Monday, November 28, 2011

Mashing it up with a Pittsburgh Monster Kid

By Bratzilla
When it comes to phenomena that’ll brighten even the darkest days, there’s nothing quite like the twinkle in a Monster Kid’s eye. Fortunately, we were able to catch a glimpse of said sparkle firsthand when we sat down with the “mad creator” known as Malcolm Gittins, and talked about two of his favorite pastimes: ghouls and art.

First of all, I have to say that walking into Malcolm’s world is like stepping out of some kind of super awesome time machine into the 1960s—thanks, in no small part, to the rabidly extensive, yet carefully cultivated, collection of Aurora Monster models, Famous Monsters of Filmland covers, vintage movie posters, and scream queen autographs that he has on display in his museum-like living room. But, admittedly, it was the stuff in the black portfolios labeled “Art,” and tucked inside his endearingly cluttered desk, that we were really there to see. Why? Well, because, while they appear modest on the outside, dozens of wild portraits lurk impatiently inside. And, I tell you, they’re enough to make any fan scream with delight.

Yep, from Wolfman and Dracula to Frankenstein and his beautiful bride, Malcolm has not only painstakingly painted them all, but he’s also done so with the love of a child who just saw his first cloaked figure creep across the television screen the night before. Needless to say, the explosive celebrations of classic creatures and vibrant color that result from such passion are absolutely fangtastic, earning the artist genuine endorsements from the likes of “Chilly Billy” Cardille and the lovely Linnea Quigley, as well as a recent Rondo Award nomination. As it turns out, Malcom’s wickedly good art comes with a heart to match too, and we are thrilled to introduce you to him here.

Pittsburgh Exhumed (PE): When were you first “bitten” by a monster and what were the circumstances surrounding this deadly occasion?
Malcolm (MG): I was five years old when my big sister took me to see King Kong vs. Godzilla. I wasn’t the same after that! And, I can honestly say that whatever I was going to be when I “grew up” forever changed that day, too.

PE: What “possessed” you to create your first painting and what was the gruesome subject?
MG: I’ve been creating art for as long as I can remember, but the first monster I drew was the Wolfman, which was inspired by Famous Monsters of Filmland #99. That awesome cover was painted by Basil Gogos.

PE: When did you begin working fulltime as an artist and what prompted that decision?
MG: The first showing of my art was at the Pittsburgh Comicon 10 years ago. But the first time my art was seen by the public was on Bill Cardille’s Chiller Theatre in January of ’76. It was Linnea Quigley who suggested that I do something with my art.

PE: Now, for a little fiendish fun. What classic horror film scares you the most and why?
MG: I guess it would be The Pit and the Pendulum—it’s the first movie I remember that really scared me. Another would have to be Black Sabbath.

PE: Wolfman or Dracula?
MG: I give the edge to the Wolfman.

PE: Christopher Lee or Vincent Price?
MG: That’s a hard one, but since I got to meet Vincent Price, I’d have to pick him.

PE: Elvira or Vampira?
MG: That’s a tie! Both are sexy for different reasons, and there is a difference between them. But since I’ve met Elvira, I’ll pick her!

PE: You’ve been doing the convention circuit for quite some time and met a lot of famous people along the way. What was your most memorable experience?
MG: I’ve been going to cons for 30 years and I’ve been so lucky to have met so many people—none of whom I’d have ever thought I’d get to meet. But just to name a few … Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, David Hedison, Lara Parker, Brinke Stevens, Debbie Rochon, Linnea Quigley (see photo on left), Chilly Billy, Zacherley, Bob Burns, Erin Grey, Adam Wert, Pat Priest, Ben Chapman, Julie Adams, Ann Robinson, The Ghoul, Sarah Karloff, Chris Costello, and just so many more. I’m one very lucky Monster Kid, and I still get “star struck.”

PE: You have an extensive collection of memorabilia. When did you begin collecting and what are the five items that you cherish the most?
MG: My collection actually started with Famous Monsters #99, so that would be #1 on my list, but I have too many cool things to just pick five!

PE: What do you hope to inspire in others who view your paintings?
MG: I’m not sure I’ve ever inspired anyone, but I do get asked what medium I work in, how long I’ve been painting and what inspired me. I do tell people not to give up on their dreams.

P.S. As you can see, Malcolm is a humble man, so we will end with our own shameless plug on the artist’s behalf. As the holidays approach, and you start looking for the perfect gift for a ghoul on your list, visit his Facebook page to browse a spooktacular selection of creepy Christmas cards, prints and other ghastly goods that’ll revive any undead heart. You won’t be sorry!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Feeling the Rage of the Stage

By Bratzilla

After fumbling through the dark to reach the elusive South Park Theatre, our only regret in making the trek to see “The Hamiltons,” was that we hadn’t gone sooner. Part theatrical performance and part haunted house, this raw The Rage of the Stage Players production, filled with blood curdling screams and gritty violence, was way more terrifying than any horror film, and we loved it.

