When you ask Swedish theatre director Jakop Ahlbom why he decided to make the theatrical version of a horror film, his answer is fairly straightforward.
“I haven’t seen horror as theatre and thought it could be exciting,” he says. “Maybe there’s a good reason why; because it’s not possible to do it? So I thought I should try and see if it really was possible. I thought it would be a challenge.”
It seems Ahlbom has met that challenge with plenty of skill. Horror, his 2014 theatrical work combining circus, magic, mime, dance and theatre to entertain and scare the bejesus out of you, has now toured extensively to rave reviews, and it has pleased and petrified its audience in equal measure. It's now touring Australia, with shows at the Sydney Opera House and Arts Centre Melbourne this August and September.
Horror draws on classic horror films, stitching together key scares with Ahlbom’s own sequences to tell the story of a woman returning home to the deserted home where she grew up. Something terrifying happened to her sister in the house, many years ago, and it soon becomes clear that the woman isn’t alone.
In a four-star review, Time Out London said: “it’s testament to Ahlbom’s narrative and stagecraft skills that this doesn’t end up feeling like a stitched-together 'best of' show. Mainly, in fact, you wonder how the increasingly grisly effects are being achieved so convincingly on a live stage.”
But Ahlbom says he wants to be as entertaining as he is scary (which is why there are plenty of comedic moments) and whether you find it terrifying or just a little bit unsettling will probably depend on your nerves.
“Some people have found it very scary, but also a lot of people don’t find it scary at all,” he says. “When it gets high tension, people have to ease up, and the easiest reaction is to laugh.”
Ahlbom’s biggest challenge was to find a way to make horror tropes work on stage, and it became clear when he was creating the work that some things (for example, loud screams), don’t really create a scary atmosphere inside a theatre.
“There are two main ways of making things scary: I can shock the audience by doing something by surprise – a hard sound or sudden movement. They call them ‘jump scares’ for the movie. And they’re easiest to do, I just need a big sound at an unexpected moment. But the other one is to build up suspense – they know something’s coming and you build it up and build it up."
To facilitate those moments, Ahlbom has a set that’s able to obscure parts of the action from the audience and the actors and carefully choose what he reveals and when.
“What is it that builds up tension? It’s usually when the audience knows something that the character in the story doesn’t know, and sometimes it’s the other way around.”
6 films that inspired Horror
Evil Dead 2
“At first I thought it would be maybe nice to choose one movie and recreate that for the stage,” Ahlbom says. “What I do has a lot of humour, and this is a horror movie that’s very close to comedy and has a lot of slapstick. I like it very much. It has scary things, visual effects, it’s also funny and really clever and creatively done.”
Braindead (aka Dead Alive)
Ahlbom also points to Peter Jackson’s cult 1992 slapstick horror film Braindead as another inspiration for Horror’s tone.
“When I started working on the show, I realised I should have another base,” he says. “I wanted to also show something dramatic, poetic and touching. I thought of a ghost story and then took references from the Japanese version of The Ring. In the performance, we have direct links to it.”
“I also watched a new movie at the time, which was quite new then, called Oculus. It’s an American film that’s also about a family thing – they mix up past and present with two children, and it’s about a demon living in the mirror taking control over the father. That inspired the family story I wanted to do and also showed me that it would be worth going back and forth. It’s a strong reference for the storytelling.”
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, so it’s no surprise there are some clear references to it in Horror.
And what would a horror tribute be without some Exorcist-style projectile vomiting?