Saturday, April 26, 2014

Serial Killers and other scary things

Man, there sure are a lot of serial killers on TV these days.  

True Detective blew me away and I'm finally getting into Hannibal after people talking it up for a long time. True Detective was an fantastic fusion of strong performances, serial killer madness, rural decay, nihilistic philosophy, and Lovecraftian undertones, while Hannibal has fantastic characterization, morbidly beautiful imagery, and an elegantly European predator straight out of Dracula. While I've enjoyed both shows tremendously, they got me going down a couple of rabbit holes.



First off, it seems like the ACTUAL golden age of the serial killer is over. Most of the big names we associate with serial killing, the Dahmers and the Gacys and the Berkowitzes, all happened in the 1970s or the 1980s. It seems like it's just too hard to make people disappear and that law enforcement has gotten too good at catching these guys at one or two murders. Even the phrasing of those last few sentences makes it sound like I want more of these guys out there, because serial killers make the best lurid true crime stories. While reading about serial killer cases, I read something written by a crime journalist who chose to put the emphasis of his stories on the victims. When asked about it, he said that fixating too deeply on the killer makes them heroic and makes the people they hurt footnotes in the killer's story. Read enough about the lives of serial killers and they actually seem kind of pathetic. They look like demons from a distance, but up close they look like sad, sick little men. Once again quoting Lazenby, most things that seem satanic or malevolent are really just wretchedness and frailty that’ve been allowed to put on muscle.

Yet serial killers have become heroes these days. They've become POV characters. Unlike real-world serial killers, who often come off as grubby little obsessives and bitter misogynists, Hollywood serial killers are as sleek and dangerous as a hungry shark. Both Dexter and Mads Mikkelsen's take on Hannibal Lecter have become objects of lust among people with bad-boy fixations, as delightfully illustrated by something that stumbled across my Tumblr recently:

 


Second only to the sexy murderer is the sexy tormented investigator. They've got wounded hearts and poet's eyes, their intuitions and insights into evil are at once a blessing and a curse. Drowned in liquor and regret, they're the eternal Doomed Knight, going deeper into darkness because their personal conviction compels them to. It's all very manly and tragic and heartbreaking.

I think most serial killer shows are ultimately puzzle shows. They've really replaced the cozy mystery, where the murder is usually discretely off-camera and the motive was more profit-oriented. The clues are now as much about piecing together psychopathology as putting together a crime timeline and eliminating a list of suspects.

There have been a lot of fantastic serial killer stories out there, I think I'm suffering burnout. I'm tired of dour wounded-heart investigators with scruffy faces and lots of imagination. I'm tired of artfully staged body dump sites that would require a crane, a crew of teamsters, and a thorough understanding of theatrical set design to stage. I'm tired of clever, evil men staring across interrogation tables and through clear-walled holding cells. While the extraordinary stuff still stands out (True Detective, Hannibal) I'm tired of how just gosh darn super serious everything is in such a formulaic way.

And I'm tired about how serial killer lexicon has slipped out into the public discourse. At this point in my life, I've had conversations with four different friends describing their partners as psychopaths because they read some Slate or HuffPo article about the Dr. Hare's psychopath checklist. I wanted to say, "no, they're just jerks and you like it that way because you like drama" (they all stayed with the guys in question) but it's clear that the concept of psychopathy is the new pop psychology buzzword and it's probably directly due to all these stories of serial killers. I've seen and read books and articles about how psychopaths are the ultimate sexy bad boy, how they're heavily represented among the highest echelons of society, how emulating their callous disregard for other people is a recipe for success, how psychopathy is actually a spectrum and that Dr. Hare is far too quick to label people as psychopaths. It's all very intense and serious and tiresome.





Marlo Stanfield and his lieutenants scared me far worse than all the corny serial killers out there.

Unlike the Barksdale gang, who were torn apart by conflicting ambition, the Stansfield organization worked with a terrible sense of purpose that turned the final season of The Wire into a horror show. The group took advantage of blocks of unoccupied buildings and used them as dumping grounds for their murder victims. With no bodies for the police to investigate, Marlo Stansfield had free reign to achieve what he really wanted as a drug lord: absolute power and terror.