Based on the Butcher Brothers’ film of the same name, “The Hamiltons” intimately followed the exploits of a band of misfit orphan vampires just “trying to be an ordinary family.” As you can imagine, they fail miserably, and the members of this dysfunctional household end up creating all kinds of chaos in their community, engaging in blood baths, acts of torture and plenty of dirty, steamy sex (yes, ghouls, there was even nudity).

Reinforcing this juicy storyline, both the quality of the actors, and the behind-the-scenes direction by James Michael Shoberg that sparked the synergy between them, was excellent. From Jon Wolf who played the family’s black sheep, Francis Hamilton, and his geeky, yet bloodthirsty older brother David, the role of Harry Roth, to the incredibly twisted and sexy Goth vamp Darlene, portrayed by Samantha Kelley,and her excruciatingly volatile twin brother Wendell, expertly played by Vincent Anthony Bombara, each of the leads were fully engaged and believable – so much so that if we ever see them on the street, we’ll be sure to proceed with caution.

Of equal caliber as the principal players were the supporting actors and actresses, including Carrie Shoberg, who opened the play as a brutalized victim with a very healthy set of lungs; Deborah College, who played Darlene’s ill-fated “project” Kitty; Joseph Roots, who provided much-needed comic relief in his role as the family’s social worker; and, last but not least, the soulful Adrienne Fischer who, as Samantha Teal, dutifully served as a blood donor most of the night.

Also impressive was the set design and the way that The Rage of the Stage Players were able to a lot with what we assume was a limited budget. The Hamiltons’ house, while meticulously maintained by David, was just a little bit off with its creepily ordinary lacey curtains and silk flowers that young people living alone would probably never choose for their décor. In the far corners were a bedroom used by the younger siblings — the setting of several unsavory scenes in the case of Darlene and Wendell — and a torture chamber complete with a butcher table and the boarded up lair of the most mysterious family member, Lenny. The frequent scene changes, with additional props carried on and off stage in the dark, also kept the show varied and exciting. And finally, not be outdone, the special effects were pretty impressive, too – with no shortage of gushing blood, oozing wounds and other assorted gore.

Regrettably, we were only able to attend one of the last performances of this captivating show and weren’t able to promote the hell out of it during the full run. But the light at the end of the tunnel is that, while the Hamiltons have moved on, The Rage of the Stage Players aren’t going anywhere, and will hopefully be back with a new distraction for us soon. And, with their mission to “present original works of an alternative nature (black comedy, fantasy, horror, etc.) to a more mature audience, or to put forth established works, in an innovative way,” we can surely expect whatever it is to be dark, disturbing, or, at the very least, extremely weird.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Listening to the Groans of Ghouls on Midnight Radio

By Bratzilla
Since the clock struck midnight on Oct. 31, I have to admit that Brizblack and I have been experiencing quite a bit of Halloween withdrawal. Happily, we unearthed a cure last night when hordes of infected ghouls clawed their way through the earth in Downtown Pittsburgh and headed to Bricolage for the Zombie Apocalypse.

Convening at this gruesome oasis in a time when most other fiends around town have long packed away their holiday decorations, we were more than a little darkly delighted when we stepped into the Bricolage lobby to find cobwebs and twisted trees, a bright orange accent wall with the name of the theatre dripping with a black, tarry goo, freshly-dug (or, perhaps, freshly disturbed) graves, chocolate brains and rats, complementary spider and skull rings, and a zombification station. The reason for all of this? Simple. It set the scene for a radio parody of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Okay, I know, we’ve all seen the movie a million times. But trust me when I say that you’ve never seen it like this, and probably won’t again unless you get your rotting corpse over to Bricolage. With parts of the film projected on a screen behind them, the incredibly talented performers who make up this season’s Midnight Radio crew perfectly collide to put a raunchy, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style spin on the classic that even rabid fans would appreciate by creating quirky sounds effects and giving voice to all of the things you always wished Barbara, Johnny, Ben and the rest would say, but don’t.

But what really made us a cry in a good way were the commercial interludes that touted such apocalypse essentials as Mr. Clean (can it clean a bloody corpse, well of course!), Al Pacino’s “Scent of a Dead Woman” perfume, Cremation, and The Afterlife; fake breaking news from Monroeville Mall; creeptastic musical performances by Cello Fury; and a hilarious Pittsburgh-true performance of Aunt Mag – the yinzer next door who works on an antidote for a family member who’s craving “brains a’nat.”

And, of course, the night wouldn’t have been complete without a raucous Mad Lib reading, telling the sordid tale of a newborn zombie with the most disgusting words radio play-goers could muster pre-show (think milk steak and fungus). There was even an audience participation game show called Zombie Feud for which yours hauntingly was randomly selected to participate. Needless to say, this gore-obsessed gal cleaned haunted house and put her undead competitor in his ghoulish place.

