Unfinished trauma with innocence at its core: First Nations Emerging Critic and horror afficionado Carissa Lee gets all the goosebumps in Jakop Ahlbom’s Horror
When we enter, the auditorium is thick with traces of smoke and the curtain is down. It only adds to the anticipation: I’ve made a point of knowing little about about this show, a physical theatre creation by Swedish director Jakop Ahlbom that promises delicious horror thrills.
The curtain rises, and a strike of lightning and thunder make me jump out of my skin, laughing nervously. I realise that I’m probably in for a bit of a ride. This show pays theatrical homage to horror greats such as The Ring, The Shining, The Exorcist, Idle Hands, Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project, and we are in for all the tropes.
Three young people in red raincoats – two boys and a girl – enter a deserted house during a storm. They hang their coats on a hanger. A blackout, and they’re gone. The girl re-appears and a woman in an old-fashioned dress comes out of the closet and holds her for a second before disappearing again. Another blackout reveals the dividing scrim between a lounge room and a kitchen/bathroom area and shows us a whole family of ghosts, one of them looking an awful lot like Samara from The Ring, with long black hair and white dress. During the film-like sequence that starts the show, I learn to dread the blackouts, because something scary always follows.
After this prelude the three young people re-enter, re-hanging their coats. A creepy lullaby plays in the background. The tv turns itself on, and the pictures on the wall move around by themselves. The young people mock each other’s fear, as always happens at the beginning of these horror stories, but this savvy audience knows that some pretty awful shit is going to happen to them: it’s just a question of what.
The underlying story concerns a family in which the father abused one his daughters, finally – it’s strongly suggested – causing her death. That unfinished trauma causes a never-ending loop, visiting pain on everyone who enters the house, including the three young people and the unlucky couple who follow them.
One of the great physical performance moments within the show begins when one of the characters is asleep on the couch. The ghostly girl appears and begins to make her way down the stairs back-bend style. We can hear the sound of her bones cracking. The audience laughs nervously in recognition, because we all know this trope. She does a lot of contortionist stuff leading up to him, bites his hand, and is suddenly gone.
After this, his bitten hand becomes possessed. His hand drags him around the room, wreaking havoc. He hits himself in the face with books and shatters tea cups, and is eventually knocked out. When the hand finds a pair of scissors in a drawer, the whole audience gasps. Eventually the hand gets hold of an axe, and is swiftly disarmed. The couple drags this guy into a corner: there’s a swing of the axe, a huge spurt of blood up the wall and a shriek, and he emerges with a bloody stump. The other man slumps panting into the armchair, covered in blood, and the audience explodes in laughter as the hand crawls Addams’ Family Thing-style from behind the couch.
There are other moments that lag, particularly in the dance sequences, because they seem out of place.
The set has a very Silent Hill feel, with its grainy wallpaper and antique velvet orange couches that have undertones of red, giving an impression of blood spatters. Splashes of red are a consistent element throughout the set: a red blanket in the corner, red raincoats on the hat rack, red runner on the stairs running up to the kitchen area, and a red light on the music player in the living room. A large window gives us occasional glimpses of a spooky forest and a bathtub functions as an entrance for ghosts, including four faceless men. And, of course, the bathtub is used by the father to force his daughter’s head under water.
An opaque cyclorama-esque divider between the kitchen/bathroom and living room area functions as a way to project live black-and-white footage that accompanies footage playing on the television, in the style of The Blair Witch Project/The Ring. It’s especially effective during a scene in which a character is alone in the living room watching tv, when we can see in the projected footage that the Samara-ish character is behind him. He turns off the tv, which makes him disappear from the image, and places a sheet over the screen. But in the projection we watch her coming towards the tv, a threatening silhouette through the sheet, until she claws her way out.
Sound is a huge factor in this production: it sets the tone of suspense with lullabies, grimly cheerful old music, and Silent Hill/Trent Reznor-style gothic electronica. Stand-alone sounds such as the visceral noises of disembowelments or guttural screams are masterfully put together by Wim Conradi and Bauke Moerman.
Yuri Schreuders’ lighting is crucial to the many scares within this production. The strobe was very effective, particularly during the moments when the Ring-like girl was appearing and contorting, although when she was fully lit she lost a staccato quality of movement and was significantly less scary. Rob Hillenbrink created the best special effects work I’ve ever seen on stage: an animatronic severed hand, a body that could withstand elbow-deep penetration down its throat, 360 degree head turns, levitation devices, objects moving of their own accord, a stretched-until-severed tongue. And, of course, gallons of fantastic gore.
This show doesn’t take itself too seriously, but its underlying narrative is so innocent: the ill-fated heroine is trying to protect the ghost of the girl who is cursed to endure her abuse for eternity. Although she is saved, through much dramatic bloodshed, it’s a bit unclear who is dead, who is left haunting what, and what it all means. Still, the final image of the girls playing, freed of the influences of malevolent spirits, is gruesomely sweet. And then we hear the creepily incongruous song: “We make people happy”.
Horror, concept and direction by Jakop Ahlbom, music and sound design by Wim Conradi, Bauke Moerman, set by Marie-Claude Pelletier, lighting design by Yuro Scheuders, costume sesigns by Esmee Thoassen with Kyra Wessel, Set Design by Douwe Hibma, Jakop Ahlbom, Remco Gianotten. special props and make-up by Rob Hillenbrink. Performed by Yannick Greweldinger, Luc van Esch, Thomas van Ouwerkerk, Reinier Schimmel, Sofieke de Kater, Andrea Beugger, Gwen Langenberg and Silke Hundertmark. Arts Centre Melbourne. Closed.