The most revealing character moment for Marlo Stansfield is this one:



After being humiliated in a card game by men who refuse to take Marlo seriously due to his age, Marlo goes and humiliates a security guard at a store. The guard tries to confront Marlo respectfully but Marlo decides that's enough of an insult to order the man's death. Cut to the end of the episode, with Chris Partlow and Snoop nailing another door back on to an abandoned house.

The scariest thing about Marlo, beyond his flat affect and dead eyes, is how casually he fills those tenement houses. He kills civilians, he kills allies, he kills the employees who fail him, and he kills the men who disappoint him, and he even kills people who have the slightest potential of being a police witness. He responds to every problem like some dark ages voivode, which makes him look awkward during moments where he's forced to cooperate or negotiate with the drug lord organization New Deal Co-op. Even then, he quickly dictates terms and brutalizes the others the second he gets the upper hand.

It would possibly be better if the people carrying out the assassinations were some dumb brutes, but Marlo's lead assassin Chris Partlow is eerily gentle. He calms people down and speaks to them in a reassuring voice just before he puts a bullet in them. There's a disconnect between his actions and his behavior that makes Chris Partlow absolutely terrifying. I've seen that same disconnect used as a personality quirk in serial killer movies, mostly before something sends them into a frothing rage, but you see the weight of history behind Chris Partlow's behavior. A long life of doing evil formed his methodology and the only time he breaks character is when the murder becomes personal.      



The scariest kinds of horror stories are the ones that feel closest to reality. The Wire was always praised for the veracity of its storytelling, which makes the murders feel plausible. Marlo and his crew aren't motivated by whatever hackneyed, theatrical backstories that motivate most serial killers. They kill to protect their organization and to flex their power. They're not scary because they're using people to enact their psychodramas. They're scary because they just don't care about the people they hurt. It's so much more cold and banal of a reason to kill people, and that indifference scares the crap out of me.

It strikes me as kind of funny that The Wire gets metafictional for a moment to comment on the whole serial killer thing. In the fifth season, Detective McNulty fabricates a serial killer in order to convince the city to free up more funds for him to appropriate to work the Marlo Stansfield case. At one point, they take a trip to the FBI office to work up a psychological profile on McNulty's fraud killer. As they're preparing the material and McNulty is smirking at his own cleverness, a Jack Crawford-style behavior science analyst comes in. He's clearly puffed up on his own cleverness and discusses how he worked up an accurate psychological profile on the Unibomber, to which McNulty replies, "wasn't he turned in by his own brother?"

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Disease Artist by Steve Rasnic Tem



"The Disease Artist" by Steve Rasnic Tem is the most effective horror story I've ever read about the terror of terminal illness.

The story takes place in the future, after disease have been eliminated. People live in a antiseptic world that strips the flavor and nuance out of life. The story focuses on a performance artist who deliberately infects himself with various horrific maladies and allows people to watch their symptoms blossom. Despite the concerns of his medical assistant/lover, the Disease Artist presses the boundaries of his performances in order to reconnect his audience to their lost humanity.

As a genre, horror can be a collection of missed opportunities. On paper, it's supposed to be about tapping into hidden anxieties in order to create stories that press those buttons in a safe and entertaining way. So we create avatars for anxieties like the vampire for (depending on your politics) fears of plague or predatory sexuality, werewolves for fear of primal nature, ghosts for the fear of an unsafe home, and serial killers for the fear of random violence. What often happens is that a monster becomes successful and imitators replicate the trappings of the horror rather than the emotional content. So the genre has gotten a reputation as a repository for cliché. 

On the other hand, it's hard to write effectively about the horror of terminal disease. I've seen a lot of horror stories about cancers that grow to world-devouring proportions, I've seen STDs turning people into vampires, I've seen people who die of wasting diseases haunting the bedrooms they've died in. Maybe it's because most horror fears are highly abstract and terminal disease is far more personal so terribly common, but most of the horror stories I've seen feel as tactlessly blatant and heavy handed as early-season Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes. 