Obviously, we’ve been bitten by the excitement of this show, and if you’re feeling the virus coursing through your veins too, we highly suggest that you lurk on over to the theatre tonight, Nov. 12, or next weekend, Nov. 18 and 19. Bricolage means “making artful use of what is at hand,” and by putting together an accessible performance that can make you laugh, cry and writhe with disgust, they have done just that. I, for one, can’t wait to see what kinds of terrors Midnight Radio comes up with next. But, until then, we congratulate them on creating one apocalypse we wish never had to end.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lurking with Lon Chaney at Trinity Cathedral

By Bratzilla

While a church is an unseemly place for a horror film screening, this didn’t scare Trinity Cathedral. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that they are home to a spooky burial ground with plots dating back to 1797, but, whatever the reason, they have obviously embraced the inherent creepiness of their historic worship space, and created one of the coolest fundraisers ever: silent movies with live organ accompaniment (and kettle corn).

Held annually on the Friday before Halloween, this year’s event featured, we were assured by nationally-renowned organist Michael Britt, an original print of Phantom of the Opera with the indomitable Lon Chaney circa 1925. Needless to say, the turnout was great—with a good majority of the endearingly uncomfortable mahogany pews being filled with a motley congregation that even included a witch and—despite the 14-foot steel, glass and aluminum cross suspended above the altar—a vampire eating fun size candy bars and sipping on cider.

After a brief introduction by a member of the church, sadly alerting us to the fact that the late night burial ground tour was cancelled due to an unexpected case of docent pneumonia (at least it wasn’t the Red Death), Britt came out to set up the film, cautioning us that the original phantom composer was a mad and purely evil soul—unlike more modern adaptations that make the character more sympathetic. Then, after making a joke about the villain’s role in giving organists like him a bad rep, he sat down and began to play music both melancholy and dark.

A short time later, a cloaked and virtually nose-less Lon Chaney appeared on the altar, as the movie screen cast a glow in soft shades of black and white around his gruesome face. All the while, the organ played on, racing along with the action, no matter how terrible or benign, without a moment's pause. Monstrous shadows appearing on the walls as attendees got up to move around, perhaps giving their posteriors a much-needed rest from the tortuous wooden seats, added an extra dose of eeriness to the 1872 structure with its old and austere marble, stone and stained glass.

When the performance ended, we weren’t quite ready for the evening to end, so we extended our cathedral stay by lurking around the burial ground, which, by this time, was bathed in moonlight. Nestled in a courtyard beneath the church’s looming 200-foot spire, the graveyard and its odd assortment of memorials spanning the centuries immediately met all of our macabre expectations. And, while the darkness prevented us from reading the markers, and the chill kept us from lingering, the ground—originally used by Native Americans, the French at Fort Duquesne and the English at Fort Pitt—clearly revealed itself to be a remarkable site you just don’t go whistling past every day.

Luckily, neither we, nor you, need wait until next Halloween to do so, because the burial ground is open for tours any time of year on Sundays after the 10:30 a.m. service, or by appointment (email office@trinitycathedralpgh.org or call 412-232-6404). And, afterwards, because this gothic dream just keeps getting better, you can even time it so you can descend into the basement for a bite at Franktuary—which has one of the greatest selections of gourmet franks in da ‘Burgh. Mmmm … old graves and hot dogs: Now that’s a hauntingly good combination.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Battling Hordes of Pittsburgh Zombies at The ScareHouse

By Brizblack

Well, once again we saved what most people consider to be one of America’s scariest haunted houses for last. After another spine-tingling season that resulted in Bratzilla and me visiting too many local haunts to review, we wrapped things up at The ScareHouse, which had left us blood thirsty for more after an appropriately unpleasant visit last year.

While two of the three attractions (“The Forsaken” and “Delirium”) in The ScareHouse contained most of the same elements from 2010, a new ‘Burgh-focused “Pittsburgh Zombies” haunt was a welcome overhaul of the old steampunk-themed space, which was cool, but a little lighter on scares. Seeing our fellow yinzers as flesh-eating ghouls (one of them might have been our neighbor) and some of our most iconic sights—such as the Steelers proud Strip District—was an experience not to be missed by any fiend who loves the Steel City. Luckily, since they seem to cycle through attractions every two years, it stands to reason that this will be around in 2012 too.

Here is what keeps us going back to this impressive showpiece of Pittsburgh spookitude:

Scareativity – One of The ScareHouse’s greatest strengths is its “out-of-the-box” thinking on what makes something scary. From scene design to props and costumes, the scares that lurk inside the haunt don’t always come from the most obvious places, or when you expect them. In fact, just about everything becomes suspect in this place, where even a chair can make you feel uneasy!

Creative Reuse – The ScareHouse’s knack for using “found” items is not only a testament to their scareativity, but also to their ability to create a high-quality, high-detail haunt without having to buy everything new. Even monsters like to recycle, so I hope this trend catches on.

