Legends of Horror reveals the beauty in Halloween horror by DREW ROWSOME 18 October 2017
A good scare and a hearty laugh - or for the true Halloween connoisseur, a relieved laugh following an adrenaline-spiked scare - both produce endorphins, a feeling of elation. But there is also the serenity that can be attained while experiencing a work of art, whether it be beautiful or disturbing. Using the massive canvas that is Casa Loma, already an evocative eerie presence, Legends of Horror splashes iconic horror imagery in studdings of colour atop a vista of darkness.
The journey begins with a journey through the gardens and wilds below Casa Loma. Ethereal horrors drift through the night and the underbrush is full of creatures ready to pounce. It is great fun and genuinely unnerving. There is no way to tell what is a shadow and what is a creature, what seemingly inanimate object will spring forward, what will lurch out of the dark. The cast is very skilled at misdirection, at appearing out of nowhere and hovering like a chill breath of unease, with a zombie cage jump scare, that I should have seen coming, being particularly effective.
There is a detour through a haunted house before once more setting off along the murky pathway. A giant wolf attack is particularly aggressive but it is impossible not to stop and admire the artistry of fur, fangs and glittering eyes. Up a flight of stairs strewn and festooned with skeletons and skeleton parts, and past a ghoulish sentinel (who of course has companions, more misdirection) one reaches a maze of mirrors. The mirrors are filled with bandage-swathed flickering images and the walls resound with the blows of the same pounding against the glass to get out. The last mirror has shattered and surely the escapee is lurking about.
The maze opens into the large courtyard just below Casa Loma and here the cinematic proportions of Legends of Horror comes into play. The courtyard is studded with fountains and statues, and is inhabited by giant looming creatures, elongated grim reapers, with flaming eyes. They are magical and unnerving as they float and sway and seem to seek an embrace that promises bliss and fatality. Above it all is the castle itself. For the season, projections melt across the bricks and turrets, ghosts of light on an epic scale. Skeletons clamber, blood drips and bats fly in a revolving swirling abstraction of horror on a massive scale.
Here in the courtyard, the concept - or the inadvertent result - becomes clear. While Halloween imagery can disgust or frighten or induce laughter, there is also an inherent beauty within it. A wabi-sabi celebration of what we fear or are repulsed by. The glistening vivid red of blood, the rich textures of decay, the proud power of aging, the quirky appeal of deformity and difference, the lure of surrender to evil. It is breathtaking.
At this point the loose plotline also begins to focus. We have been greeted at the beginning of our trek by several vampires clad in diaphanous revealing outfits and their apparent overlord, a Nosferatu-like vampire. The mixture of Hammer Horror sexism and Murnau-esque expressionism is jarring (and where is the male supernatural eye candy?) but the vampire smoothes it over with expressive eyes, beckoning claws, and the promise of more. He reappears in the courtyard.
After a short jaunt through a claustrophobic Grandin-tunnel and up a flight of stairs with more skeletons (at this point I also wondered if there were any plastic, or real, skeletons left in the city. The extravagance and abundance of bones used to construct Legends of Horror cannot be overstated. The multitudes of femur-studded chandeliers alone must have consumed a small army) we enter a restaurant lounge area. At first it appears to be a depiction of Hell itself - blaring top 40, overpriced drinks, hordes of millenials determined to demonstrate they are having fun, and cafeteria sandwiches - but it soon becomes clear that it is meant to be a respite, a halfway point on our journey.
The welcome sight of outrageously talented musical theatre performer - and a welcome jolt of testosterone-flavoured sexual objectification - David Michael Moote behind a bar pulls the dedication of the live creatures haunting the venue into sharp relief. I know of other actors whose work I have enjoyed and lauded on the stage who have been part of the Legend of Horror cast. Under the ingenious costumes and make-up, there is actual talent playing roles, practicing their craft. Liberty Group has hired some heavyweights as part of their team - Steve Ireson, TK and Steve Buczek were three I encountered who have all contributed immeasurably to Toronto's nightlife - and Liberty Group seem to have to have done the same when assembling the talent to populate Legends of Horror. Even the security guards either smile and quip, or project spookiness.
There is a hallway lined by life-sized statue figurines promoting the upcoming Justice League movie and their inexplicable presence is explained by a Marvel-themed Halloween party at another Liberty Group venue. This little blip of crass cross-promotion over, one enters the bowels of Casa Loma and the beating heart of Legends of Horror. Surprises should not be ruined, frights should not be spoiled, but the second half of Legends of Horror, which takes place in the tunnels below and the stables beside Casa Loma, is not only fun but at moments transcends the strictures of a dark maze. The tableaus are spectacular, there are creepy projections that are so real that my skin crawled and I jumped in fright, and the blow-off performance is half-horror, half-camp but has a full-on monster scare that really works. But the claustrophobic tunnel walls are, along with other horrors, lined with large photographs depicting the history, the horrific history, of Toronto and particularly Casa Loma. These photographs, reality (?), are blended with effects and imagery to coalesce into a time shift where horror and history and Halloween fuse into high art. It is an interactive gallery. It, on its own, is worth the price of admission and haunts long after the adrenaline surge.
That is probably a lot of metaphorical heft to place on an entertainment, a Halloween event. There are scares to be had, lots of laughs and screams, but kudos to the artists who conceived and constructed Legends of Horror for playing with the imagery of horror to reveal the hideous beauty, the art, beneath.
Legends of Horror continues until Tues, Oct 31 at Casa Loma, 1 Austin Terrace. legendsofhorror.ca