I've written before about how my my favorite horror movies are less about abstract concepts and more about concrete circumstances in my own life. "The Disease Artist" works. Rather than exaggerating the symptoms of disease into a carnival grotesquerie, it discusses the relationship people have with sickness and mortality. It taps the universal fear of illness in a way that tells a very human story. 




Saturday, November 16, 2013

I Saw the Devil




So here's the fucked up thing about I Saw The Devil.

It's a film about how ultimately dehumanizing and unsatisfying vengeance can be. The movie is a revenge story through-and-through, and revenge stories exist to empower the powerless through fiction. Bad things happen in life and our sense of order demands that someone be punished for it. It's a nice power fantasy and most revenge films feature an average man empowered by rage.

Kyung-chul, the serial killer who murdered Soo-hyun's pregnant fiance, is about as evil as they come. He spends the entire movie kidnapping, raping, and murdering women. His only friend is a cannibal who invades homes and carves up the inhabitants for supper. They're both shabby and unattractive men, though Kyung-chul approaches his work with a steely eyed, world-weary assertiveness that's undeniably compelling to watch. They're both evil men but they're not quite devils. There's something petty and pathetic about them that puts me in the mind of something I read this week: "Most things that seem satanic or malevolent are really just wretchedness and frailty that’ve been allowed to put on muscle."   



Neither murderers have a chance against Soo-hyun. Soo-hyun is the perfect human agent of vengeance. Young, handsome, highly-trained, and brutal, Soo-hyun is basically a Korean Jason Bourne. After his fiancee's body is found at the bottom of a river (in one of the most chilling search-team scenes I've ever seen), Soo-hyun steals some spy gadgets from his office, takes a two-week vacation, and goes hunting. With the help of his fiancee's father, a former police commissioner, he quickly tracks down his fiancee's killer. The rest of the game is a brutal game of cat and mouse between the serial killer and the super agent. Soo-hyun refuses to turn his prey over to the police, preferring to prolong his quarry's torment, and Kyung-chul descends into depravity when faced by an opponent who outclasses him in every way.

This movie had been sitting in my Netflix queue for awhile because I felt like I could figure out how it would end from the synopsis: Soo-hyun would descend into Kyung-chul's level until the difference between the two men was almost nil. While Soo-hyun's revenge does eventually barrel over innocent people, the story is never that trite or obvious. No satisfying revenge can really be taken against Kyung-chul anyway. Soo-hyun can cause horrific physical pain to Kyung-chul (and some of his attacks run close to torture porn) but the effect is similar to Batman beating up the Joker in the interrogation room: a guy as crazy as Kyung-chul is eventually going to disconnect from what's happening to him and all you're left with is cutting flesh. Even torturing Kyung-chul inside his murder room fails to stir any empathy for his victims. Instead he goads Soo-hyun to kill him and treats Soo-hyun like he's wasting Kyung-chul's time.



So the film's title doesn't refer to Kyung-chul. Kyung-chul is essentially a selfish, ignorant creature of the id. The devil in the title is the realization that you can burn your entire life down to gain the object of your obsession and have it mean absolutely nothing. The movie ends without closure and with a sense of loss that's almost crippling. While researching this blog post, I came across the perfect one-sentence review for the film: "There is all the violent mayhem, for certain, but the thing that sets I Saw the Devil apart is its undercurrent of real emotion and how unrelentingly sad it can be."  



Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Man of Tai Chi



I've been thinking a lot about the devil lately.

I've never been a big fan of Christian-based horror fiction because it tends to make horror punitive, but I love the idea of the Devil. I love the idea of a monster that seduces and corrupts rather than simply causing havoc. It's subtle and more fraught with tension. Any psycho can stick a knife into someone, but it takes a special kind of monster to take your spirit. How many pieces of yourself can you give away before you're no longer you?

As cool as the idea is, the payoff never worked for me. There's a passage in Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Seasons of Mist storyline where the devil bemoans the ideas people have that he goes around collecting souls like a fishwife at market. A soul is too abstract and meaningless of a prize. The devil needs something concrete.