Makeup – Most, if not all, of the actors are painted up with ghastly results. Interacting with characters whose purposely not-so-good looks are achieved with makeup instead of masks is far more frightening because it enhances, rather than hides, the fearsome creatures in front of you.

Lighting – The use of lighting (and darkness) to intensify scare zones is also very skillful at The ScareHouse. There is good overall balance between scenes that are lit well enough to highlight detail alongside scenes of total darkness, which puts patrons on edge. Both lighting design methods were punctuated by the actors, who took advantage of times when their unfortunate visitors were distracted by a cool prop or clumsily feeling their way through the blackness.

At the end of a long, dark day, from the level of detail to the quality of the overall production, it is clear that The ScareHouse owners and employees take a lot of pride in their work, and, for that reason, I think we can continue to expect great and evil things as designers continue to improve and retool it, giving us new nightmares to face each year. Now, if only we could shorten those devilishly long lines …

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Going Old School Goth at Castle Blood

by Brizblack

Anyone who knows Bratzilla and me relatively well also know that we make no bones about the fact that Castle Blood is our favorite local haunt. We revere it not because it is the one we consider to be the scariest, the most intense or the most perfect, but because it embodies the heart, history and soul of classic horror. And, in the same way we love our ancient, gaseous hound of hell (okay, he’s a beagle), we have unconditionally loved the place since we first visited it way back in late October of 1998.

For us, a big part of what makes Castle Blood so special is its ability to capture the very essence of Halloween – you know, that feeling you get when you see an iconic glowing jack-o-lantern or a black cat. Gravely MacCabre and his denizens seem to accomplish this by skillfully combining gothic scenes, compelling storylines and a high level of interactivity to create a deeply personal, theatrical and darkly humorous “choose your own adventure” haunt experience. And, by some black magic, these elements also work seamlessly together to invoke a sense of nostalgia so strong it makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back to the most magical moment of your youth.

So, at the risk of spreading my guts too thin, I’ll go ahead and gush a little more about the specifics that not only make Castle Blood our Best Fiend Forever, but also a place worthy of anticipation every year:

History – Castle Blood does classic horror like no other haunt in the area. Spending time in here is like hanging out on the set of a Hammer film, which is pretty much every monster enthusiast’s dream. Picture, if you will, torches, caskets, dust, skulls, pumpkins, tombstones, wrought iron, makeup, storylines that actually require you to pay attention, and set designs with a vintage feel, and you will have visualized a good bloody chunk of what makes Castle Blood one of a kind.

Acting – From the actors who take the tickets and manage the queue line to the tour guides and castle inhabitants, the entire cast carries out their roles creatively, passionately and expertly. You get the sense that each one knows his or her character intimately and, as a result, brings personality and a whole history to their roles that make them memorable. Bratzilla and I wished we could have spent an entire evening with Uncle Vlad, who is reminiscent of Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

Attention to detail – Everything in Castle Blood has a painstakingly handmade feel, and this goes a very long way in maintaining your sense of make believe. The aforementioned scene design, props, costumes, and makeup all keep within the gothic horror motif, reinforcing the world in which your journey takes place. When you look around, you only see ghoulish things that fit within the Castle Blood world, ensuring the kind of immersive experience that we all hope to have when we enter a haunt.

If ever there was a haunted house that existed first and foremost for the love of the craft, it is Castle Blood. And, like Chilly Billy Cardille, decaying steel mills, gloomy weather, and zombies, it is definitely an important part of our spooky western Pennsylvania heritage. So in addition to visiting other haunts that are touted as being scarier or more extreme, try taking take a trip to Beallsville for a change of pace. We swear on our unearthed graves you’ll be treated to an experience that you won’t soon forget!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Scent of Rotting Flesh at Phipps Conservatory

by Bratzilla

“What the hell is so scary about a place that puts on flower shows,” you ask? Well, you’d be fiendishly surprised. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens—a magnificent and looming Victorian glasshouse situated in historic Schenley Park—not only has a ghastly glow after dark and a living mass of tangled tree limbs that fight each other to reach the light, but somewhere beneath the palms and between the ferns, at least one ghost has to exist in its elysian gardens, too.

Founded by Henry Phipps—a quiet, quirky old benefactor who gifted the structure to the city in 1893—the Conservatory may appear to have a pretty benign past at first glance, but look a little deeper and a few dark historical points creep to the surface. One of these falls into the “scary by association” category: Shipped via box car to Pittsburgh, the first stocked plants came all the way from the Chicago World’s Fair—an exhibition infamously plagued by the serial murders of one H.H. Holmes. The other is the suicide of George W. Burke, the superintendent of the Bureau of Parks who died in the original entrance in 1926 after suffering a nervous breakdown. While there have been no official reports of a haunting, it doesn’t mean that he, or anyone else for that matter, doesn’t still roam the grounds.

