Review: Tortured Souls Threshold

Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group managed to pull off something that no one else did this Halloween: presenting a Covid-safe, live theatrical horror experience. Tortured Souls Threshold was considerably different from the Urban Death Tour of Terror, which had been the group's Halloween perennial since 2013. Instead of a rapid-fire series of vignettes flashing by in the dark, the new production offered two extended scenes, viewed in voyeuristic fashion by one or two audience members at a time, standing at the threshold and peering in on dark and disturbing things.

The approach was intriguing, putting viewers in a position roughly analogous to that of Kyle MacLachlan's character in Blue Velvet, watching the strange encounter between Dorothy and Frank from the inside of a closet. The difference was that in the case of Tortured Souls Threshold, the viewer was not inside staring out but outside staring in.

Tickets for the production were sold in advance only, not at the box office, Purchasers arrived at their pre-selected time and signed an indemnity wavier before being directed to stand at the theatre door, looking into a room that normally serves as a lobby but which had been converted into a set. A tarp dangling from an awning over the entrance blocked street lights, while rumbling ambient audio textures emerged from within. Those brave enough could step inside the door but no more than a foot, the cut-off line demarked by bricks on the floor.

A tattered body rested on the floor, while a tormented diabolical figure, nearly nude, emerged from shadows at the far end of the room to wail and keen. As in many ZJU productions, the exact nature of what was happening was not clear, merely disturbing. The scene ended when a tuxedo master of ceremonies bade the viewer to follow him around the building to the back, along the way providing context for the scene just witnessed - a violent tragedy that took place sometime in the distant past.  This led to a second scene, viewed through the theatre's back door, in which the victim of the atrocity in the first scene manifests as a sort of tormented spirit, silently reliving her unfortunate circumstances in what appears to be an eternal loop.

Tortured Souls Threshold was creepy and intriguing, but the limitations imposed by Covid-safety necessities prevented it from being fully satisfying. With only two doors to the theatre, the production was limited to a pair of scenes; a three-act structure (beginning, middle, and end - each at a different door) could have given the show more of a dramatic climax. (To be fair, a satisfying resolution may have subverted the intended effect, which was of an endlessly repeating loop.)

Like Urban Legends, Tortured Souls Threshold offered a wordless (well, in this case, nearly wordless) glimpse of troubling images, leaving viewers to fill in many of the blanks on their own. The mute performances verged on demented ballet, movement substituting for dialogue. The second scene was particularly notable for the actress's ability to mimic the movements of someone tormented by an unseen attacker, and the narrow field of view (down a short hallway) was put to clever effects as she appeared and disappeared, spidery fingers at times emerging around a corner like something out of a good, old-fashioned creepshow.

What was perhaps most surprising was that the central strategy - viewing the action from outside the theatre - yielded such good results. It's easy to imagine this approach being put to good use even when concerns about viral infection are a thing of the past. Tortured Souls Threshold was ultimately a horror-themed version of a peepshow, inviting audiences to gaze upon bizarre scenes usually reserved for nightmares. As an experiment, it shows potential for the future, even if it could not quite live up to the best that Urban Death Tour of Terror has offered in the past.

Read our interview with Zombie Joe at the link...

Covid Halloween: ZJU Theatre will torture your soul

Tortured Souls Threshold Rating
3

Bottom Line

Zombie Joe’s audacious effort to present live theatre during a pandemic was a modest success, working with the necessary limitations to create a nightmarish peepshow with intriguing possibilities for the future.

Tortured Souls Threshold ran at ZJU Theatre on October 21-23, 30-31 & November 1. Directed by Zombie Joe & Elif Savas, featuring Faydakin, Warren Hall & Elif Savas.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.

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