In Man of Tai Chi, the amazing martial arts film from Keanu Reeves, there's a moment when Keanu Reeves's sinister manipulator Donaka Mark is watching surveillance footage of Tiger Chen. He focused the camera on Chen's face, smiles, and says, "innocence." It's a chilling moment. Up until that point I'd assumed Keanu Reeves was a garden variety crime boss whose main business involved hosting deadly fights for rich perverts. The second he targets something as ephemeral as innocence he becomes something darker and more menacing.

Tiger Chen certainly doesn't lack for innocence. When I first saw the trailer, I wasn't sure I'd buy the actor as an action star. His body is too slight and he looked more like a teenager than a stern kung-fu warrior. He starts the movie with a sort of naive impatience. He's admirably centered in the face of his thankless delivery job, he's a loving son to his parents, and he trains with a wise old man living in a gorgeous temple. His sifu's talk of meditation and centeredness eludes him. While a nice guy, it's clear early in the film that he's got a serious case of Brown Belt Syndrome, the peculiar affliction most martial artists go through when they feel a burning desire to test their skills in a real fight.

Spotted at a kung fu exhibition by Donaka Mark's recruiters, he's invited to a mysterious job interview. Silent men pick him up in fancy cars and he's flown to an anonymous gray building. He's escorted to a room, left alone for a few unsettling moments, and suprise-attacked by a brutal Muay Thai fighter. Chen overcomes the man, gets paid a significant amount of money, and invited back.

The rest of the film follows Chen's descent into hell. The first dozen fights involve opponents using different styles and fights in the same anonymous gray rooms. As Chen's skill and bloodlust grow, he's brought into boutique fights on boats off the mainland, where he's forced to descend into new levels of savagery to overcome a pair of skilled opponents. Finally, when Chen has sunk to his nadir, Donaka Mark asks him to break his final taboo: kill his opponent.

By that point in the film, I wasn't sure that Tiger Chen wouldn't take Donaka Mark up on it. His later matches show him in complete control and he doesn't so much beats as dominates his opponent. He'd been kicked out of mainstream kung fu tournaments for excessive brutality, he became edgy and impatient with everyone, and he challenged his sifu to a rage-fueled match at the temple. The latter was a spectacular scene and it felt like a child furiously rejecting the teachings of the father. Unlike a lot of martial arts films, where the practitioner is almost saintly in their morality, Tiger Chen has fallen dangerously close to damnation.

But Tiger Chen does hesitate when told to kill his opponent. So Donaka Mark, clad in a black suit and obsidian mask, steps into the ring and snaps the man's neck. The way Mark looks up at Tiger Chen with wrathful eyes behind his expressionless mask reminded me of the inhuman Michael Myers from the Halloween films. By that point, I had no doubt that Donaka Mark was one of the most effective depictions of Lucifer I've ever seen. He'd recognized something inside Tiger Chen, cultivated it, and turned it in a darker direction. The best seducers understand exactly where you're weak and get you to believe that it is a strength.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the ending fight between Donaka Mark and Tiger Chen. I'd never previously thought of Keanu Reeves as a large person, but he positively towers over his opponent. Unlike a lot of the previous fighters, who attack with blindingly fluid swiftness, there's something stiff and methodical about Mark's fighting style. He comes off as unstoppable, again drawing a comparison to the unkillable Michael Myers. The fight ends and we're left with some ambiguity. Did Tiger Chen's sifu's philosophy sink in? Was Donaka Mark's corruption of Tiger Chen complete? The man who stares off into the temple valley at the end of the film seems sadder and more wise. Maybe he's won, maybe he's lost. Once you shake hands with the Devil, you can never come clean.

There's so much good stuff in the movie. Reeves turns out to be a surprisingly good action director. He tailors his directing style to the characterization of the fights. Fights were Tiger is in control are smooth exercises, whereas fights where he's confused or afraid are chaotic without getting lost in American-style shaky camera. There's a fantastic subplot where a female police officer attempts to shut down Donaka's fight club, and she's portrayed as both skilled and fearless. The legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping creates nothing less than a martial arts ballet, where disparate styles clash together elegantly. The script is strong, the performances are spectacular, and there's a lot of smart stuff about purity versus corruption. Most martial arts films I've seen lately are simply contests of the body. Action films in general are examinations of the body in motion. Very few are about the soul at war with itself.