Beyond these spooky tidbits, Phipps—which interestingly enough used to be the venue for Fright Nights from 1986 to 1990—also happens to be in possession of the rare Corpse Flower (or Amorphophallus titanium, if you prefer), a native of the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra that smells like rotting flesh when it blooms. It hasn’t flowered yet, but when it does you better believe we’re going to be there. In the meantime, while they don’t hold a candle to Morticia Addams’ ravenous African strangler, you might also wish to visit the patch of carnivorous plants in the Discovery Garden, or the gothic After Dark ‘Black Pearl’ Orchid that was recently acquired by the Conservatory and put on display.

But seriously—whether there are apparitions and stinky, murderous flowers or not—Phipps is a remarkable place and always worth a visit no matter what kind of weird interests you have. Nature is a universal dead spirit lifter and we are lucky to have it preserved more prettily than a pickled brain here in our great city. For tour times, admission prices, upcoming events (including the Fall Flower Show on display Oct.13 – Nov. 6), please visit their website … and be sure to let us know if you see any ghosts.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Picking Up Strange Frequencies on "The Afterthought"

by Bratzilla

Even werewolves, zombies and vampires purportedly like listening to music, and we do too! So for this reason, and many others, we were scared silly to discover that “The Afterthought” mastermind David McWade would be laying down more spooky tracks as part of his annual Goth Halloween show this Sunday and next from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on 92.1 WPTS FM. And, this isn’t your typical monster mash either because, with David, you can always expect a few obscurities to be released from the vault no matter what time of year you listen to his show.

Without giving too much away, we have it on good authority from McWade himself that you might just hear from the likes of such creeptastic crooners and beastly bands as Nick Cave (pictured left), Bauhaus, Lowlife, Clan of Xymox, Cocteau Twins, Jill Tracy, Legendary Pink Dots/Edward Ka-spel, and Dead Can Dance, among many others, this year. So, don’t miss out on the chance to fill your next two Sunday afternoons with the beautiful sounds of doom and gloom no matter where you live. Whether you listen on the radio, or online by visiting the WPTS website and selecting the “Listen” tab, your rotting little ears are certainly in for a terrible treat!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spiraling into Madness at Hundred Acres Manor

By Brizblack

Traveling down a dark and remote road leading deep into the bowels of South Park, Bratzilla and I reluctantly attended Hundred Acres Manor for the first time this Halloween season. I say “reluctantly because of our fear of being disappointed: I consider myself to be very pessimistic about things that are highly praised these days. Happily, we were horrified and impressed by what we found deep within this urban forest.

Upon our arrival, we were immediately enthralled by the monstrous castle façade complete with very realistic-looking and creepy stained glass windows. Turns out the disturbed and demented creatures inside would be equally captivating as our trip through the Manor resulted in me both having temporary hearing loss (due to nearly 40 minutes of Bratzilla’s screaming) and feelings of great relief that the haunt—which has been named as one of the top in the country—was worthy of the hype.

Unfortunately, haunts by nature and design can often be mere gimmicks to make a fast buck by moving people through as quickly as possible without regard to their enjoyment and experience, or respect for the act of haunting, which is so sacred to many of us freaks and creeps. Hundred Acres Manor, however, is a haunter’s temple, filled with décor, props and actors that astound and terrify those who dare pay for the pleasure of exploring such a fiendish design. Here’s what sets it apart from the myriad black plastic nightmares that call themselves “haunted attractions”:

Variety – From the entrance funeral scene to the ghastly Tool and Die Shop, and the many points in between, Hundred Acres Manor allows its patrons to explore such a great variety of locales that your sense of wonder is always piqued. Variety also comes in the form of lighting, scare angles, ratios of human actors versus props, and the physical environments, which sometimes require you to duck, scramble down walkways, or squeeze through tight passages.

Attention to Detail – It is obvious that every inch, whether it be Hundred Acres Manor’s gothic castle exterior or the main entrance of the decaying South Valley Hospital, is painstakingly hand crafted. I cannot recall one aspect of the haunt that did not powerfully contribute to the haunted experience.

Acting – All of the actors, from those with speaking parts to those whose jobs were to scare and flee, performed their roles with an exactness that exemplifies the importance of both actor training and having the right people. Although Hundred Acres Manor is a high traffic and long running haunt, each actor’s energy level was very high, even late at night.

Queue Line Management – Queue line management was very good, although there were a few spots where we had a group behind us on our heels. Most of the time, however, we felt as if we were left to explore the Manor and ward off its horrid denizens on our own. This is a great achievement considering the amount of patrons passing through its abysmal halls.

Value – Admission to Hundred Acres Manor is $16. We spent almost 40 highly interactive and engrossing minutes in the haunt, and we were moving at a fairly brisk pace. Although the maze portion can get pretty tedious after a while, there are rarely any moments where you feel like a scene is merely being used as filler. Most of your time in the haunt is either spent taking in the props, décor and costumes, or being scared.

