Spooktacular! (2023) Review – Fantastic Fest

Chronicling the rise and fall of SpookyWorld, Spooktacular! was a title that held great nostalgic appeal to me having at one point lived nearby and visited it several times. I suspect it will be a walk down memory lane for anyone who lived near what was billed as America’s first Halloween Theme Park.

While it wasn’t the first, Knott’s Scary Farm beat it by nearly twenty years, it was one of the first Halloween attractions to expand beyond a simple haunted house or hayride and there certainly wasn’t anything else like it in New England at the time. It even beat the first Universal Studios Fright Nights event in Florida by almost a month to become the first on the East Coast.

Spooktacular!’s writer Gail Jorden and director Quinn Monahan (A Toast to Ashes, A Good Samaritan’s Habit) give us some background on its founder David Bertolino, who went from working in his family’s joke shop to selling X-rated greeting cards and making “smoking pipes” back in the days when you had to swear you were buying them to smoke tobacco. While working for a costume company he got the idea of a haunted hayride and things developed from there.

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Most of Spooktacular! focuses on the park itself, from the search for the right location to finding, buying and restoring an abandoned farm in Berlin MA. and opening it as simply a haunted hayride. From there the film looks at Bertolino’s plans for expansion and the unplanned problems that plagued its first years.

Primary among those problems were the huge traffic jams caused by the park’s unexpected popularity. The drive from the highway to the park was perfect for an attraction like this, a dark narrow road through a rural area that felt like the opening of a horror movie. But that also meant it wasn’t designed to handle a couple of thousand visitors a night and traffic backed up to Rt. 495 more than once.

More interesting however are the stories about getting celebrities such as Alice Cooper, Kane Hodder (Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story) and Tom Savini (The Burning, Maniac) who helped design many of the early attractions and even had his own branded haunted house, involved with the project. There’s an interesting story about tracking down a then somewhat reclusive Linda Blair but that’s offset by way too much time spent on the fiasco with Tiny Tim’s appearance.

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While there’s a lot of old news and promotional footage of the park and interviews on news and talk shows from the time there’s not a lot of new interviews with these celebrities to get their memories of the events. Instead much of the looking back is done by Bertolino and the staff of the park. And to a certain degree, that’s where Spooktacular! runs into trouble.

This film is not an exposé. It’s a celebration of something that gave joy to hundreds of thousands of people and, by extension, millions of horror fans who now attend Halloween attractions every year. It’s the story of the place that gave rise to the modern-day Halloween attraction industry and the man who made it all possible, David Bertolini.

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As well as being the subject of Spooktacular!, Bertolinois also one of the film’s producers, and Tom Savini, who as I mentioned was very involved in the park’s design, is an executive producer. The result is an interesting look back at the park and its history, but it’s far from unbiased, something that becomes obvious towards the end as the disputes with the town of Berlin that led to its closing and its brief resurrection at Kraft Stadium are very briefly covered.

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Some viewers may also be put off by Spooktacular!’s focus not being on how the animatronics were built, how the scares were designed etc. Instead, it’s more about the business and marketing end of SpookyWorld. Coming up with new ideas for expansion, and the constant quest for publicity, preferably of the free kind. I actually liked that, as there are only so many times you can watch people building mechanical monsters, or rigging something to pop up and scare passersby. Seeing some of the behind the scenes decision making, including the decision to add an adults-only section that would help lead to the park’s demise, was an interesting change of pace.

As an exercise in nostalgia Spooktacular! should appeal to those who remember SpookyWorld, and to fans of haunted attractions in general. Just don’t expect an actual documentary on the subject.

Spooktacular! Made its debut at Fantastic Fest and will be playing at other festivals. You can check the film’s website for announcements of screenings and release dates.

Our Score
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