Friday, September 13, 2013

How to have a Friday the 13th Marathon


HOW TO HAVE A FRIDAY THE 13TH MARATHON: 


Hi folks. 



If you're like me, you LOVE Friday the 13th. It's the creepiest day short of Halloween. It's also the title of the longest running horror franchise in the United States. What better way to celebrate the day than to watch the movies? 



But which ones to choose? The task can be daunting for the Jason neophyte, especially since half the movies are fun-bad and the other half are just bad-bad. So, in order to help you make the most of this Friday the 13th, I've curated a list of the Friday the 13th films you SHOULD be watching. 



FIRST FILM. Toss-up. Friday #1 or Friday #2



The long and short is that the first Friday is a better pick for a campy good time, whereas the second Friday is one of the most scary and effective slasher movies of the early 80s. 



While both films followed and expanded upon the formula laid down by John Carpenter's Halloween, the series had not yet settled into the familiar rhythms of the Friday the 13th series. 



Friday 1 hasn't aged well as a horror film. While Sean Cunningham uses the primordial darkness of the woods to great effect, the film iss tame enough to be shown uncut on TV and the ending fight between the middle-aged women and the screaming camp councilor quickly descends into delightful farce. This is the one to pick for a campier good time. 



Friday 2 is more conventionally scary. Director Steve Miner, who would go on to make a career as a slasher director, knows how to work the premise of the lone madman in the words to great effect. We see pre-hockey mask Jason for the first time and this film has Ginny, the psychology major who turns out to be one of the best Final Girls of the series. 



SECOND FILM Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter. 



A personal favorite of the pre-zombie Jason films, Final Chapter has a lot of good stuff going for it. First, the story is genuinely strong. Sure, it has all the generic touches of a Friday film, but the characterization is much stronger. People go through story arcs, the teenage drama has a sharper focus, Crispen Glover dances like a spaz, and the story holds together better. It also introduces Cory Feldman as Tommy Jarvis, Jason's only consistent nemesis. A horror effects enthusiast with a gift for getting inside monster's heads, he makes an effective foil for the killer.



As this was supposed to be the final film in the series, make-up effects master Tom Savini returned to do the effects work of this film and they work brilliantly. Most of the gore is saved for Jason's death, but it's fantastic work. Tom White, the stuntman in Jason's shoes, delivers my favorite interpretation of the human version of Jason. Jason in part 4 is at once heavy but spry, and White imbues the character with strength and menace. 



WHY NOT PART 3



Aside from the fact that the movies REALLY follows the slasher-victim stereotype (stoner hippie, prank playing idiot) and the 3D effects are occasionally fun, the movie is mostly unpleasant people dying off. Worth seeing for the moment Jason gets his hockey mask and for a solid final fight. 



THIRD FILM: Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives. 



Working off the strongest script of the series, director Tom McLaughlin attempted to fuse elements of the classic Universal Horror films into the Friday film series. Tommy Jarvis returns to accidentally resurrect Jason with a poorly-placed iron pole and a bolt of lightning, creating the first appearance of Zombie Jason. The character is now overtly supernatural and former Marine C.J. Graham portrays the character as a vengeful automatic, moving Jason with surprising grace and sudden violence. 



There's a lot to really like in this film. The movie is genuinely funny, although the humor stops when Jason appears. The cinematography is gorgeous and evocative of the fog-shrouded hills of Transylvania. The town of Crystal Lake has evolved in order to forget it's horrible past. Tommy makes for a fantastic, haunted Ahab character and he teams up with my favorite final girl of the series, the playful sheriff's daughter Megan. Finally, it's the most 80s film of the series. You can use it as a time capsule for the styles and sounds of the mid-80s. 



WHY DID YOU AVOID PART FIVE? 



Aside from the fact that there's an impostor masquerading as the killer, there's a real meanness of spirit in this film. The director, Danny Steinmann, came out of pornography and he shoots the film very much like a porno. People appear, say a few horrible things, and get killed. It has the highest body count of any Friday film (if you exclude the off-camera slaughter of part  



It is worth seeing for the crazy gothy/new wave dance scene and the evolution of the Tommy Jarvis character. 