Heart – Hundred Acres Manor is 100% volunteer run and its profits (after expenses) go to two great, LOCAL nonprofits: Homeless Children’s Education Fund and Animal Friends. I don’t think I need to say anymore about that!

So if you are like me and have a death grip on your wallet and worry about how to best spend your time during this deadly time of year, do yourself a favor and visit Hundred Acres Manor. The evil masterminds behind the attraction really understand what goes into making a good haunt and are meticulous about the kind of experience that patrons have when they dare to visit. You won’t be disappointed!

P.S. We are now on Twitter. Follow @PGHExhumed for updates and terrorific news all year long!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Going Underground with the Cannibals at Terror Town

By Brizblack

Pittsburgh’s newest haunted house, Terror Town, twists and turns around the gigantic basement below Club Zoo, which we older yinzers remember as being the home of Metropol and Rosebud. Prior to visiting, Bratzilla and I read a great article on the space supposedly being haunted and so, with bellies full of veggie Kung Pao and bladders bursting with endless pots of oolong tea, we decided to check it out on opening weekend.

Although I have been around the block as far as haunting is concerned, I must say that I walked toward the Terror Town façade with some of those old, familiar moths in my stomach. The alleged “real” haunting, the industrial locale, the lack of any reviews (because it was only the second night that it had EVER been open), and the fact that we did not see one human being lurking outside led my imagination a little astray. And, of course, Bratzilla’s well-vocalized and -displayed nervousness did not help in deterring visions of me releasing my oolong tea somewhere near the second scene.

But although it took a little bit to find the main entrance to Terror Town, and despite the fact that there weren’t any other patrons to speak of, we finally forced our way inside, quickly paying and walking through the foggy pallet maze to the haunt’s front door. While psyched that we didn’t have to wait in line, we were also more than a little freaked out by the screams and bangs coming from the walls, and the fact that we were alone and about to enter an immense haunt without knowing what was inside.

It was with this apprehension that we were thrown into the first scene, where we learned from a gruesome funeral director that the underground community inhabitants we would soon meet had run out of food and thought of a great way to restock: invite patrons like Bratzilla and me down for dinner. The majority of time that we then spent in the haunt involved us having to avoid being eaten, or turning a deaf ear to captured patrons who begged us to liberate them from a certain culinary fate.

Without giving away the gory details of our journey, I will say that if you choose to spend your hard-earned cash on a visit to this macabre haunt, you will endure a very unique experience, simply because Terror Town has a lot going for it. Although Bratzilla and I were treated to a highly-immersive trip as two of very few “living” entities there the night we went, I believe that even on the busiest late October nights you will find a tour through the rotting bowels of this foul place to be ghoulishly special.

Here are some of the aspects to Terror Town that make it a one-of-a-kind haunt:

Atmosphere – The fact that the haunt takes place in a musty, dusty, foggy, and “haunted” warehouse built in the early 1900s gives it a huge advantage over almost every other haunt I have ever been to. The entrance, which is in a dark alley in the Strip District, is a great set-up for evoking the “I may leave this place with some sort of infection” feel that exists in the subterranean world of Terror Town.

Story Line – I found the storyline about a fully imagined community whose citizens have run out of food and must lure people like me and you into their world so they can eat us to be pretty cool and effective in its ability to tie together the great variety of scenarios that play out. It also worked well to support the interactivity of Terror Town, where you‘re constantly reminded of your role as “dinner.”

Actors – Most of the actors played their parts with intensity and creativity. From those with leading roles to those whose only purpose was to jump out at you, each seemed to bring their own “takes” on their characters. One we found very interesting was a creepy, shy creature who lived in a room full of dismantled mannequins and kept asking us to tell him about what life was like “up there.”

Variety – There is a great variety of scenes, frights and actors inside Terror Town, but all stay within the ghastly cannibalism theme instead of incorporating a mish-mash of unrelated ideas. This is quite a feat for a new haunt and it definitely allowed us to more fully immerse ourselves in the story.

Overall, Terror Town is a very good haunt. It does not have the precision of some of the more venerable local haunts that we’ll soon review but, in some ways, that is what made our experience visiting this first-year fright spot so memorable. I look forward to many more years experiencing Terror Town’s evolution, as I believe that it will continue to take a creative approach to haunting that will allow it to set itself apart in a city that is quickly becoming a Mecca of all things spooky.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tales from the Crypt at the Allegheny Observatory

by Bratzilla

While we didn’t intentionally set out for a night of terror at the Allegheny Observatory, we were driven there by the allure of the North Side (which incidentally has a pretty heinous history that we’ll save for another overcast day) and the fact that any building constructed in the early 1900s has to be inherently creepy. And, honestly, we liked the idea of a free tour, and have an unhealthy obsession with aliens and outer space.

