton and Spooner Ghost House, which opened in 1915 in Liphook, England, and served as the inspirational template for the explosion of such attractions during the first half of the 20th century. With an estimated 2,000 Halloween-oriented establishments catering annually to over twelve million thrill-seeking customers in the United States alone, those quaint early seasonal sites have diversified into a myriad of more complex spooktacular destinations, from the commercialized screamparks, haunted hayrides, cornfield mazes and Christian-run 'Hell Houses' to the interactive yard attractions favored by eclectic suburban neighbors, the popularity of purpose-built haunted attractions is undeniable.

Originally lensed in 2009 yet only now receiving widespread distribution, Terror Films' and Renaissance Entertainment's Scare Zone is a movie that knowingly wades waist-deep in that same campy, horror-holiday atmosphere. As the name of the in-film strip mall haunted maze, Scare Zone is the brainchild of brash Brit owner Oliver Peters (Simon Needham), who for three consecutive Halloweens has expanded his faux-dungeon of skulls, strobe lights, animatronics, fog machines, cobwebs and spooky music for the sole purpose of fleecing dollars from the ever-growing crowds eager for his particular brand of schlock shock. Helping him out is a motley crew of wacky employees, including charismatic manager Spider (Neil Brown Jr), blonde bimbo bombshell Summer (Michele Feren), skinny virgin punching bag Bart (Justin Bowen), gun-toting goth babe Claire (Arian Ash) and nice-guy Daryl (Chris Burns). Everything goes smoothly, too, until an unidentified masked maniac begins offing the employees on opening night. But who could the killer be?

If the premise sounds simplistic, that's because it is, and from the onset, there's little added to that lowest of low-concepts. Yet for once scriptural innovation and a labyrinthine plot isn't the point; this is horror stripped down to the most basic of crowd-pleasing elements--a neat setting, lively characters, bountiful humor ("That looks so fake," says one unimpressed customer to another as they pass by the bloody remains of the slasher's most recent victim), some sly nod-and-wink terror flick references for the hardcore faithful--Scare Zone is a breath of fresh air to a collective audience suffocating on the wrenching, ultra-serious genre fare stalking cinemas in recent years. The narrative by writer-director Jon Binkowski is razor-sharp, rife with playfully entertaining dialogue that quickly endears viewers to each individual character. Needham's Oliver and Brown's Spider, in particular, both exhibit considerable on-screen panache, but as the only figure given a genuine back-story and fully developed personality, the movie truly belongs to Ash's Claire, who shines bright beneath her brooding Bauhaus exterior. Initially portrayed as a disinterested, generic goth girl, Ash allows Claire rare depth to an often unfairly maligned and misunderstood subculture, and tenderly handles such serious issues as cutting and self-acceptance without crossing into After School Special territory. Her blossoming odd-couple relationship with average dude Daryl is both unexpected and welcome, and proves Scare Zone might actually be, underneath the other antics, a strange kind of love story.

Compared to its higher-profile horror whodunit franchise brethren Scream, Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer, the central mystery in Scare Zone is neither an overly-convoluted train wreck nor an Agatha Christie-style masterstroke, yet there's sufficient cloak-and-dagger that one finds themselves mentally ticking names off the suspect list as the body count inevitably rises, and the murderer, once revealed, is virtually guaranteed to be your unlikeliest criminal candidate. Fun, however, not detective work, is this film's most abundant ingredient, and the combination of hilarity, horror and haunted houses make Scare Zone a must-see addition to any fear fan's watch list. You don't even have to wait for Halloween.

I give Scare Zone a well-deserved 4 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. Enjoy yourself.

4.0 / 5.0