Wicked Lit 2017 Review

Are we in Heaven, or are we in Hell,
Since hearing - resounding – our final death knell?

Moments of misery, replaying our past –
How long will this endless eternity last?

This Halloween, Wicked Lit invites you to enter a limbo land where the horrors of the past come alive, eternally. Depending on your relish for unsavory tragedy, your stay may or may not be a happy one, in the conventional sense, but it will illuminate some of the darker corners of the human experience. Rest assured that, unlike Vladimir and Estragon, your wait will be rewarded.

Wicked Lit 2017 Review: Liliom
Wicked Lit 2017 Review Liliom
Alec Gaylord in Lilliom (photo by Daniel Kitayama)

Wicked Lit 2017's trio of short plays are based on Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing," Margaret Oliphant's "The Open Door," and the Egyptian legend "The Book of Thoth". Linking them together is "Liliom," loosely based on the play by Ferenc Molnár.

Rather like those anthology horror films made by Amicus in the 1970s (Tales from the Crypt, Asylum), Wicked Lit relies on a good wrap-around story to tie the segments together into something bigger than the sum of its parts. In addition, the framing device must provide the climax that the individual stories cannot (because the audience, split into three groups, sees them in different orders).

Liliom handles this challenge with a clever premise: The residents of the titular limbo-land are awaiting their final disposition in the afterlife, unsure whether the gate they are afraid to pass through will take them to salvation or damnation. Their stay may be eternal, during which time "moments of misery" are replayed endlessly, reminding them of the tragic events of their earthly lives.

There is a witty sense of comedy to these scenes, all the more so because the humor feels slightly forced: the self-proclaimed mayor of Liliom seems to be putting on a happy face that is gradually slipping, as his cohorts come to question the truth about their existence. There are some improvisational bits and games, intertwined with scripted sections that chart a dramatic arc to a final, fateful conclusion.

Wicked Lit 2017 Review: The Open Door
Wicked Lit 2017 Review: Jena Hunt in The Open Door
Jena Hunt in The Open Door (photo by Daniel Kitayama)

A ghost story in the classic tradition, The Open Door follows a naval man returning home to help his wife deal with a troubled son. A strange voice has been heard in the night; local legends suggest a haunting, but attempts to investigate a nearby ruin reveal little useful. Whether the ghost is real or not, the answer lies buried in the past...

This vignette plays with the tension between supernatural and science, as the characters question the nature of the phenomenon they cannot explain. Unfortunately, the denouement is a bit anti-climactic - this is one of the easiest exorcisms ever. And the resolution is more assumed than dramatized (the father, who seems ready to dash away at any excuse to avoid a difficult situation, learns there is no place like home).

What The Open Door has going for it is some nice staging and lighting effects, Set in an outdoor location, the action is sometimes bifurcated, with characters standing in the foreground and supernatural manifestations spotlighted in the background. The ghost is presented alternately as a disembodied voice and in the form of the troubled son; either way, the effect is eerie.

Wicked Lit 2017 Review: The Damned Thing
Wicked Lit 2017 Review
Eric Keitel, Ian Heath, John T. Cogan in The Damned Thing (photo by Daniel Kitayama)

Ambrose Bierce's story is a great piece of short fiction, but it is ill-suited to dramatic adaptation. Its effect relies on the literary device of using a dead man's manuscript to build up to a revelation regarding the nature of the titular creature. With a little bit - well, a lot - of additional material, the adaptation emerges as something quite different, a sort of melodrama about misunderstanding. The Damned Thing's unusual physical attribute (the point of Bierce's story) here becomes almost a throwaway, superseded by a revelation about its spiritual nature.

The script follows the template used in last year's From Beyond: once again, an officer of the law is conducting an inquiry into a strange death/disappearance, and he really doesn't like the fantastical tale relayed by the surviving witness. Fortunately, there is a twist regarding just how skeptical this officer is, which makes The Damned Thing more than a disguised remake; still, we hope this plot device is retired from future iterations of Wicked Lit.

The most innovative aspect of the story is bringing the dead man back to relate his story - to the audience rather than to the other characters, who cannot see him. (The notion of ghost struggling to make its presence known to the living seems loosely inspired by Bierce's "The Moonlit Road.") Much of what he has to say has less to do with the Damned Thing than with his unrequited love for the oblivious big-city reporter who came to interview him about his research into unusual matters. In a clever maneuver, this apparently gratuitous subplot leads to a resolution with the main story, when the Damned Thing also turns out to be hiding an emotional secret.

