What happens when the producer of frightening films like Paranormal Activity and Insidious takes over a sadly underused historic theater in downtown Los Angeles for the Halloween season? You'll find out tonight when Blumhouse of Horrors, from film producer Jason Blum, opens to the public at Variety Arts Center. The haunted house extravaganza will run at the vintage venue through November 3.
A few days before the event was set to open, I met up with Blumhouse of Horrors' production manager, Josh Simon, at the rambling theater on Figueroa Street. Crews were working to finish up the last of the big scares that visitors will experience.
“It's definitely an around-the-clock operation,” says Simon of the last minute preparations. “The logistics of this are that we're only operating for the month of October and the first part of November,” he explains. “There's no delaying. This has to happen.”
In between the planks of wood and large tools that popped up throughout the building, there were corners that had already been transformed into the habitats for the creepy characters that will come to life inside this venue. The idea, says Simon, was to take the crews that had worked with Blum on various horror movies and have them create an “innovative, fully immersive haunted house.” That alone posed some challenges for the team.
“On a movie set, there are a limited number of times that things have to work,” says Simon, a film industry vet who has known Blum for years, but hadn't worked with the producer until this project. “In this setting, they have to work over and over again, hundreds of times a night for the whole month of October.” They worked with some experts in the haunted house arena who helped automate some of the startling effects.
With a team of over 100 people — 70 actors and 30 behind-the-scenes talents — the Blumhouse crew has built something that's not like other Halloween attractions. Nor is it quite like any of Blum's movies. Much of that has to do with the venue.
Variety Arts Center has a long and storied history that includes everything from vaudeville performances to rock concerts. In recent years, it has fell largely out of use, save for a few appearances on the big screen. But the multilevel building, which features a large theater on the ground floor and several nightclub-style spaces above that, was the perfect fit for the concept. With its winding staircases, dimly lit nooks and old-fashioned elevators, it is a building trapped in a period of time that has long since passed. “The building itself has a lot of natural scare to it,” says Simon.
Thomas Spence, the production designer, came up with the story that will unfold inside the halls of this aging theater. Long ago, a vaudeville act stopped by the theater. One of the performers was a magician who had been flirting the the darkest strains of his art. During a show, he attempted to make his assistant, also the wife of the theater's owner, vanish. She did, just as she should, but she never returned to the stage. An investigation into her disappearance was fruitless. The grieving husband closed the theater. Now, visitors can explore the mysteries of that fateful night as they walk through the venue in groups of 15 people.
“Dark magic was something that both felt like it had an element of realism to it and fit with the history of the building,” says Simon, “but, at the same time, allowed us to go in a direction that could be really scary and freak people out.”
Expect some innovative frights at Blumhouse of Horrors. They have spent close to a year imagining new ways to terrify audiences. Bringing big-screen style scares to crowds who will be watching scenes unfold in person is a new frontier for these entertainment-makers and it's something they would like to repeat next year.
“In the movie world, you never really get the chance to interact directly with your friends. You never get a chance to watch them react to what you have created,” says Simon. “This is the opposite of that.”