Can the new Blumhouse Halloween event purge itself of the negative notices that greeted its debut? Will the New Founders flourish or flounder? Read on to find out...if you dare!
When the Blumhouse of Horrors debuted its new Halloween attraction two weeks ago, opening-night audiences gave The Purge: Fear the Night some of the worst Yelp.com reviews since the Ghost Ship set sail on its first - and as it turned out, final - voyage in Halloween 2011. The general consensus was that The Purge: Fear the Night got off to a strong start, then fell apart with a free-form approach that left visitors wandering the floors of the Variety Arts Theatre, wondering what to do next, and missing most of the action played out by the characters in various rooms of the building. Since then, ticket prices have been lowered, and the attraction has been revamped to offer a non-stop hostage situation, in which visitors are swept along by hostile gunmen out to overthrow the the government responsible for the annual Purge. Is this enough to purge the taint of opening night negativity?
The short answer is yes. In fact, after attending The Purge: Fear the Night on Friday, we can say that, had we not read the initial reviews, we would have had absolutely zero sense that this production had ever been troubled. The action runs smoothly from start to finish; the scenes and situations are intense; and whatever confusion arises, is an intrinsic part of the theatrical experience, which casts visitors as hostages at the mercy of different factions with competing agendas.
The Purge Fear the Night Review: Pre-Show
When you arrive, the Variety Arts Theatre is decked out in flags and seals of the New Founders, the government that (we know from having seen the film) instituted an annual night when all crime is legal for twelve hours, allowing members of society to purge their anti-social urges.
Inside you are checked in and given delegate badges by helpful handlers who gush enthusiastically about the joys of the Purge. Watch out: you may be given a special security clearance badge, which has unforeseen circumstances. More on that later.
Your ticket to the event specifies arrival time, which limits the number of visitors at any particular moment, so hopefully your wait in line will be short. During this time, you can watch televised news, including a debate about the merits of the Purge, indicating there is some dissent in the land, though relegated to the political fringe.
Then you are allowed in, one by one, through a final "security clearance" area - essentially a pitch-black maze with air blasts and one or two invisible guards lurking in the darkness. You will experience a nervous moment and a scare or two.
From there, you emerge into...
The Purge Fear the Night Review: Convention
Here, you sit in a theatre and watch the President expound on the joys of the society created by the New Founders, while pre-recorded applause lends the impression of a political rally. There is a bit of amusing satire to this experience, with its sense of being swept up by the mindless enthusiasm, but it goes on for too long.
The Convention is really just a lay-over, a place to keep you waiting until enough visitors have accumulated to be sent through the rest of building. Once your group is complete, you will be led back stage for a chance to meet the famous news anchor you saw on the television screen a moment ago.
Unfortunately for him, he literally has his pants down when you enter. Even more unfortunately for him, his upcoming broadcast is raided by a terrorist group, the New Constituionalists, who kill him and his crew (the shotgun blasts effectively conveyed through sound effects and flashing lights).
The terrorists then take you hostage, and the real thrill of The Purge: Fear the Night begins.
The Purge Fear the Night Review: Hostage Situation
At this point, The Purge: Fear the Night ups the ante on the interactive theatrical experience. The gunmen are at first openly hostile, herding you through rooms, into elevators, even onto a truck, all the while barking orders, spitting out expletives, and forcing you up against the wall or on your knees.
Eventually, you may be able to convince them that you are sympathetic to their cause, at which point they will enlist your aid in bringing down the government. Rather like a live-action version of a videogame, there are a couple of hidden objects that must be acquired: a key and a security card. These in turn will allow you to hack into the New Founder's system and bring it crashing down, after which you try to make your escape from the building. But beware: you may find yourself in the middle of Purge night, potential victim of masked citizens eager to purge their own homicidal desires - with your unwilling help.
Along the way, you may be singled out for special attention, such as birthing a baby or retrieving the security card from the hands of a dead man - who turns out to be not so dead.
Which brings us to those extra special security clearance badges we mentioned: if you are wearing one, you will be separated from the rest of the group. We found ourselves accosted by a desperate woman named Mary Ann, who was looking for her husband, Joseph. When we finally got back on track, our fellow hostages had moved on, and the remaining gunman was not happy to see us lagging behind. As punishment we ended up forced into a shower, which we were told to scrub clean with a toothbrush.
The hostage situation climaxes with one of the group being "executed" by electricity; another group member must push the button, and everyone recites the Pledge of Allegiance while the sparks fly, followed by a spray of blood as the lights short out, plunging you into darkness.