FOURTH FILM: Friday the 13th Part Seven: The New Blood. 



It's Jason vs. Carrie!



This film has easily the best fight scene of the Friday series, as the emotionally damaged psychic Tina unleashes her full powers against Jason. The storyline is fairly standard slasher stuff (though it does have the best Bitchy Rich Girl of all slasher movies) but Friday Seven also marks the debut of the definitive Jason actor, stuntman Kane Hodder. 



Most of the stuntmen who took the Jason role had a fairly mercenary outlook on the role, but Hodder approached the role as an actor. His Jason is Fury Incarnate and all later interpretations of the role owe something to his work. 



This is also an excellent film for people adverse to gore. By this point, the backlash against the violence of the series had it's effect and the average episode of CSI has far more gore. 



WHY DID YOU AVOID PART EIGHT



First, despite the title, most of the action takes place on a boat. Second, a lot of stuff DOES work, but the elements that do are done better in other films. Third, the sewers of New York City don't flood with toxic waste every evening. Fourth, Jason spends the movie looking like a wet trash bag. 



Worth seeing for another Kane Hodder performance, Kelly Hu's overtly supernatural death scene, the rooftop boxing match, and the vision of pre-Giuliani Times Square. 



FIFTH FILM: JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY



This is an odd pick because it's the most unconventional of the Friday the 13th series. Jason is blown apart in the beginning of the movie by an FBI team with apparent shoot-to-kill orders, but his essence hops from body to body in order to be reborn by inhabiting one of his relatives. 



JGTH is essentially The Terminator in plotting and Twin Peaks/The X-Files in tone. Jason chases his one living family member, which leads to an amazing police station massacre, and the pursuit is genuinely suspenseful. It goes a little too far off the reservation, but I like it all the same. Also, wait for the surprising Freddy Krueger cameo. 



WHY DID YOU AVOID JASON X 



It's Jason in Space! It's Space Jason! 



This is sadly Kane Hodder's final film as Jason and he spends most of it combating the tone. Though the film had been filmed years before Scream, it shares Scream's meta-tone but melds it with sci-fi campiness. The tone is jokey, nobody takes the action seriously, and the film has the breezy tone of a SyFy channel film. It's a good time, it's just a little bit too campy for me. 



Worth seeing for the cryo-face smash and the Cronenberg cameo. 



SIXTH FILM: FREDDY VS. JASON 



While this is far more of a Freddy film than a Jason film, director Ronny Yu invests the film with nightmarish visual style. Made during the influx of Hong Kong directors that followed in John Woo's stead, Yu creates one of my favorite visions of both Springwood and Crystal Lake since part 6. We really get inside Jason's psychology in this film, courtesy of Freddy's manipulations, and the final fight between the two titans of horror is absolutely brutal. 



WHY DID YOU AVOID THE REMAKE?



I didn't really. It's worth seeing, especially since Derek Mears does the best interpretation of Jason since Kane Hodder. But it's a Platinum Dunes remake, and there's something slick and soulless about it. 



Worth seeing for Aaron Yoo's fantastic death scene, Jarad Padalecki's non-Winchester horror turn, and a solid final fight. 



FINALE



Well, by this point, you've seen the best that the Friday the 13th has to offer. You're in the clear. Smoke some dope, have some premarital sex, and don't worry about getting slaughtered.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sleep No More





From Reddit user neilk:

Some people call Sleep No More "immersive theatre" but that doesn't explain the essence of the thing. The current production in New York is performed in a multi-story hotel. The play is going on in multiple rooms according to a very complicated schedule and the audience is free to move from room to room. Many things are happening simultaneously so you have to come back multiple times to see everything.
The audience wears white masks and must be silent. The performers act as if white masks aren't there. (Usually.) Also, despite being billed as a play, the story is mostly told through physical actions and dance. There are fight scenes, ballroom scenes, seductions, murders, suicides, and some really far out stuff that you have to see for yourself.
The style is film noir, but with a surreal, macabre, sometimes gory, always disturbing atmosphere. Unsettling music is piped in everywhere. You can spend a lot of time just examining the elaborate sets, which also reveal clues about the story.
Occasionally performers will grab members of the audience and take them off into difficult to access locations. This chosen person or persons might see a scene that few ever see -- indeed where the performers outnumber the spectators.
A friend of mine compares it to entering "The Black Lodge" from Twin Peaks.

