Right now at the Civic, the audience screams are spiking right off the charts. And with good reason: the Auckland Arts Festival show Horror is scary good, says Alex Casey.
I’ll admit it. I once hit a werewolf over the head with my handbag. In my defence, he did lunge at me in a haunted house and I reacted accordingly which, in that moment, was like an old lady in a comic strip.
It was with the same knee-jerk temperament that I marched bravely into Horror last night, the Auckland Arts Festival’s theatrical homage to the best and bloodiest of the genre. I was scared even before I went in: a one-hour-20-minute lockout with no interval! Nothing builds tension like knowing there’s no break coming, 80 minutes unravelling into infinity as the toilet rapidly disappears into the distance.
Truthfully, I was cynical. Most so-called horror I have seen in a theatre has been of the dusty penny-dreadful, horse-and-carriage type. Think Sweeney Todd and The Woman in Black, startling the near-dead audience with a thunder sound effect here and a spooky red handkerchief there.
Horror teases with something very different, a “spine-chilling visual spectacle” promising gore and screams and impossible sights. Will a witch descend from the mighty golden snitch above the Civic stage? Will there be a zombie sitting quietly in the Queen’s Box? Will those laser-eyed lions become possessed by a vengeful ghost?
The answer to all of those questions is no, but luckily Horror pulled off something even more impressive than all of those stupid suggestions combined. Stumbling upon an empty, old (read: haunted) house, a group of friends find themselves in a spot of bother when the history of the house refuses to stay buried. Naturally this is a ride best enjoyed in the dark, so let’s just say things spiral into bloody chaos from there. Chopping up story elements from classics like The Ring, The Exorcist and Poltergeist, director Jakop Ahlbom has played Dr Frankenstein and given life to an unmissable monster of gory genre glory.
Oh my god, the gore! The blood and guts! There’s almost no area of viscera unexplored, stretching (literally) the limits of live body horror beyond what you might think humanly possible. There’s a scene involving someone’s jaw that will make yours drop hard. There’s a scene involving someone’s tongue that will make you bite down even harder. The technical stunt moments span everything from levitation to character teleportation, blowing any magic show I’ve seen right out of the water (and I’ve seen Cosentino live twice). It all looked so real that I’m surprised nobody called the police, or at least a priest.
You can count the lines of dialogue on one hand. Horror leans heavily on the likes of eerie The Grudge-esque toad croaks and other bone-crunching sound effects to get the nerves jangling and the spirits awakened. A record player kicks off incrementally, the TV hisses alive and a disembodied child’s voice coos “maaamaaaa” from the closet which everyone knows you are definitely 100 percent going to die at the hands of a spook. Moments of technological interference and camera phones (think: The Blair Witch Project found footage) add another layer of terror, showing us things that aren’t there and – much worse – the things that are.
Honestly, at one stage, my plus one wrapped her mane of hair entirely around her face like Cousin It to protect herself from the scares. The scream levels spiked off the charts multiple times and continued to fluctuate between “hooting” and “hollering”. There was a woman behind me whose frenzied advice for characters was offered aloud like an involuntary belch. During one particularly fraught moment she uttered “no, don’t do that!!” at the approximate volume of someone talking to Siri across a very large room.
Another audience member laughed like a drain from start to finish, which became so chilling I began to think it might be part of the show. But, as fans will know, horror can tear as recklessly into the realms of comedy as Jack Nicholson through a flimsy wooden door, and Horror embraces humour as much as it does the shock and schlock. There are slapstick moments and winking gender politics at play, culminating in a climax that hopes to right many of the genre’s historic wrongs.
Horror exactly knows what it’s doing and executes that vision with the surgical precision of Freddy Krueger’s fingernails. It’s gory, funny, terrifying and not afraid to wallow in the cultural cesspool of the low-brow genre with glee. Mostly though, it’s just refreshing to see iterations of horror onstage from an era more recent that when people were still marvelling at steam trains. May they long continue to die out.
Horror plays in the Auckland Arts Festival at the Civic until Sunday March 26.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.