Plot aside, any adaptation of Bierce's story must grapple with depicting the Damned Thing, which is quite tricky because "the Damned Thing is of such a color" that it is the visual equivalent of supersonic sounds beyond the range of human hearing. Unbound Productions rises to the challenge, with a combination of strobe lights, sound effects, and trembling tree branches expertly coordinated to convey the presence of something huge and terrifying.

Wicked Lit 2017 Review: Thoth's Labyrinth
Wicked Lit 2017
Thoth's Labyrinth (photo-by-Daniel-Kitayama)

The highlight of Wicked Lit 2017, Thoth's Labyrinth eschews the dust and cobwebs of Victorian ghost stories in favor of a more modern approach - if "modern" means influenced by 1980s action-fantasy films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Set in 1973 - 50 years after some Egyptian artifacts were hidden inside a mausoleum - the story follows three sets of adventures, seeking to rediscover those lost relics, which (legend has it) can be combined to unleash unimaginable power.

Rip-roaring fun, Thoth's Labyrinth plays like a joyful parody of overused plot devices, beginning with the "supernaturally powerful object which must be re-assembled" story line (as Jeff Bridges asked in R.I.P.D. "Why would anybody build such a thing in the first place?"). There are some last-minute revelations about the characters, which seem like a deliberate spoof of the "contracting universe" approach of many sci-fi franchises (in which - like Luke, Leia, and Darth - everyone turns out to be related).

Our favorite, however, is the opening scene, which addresses an issue that has plagued us since our first visit to Wicked Lit: the tendency to begin the plays with two characters talking at length in order to explain the back story to the audience. In this case, we get three sets of characters, carrying on independent conversations so closely parallel to each other that they merge into a single discussion, with the first group asking a question that is answered by the second group, which leads to a response from the third group (none of whom are supposed to be able to hear what the other groups are saying). It's an amusing conceit that sets the light-hearted tone for what follows.

Another clever strategy is splitting the audience even further. As fans of Wicked Lit know, the audience is always divided into three groups, in order to facilitate following the action from one setting to the next in and around the mausoleum. In the case of Thoth's Labyrinth, the audience is subdivided into three smaller groups, one to follow each set of relic hunters. This increases the intimacy of the play, and makes it easier to keep up with the fast-paced action.

It's also a nice structural trick, dividing the story into three-acts, with the middle act comprised of three groups following separate lines of inquiry in the mausoleum's smaller rooms and hallways. When the groups re-converge in the imposingly majestic main hallway, there is no doubt that the third-act finale has arrived, and the play delivers on a grand scale with a serpentine Egyptian god or demon that manifests through an incredible physical effect, providing much-needed spectacle. For a segment that engenders more thrills than screams, Thoth's Labyrinth offers satisfyingly horrific conclusion, with a Kong-sized scare.

Wicked Lit 2017 Review: Conclusion
Wicked Lit 2017
Ian Heath in The Damned Thing (photo by Daniel Kitayama)

Wicked Lit 2017 has a slightly lower batting average than usual - two base hits, a triple, and one out-of-the-(p)ark home run - but that still adds up to a winning grand slam of Halloween horror. There were fewer spectacular visual effects (such as the digital mapping that brought the House of Usher to life for Wicked Lit 2015), but the imaginative staging within Mountain View's magnificent locations works its immersive magic, creating a theatrical Halloween experience unlike any other in Los Angeles.

For the inhabitants of Liliom, time may be an eternity, but for the audience, time flies all too quickly. Like the characters, you may find yourself reluctant to leave Liliom. Not because you are afraid to face what lies beyond The Gate but because you want to remain within this imaginary world a while longer. If so, consider The Post-Show Backstage Experience: The writers, directors, and/or producers of Wicked Lit 2017 will guide you on a tour though several locations, explaining the logistical difficulties of setting a play in a cemetery. Hollywood Gothique did not take the tour this year, but from past experience we know it is filled with informative and amusing anecdotes - worth the extra price.

Hear what the creators of Wicked Lit had to say in the Hollywood Gothique Podcast.

The Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival continues at Mountain View Mortuary and Cemetery, with performances on October 18-20; November 2-4, 9-11. Pre-show starts at 7:15pm; show starts at 7:30pm. The address is: 2300 N. Marengo Ave, Altadena, CA 91001. Call 818 242 7910 for ticket info, or visit: unboundproductions.org.

More in this series: 

  1. Halloween 2017 Podcast: Wicked Lit & Fallen Saints
  2. Wicked Lit 2017 Review

Find more Halloween Tours and Shows in A Halloween Haunts Master List.

 

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.