How does Delusion 2013 stack up to its predecessors? Is the Haunted Play still the best Halloween event in Los Angeles? Read on to find out...if you dare!
No, Hollywood Gothique has not been boycotting Delusion: Masque of Mortality. We could not review writer-director Jon Braver's latest interactive Haunted Play before now, simply because we could not get in to see it until last night. We will offer our reactions in a moment, but first, in the interest of full disclosure, we explain why it took us so long to "seek refuge." Those not interested may skip ahead.
The Reason for the Delay
Originally scheduled for September 27, the press night for Delusion: Masque of Mortality was pushed back almost literally at the last minute; the announcement appeared on the event's Facebook page before emails were sent out to the press, leaving little time to adjust schedules. The new press date was set for October 10, which was also the media night for the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride and Rob Zombie's Great American Nightmare; shortly thereafter, The Purge: Fear the Night moved their media event to October 10 as well.
Obviously, Hollywood Gothique was not going to get from Griffith Park to downtown Los Angeles to the Pomona Fairgrounds in one evening. Since L.A. Haunted Hayride insisted October 10 was the only evening on which they would offer press access, we opted for that attraction; the other three, including Delusion: Masque of Mortality, assured us we could reschedule for another night. The Purge: Fear the Night and Rob Zombie's Great American Nightmare kept their word; Delusion, unfortunately, did not.
We initially tried to schedule a visit several days later, in the middle of the week, but there was no room to accommodate us because those performances were sold out. Next, we asked for something the following weekend, but were told that no more press invitations were being offered. You can imagine our surprise at this unexpected about-face.
Having to pay for a ticket is not the issue (we were given a discount); freebies are a privilege, not a right, and much as journalists enjoy perks we should never feel entitled to them. Rather, our objection is that the delays and dithering over dates put us in a position where the earliest we could get to Delusion: Masque of Mortality was on Sunday, November 3 - after Halloween was already over. For Hollywood Gothique to be absent a review on the premiere Halloween attraction in Los Angeles during the month of October is nothing short of embarrassing. That rankles a little.
We have been assured by Braver and his publicists that the decision was not a personal slight, and we take them at their word. We do not believe that this incident colored our perceptions of Delusion: Masque of Mortality in anyway. However, we do have criticisms to make, and no matter how objective we consider ourselves to be, our comments do take place in the context of the events described above. Let each reader decide for him- or herself how relevant those events are.
Masque of Mortality Overview
When Delusion debuted in Halloween 2011, it was a breath of...well, let's not say "fresh air" - more like a fetid exhalation from the lowest depths of the underworld. A combination of haunted house walk-through and interactive theatre, Delusion put visitors inside a nightmarish world of horror, in which they played supporting roles. The familiar Halloween admonition - "Don't touch the monsters, and they won't touch you" - was broken, and the audience became part of the action, whether we liked it or not. And like it we did. In 2012, the sequel, Delusion: The Blood Rite, took the concept even further, magnifying the horror by splitting individual members off from the main group and subjecting them to separate scenes that allowed for more personal interaction.
Those virtues remain intact in Delusion: Masque of Mortality, which offers a new story in a new venue, the Bethany Presbyterian Church. The plot hits a few familiar beats (finding hidden objects, placating a murderous girl by handing her a cherished doll, hiding out in a dark cubbyhole, a final descent to the basement where a lone victim is restrained), but by and large the setting and details distinguish this Delusion from its predecessors.
This time, we are visitors to an isolated manse in 1931, seeking refuge from a plague decimating the outside world. However, sanctuary may not be so safe as we imagine, thanks to the mysterious "Doctors," who promise a cure but may secretly be working to their own nefarious ends. The narrative is enigmatic and intriguing, gradually revealing its horrors as we progress from room to room. The stunts and special effects are not merely impressive; they are astounding. The costumes and settings create a convincing illusion of reality. The set decorations, if anything, are even better than before, providing an engrossing atmosphere that feeds your fear even when nothing is happening.
The key phrase here, unfortunately, is "when nothing is happening." Nothing happens a bit too often in Delusion: Masque of Mortality. Opportunities are sometimes overlooked, and anticipation sometimes dwindles away to disappointment. These longueurs do not seriously mar the play, but coupled with occasionally weak dialogue, they do render it less satisfying than it should have been.
I'm So Tired - Tired of Waiting
When you arrive at the church, you proceed inside to the reception table, where you are directed toward the lounge. Here, you wait your turn to embark on your journey, and what's nice is you do not have to wait in line; you are given a wrist band with a designation (such as "Death 501") that is called when your turn comes up.
The lounge is dimly let, dressed in antique decor. Scraps of paper suggest that terrors that lurk deeper in the building: scrawled notes from victims who sought sanctuary, only to lose loved ones, apparently to the Doctors.
