Last night, for the very first time, we made it out to Theatre 68's Haunted House in Hollywood. Although there is still nearly a week to go in the season, we feel confident in predicting that this will rank as our #1 discovery of Halloween 2008. It is not nearly as long as the mazes at the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween, and it doesn't have the makeup and effects that you see inside Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, but in their place Theatre 68 substitutes an imaginative use of space and resources, plus a wonderful theatricality that truly makes you feel as if you have stepped into a horror story.
As the name implies, this haunted house is set up inside a small theatre. After parking on the rooftop, you walk down some rickety stairs (the fright starts even before you reach the haunt!), which deposit you near the entrance, which leads to a long hallways toward the box office. The price is $10 (a bargain!), or you can get $1 off by bringing a can of food to be donated to the homeless for Thanksgiving. On opening night, the staff was using a simple cash box, so credit and check cards may be out of the question.
The lobby is adorned with what looks like a real coffin, draped in spider webs. (To be truthful, the theatre is set in an old building where one suspects that artificial spider webs may not be necessary.) As we approached, scary sounds from inside assaulted our senses with the promise of horror to come: a loud ringing phone, the white noise of a television dialed to an empty channel.
Typical for opening night, not everything was ready at the advertised 8pm start time. First in line, we did not get inside until 9:00pm, but the theatre staff promises they will have their act together for subsequent performances. In any case, the opening night jitters reflected only on getting the show started, not on the quality of the show itself.
This is Theatre 68's third year of haunting, and even that relatively small experience seems to have taught them plenty about instilling fear in their audience. One big advantage of being a small haunt is that, without huge crowds waiting in line, they can afford to send their victims through two at a time; each group completes its circuit through the terror-filled interior before another is allowed through.
What this means is that, unlike what happens in the big haunts, you never miss a scare; you're never in a situation where the cast is ignoring you to focus on some easy target in front of or behind you. Everything is played for your benefit - directed right at you. There is nowhere to hide and no safety in numbers in this haunt. This creates an intimidating sense of immediacy missing from most Halloween attractions.
After you enter the doors of the theatre, your first stop is in front of a large television screen that (we were told) shows an "instructional video." This is actually the famous "cursed videotape" footage from THE RING, which is always pretty eerie stuff - and much more so when you are watching it in almost absolute darkness, with the sound blasting your eardrums. (That explains the sound effects we heard while waiting in the lobby.)
We immediately caught on to the strategy the theatre was utilizing, but that made it no less effective: with your eyes focused on the bright screen, your pupils do not adjust to the surrounding darkness, making you an easy target for the first ghoul who sneaks up on you - when you see him leap in front of you, he's only inches away.
Next, a black curtain forms a sort of corridor, leading to a convincing cemetery (situated where the audience would be sitting during a play). Jason Voorhees (or a generic knock-off) plus at least one other ghoul is lurking there, watching your approach, but before they can attack, a shrieking cheerleader barrels in front of you, screaming a warning and leading you through a door to your escape.
After this, you go through a series of small rooms, each with a horrifying scene of some sort. Although the haunt is relatively short, it is very condensed: there are no long corridors with nothing happening, just one scene right after another. The small space is actually an advantage, creating a claustrophobic setting in which there is little maneuvering room to escape the monsters. The darkness amplifies the situation; it is sometimes hard to see where the "escape" route is. (Don't worry, the phantom and spectres inside will "urge" you in the right direction.)
The mechanical effects are limited to a few balloon-like appendages that resemble tentacles or spider legs, but the sets and costumes are all very nicely done. This theatre is able to create convincing environments as well as the more high-end haunts. There are flashes of cannibalism and mutilation; one scene even flirts darkly with S&M imagery (with a corsetted woman, her back already red with welts, awaiting another lash from her tormentor).
Perhaps these settings and imagery would not stand up to close scrutiny under bright lights, but they work perfectly in the dimness of the haunt. No doubt based on their dramatic experience, Theatre 68 does an excellent job of creating the impression of believability, whether or not it really exists, and everything flies by (or, more accurately, you flee through it) too fast for you to stop and question it.
Overall, Theatre 68's stagecraft contributed to a haunted house experience that stands out from the rest of the bat pack. It has been too long since we attended a haunt in a theatrical setting, and this reminded us of how effective they can be. Although their effort does not tell a story, the presentation has a kind of dramatic impact missing from most others. Whatever the virtues or flaws, haunted mazes (as the name implies) tend to consist largely of walking down long corridors, waiting for something to leap out from around the next corner. Even when you reach a specific setting, the action generally consists of generic screaming or yelling.*
Theatre 68's presentation, on the other hand, feels more like a series of vignettes. What they are doing is perhaps not very different from the competition, but because you walk through with only one companion, the action is timed specifically for you, creating an almost Pavlovian reaction: your entrance cues the action, which is clearly staged for your benefit. In a way, this makes you an unwitting accomplice in the atrocities. In any case, you will never enter a room just before or just after an effect has sprung to scare someone else; you will see each and every one personally.
Theatre 68's haunted house is located at 5419 Sunset Boulevard (just east of Western, across from Food for Less) in Hollywood. The haunt runs through October 31. Hours are 8-11pm weekdays, till midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
Go to www.68centcrew.com for more information, or call (323) 960-7827.
NOTE: Parking is available on the rooftop. You have to squeeze your car down a small driveway to the right of the theatre. The driveway is immediately adjacent to a mini-mall, but don't let that fool you - it leads to the ramp behind the building that ascends to the roof.
*To be fair, the mazes in Halloween Horror Nights does presents some scenes with specific action.