Features Published 6 November 2014

Backyard Cinema: Apocalypse

Lauren Mooney and Stewart Pringle go to one of Backyard Cinema's immersive Halloween zombie events. They get 'gummed by the undead,' but still enjoy themselves - particularly when they find the bar.
Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney: Backyard Cinema: Apocalypse made for a perfectly nice evening but, without wanting to be a bitch, it’s also…not quite anything enough? Like it doesn’t commit to being immersive, because basically it’s just a bar and a cinema and it wants you to enjoy those things, but it also WANTS to be a story and hazmat suits and yelling at you in corridors?? The story is relatively interesting but given very short shrift – and so are the actors, who improvise in what occasionally feel like slightly different directions…

Stewart Pringle: It’s Secret Cinema on a budget, isn’t it? And there’s nothing really wrong with that. Secret Cinema has now expanded into this vast, overpriced, over-ambitious hipster cluster-fuck so there’s got to be room for a slightly folksier, more radical approach. This one definitely succeeded with the folksy, it was a relentlessly charming and home-spun sort of evening, but there was nothing particularly original or risky about any of it. I would say ‘it’s the sort of zombie apocalypse you could bring your mum to’, but my mum’s been organising far creepier Halloween events than this for about 30 years.

LM: Yeah, it was a fun enough evening but didn’t have much in terms of teeth. Is it too harsh to say that? When it’s supposed to be an interactive zombie experience? Basically that’s like implying that we spent the evening being gummed by the undead – and I sort of would stand by that as an image.

The fact that I’ve been to things like this before meant I anticipated scares that weren’t coming, which was a bit disappointing. The scary bits were good, I must say, but too few and far between, not least because one of the frightening things about zombies is that mob mentality, the mass nature of the thing, there being twenty more for every one you kill – and it felt like budgetary constraints robbed them of the ability to enjoy that? Though it did make them, in places, quite inventive, and it feels really unfair to hold that against them. A cast of thousands is a bit of a thing to pull together, isn’t it?

SP: There was an initial period in which I was seriously worried that budget/time constraints were going to make the whole thing a bit embarrassing – where you initially enter the area and are given one of those standard, slightly waffly and very po-faced briefings by some security guy. But it very quickly drops any pretence at that sort of tone and becomes something far more light-hearted and playful, and it wins you round that way. In terms of the one-on-one interactions that you are faced with in the bar area (the main area, really) the funnier ones were the more successful. Shit Faced Shakespeare guru Chris Snelson had a great little chat with us, but another with a buttoned up military type in a briefing room felt both overplayed and under-rehearsed.

But for the most part, Backyard seem to have cottoned on that when the audience are forking out £30+ for a ticket (more on that later) it’s more important for them to have a fun and enjoyable evening than a huge ‘experience’, and so the bar area is nicely furnished and it’s got a pool table, and there’s a woman wandering round offering free samples of edible insects and there’s a photo booth area and what have you. It’s everything you need to get a bit squiffy at Halloween before and after you watch the movie.

LM – Yeah. In fact, when we were having a beer and a chat in the bar you said something about how there’s very little interactive theatre can do that you would enjoy as much as being in the pub – I should add, before you get lynched by stray interactive theatre fanatics, that you were probably like 80% joking?? – but it seems like that’s very much the school of thought they’re working with here, too. Backyard wears its interactive elements very lightly and if you want to seek out the actors there’s definitely scope for you to do that, but mainly you’re also free to eat, drink and watch a zombie film. Which is nice, isn’t it? And it’s a fun, atmospheric little cinema to do that in, especially if you pick a film you’ve always wanted to see on the big screen.

I should also add that if you’re in it for the scares, go to the bathroom during the film. That sounds like a joke about what goes on in the toilets of trendy Hackney bars, but seriously: the actors hovering about at the back of the cinema will RUSH you about to stop you spotting anything you shouldn’t and leaving that safety-in-numbers environment behind immediately puts you on edge. A man basically put my head down and ran me across a room like I was in a film, I got absolutely hysterical. But then maybe just having a drink and running about is enough for me? I lead a simple life.

SP – And it’s the bit between the bar area and the cinema that’s where all of the horror work has gone into. There’s a large room that’s been quite brilliantly kitted out with various scare-scenes. There are zombies in tanks and body parts in boxes and sticking out of furnaces, and a man delivering a lecture on zombie survival. It’s basically like a mini haunt that you go through once slowly as a ‘living museum’ and once at speed as a proper scare maze, and it’s pretty fun both times. The problem is that at least half of it makes bugger all sense in the ‘corporate conspiracy’ plotline that they try to weave around the action. There’s quite a cool film just before the main event (which wasZombieland on this occasion, but you can choose your film at booking if you have an allergy to Jessie Eisenberg) that heroically attempts to place the cinema experience within the context of the storyline, and that’s all very nicely done. There are a few moments where it really feels like the boat has been pushed out.

LM – It is a bit expensive, though, innit? For what it is. I mean, £30+…

SP – That is a lot of money for one of four or five films that are all currently available on Netflix. And at ~£5 a pint and £7.50 a burritto, a full night out there is going to be pushing the £50 mark, which is nearly as expensive as a Punchdrunk show. It feels like an endemic problem with the economics of these events, to be honest. Because I don’t really feel like anyone’s on the make (or most people aren’t, anyway), it’s just that they are genuinely really expensive to set up, and so little of the cost makes a direct impact on the audience’s experience. It probably cost several thousand pounds to make that bar look passably zombie-apocalypse-ish, and even more to knock up that horror room, and that’s just to reach an ‘okay’ standard. Blowing people’s minds either requires millions (stand up Punchdrunk) or an approach to immersion and story-telling that’s more reliant on personal interactions than fibre-glass corpses.

LM: Yeah. Having said all that, Backyard is charming and knockabout in a way that Punchdrunk absolutely isn’t and it’s hard to feel like their heart is in anything but the right place, which is to say, still-beating in the tightly clutched fist of a zombie. It’s a fun, if throwaway, semi-interactive night in the company of the undead.

Backyard Cinema: Apocalypse runs until 16th November at a secret Hackney location. Films include 28 Days Later, Warm Bodies and the Evil Dead remake.

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Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.

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