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Haunted Houston: A Talk with Indie Filmmaker Joe Perez

By Michael Scrutchin

Interview conducted in person on October 8, 1999.

You've heard ghost stories all your life. Your best friend's sister's boyfriend's cousin once lived in a place that was really haunted, and though you don't quite remember where that place was, you're sure the stories you've heard are true. But have you ever experienced anything truly haunting for yourself? For those who want to go ghost hunting -- or even if you just want to see some really creepy stuff on video -- a new documentary called Haunted Houston will get you on your way. Well, that is, if you live in Houston, Texas.

I had the pleasure of talking to local indie moviemaker Joe Perez -- the director of Haunted Houston -- about the film, indie moviemaking in general, and some low-budget "fake" horror documentary that everyone seems to be comparing Haunted Houston to. If you're a Houston resident, you may have seen Joe Perez with his paranormal group Lone Star Spirits on Channel 2's "News 2 Houston" in October, seeking out strange activity in the darkest corridors of Rock 101 KLOL (one of Houston's premiere rock stations). Unlike some people with an interest in the supernatural, Joe Perez actually has first-hand experience dating back to his childhood days growing up in Laredo, Texas.

"Growing up a bunch of different paranormal activity used to happen at our house," he said. "Your sheets would be pulled off of you when you're lying in bed, your feet would be touched, your hair would be pulled." And, of course, he experienced the usual plethora of chairs moving, cabinets opening, and the horrible stenches that characterize many ghostly visitations. "One day," he added, "I think it was Easter morning, all the mirrors in the house broke -- like across, in a perfect break, and it was really, really creepy. It doesn't happen as much, but it still happens to this day."

When asked what inspired him to make a movie about the haunted sites around Houston, he said, "A lot of the things that are on television like Sightings are either private residences or places that you can't go yourself. So what I wanted to do was make a film where people could actually go to these places... so that you could actually go there yourself and witness something."

Shooting on digital video, Joe Perez clocked over 280 hours of footage while making Haunted Houston. He and his crew also took roughly 2,000 different still pictures on 35mm film over the year in which the film was made. Out of all the material captured, there's sure to be some hair-raising stuff.

"We have a pot that levitates," he said. "We got a piece of paper that levitates [at Old Towne Spring]. I've recorded voices. The recordings of the voices we got at the Ale House Pub and Eatery, which is supposedly very, very haunted. We got a scream, and we also got a ghostly voice saying something -- that's something you're gonna have to hear on the video."

I knew he had to have been asked this a thousand times before, but I bit my tongue and asked anyway. Have you seen The Blair Witch Project? "No, I haven't," he said. "We started doing this even before The Blair Witch. The thing is, I've done a lot of interviews with the Houston Chronicle, Rock 101 KLOL, several other interviews, and everybody always comes back to The Blair Witch. The thing is -- and I've said this before -- is that The Blair Witch is fiction. What we're doing is fact. You know, I can't tell you that it's one hundred percent fact because a lot of people don't believe in the paranormal. But the things we have in this video might make you change your mind. These are real places that you can go to and actually scope 'em out yourself and make the decision of whether or not it's real."

But the mild-mannered director does think Haunted Houston may indeed send a few chills up viewer's spines. "It doesn't have things jumping out and things like that, but I think the stuff that we do have -- we have like four or five different things that will freak people out. I think that when you go to these places, you will actually feel something there. Like with the Ale House Pub and Eatery -- it's a bar off of West Alabama -- when you go up to the second floor, you know that there's something there... something looking at you. It's really hard to express that on video, but that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to have people see this and then have them go experience what we have. We're just opening up a door for them."

Joe Perez also told me a little about the Lone Star Spirits and how his affiliation with the paranormal group came to be. "Whenever I got the idea of doing Haunted Houston, I wanted to find people that did paranormal investigating here in Houston. So what I did was... the three months of research that I had compiled I had compiled from a website ( and I had gotten in touch with Katie Philips. She's the, I guess, head site owner, and I told her I was doing a documentary and she said, 'Okay, why don't you come along with us?' And that's where I guess the marriage between us and the Lone Star Spirits came to be. Now I'm a member of the group -- I'm their documentarian."

The Lone Star Spirits get leads on places to investigate from people submitting stories to their website. They have someone take that lead and find out if it's valid or not, and if there proves to be some substance behind it, they do an investigation. They're not the Ghostbusters, though, because they can't get rid of the ghosts and they don't have any proton packs.

Aside from Haunted Houston, Joe Perez has another independent production in the works called The Boys of Learning. It's a drama centering on three brothers in Learning, Texas that asks the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" It's also shot on digital video.

"I'm a big fan of digital video," he relates. "I mean, shooting on film is just way too expensive."

Our conversation moved toward indie moviemaking in general. We talked about how there are so many people out there who want to make a movie, but don't take the first step because they feel they don't have the best equipment. "The thing is," he said, "all these people have camcorders... but not until they get the good stuff do they decide to go and start filming stuff. You know, use what you have now and go out and make two or three bad movies, and then when you go and make your real film, you'll have those two or three bad movies out of the way."

Joe Perez went on to say, "In Entertainment Weekly you always hear about one film that was made for $180 million, another film that was made for $40 million, whatever. You don't need that kind of money to make a film. You can make your own films off your camcorder."

That's sound advice from someone who's been down that road. Also keep in mind that some movies shot on consumer camcorders are being released to theaters -- last year's art-house gems The Celebration, julien donkey-boy, 1998's documentary The Cruise, and don't forget about that little-known film called The Blair Witch Project. It just goes to show that you don't need several million dollars to make a good movie.

"How many summers have come around and you've seen movies that are crap?" Joe Perez asked. "That's because they try to shell out as many movies as they can for like $35 or $40 million and then they don't make any money because the movies are crap. And then you have a movie like El Mariachi which was made for $7,000, and The Blair Witch was made for $30,000 and they sold it for $1.5 million and now it's made like three hundred times the amount. I think with a strong story and a good director you could do wonders."

Before our conversation ended, I asked him how Haunted Houston was going to be distributed. He said it's going to be distributed by a local (as in Texas) distributor because "no one in Tallahassee is gonna want to see Haunted Houston. But it's for the people of Houston. You know, one weekend when you don't have anything to do you can just pop in the video, get the addresses down and go to these places... and you might see something, you never know."

Just don't expect to see any piles of rocks, stick symbols hanging from trees, or screaming chicks running around with camcorders in Haunted Houston. It sucks, I know, but you'll just have to wait for Blair Witch Part 2 for that.

Article published 02.04.2000.

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