Here is the magic of Sleep No More

About midway through my experience, I became desperate to ditch the crowd. The building is five stories tall and each floor is full of macabre secrets to explore. I kept climbing and climbing until I reached the top of the 5th floor staircase, where a petite woman in a black mask blocked my way and shook her head at me.

I stalked through the fifth floor door and found myself in an elegant Victorian family apartment. The decor was sumptuous in a Tim Burton-eque way, lots of old toys and antique furnishings and paintings of unsmiling people. When I found my way to the youngest child's room, I saw that the mirror reflected a different version of the room. The room I stood in was neat and tidy, the reflection room was disheveled and had a large dark stain on the bed.

I left the apartment and found myself in a long, pitch-dark hallway. The texture underneath my feet changed and I realized I was standing on dirt. The only illumination in the room came from tiny blue-white lights under the floor. I realized I was standing in an area made to look like a graveyard at night. A small dark shape loomed at the end of the hallway. The eerie, discordant music swelled as I got closer. It was an old baby stroller, painted black.

I was in the home of a family whose child has died.

I've never seen storytelling done so artfully and with such innovation.


This is how Sleep No More works.

You buy an entry time and arrive at a large warehouse in Chelsea. You're surrounded by young twee yuppie types.

You turn in any bags to the coat check. No bags, no cameras, no nuthin'. The people working the door and working the coat check are well-dressed in a slightly anachronistic fashion, somewhere between 1920s flappers and Victorians.

You continue forward through a dark hallway. The reservation desk is at the end of the hallway. You check in and get a playing card (remember this, this is important) before getting instructed to head up to the bar. The path isn't obvious and you have to make turns through tight, dark alleyways. It's disorienting. In retrospect, I view it as time travel.

You arrive at the Manderlay bar. It looks like a Jazz Age club catering to vampire private eyes. Art deco accents touch every surface and the decor is rich, red velvet. The drinks are apparently amazing, but I wanted to be clear headed during the experience.

Finally, they start calling us. My friend had a King card and I had a Queen. The staff stagger their entry times, preventing any group from remaining together. Sleep No More is meant to be experienced alone.

Your ticket gets called and you're ushered into a waiting area by John Waters and Delbert Grady's illegitimate love child. He hands you a bauta mask that fits reasonably well over your glasses and opens the elevator. You ride for awhile. He says the following.

*Sleep No More is an interactive experience and meant to be explored. Don't be confined to one space and don't follow the crowd. Explore at your own pace.
*The people in the black masks are there for your safety.
*No phones, no photos, no talking, no taking off your mask.

People are let off at different floors. We get off at the basement. Some people go right, I go left. I run into a statue of an angel holding a candle. The statue's face is ruined. I shudder and move on.


The story is basically Shakespeare's Macbeth set in a nebulous film noir Jazz Age, with a few added twists and turns thrown in. Familiarity with the core story helps, but it isn't essential.  They do take a lot of liberties and add on a lot of elements.

There is no dialogue in the play. Aside from the occasional shouted "no!" the entire story is told through dance. The choreography is brilliantly done. I have an idea of interpretive dance as being histrionic and pretentious, but the actors do a beautiful job telling the story through movement and expression. 

One of my favorite little add-ons is the story of a young woman looking for her sister. She wandered onto the speakeasy set and sat across a redheaded woman in a red dress. They pantomimed an interaction and, at the end, the madam ripped the girl's bodice and put red lipstick on her.

Hours later, as I explored the hotel set, I ran into the woman again. She had a suitcase with her and she looked like all the misery in the world had been heaped on her shoulders. She was also very, very pregnant. As she crept through the apartment, she unfurled a mirror and stared at her reflection. You could tell that she'd had some rough times. Her story was told without words, with movement and facial expression.