But, boy, were we thrilled when we overheard a guy from the National Weather Service telling some other guys from who knows where that there were dead people in the basement. We immediately turned to each other with a “holy shit” look, and it was all we could do to stand still while we waited to hear about whether or not said dearly departed would be on the tour.

Completed in 1912, purposely built further up the hill from the original 1859 location (later sold to the Protestant Orphan Asylum) on account of air pollution, the Observatory is a work of art. With a grand exterior that pays homage to famous brains from Copernicus to Newton, the view alone is worth the trip. Inside, the old portraits of long-gone astronomers, stained glass window with hidden Masonic symbols, and wooden domes with peeling paint are also ghost approved as far as we are concerned.

After watching our tour guides handle some really big telescopes, open domes and move floors, we got to look at a nebula, a star that died 20,000 years ago, from 1,400 light years away. It pretty much looked like a faint smoke ring, but it was deceased, so we liked it a lot. But the highlight, of course, was the crypt. The final resting place for the ashes of former directors James Edward Keeler and John Brashear is reachable by descending a narrow, spiraling staircase reminiscent of a Hitchcock movie. The crypt itself is a rounded room with tiled walls – an odd little place that feels more like a tiny locker room bathroom than a tomb – but it was macabre nonetheless. We couldn’t imagine loving any job so much that we’d actually want to be buried at work, but to each his or her own. Astronomers are a strange lot and we’re not even going to try to figure them out.

As to be expected, the Allegheny Observatory guides were true space nerds, and this added an extra layer of awesome to the experience. We loved their dry senses of humor and highly recommend adding this tour to your list of things to do before you walk among the undead. Tours are free with advance reservations on Thursday (May – August) and Friday (April – October) nights. The Observatory also offers refreshments and public presentations on topics like “Galaxy Destruction in the Violent Universe.” We are told these are wildly popular so you need to make arrangements far in advance to attend. That said, there must be way more geeks in Pittsburgh than we thought.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Raising Hell at The Oaks Theater

by Bratzilla

As horror fans, most of us are well trained to embrace, and find no shortage of thrills in, “the unknown.” After making plans to see Clive Barker’s Hellraiser – one of Brizblack’s favorite movies of all time – at The Oaks Theater in Oakmont, we were appeased enough just to experience it on the big screen. But when the unexpected happened, and our most beloved cenobite turned up in the flesh, our souls were nearly torn apart with excitement.

With a well-earned place in horror history as the iconic Pinhead, Doug Bradley lurks somewhere in the brains of most people – even if they have no idea what his real name is. Tall, pale and bald like his character, when the man who’s caused countless people to literally or figuratively crap their pants since the 80s strolled up to the front of the theater, the entire crowd was captivated. And, as he began to speak, graciously spending an hour answering questions, there was no mistaking the dark shades of Pinhead discernable in “real life” Bradley, who was similarly smart and in control.

So why the hell did our dear sadist friend materialize in the theater? Well, naturally our initial assumption was that one of The Oaks proprietors somehow got a hold of “the box,” but the less fantastic answer is that he is moving to Pittsburgh. Yes, you heard right, Pinhead is going to be a yinzer! And, if that wasn't news enough, Bradley also announced that he’d be appearing in a local film called Scream Park gratis and might consider getting involved in other projects, too.

At the end of the day, more awesome than this experience is the place that made it possible. As Bradley said himself, we are so fortunate to have a cinema like The Oaks. A 430-seat single screener since 1938, the theater, with its Twin Peaks-esque red curtains, is spacious and stunning. And, more importantly, they regularly show great films. Most notably, we saw Hobo with a Shotgun here (if you haven’t seen this yet you are in for a blood-drenched treat) and a National Theatre Live production of Danny Boyle’s stage rendition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that was incredible as well.

Looking ahead at dread to come, upcoming Moonlit Matinees include Let the Right One In, Silence of the Lambs, Amityville Horror, the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and Halloween 4, and we also recommend that you keep your eyes and ears open for other impromptu events that may creep up. So, now that you are in the know about The Oaks, you need only ask yourself one question: What is your pleasure?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gathering with Ghouls and Madmen at Horror Realm

By Bratzilla

What do zombies, chainsaw wielding maniacs and giant rubber monsters have in common? Well, okay, maybe quite a lot. But rarely do you conveniently find them all in one place like you do at conventions like Horror Realm. Fellow creeps, all we can say is that last weekend’s convention was epic. In a rancid nut shell, here’s what you missed.

Right off the bat, within 15 minutes of check-in to be exact, our beagle Jasper turned into a zombie. Yes, you read that right. No, we didn’t actually bring him to the convention but rather a photo from which Jonny Axx, an extremely talented artist, good spiritedly drew our dog’s portrait despite the fact that he personally doesn’t believe animals can contract the virus that creates zombies. (And he should know, too, because along with David Fairhead, he is a co-creator of the World Zombie Wrestling Association.)

