[Updated again!] TC Horror Fest review: Confederate ghosts, headless horsemen, and danger on the Greenway

'A Morbid History of Sons and Daughters'

'A Morbid History of Sons and Daughters' The Vincent Hovis Experience

The seventh annual Twin Cities Horror Festival is underway at the Southern Theater.

Twin Cities Horror Festival 2018

The Southern Theater

It's a Fringe-like smorgasbord of hour-long stage shows by various artists, with the important condition that every one is, in some way or another, horrific. We'll be posting a selection of capsule reviews here, with updates added as the festival continues through Nov. 4.

The Bathtub Girls
Kairos Collective

The Bathtub Girls is one of those shows that seems simple, but it takes a lot of planning for such gripping storytelling to look this effortless. Two young women (Natalia Bushnik and Robin Luckwaldt Ross) sit in the center of the stage wearing only pale, short gowns. Between them is a small circle, and in that circle is a long stretch of fabric. Throughout the play, neither moves far from the circle, as the fabric becomes a cover and a connector.

Using words and movement — sometimes representative movement, other times dance-like gestures evoking roiling emotions — the two tell the story of two girls who immigrate to Canada, ultimately being raised by a single mother who falls into alcoholism. Resentful of her erratic and disruptive behavior, the sisters decide that since their mother is slowly killing herself, it's no great evil to simply help the process along.

Based on a true story (it also inspired the 2014 movie Perfect Sisters), The Bathtub Girls is an empathetic but chilling account that focuses on the relationship between the two sisters, who tempt each other into a terrible act but split at a crucial moment. Ross and Bushnik are both spot-on in this darkly entrancing show.

Dangerous Productions

Tyler Olsen-Highness is the foremost purveyor of graphic horror on the local theater scene. That, combined with his company's wicked sense of humor and relentless willingness to scare, always makes Dangerous Productions a draw at the Horror Festival. As with last year's thought-provoking Skin, this year director Olsen-Highness again collaborates with a playwright who adds new dimensions to the onstage frights. Last year that was Oya Mae Duchess-Davis; this year it's Garrett Vollmer, a longtime actor with the company who brings his writing talents to bear on a twisted and jaw-dropping tale of bloody dysfunction in an insular Upper Midwest community.

The play's intersecting stories take a series of mundane horrors that are all too recognizable — toxic masculinity, gaslighting, child abuse, multi-generational bullying — and stoke them into gory shocks that at first stem from a single obviously demented character but quickly spread to engulf everyone. A large, strong cast is anchored by Laura "Baller" Mahler as the hardworking mother of two teens (Jacob Mack and Mackenzie Diggins) and the wife of a spineless slacker (Jay Kistler). She tries to stand up to the local bigmouth (an imposing Brant Miller) and a creepy neighbor kid (Ian Ebner), but finds that though it may be Halloween, not everyone can be Jamie Lee Curtis.

Inventively designed by Olsen-Highness, complete with a very freaky fridge, Home is a wild ride that's rooted in cringe-inducingly familiar territory.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Rogues Gallery Arts

Washington Irving's 1820 story has proved a perpetual source of seasonal fascination, in part because of its gloriously gothic climax and in part because its characters defy easy categories. Ichabod Crane is an antihero at best, and his neighbors range from bullies to bland. Who are we supposed to root for?

The Headless Horseman, obviously; this new adaptation by Duck Washington and Tim Wick gets that. Still, when this Ichabod (Andy Browers) takes an unsympathetic turn of character, it's a late-breaking non sequitur. Mahmoud Hakima's seething Brom Bones is more consistently defined, and Missy Watson as Katrina has no time for him.

Original songs are performed live by a trio who also serve as narrators: Geoffrey Brown, Tim Wick, and, in the show's funniest performance, Erin Kennedy. While Washington has some fun with the haunted hootenanny, overall this stiff show fails to either amuse or chill to the extent of its aims.

A Confederate Widow in Hell
Breaker/Fixer Productions

Willi Carlisle and Joseph Fletcher put a Faulknerian twist on a classic theatrical standby: old-timers who are conjured as characters to tell their historical stories. Darkness and disorientation pervades this atmospheric and confrontational drama about a daughter of the Confederacy who checks in from her place of eternal indignation.

Introduced by a headless figure (Fletcher) who hangs around to serve various functions at stage left, the widow (Carlisle) has a full agenda for her brief time before us. Beyond discerning why she's been summoned to the stage of the Southern, she has to deal with a pesky husband who appears in the form of projection and percussion — plus, summon her latter-day heirs and leave us all with a message about the swirling cycle of intolerance.