After that, it's off to the Founder's Lounge for a drink...
The Purge Fear the Night Review: Founder's Lounge
Apparently, opening weekend audiences spent a lot of time here, waiting for something to happen. Don't let those comments fool you into expecting anything: all the action is over by the time you reach this point; now, all you have to do is relax and decompress after your hostage ordeal. Sit down, compare notes with your fellow citizens, and enjoy a live song or two.
We ourselves suffered from a slight sense of expectation, a feeling that a little something more should happen, but this was only because of our encounter with Mary Ann. Having been singled out and explicitly asked to find her husband, we expected that Joseph would figure into the story line at some point. We were the only ones with this knowledge in our group (the new group we joined, after being let out of the shower), but it never paid off in any way that we could see; although the terrorists occasionally mentioned Joseph's name, we never saw him, and the story seemed to resolve itself without him. Nevertheless, it left us with the lingering sense that maybe something else was going to happen in the Founder's Lounge. It never did.
Instead we enjoyed an over-priced drink ($9 for a martini served in a plastic cup!) and discussed the experience with others, including one of the pre-show "officials," who related a few details of the changes that had been wrought since opening weekend: more actors, more intensity, more structure. It's really a great behind-the-scenes story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Purge Fear the Night Review: Conclusion
There is a double irony to The Purge: Fear the Night. First, the Blumhouse of Horrors got off to a similarly disappointing start in Halloween 2012, before bouncing back to earn kudos from us as the best new Halloween event in Los Angeles. Second, the movie version of The Purge went through its own post-production revamp in response to negative reactions at test screenings. The difference is that the seams show in the film (thanks to continuity lapses and incomprehensible geography) but not in the live version, which feels like a unified whole from beginning to end.
We have only two problems with The Purge: Fear the Night: first, the story has nothing to do with Halloween; second, the story barely has anything to do with The Purge.
Unlike the Blumhouse of Horrors, this is not a haunted house. There is fear involved, but it is not the uncanny fear of the supernatural; it is the visceral fear of an action thriller, of being at the mercy of men with guns barking orders and getting in your face. (In this aspect, the experience is somewhat akin to that of the Blackout Haunted House, which shares a building with Blumhouse this Halloween; the proprietors of Blackout collaborated with Blumhouse on The Purge: Fear the Night.)
The few outright "horror" moments seem gratuitously grafted onto the story - a sop to those expecting a true Halloween experience. Certainly, we can see no other reason for the crazy birth scene, which ends with one of the terrorists smashing the newborn baby against a window. Yes, the scene works, but what the hell does it have to do with overthrowing the New Founders?
Though the film version of The Purge is not really Halloween-oriented, it is easy to see how it could be adapted to a Halloween haunt, with its roving gangs of masked marauders inflicting chaos on a nationwide level. Unfortunately, little of that remains in the live experience, which plays out as a hostage-terrorist situation. Yes, the New Constitutionalist want to overthrow the government responsible for the Purge, but they could just as easily have been overthrowing any group of future fascists.
The Purge: Fear the Night almost never puts you in a situation where you fear for your safety because murder has been decriminalized across the board. You are not surrounded by smiling sociopaths eager for their night of violent carte blanche. Instead, it is a very conventional form of violence that you confront - political violence. And it really doesn't make much sense. (On a night when crime is legal, would government delegates make such a high target of themselves by appearing at a convention, instead of staying behind locked doors?)
Only in the park scene near the very end, do we encounter masked "purgers." The scene is one of the evening's highlights because of the special sense of helplessness it elicits. Throughout the rest of the story, you can "survive" by saying what your captors want to hear, depending on whether they are pro- or anti-New Founders. No such double-talk will save you from the knife-wielding stalkers in the park: they want blood, and they don't care whose side you are on.
One final note: We applaud Blumhouse Productions for trying something new instead of simply recreating last year's success. Nevertheless, substituting The Purge: Fear the Night in place of the Blumhouse of Horrors denies Los Angeles Halloween fans a chance to re-experience a must-see haunt from last year. You don't take something that good, throw it away, and start over. As good as The Purge: Fear the Night is, its interactive theatrical experience could run any time of year; Blumhouse of Horrors was perfectly suited to the Halloween season. Perhaps in 2014, Blumhouse will consider a double bill?
The Purge: Fear the Night continues at the Variety Arts Theatre (940 South Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, CA 90017) on October 12, 17-19, 24-26, 29-31, and November 1-2. Advance ticket prices are $39-45. Get more info at their website.
Interested in other theatrical Halloween experiences? Check out our listing of Halloween Shows and Tours.