As far as we were concerned, the night could have ended right there but we decided to stick around for a while and check out the local talent at the Horror Cabaret hosted by Dawn of the Dead star Mr. Ken Foree. The blood curdling line-up included selections from Evenings in Quarantine: The Zombie Opera (a fantastic production that will rot the damn flesh right off your bones) and a mentalist who skillfully manipulated select audience members' brains. But it was Pittsburgh legend Weird Paul who really got our hearts pumping again as he belted out “Human Eye,” a lovely ballad that’ll forever be in our skulls.  

The next day was all about panels. We were blown away by the devilish wit of Joe Bob Briggs, drive-in movie critic and MonsterVision host, as he told tales from his B-movie past. Later, Bill Moseley, “Chop Top” in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 follow-up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and “Otis B. Driftwood” in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, nearly cracked our ribs too as he talked about early career days when he couldn’t even find work as a corpse. For someone who's so terrifying on screen, he is probably one of the nicest actors you’ll ever meet.

Severed hands down, the ultimate experience, however, had to be the Bastards of Horror Short Film Fest. There is, perhaps, nothing we love to death quite as much as indie horror films. And when it comes to this genre, no one knows it better than Tim Gross and Charlie Fleming. From Nightmare at Bunnyman Bridge by a state trooper named Robert Elkins and a music video about a lonely beach bum who finds and then uses a corpse as a surf board to The Giant Rubber Monster Movie (watch this trailer!), these shorts were all great in their own ways and left us blood thirsty for more.

Really, we could go on for all eternity about the experiences we had – including randomly seeing special effects master Tom Savini shopping with his family in the dealer room – and all the genuine, talented people we met, but we all have our own rocks to crawl back under, so let us leave you with this: If you love horror and you live near Pittsburgh, come out and support this event next year. You have officially been warned.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Hanging at the Hollywood Theater

By Bratzilla

Okay, so maybe no one really hung themselves here. Well, at least not that we know of. We chose the recently resurrected Hollywood Theater in Dormont as our inaugural topic simply because it’s probably one of our most frequented haunts, and it’s pretty awesome.

Constructed in 1924 as billiard hall/bowling alley, the historic Hollywood Theater building didn’t officially became a single screen movie house until the ‘40s when it was purchased by Warner Bros. Later fated to die what seems like a thousand deaths with a series of owners and closures over the years, the Hollywood has more recently risen from the ashes once again to become a horror junky’s nightmare come true. So far, we’ve seen a dozen movies here – the highlights being Army of Darkness (one of the few films we’ve attended this year that actually elicited applause afterwards) and Caustic Zombies, directed by local horror maverick Johnny Daggers.

This summer, as part of a ramp up effort for the long anticipated 2011 Horror Realm Convention (the evil brain child of Hollywood board member Sandy Stuhlfire) the theater hosted 12 Weeks of Horror, showing classics like White Zombie and Carnival of Souls. At a screening of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, they even incorporated some live action, rolling out a lab table, complete with severed head, pickled eyeballs and bubbling brains. And, yes, we even preceded a twelve year old in putting our noggins on the tray like “Jan the Pan” (see left).

If you haven’t been here yet, you really need to go. While we’re not always talking 35mm prints, who are we to be film snobs? The experience of seeing a movie on a screen larger than our TVs is still great. Add some super cheap candy and popcorn (refreshments here are really affordable) that makes you feel hung over the next day and it gets even better.

Every time we go to the Hollywood, which we should also mention is also a nonprofit, there are never as many seats filled as there should be. If you have any spare change, please give this fine establishment your pennies and you’ll get a lot in return … particularly in the forms of zombies, vampires and other ghouls. After all, da ‘Burgh would be a significantly lamer place without it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Yinz Goin' Scare Me N'at?

By Bratzilla and Brizblack

Steelers, yinzers and pierogies aside, Pittsburgh is a pretty sinister place to live. Way before Batman was ever filmed here our hometown served as the perfect stand-in for Gotham City with its persistent cloudy skies and smoky building exteriors. And, while George Romero sealed the deal by shooting Night of the Living Dead here, making the city Zombie Capital of the World, the gritty, industrial environs of Pittsburgh always had a haunted kind of feel almost by default. 

But just as doom, gloom and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) drive some people away from Pittsburgh, others are drawn back into her melancholy boundaries for these very same reasons, and we’re no exception. After being gone for more than a decade, we moved back to the Steel City in the late summer of 2010 with only a nightmare and a macabre vow to unearth every local horror that we could. 

Since then, we’ve exhumed quite a lot – so much, in fact, that we’ve started to develop an almost uncanny ability to show up pretty much everywhere with a spooky bent. So, taking the advice of a friend who suggested we start a blog, here we are, sharing with anyone who dares (or cares) to look our discoveries of dark distractions and the many terrors that exist in our own backyards.