Donald Munro

‘Nightmare’ of a review: Creators of ‘The Gallows’ craft plenty of frights in creepy setting

I’ve had actors upset with me for my theater reviews – lots of times – but never in the middle of a show.

As I walk along a narrow passageway in the Fresno Memorial Auditorium costume shop, I hear a noise and look over my shoulder. Through the dim, smoky lighting, I see a figure at the other end of the long room. Yep, it’s moving.

Toward me.

A hairy, knuckle-dragging beast charges. Though I only have time for a glimpse, it looks like the love child of a gorilla and Cousin It from “The Addams Family.” For a split second, I remain frozen as the “creature” lopes closer, as if my brain is steadying itself to take an internal iPhone photo, and ponder the surreal quality of the scene.

I’ve seen it so many times in movies: the point-of-view shot from the perspective of the soon-to-be victim, directly confronted by a menace barreling straight at the camera.

I do what humans have been doing since a meandering walk through a chaparral gathering berries suddenly becomes a brush with a predator:

I run.

This is definitely not my regular critic experience.

For nearly 25 years, I’ve written many (many!) reviews of shows I’ve seen at Fresno Memorial Auditorium. So when I read about the new “Nightmare Theater” at the venue for Halloween season, I figured: Why not “review” that, too?

I’ve always been intrigued with the idea that life itself is a kind of theater – Shakespeare’s “poor player” strutting and fretting for 60-some-odd minutes before the final bow, etc. – and often think of things in theatrical terms. (Ever been to a city council meeting? Now that can be some bad theater.)

My mission last Sunday evening: Show up unannounced at the Memorial, buy my own ticket and take a walk on the scary side.

“Nightmare Theater” has a couple of great things going for it right from the start. For one, it’s from the local makers of the horror film “The Gallows,” which has made $41 million worldwide on a $100,000 budget – not the biggest movie in terms of box office, of course, but in terms of budget-revenue ratio, it’s the “Star Wars” of the year. The movie was filmed in the Memorial, a major plus for “Gallows” fans.

But even without the movie tie-in, the venue has its own sense of stately creepiness. The Monumental Moderne-style architecture and details of the 1936 building are beautiful: the carved bas-relief band around the top of the exterior; the Art Deco murals in the foyer; the large bronze light fixtures mounted on the columns outside. There are even marble floors in the bathrooms.

But there’s something cold about the building, too, as exemplified by that marble. The first time I walked into the Memorial, to write a story about a Fresno Lyric Opera Theatre production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” I remember wandering around, lost, trying to find the rehearsal room. Alone in those wide, high-ceilinged, solitary hallways, things felt a little, well, eerie. Just sayin’.

So that’s how I found myself outside, on the steps, waiting to go in. My partner-in-fright for the evening, whom I’ll simply call Scaredy Cat, for reasons that will become abundantly clear, is anxious to begin. He’s always said one of his favorite things is to be scared.

There isn’t much of a line this early in the haunted season, which means it’ll feel as if we have the place to ourselves. Before we enter, we chat with a friendly woman wearing a stiff ball gown and ghoulish makeup and hair, who reminds us of the backstory of “The Gallows”: Years ago, in a high-school play, a young man named Charlie was playing a character who gets hanged. Something bad happens, and he really does get hanged during the play, so of course there’s a legend of his ghost hanging around.

Watch out for Charlie, she says.

It turns out the woman is none other than the mother of “Gallows” filmmaker Travis Cluff. Nice personal touch.

In theater and movie reviews, I try to give enough of the plot to set up the premise and a feel for the storyline without revealing too much. When it comes to “Nightmare Theater,” I’ll mostly skip that step, except for my brief costume-shop encounter, because there isn’t really a plot – and surprise is key.

Let’s just say that the following are all important factors: 1) climbing stairs; 2) nooses; 3) interactive cast members; 4) things that make you jump.

I will, however, give a nod toward the production, lighting, costume and makeup design, which are quite good. The lighting, in particular, goes a long way toward transforming the sometimes cavernous interiors into an ominous intimacy.

Cluff and Chris Lofing have a nice sense of scale and timing. They realize that sometimes an empty stretch of hallway can be as scary as something jumping at you.

The best part, however, is the interactions with the cast members. Sure, the special effects might not be as elaborate and the timing as split-second scary as a feature on the big screen, but when you’re just inches away from someone, you’re completely in the moment. At one point, as we follow an odd but non-threatening cast member chattering away, he suddenly whips around and screams.

It’s more disconcerting than it might sound.

In many ways, a live haunted attraction has the same qualities that draw me to live theater: a sense that I’m part of a happening that will never quite be experienced the same way again.

I only have one major quibble with my “Nightmare Theater” experience: The quarter-mile route seems too short. (Actually, two quibbles: I think the price point is a little high, even though I understand the attraction has a lot of people on the payroll. My ticket is $25, but admission goes as high as $40 for priority access on peak days.)

But the shortness is sort of my fault, or at least that of the supposedly fright-loving Scaredy Cat, who gets such an adrenaline rush that he scoots along the route practically running. And screaming. And jumping. For an attraction that is supposed to take 20 to 25 minutes to go through, we whip through in about 12.

I think we even miss an entire room, and our elapsed time on the actual Memorial stage, one of the tour highlights, pretty much sets a land-speed record. S.C. is that anxious to get out.

Which is why I was by myself in the costume shop, one of the creepiest places in the Memorial, where you’ll recall I make the decision to run. I tell myself that the hairy creature in question can’t be after me for personal reasons – my “review” hasn’t yet come out, and, besides, I’m not going to give a negative notice to someone who pushes up my pulse rate so effectively.

Still, being frightened and thinking rationally don’t usually go to the prom together. What if this thing can smell my notebook?

Yep, I run.

Which is fun.

My critical take: I give “Nightmare Theater” three-and-a-half heart attacks out of four.

Nightmare Theater

1/2

Theater review

  • 7-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 7 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday (except for Oct. 31, when hours are 7-10 p.m.), through Oct. 31
  • Fresno Memorial Auditorium, 2425 Fresno St.
  • Tickets: $25-$30, $32-$40 for ghost pass
  • 559-202-0902, http://nightmaretheater.us/
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