The perennially hyped art/horror experience, which draws 10,000 visitors every year, is a tepid thumb-twiddler, slow in its pacing and at some points downright cumbersome to slog through. The friend I took to last Friday’s opening night, an elementary-school teacher and new mom (i.e. the last person to judge anything harshly), graded it a C. Once we emerged onto the streets of St. Anthony Main, we heard similar disappointed grumblings.
Now, to be sure, the Haunted Basement is not your typical Haunted House. It’s not Valley Scare. It’s an art thing, more akin to theater and experimental performance than it is to dopey, leap-out-of-the-dark shock-mongering. The thrills? Not cheap. The chills? Slow psychological creep-outs. I get it.
But here’s the thing: when you ask your actors to riff on and respond to a flood of disoriented, distrustful, jumpy audience members who have spent most of the night wandering around in the dark, you’re engaged in some seriously difficult improv. And, hate to say it, but that’s exactly what the Haunted Basement felt like: awkward improv.
My friend and I spent most of our 30 or so minutes bogged down in narrative quagmires. We’d enter a “scene,” play along as best we could, and tango clumsily with the actors as we tried to discern what, exactly, we were supposed to do. Aborted sketches, scenes dragging on past any conceivable exit, skittish participants unwittingly killing the story, foursomes piled up at bits already in progress, forcing everyone to loiter about and take in the scenery—it’s hard to be scared when you’re working so hard at being a polite and cooperative audience member. One actor, at a loss at how to successfully goad a herd of us onto the next room, simply told us to “F*** Off.” Point taken. We moseyed on.
There were moments of cleverness. Three scenes were satisfyingly strange, executed perfectly, and brimmed with spooky surprise. One even required an acrobatic escape to avoid a grisly death. Environments were detailed. There was much to gawk at. (And sniff at, thanks to some gruesomely rancid scents from St. Croix Sensory.)
But too often, the mini horror narratives were too loosely wound. It’s one thing to have to choose your own adventure. It’s quite another to have to guess what that adventure is supposed to be.