The pair create a richly unsettling ambience of corrupted luxury, with simple but effective tricks of stagecraft serving to evoke a howling void. Carlisle's performance is a committed cyclone of emotions, but trusting two men to guide us through a story about a woman's pain and complicity is a big ask.

Dream County

It's 1975, and Cousin Clem (Sam Landman) hosts a low-budget kids' TV show that involves regular visits to a magical land called Dream County. Somewhere between Mr. Rogers' Land of Make-Believe and H.R. Pufnstuf's Living Island, Dream County is inhabited by furry goof Fluffy Tuff (Jared Reise); bantering hand puppets Chummy and Crummy (both Brad Erickson); and the majestic Queenie (Suzanne Victoria Cross) with her faithful servant Pirth de Pirth (Kelsey Cramer).

They live in fear of a malevolent villain — who seems to have disappeared, along with Cousin Clem himself. Stuck in a perpetual now, the characters poignantly continue to hit their camera marks as they soldier on, wondering if Cousin Clem will ever return. The man (Dave Gangler) who does eventually tumble through Clem's portal brings an answer, but the residents of Dream County aren't sure they want to know.

Writer/director Landman has a fantastic premise, realized in style with a creative team including Derek Lee Miller ("set formation"), Mary Farrell ("costume realization"), and Gordon Smuder ("puppet design/fabrication"). Cramer is a standout as her increasingly desperate character tries to hold everything together, but the most deliciously horrific moment comes as Dream County's facade falls apart: the two puppets succumb to the temptation to look down and see where, exactly, their bodies go.

Tom Reed

If scares are most effective when they're most plausible, writer/director Tom Reed nails it with the spine-tinglingly relatable Greenway. His characters face the question that many Minneapolis bicyclists consider every night: Do you stick to the streets, where careening cars constantly threaten to clip you, or do you take the very convenient, car-free trail that also happens to be a dark, sunken trench?

Reed's script pointedly corrects the '80s slasher trope that posits young adults fucking in showy, unproblematic bliss until a guy in a mask shows up to stab them. In Greenway, Eva (Emily Rose Duea) is manipulated onto the eponymous bike path by a friend (Michael Rogers) who thinks he can guilt her into sleeping with him. When she blows him off, she's left alone on the Greenway with only her Bluetooth speaker and the Spice Girls to protect her. That may not be enough.

Clever staging, with bikes mounted on rolling platforms, adds to the effect of this cringe-inducing show that, despite its fantastic elements, feels uncomfortably real: a Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the 21st century urbanite.

A Morbid History of Sons and Daughters
The Vincent Hovis Experience

What's a horror festival without some creepy stories around a campfire? Add a guitar, and you've proved once again what the Fringe has taught us well: Literally anything can be a musical.

This ensemble-created piece directed by Allison Witham has Lydia (Gracie Kay Anderson) and Nora (Amanda Verstegen) cracking a tallboy and settling in for accounts of three macabre characters. Ephraim (Keith Hovis) is a lonely, troubled man who loves company — living or dead. John (Derek Lee Miller) starts assembling a lifesize doll, and you know that's not going to end well. Katherine (Leslie Vincent) works as a server at a cafe, and when she recognizes a customer from her past, she decides his order is not going to be over easy.

With the performers playing a range of instruments, the killers pour out their hearts in song: think Assassins, but less pretentious. It's all good creepy fun until the stories turn out to be tied together, and we realize the fire might not be the only thing that's dying at this campsite.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Reverent Matt's Monster Science

Matt Kessen strolls onstage in a suit, brandishing a pipe and browsing his notes. What's this going to be, you might wonder...a lecture? Why yes, that's precisely what it's going to be. Settle in for a little learning about the darker depths of the human imagination, with a few chuckles along the way. Maybe grab something from the bar on your way in.

Kessen is actually delivering two different talks at the festival. "Sympathy for the Devil" is a fast-paced history of Jack Scratch, who turns out to have even more different names than you know. This was the lecture Kessen delivered at the festival's opening night on Thursday, with a PowerPoint presentation that included historical illustrations, pop-culture gags, and Hollywood portrayals that probably make this the Horror Festival debut of the late George Burns.

That talk will repeat on Saturday (Oct. 27), then Kessen swaps it up to delve into "Demons of the Deep Blue Sea" on Oct. 30, Nov. 2, and Nov. 3. If you like his style, there's much more where that came from: his website catalogs podcast episodes and upcoming talks that manifest Kessen's detailed knowledge about seemingly every corner of mythological lore.