The door to Cabin Number 9 slams shut. Senior Counselor Marcie sighs with relief. Oh, It’s you! I thought you were–. She wipes the sweat from her brow, dramatically. Now, keep quiet. I don’t want him to hear us. Him – the tall, hulking, monstrous man in the tattered jacket in the woods. Marcie instructs us to find the keys to the truck – and a radio – but before we can even move, a massive kitchen knife bursts through the wooden door. AAHHH! Marcie screams, collapsing to the floor. Stab! The knife comes through again, eliciting a louder cry from Marcie. I need to hurry; I need to find the radio! I rush to the trunk at the foot of the bunk beds, and begin to throw clothes from it. Thud, thud. I look up, and two large boots have just slid from the bottom bunk. But He was at the door – how is He here? No time for logic! Hide in the closet. We listen to Marcie, and the five counselor trainees climb into the cabin closet – only to find it’s bigger on the inside, and we might not be alone.
American Horror Story 1984 is the main attraction to FX’s Fearless Forum activation at 2019’s San Diego Comic-Con, produced by Creative Riff and Just Fix It Productions (CreepLA, The Willows, Ma’s House). Justin Fix’s direction perfectly captures the mood, tone, and feel of a 1980s summer camp slasher film. Perfectly campy and ever so witty, the experience is equal parts horror and humor – and all parts atmosphere and aesthetic. Clocking in at ten minutes, the narrative places groups of five as first-day counselors who soon find themselves hunted by an omnipresent killer stalking their every move. There may be a jump scare or two and some truly tense moments, but guests will be laughing too hard to ever get fully frightened.
The clever humor is in part due to writer, Daniel Montgomery’s, impeccable wit. As a 1980s horror fan himself, his dialogue feels perfectly at home here. American Horror Story 1984 is aware of its campy nature, and that’s where the charm bleeds forth from. We have to go out into the woods… there just doesn’t seem to be any other logical choice, says Counselor Stacie (Sophie Cooper) with enough dramatic irony to fill Crystal Lake. Ew, somebody just touched my face. Cooper’s obliviousness and ignorant bliss to the danger she’s in perfectly captures the innocence of the ’80s, and embodies the beautifully dumb sexpots of those films. Tension builds and instead of a scare – we get a perfectly delivered line by Cooper, releasing that tension with a laugh, not a scream.
While Stacie seems to get dumber with each performance, Counselor Marcie (Misha Reeves Bybee) seems to get louder. Her vocal ranges are tested, as she plays the seemingly responsible, high-strung, and overly energetic Counselor trying to save everyone. Her frenetic energy sends participants on a pseudo-escape-room challenge for items that don’t even exist. And her dramatic, exaggerated reactions to a knife result in more authentic laughter – she’s the focal point, not the killer. Finally, Rick (Tim Simek) is the macho, know-it-all boss whose cocky nature results in him being the first to die. Complete with zoom-in one-liners (Nobody f#cks with Counselor Rick!) and a friendly attitude, we almost feel bad when we find his hat.
Every good ’80s movie deserves a memorable slasher – and American Horror Story 1984’s does not disappoint. He appears numerous times throughout the experience, each time taking on a different visage. In the woods, he could be a stand-in for Kane Hodder’s Jason Voorhees; and with an iconic chainsaw slash in a room full of skinned faces, the killer must be from Texas. In the cabin, he takes on his most canonical look: that of the killer from the trailer for Season 9. But no matter what he looks like, he moves exactly like an ’80s killer: slow, methodical, and always arriving just before you. It never quite makes sense where he is – but that is all on purpose.
The experience is wonderfully set-designed by DeAnne Millais. For a ten-minute experience, it feels much longer – and far more expansive. Each locale is packed with bunk beds, posters, shelves, and more. The high number of physical props is impressive – but what’s even more impressive is what’s done with them. The doors are rigged to have knives burst to and from with dramatic impact. Items fall from walls with an alerting thud, car horns blare for a quality jump scare, and of course, a live chainsaw ripping through a cabin wall like… well, a chainsaw through flesh. It’s both the shear number of props and effects, as well as the frequency of their use, that truly elevates this experience beyond a traditional immersive or haunt.
Further, each locale feels organic, natural, and real. The initial cabin is filled with ’80s camp décor ranging from oars to a Whitesnake poster to board games to a knot-tying sign-up sheet to a hidden AHS: Hotel key to a picture of Ronald Reagan. Cabin Number 9 also has a similar feel, with bunk beds, trunks, and a closet large enough to hide a body… or three. When it comes to horror, crafting a realistic wooded forest is difficult, especially in 90-degree heats outside – but American Horror Story 1984 accomplishes it perfectly. With cleverly hidden switchbacks and dead-ends, the forest feels significantly larger than it is. Shrouding the woods in darkness with only the illumination of a moon above allows lighting geniuses, ShowTec, to reveal only what they want you to see, adding to the terror. And when you finally reach the killer’s den, the body parts (complete with counselor’s socks on the severed legs) add a lovely touch of ’80s shock value.
American Horror Story 1984 proves what we already know: JFI Productions knows horror. They utilize a perfect build-up of tension and dread, but punctuate it with a laugh instead of a scream. With some of JFI’s best actors and brilliantly designed sets, it’s only a shame that this experience is so fleeting. If JFI ever purchases a summer camp of their own, I’ll be the first to buy a bunk and a hockey mask.
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