I kind of wish I followed her more. But there's so much stuff to do.



I get weird when I wear masks.

If I have one real complaint about Sleep No More, it's that the crowd is really oppressive. The concierge tells you that you're better off exploring alone, but most of the major set pieces are in central locations and tend to draw groups. I got sick of trying to shove my way into rooms and decided to go off on my own.

I wound up in a tiny lunatic asylum. I was alone. I was wearing a bone-white mask. I've seen Jason Voorhees stalk across the screen a hundred times. I have a stocky body.

I went to the examination room, where an x-ray of a body hung over a horrible bondage chair. I went into a nursery, where a bunch of dolls with severed heads hung over an empty crib like a ghastly cherub. I went into a padded room where the fabric of the walls had been ripped and soiled.

I was a monster in a monstrous space. I liked it.



Sleep No More isn't really theater and it isn't really a haunted house. It's an experience.

I hate interactive haunted houses because I don't like people startling me, but the actors inhabiting Sleep No More don't seem to care whether or not you're there at all. The first time I saw one of the performers, I was in the photography room of the detective's office. The other audience members were rooting through his files. All seemed to be ignoring the photos hanging up on strings criss-crossing the room.

I unclipped one and saw the body of a mutilated girl. Something was carved into her back but it was nearly impossible to see in the dim red light of the office. I tilted my head, stared at the photo some more, and wordlessly handed it off to another audience member. I remember how sloppily he took the photo and the way he stared at it like a witless dog. He might as well not have been wearing the mask. 

I would have kept digging around if the actor hadn't shown up.

He was tall, handsome, and dressed like he'd stumbled out of the photograph of the New Years Eve Party at the end of The Shining. He pushed past us, collapsed against the desk, and fell through the floor clutching his heart. After a few moments of panic, he got back up and stumbled out of the office, back towards the main street of the eerie small town set.

By this point, a crowd of audience members had clustered up behind him. They chased after him as he ran. I stayed behind. Once of the doors adjacent to the detective's office lead to a funeral home. I'd slipped in eariler to flip through the client roster and found the preparation room. A large steel door was affixed to one side. I was sure that the door would open up to the morgue and I wanted to see it for myself.

It never did. Dejected, I wandered my way back to the main street in time to see another actor, similarly dressed, stagger down the street as if wounded. A crowd of audience apparitions followed him, their bone-white bauta masks making them all look like specters in Old Navy cargo shorts.

The actor staggered through the streets, falling in the center of a dim spotlight. The crowd gathered around him like silent executioners. He picked himself up and continued through the set, toward the eerie tailor shop with the rusty scissors in the window held up with red ribbon.

I watched the whole thing pass me by. The two actor's movements were almost in perfect synchronicity. One character, trapped in a panicked loop, stumbling around in the dark over and over again.

For the first time in my life, I really understood what it must be like to see a ghost.


I had a really intense emotional reaction to the ending.

You're given a couple of hours to explore everything in the McKittrick hotel before the attendants in the black masks begin funneling audience members toward the basement. You go underneath the hotel lobby, down the church staircase, and enter the grand ballroom. 

All of Macbeth's lovers, friends, and victims return to him at a big banquet. Things degenerate into a brutal squabble and MacDuff leads a grateful Macbeth to his gallows. The play ends with a very realistic hanging.

I have a difficult time with hangings. I turned my head and shuddered. We were all filed up the stairs toward the exit. I glanced back occasionally to see the body swing by the rafters, a silhouette against dark blue lights, swaying to some tinny recording of a Bing Crosby jazz standard.  



Seeing Sleep No More was one of the best experiences of my life. I'm addicted. I want to go over and over again. It hits all my ghoulish buttons, it's beautiful in a very macabre way, and it creates a world I want to continue to inhabit. I've heard people compare it to Bioshock, Inception, Lovecraft, or a zillion other old-world mysteries and horrors.

I'm addicted. I can't wait to go back. You should go, too.

New York Times review

Gizmodo article

Excellent first timer advice