The Twin Cities Horror Festival serves as a kind of mid-year reminder that the beloved Minnesota Fringe Festival is never too far off. It gives us a taste of the bigger event to calm our nerves.
Well, maybe not truly calm the nerves. This year's festival offers seven productions at the Southern Theater that are split between humorous takes on horror and mystery conventions and performances that fully embrace the terrors you can produce in a darkened, allegedly haunted theater.
Opening night — fittingly on Halloween — showcased both sides of the festival. While the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre played in the lobby, three live shows were presented in the theater (a fourth, Edgar Allan, was canceled opening night due to illness, but the show will continue through the rest of the festival).
TWIN CITIES HORROR FESTIVAL II The Southern Theater 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis Through November 9; 612-340-0155
Hordes of trick-or-treaters at home kept me from the opening of The Harty Boys in the Mystery of the Mall of America...of Death! but I had caught the show earlier in October at its debut run at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. The brainchild of Comedy Suitcase (Joshua English Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen), the string of plays spoofs the famous teenage detectives and gets in plenty of jibes at the Twin Cities as well.
This time around, the Harty Boys match wits (as much as they have) with an evil clown bent on destroying them. The adventures take the young detectives to such landmarks as raw-food emporium Ecopolitan (where the duo attempt to order hamburgers and fries) and the titular mall for a final confrontation. Scrimshaw and Weinhagen have well-honed chemistry together, and are joined by a strong supporting cast including Ari Hoptman as their equally dim-witted father, Leslie Ball as their long-suffering mother, and Andy Kraft as a bevy of characters.
Like Comedy Suitcase, local company Four Humors has found plenty of success at the Fringe, and this year's performance was no exception. Building on the troupe's past triumphs, The Murderer Did It! offers a meta look at familiar mystery tropes. Here, seven people are gathered in an abandoned basement under mysterious circumstances — and then they begin to be murdered, one by one. Matt Spring deftly plays with and against the tropes of this style of mystery, creating a piece that is funny throughout but more than a little creepy by the end. This expert mix of humor and horror is aided by a game cast who are willing to dive into character, from the spiky judge (Jen Scott) to the haughty solicitor (Jason Ballweber) to the writer observing it all (Ryan Lear).
Comedy troupe Ferrari McSpeedy adds to the lighter side of the festival with Spooky Town, while Erin Sheppard Presents' Tainted Love and Ghoulish Delights' Trust and Obey both promise a darker take on terror, from the creepy side of relationships to a bit of Lovecraft-inspired madness.
The final piece on opening night, which ended after midnight, was Dangerous Productions' Hear No Evil. It opens with a very brutal and very funny warning about turning off your cell phone, but that's the closest thing to levity in this descent into madness. Talking about the plot gives too much away, but in a nutshell, a group of women confront their nightmares, which are made real in their world — and haunt more than the stage. One of the most unsettling moments occurs when one character slowly crawls up the aisle while the action continues on stage, passing within inches of audience members. Later, another stalks the back of the theater, whispering with growing panic that she doesn't want to be there. Tyler Olsen's script is unflinching, and the company as a whole presents tough, physical performances that sell every moment.
All of this — and a true Grand Guignol ending — showcases how effective horror can be on stage. All of the effects have to be practical, so there is a raw, visceral quality that heightens the reality of what's happening. A horror show's effectiveness can often be felt in the minutes after it ends. As I walked out after midnight to a nearly deserted West Bank, I was thoroughly creeped out. Mission accomplished.