One of our favorite haunts in 2003 was "Experiment in Terror," a fairly unique Halloween attraction in the form of a scripted tour of a haunted house, complete elaborate mechanical effects far beyond those seen in most haunted mazes. What was nice about the show was that it was almost an interactive play, with actors portraying characters who guided you from room to room, as you got lost deeper and deeper in the old mansion and were desperately trying to find a way out. The performances and dialogue occasionally went for campy comic relief, but the experience was both frightening and fun.
Sadly, Experiment in Terror seems to have been a one-off venture by The Fright Gallery, an amateur troop of actors who have been putting on a "terrifyingly hilarious experience in suburban lawn art" for decades now. The good news is that they continue their annual tradition of dressing up the front yard of a house on a small residential street not far from Disney Studios, where they present a Halloween-oriented musical-comedy spoof. It's not exactly what most people think of as Halloween entertainment, but that only makes it stand out from the deluge of haunted mazes and fright film festivals each season.
This year's play is entitled "Twisted," which may sound like a take-off on the 1996 tornado movie TWISTER, but it's actually a spoof of THE WIZARD OF OZ. With this in mind, the house on Lamer is decorated with cornstalks, suggesting Kansas, in addition to the more traditional cemetery decor (tombstones and a few ghouls roaming about). Every half hour, the curtain opens, and the show begins, running for something like fifteen minutes of lip-syching to pre-recorded music, complete with scenery changes, fog effects (for the melting demise of the "Wicked Witch of the West Coast"), and a handful of high-energy songs.
In this version, the cast seems to be made up entirely of the living dead. Dororthy isn't interested in going somewhere over the rainbow but somewhere beyond the grave -- preferably somewhere out west, in a blue state. Swept up by a twister, which she sees as her way out of "Dullsville, Kansas," she finds herself in what seems to be a Beach Party movie -- or what one would have looked like if John Wates had gone back in time and taken over American International Pictures in the 1960s.
The presentation has a distinct campy feeling that would not be out of place in the West Hollywood Halloween parade on Santa Monica Boulevard. It's not quite as hilarious as intended; some of the puns (like the Wicked Witch's line: "I'll get you and your little band Toto too") fall flat. But it all winds up with a rousing final number, "The Best Place to Be Dead," which is certainly good enough to become a great novely song for Halloween, if not a Top 40 hit single.
We went on Friday night, the opening for this season, and caught the second performance -- which ran as smoothly as if the cast had been performing it for weeks. There was a good crowd, but it was still relatively easy to find a nice place up front, from which you could see all the action on stage. As the days draw nearer to Halloween, things will probably get much more crowded, so come early.
Obviously, this is far from a traditional yard haunt, and the point is not really to frighten. But it is funny -- quite a different experience from what you get at other Halloween attractions. And even if you're not into Wizard-of-Oz spoofs (we can take or leave them), you cannot fail to be impressed with what the Fright Gallery manages to achieve on a temporary stage built in a front yard. The settings and stagecraft are truly wonderful, and you have to be grateful to anyone who puts in this much work just for the fun of it.
Fright Gallery's "Twisted" continues nightly through October 31, with performances every half-hour, starting at 7:15. There is no admission price, but donations are accepted. After seeing the show, you'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to want to part with at least a dollar or two in exchange for the evening's entertainment.