Unfortunately, the bar serves no alcohol (unlike the bars at Delusion and Delusion: The Blood Rite). Normally, we can get through an evening just fine without a Vampire Vodka Martini, but part of the story line of Delusion: Masque of Mortality is that those seeking refuge are drinking and carousing in the lounge, while the outside world is dying from the plague. This immoral decadence (an echo of Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death") is utterly lost when all you can imbibe is lemonade. And let's face it: a little liquid courage probably would help timid visitors waiting to enter the inner depths of Delusion.
Not to mention: a drink would make the wait go faster. You may think that, when called to enter, your wait is over; in fact, you wait has only begun. First, your group (about a dozen) are led into a confined room, where a character spells out the rules for the evening: stick together; don't wander off; don't speak unless spoken to; don't touch anything unless told to. Then she leaves, and you wait. She returns to hang a satchel on the wall and again leaves you to wait. The room is dark and cluttered, with plenty of hiding places, but nothing emerges from the shadows as you wait some more, wondering whether something should be happening.
Finally, another character arrives and warns you that you will not find the refuge you seek; nevertheless, she takes you inside. She warns of danger, of a warder who may show up any second, but his actual arrival seems a long time coming. He takes two victims away from the group. Those remaining are instructed to seek a clue to finding a cipher that will defeat the Doctors.
This launches the narrative thread that will tie the subsequent scenes together, but too often you seem to be making little progress as you move from room to room. At times your path is blocked and you backtrack; at others, the narrative momentum threatens to stall.
An interminable amount of time is spent trying to enter one particular room, with little pay off. After a first failed attempt, the group is moved into a larger room, filled with beds, including one with a sleeper we are warned not to waken. Your guide leaves several times, taking members of the group with him to open the reluctant door. Each time he tells the ones left behind to wait. During his absence, the sleeper snores and stirs and threatens to awaken but does not. The room is filled with shadows and hiding places, but nothing emerges. The dreadful anticipation slowly ebbs away while you shift from fearing something will happen to hoping something - anything - will happen.
Eventually, your guide returns and urges you to hide - one of the Doctors is coming! Rush under a bed or behind a curtain, or (as in my case) into a closet. The cubicle is dark and shadowy; anything could be hidden in there. It seems a like a setup - out of the frying pan and into the fire - but nothing happens. Looking out, you see the Doctor enter. He levitates one of the beds: an amazing effect, if you're lucky enough to see it, especially if you are hiding beneath that bed. Many do not see it; they're too well hidden, their view blocked.
The tempo picks up afterward as the action kicks into high gear and instead of hiding in shadows you are forced to face the evil forces. This leads to a spectacular confrontation inside the church, featuring a bungie-jumping acolyte, a sneaky floor-crawler unexpectedly grabbing your ankles, and a horrifyingly convincing hanging - basically, everything you could ask for from a Delusion play, and more.
But there is still more waiting. First, the group retreats to a dark, tiny room - little more than an alcove with doors - while evading a morgue attendant. Later, two visitors (including yours truly and Mrs. Hollywood Gothique) are tasked with pursuing one of the Doctors through a long corridor.
The Doctor quickly turns the tables, somehow appearing behind you and forcing you into another room, where he separates you from your significant other, taking her into an inner chamber for some unspeakable purpose. Left behind, you wait some more. There is nothing to prevent you from entering the chamber, except your willingness to follow the rules against taking initiative on your own. You spend your time seeking high and low, but there are no clues, nothing that will impact the story or bring about a resolution.
Eventually, the rest of the group arrives, with the cipher that will open the doors to the chamber, precipitating the climax. At last, your wait is over.
The Garden of Forking Paths
Ironically, the waiting problem is a side effect of one of Delusion's great strengths: the fear that results when group identity is broken. The safety one feels in numbers is shattered when individuals are separated and singled out for special attention, disappearing for long stretches of time. Unlike Delusion: The Blood Rite, however, there is often little to fill the gap in time that results for the rest of the group, leaving the visitors standing around like extras in play that is taking place somewhere off-stage.
Consequently, your individual experience of Delusion: Masque of Mortality will vary greatly, depending on whether or not you are "volunteered" for special duty. You might be spanked (for being a bad boy) or placed in a guillotine, where you wait for your comrades to arrive; your rescuers don the garb of the Doctors in an attempt to persuade your executioner to release you. Two visitors "play dead" upon a hospital gurney in order to sneak into the morgue, where an important clue resides.
The failed pursuit of the Doctor - being captured and then forcibly separated - is one of the highlights, especially if you you are "lucky" enough to be selected to go into the inner chamber, where you are coerced into a chair to be "drained" of blood. (Mrs. Hollywood Gothique assures the experience was suspenseful but not repulsively off-putting, though she has developed a slight blemish - perhaps a pustule? - leading her to worry that the Doctor's mask she was forced to wear might have infected her with the plague.)
These forking paths and parallel scenes provide a multitude of experiences that make the event worth discussing afterward, as you share notes with your comrades about what happened to you while they were somewhere else. Nevertheless, more effort should be extended toward insuring that everyone gets their money's worth, not just the fortunate few.
