With Dimension productions facing an uphill battle to win over fans after nearly 20 years of disappointments, and Dark Castle seemingly finished now that Joel Silver has parted ways with Warner Bros, the market is wide open for a big screen production company that specializes in horror fare, a brand we fans can recognize the way "William Castle" or "Hammer Horror" could attract crowds regardless of the film itself. And while The Asylum certainly has a lock in the low budget/DTV world*, for bigger theatrical releases, right now the best game going is producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions, who are behind no less than three horror films in the next month (Sinister, The Bay, and the fourth Paranormal Activity movie).
In fact, it was the first Paranormal Activity that really kick-started their focus on the horror/thriller genre, and after the surprise smash Insidious in early 2011, they've really stepped up their game. In the next year we can expect several more films, including Mockingbird, the long-awaited followup from The Strangers' Bryan Bertino, and Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem, which just debuted a teaser trailer a few days ago (and looks pretty awesome if you ask me). Add in the annual Paranormal sequels and a possible return to the world of Insidious, and you can see that we're witnessing the expansion of an empire; Blumhouse (and its cool haunted house logo) will be recognizable even to casual horror fans, the way even your grandmother probably understands that Pixar stands above its competitors.
And helping to spread that brand name is the "Blumhouse Of Horrors", a haunted house attraction that just opened in downtown LA across the street from the Hotel Figueroa (which would make a fine setting for a horror film itself). I had never been inside the building before (it's the former Variety Arts Theatre), so I don't know how much renovation went into the project, but it certainly fits the "Halloween Haunted House" vibe perfectly. There are short, maze-like corridors, plenty of bigger rooms for full-scale sights of terror, and a delightful 1920s/30s aesthetic that plays into the maze's narrative of a theater that was host to a crazed magician named Magi. As the punters, we play the role of a tour group who are among the first to be let inside the building since a tragic "accident" occurred decades ago.
Now, if you've been to Universal's Horror Nights or similar efforts that pop up around this time of year, you know how these mazes go - you enter, you walk in a zigzag like pattern for about 5 minutes, being scared by costumed actors and the occasional steam blast sound effect, and then you're done. You never stop, and there's no real escalation to what you see - you could walk through backwards and it wouldn't matter much. But that's not how this one plays out. After a couple of strange tour guides give you some background information, you are told to proceed down a corridor, where you stumble upon an angry actress who hasn't been given her wardrobe. Suddenly, an actor bursts through a door, leads the actress down a hall, and presumably kills her in a fit of rage. The next few minutes are all about getting away from this lunatic, and of course along the way we are, well, scared by costumed actors and the occasional steam blast sound effect. It's a great balance between the expected types of scares and an actual narrative of sorts, a concept that continues throughout the maze after the crazy actor has been forgotten.
There's also a hefty dose of magic. At one point we are led into a theater and encouraged to take a seat, where we witness a typical "saw the lady in half" gag, including the show-off pre-trick silliness of stage magicians. Except, of course, the gag goes horribly wrong, and then the magician, determined to get it right, asks for one of us to volunteer to take her place for a second attempt at the trick. And so off we go again, on a trek that encompasses at least two floors of the "theater" (possibly a third, it was a bit disorienting once we were deep inside the building), adding to the respectable "runtime" of the tour (thirty minutes or so; much longer than any other maze/haunted house I've done).
Now, in that instance we just get the hell out of there, but another cool thing about the attraction is that we do participate in a few of the smaller "scenes." Someone helps another magician perform a disappearing water trick, another is asked to assist with opening a door, etc. I myself got to go up to a fortune teller and... uh, something. Perhaps this was fixed for the actual opening (we went to a "preview" two nights before) but there were quite a few moments where the music and assorted sound FX would drown out the voices of the actors, and this was one of them. I assume the fortune teller saw bad things in my future and told me to leave, roughly, because after our encounter we were whisked away yet again, toward what for my money is the scariest thing I've ever seen in one of these things.
If you're claustrophobic, I would suggest skipping the "birth canal" tunnel if possible (I assume there must be a way around it if you're uncomfortable, as there was no warning about it beforehand). Basically you walk down a hallway (hard to gauge the distance, but I'd say at least 20-25 feet long) as these giant (nylon?) bag type things are inflated on either side of you. And they must have some heavy duty fans blowing those things at you, because I'm not kidding - it was actually tough to get through the thing. You're completely engulfed on all sides; I'm a pretty tall guy and even I couldn't quite reach the top of the bags with my arms up. I never felt like I was in any danger - as long as you're using your arms to keep the area around your head somewhat clear as you use your torso/legs to push through - but again, if you have claustrophobia, or are prone to panic attacks, I can see how this would be kind of traumatizing.
Needless to say, I walked away impressed. I have fun at Universal and Knott's, but I feel a lot of the mazes are just kind of going through the motions, and can be pretty random with regards to what they have the costumed actors doing (and sometimes they're just confusing, like when they do a Friday the 13th maze and you just have a bunch of different Jasons jumping out at you, or merely wandering around very un-Jason like). I always prefer the ones that have original concepts behind them (or at least a license that is a more natural fit, like The Walking Dead), and the haunted theater/crazed magician is a fine idea that lends itself nicely to the sort of things you'd expect to find in a scary maze attraction. Plus, the interactivity and occasional "breaks" added to the value, so you never felt like they were herding you through as quickly as possible so that they can cram more folks through the turnstiles. Tickets are 35 bucks (29 if you buy online), and I think that's a very fair price considering the length of the tour and fully realized setting - this obviously wasn't just thrown together in a week.
And back to the original point, it's a great way to expand the Blumhouse brand. It would have been easy for them to just make a Paranormal Activity house or maybe "The Further" from Insidious and coast on those films' popularity, but they did something original and creative, and added "Magi The Mysterious" to their roster of villains. And I assume if this is a success that it will return next year, and hopefully expand to other cities as well - certainly Chicago or New York has an abandoned theater that can be retrofitted into "The Playhouse Theater." But for now, it's just here in LA, and for fellow Angelenos I'd say it was the best value for this sort of scare fare - and as a bonus, it's just a short walk from the LA Live Regal Cinema, which will be hosting Screamfest from Oct 12th-21st. So if you're downtown anyway and don't feel like watching another movie, it makes for a highly entertaining alternative.
The Blumhouse Of Horrors official website is HERE for more information and advance tickets. The house is open from Thurs-Sat every week until November 3rd, and will also be open on the 29th-31st for Halloween. Enjoy!
*Don't even TRY to suggest Full Moon. Charles Band hasn't put the slightest bit of effort into a single production in at least a decade and has effectively killed what little respect the brand had in its glory days of the late '80s/early '90s.