What Delusion: Masque of Mortality needs is more action to fill the longueurs. The sleeper needs to awaken in the bedroom scene; there should be a monster in the closet. Most importantly, when nothing is happening to them, there should be something for visitors to do. For example, during the lone wait outside the final chamber, one of the Doctors should have informed us that the only way to save our loved one would have been to betray the rest of the group when they arrived, by stealing the cipher: "If one person steps inside the chamber, she dies. Prevent them from entering, and she lives." This nifty little moral dilemma would have turned a dead moment into something dramatic and memorable.
Safety in Numbers Comes at a Price
Another possible solution would be to downsize the groups, so that the probability of being selected would increase. This would have an added benefit: the group experience as a whole would be enhanced. There are a few scenes in cramped quarters, or which require visitors to crowd around a particular area, and if you are not assertive enough, it is easy to get pushed to the back, where you will miss half of what is happening.
To some extent, poor visibility goes with the territory; you know you're not going to see everything when you are not sitting comfortably in a seat, watching the action through a proscenium arch. But the problem becomes less defensible when paying customers miss the highlights that make the show worth seeing.
We mentioned the levitating bed, but there's an even more astounding effect shortly thereafter. Confronted in a hallway, your guide orders you back against the wall of an adjoining corridor while he fires a revolver at one of the Doctors. The bright flash of the gunshots alternates with darkness as the apparently impervious Doctor approaches - until the last bullet finally hits its mark. But what falls to the floor is not the Doctor we have seen but a young girl. The miraculous transformation takes place right before your eyes with no detectable trickery (presumably a tear-away costume whisked away during the darkness between flashes from the gun).
Or, more properly, the transformation takes place before some eyes. Others are around the corner of the intersecting hallway. Yours truly saw the scene only because he ignored the order to stay flat against the wall and instead sneaked a peak around the corner; Mrs. Hollywood Gothique missed it entirely.
If this were some graveyard-variety gore effect, we would barely think it worth mentioning, but this is the must-see moment of Delusion: Masque of Mortality - absolutely astonishing and quite literally unlike anything else we saw during the Halloween season. We completely got our money's worth from this one moment and would gladly make a return trip just to watch that scene again. For paying customers to miss it is, to put it mildly, unfortunate.
Another disappointing aspect of Delusion: Masque of Mortality is the continual use of expletives as intensifiers for dialogue that does not deserve to be intensified. The constant stream of "shit" and "fuck" at every obstacle and setback wears thin through monotony. Worse, it sounds too contemporary, undermining the 1930s setting. Not that people didn't swear decades ago, but the lines here sounds as if they belong in a generic action movie, not a play exploring the mysteries of life and death. (This is what we expected when we first saw the press release for Delusion two years ago, announcing a new Halloween event crafted by a Hollywood stuntman; ironically, our fears did not become realized until Delusion's third year.)
We probably would not have noticed or cared about the profanity, had the dialogue featured some other distinguishing characteristic. Unfortunately, the words tend toward the generic, as exemplified when a crazed ecclesiastic pulls a severed cranium from a basket beneath a guillotine and proclaims, "He lost his head." The "joke" might as well have been followed by a rim shot.
Another dialogue-related problem we noted was that the actors seem to have a little trouble "controlling" the visitors - i.e., getting them to act and move at the right time. Occasionally, the lines coming from their mouths sound less like character revelations and exposition than simple stage directions. The problem is exacerbated when the visitors are slow or uncooperative: the responses from the cast start to suggest a bad improv skit; an attempted joke by a visitor will provoke a line from an actor such as, "You think this is funny?" instead of something more in character - such as a completely stressed-out inability to grasp the humorous intent.
In the final analysis, Delusion: Masque of Mortality is a victim of its predecessors' success - rather like a Halloween version of the Pixar Animation phenomenon: after conditioning your audience to expect an A+ every time, an A- seems like a disappointment, even if it's better than 90% of the competition. In this we are not alone, having compared notes afterward with several strangers, who enjoyed the experience but found it slightly inferior to last year's show.
Whatever the disappointments, this Delusion has much to offer, and we are considering a return visit. Why the bloody thumbs-up after our negative comments? Because in Halloween 2012, we had a similar reaction to Delusion: The Blood Rite: initial disappointment ("not as good as last year") that was erased by a repeat performance.
We applaud Delusion: Masque of Mortality's potential to provide a different experience each time you walk through its garden of forking paths: "always leave them wanting more," is the old vaudeville admonition, and even now we are wondering what more we will see that was not seen before. However, seeing something extra is a bonus; the primary reason to revisit any entertainment is to re-experience the initial thrill, not to achieve the satisfaction you missed the first time. Delusion: Masque of Mortality impressed us in numerous ways, but its participatory drama left us feeling rather like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - not dead (or even undead) but simply sitting on the sidelines, wondering what part we were supposed to play.
Delusion: Masque of Mortality continues through November 24, with performances on the 10th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd & 24th. Bethany Presbyterian Church is located at 1629 Griffith Park Boulevard in Los Angeles. Get more information at www.enterdelusion.com.