Features Published 17 June 2015

The Haunted Picture House

"A weird-nerd’s wet dream of magical miscellany and film ephemera." Duncan Gates pays a visit to the Haunted Picture House.
Duncan Gates

I’ve always maintained that someone who’s sufficiently accessible and engaging can enthuse you about literally anything, and Simon Drake’s Haunted Picture House (an offshoot of his more regular House of Magic) certainly bends over backwards to tick those boxes.

Sharing the HoM’s secret and entirely unprepossessing exterior, Drake has made a serious effort to create his own version of something that didn’t previously exist – a Secret Cinema-meets 50s American ‘spookhouse’ for the horror and esoterica connoisseur.

Discounting the garden – which we shouldn’t really, since the segue from over-exposed in the late afternoon summer sun to smoke-laden secret escape is a striking one – there’s three ‘circles’ to Drake’s personally-curated hell:

The main auditorium is cabaret-style, retained from the HoM but beefed up with creepy automata (ask a kindly old person to lend you some 20p and 50p pieces), a bar, a food stand (an endearing rather than well-conceived touch – hot-dogs and enclosed dark spaces don’t mix well) and a plethora of phantasmagoric fancies to delight you whilst you wait for the film to begin.

It’s difficult to tell whether the desired effect is kitsch or creepy, and in some respects it’s a bit beside the point, but personally I preferred the subtler and more sparing horrors projected onto walls or into picture frames to the sideshow-style ‘Whispering Chair’ and ‘hosts’ awkwardly roaming the floor in costume. Full marks though to the staff member heroically sporting a huge dog mask all evening, and indeed the guest in the one-piece ‘morph suit’ who made a grand, masked entrance into the darkened foyer and immediately walked into the hot-dog table.

The cellar, accessible only by a guided tour on (roughly) the half hour, is where camp has gone to die and come back even camper than you thought possible, and it’s very hard not to enjoy. It looks great, and as an exercise in technique, misdirection and getting cheap shocks out of the way, it’s a genuinely necessary part of the evening, a big cut about your average ‘London Scary Thing’.

The final room is an upstairs study which you rather suspect is just as Simon Drake left it earlier that evening. It’s a weird-nerd’s wet dream of magical miscellany and film ephemera, and it’s where the excitement behind the whole project really shines through. Drake and his very able team know their stuff and they’re itching to thrill you, they almost just need to cut themselves a break.

The evening itself is an encouraging example of what’s to come over the next few months: a gloriously messed-up 50s snack promo followed Hammer’s 1958 Dracula, a strong choice that’s high-pedigree and stays on the right side of earnestness. Inaugural guest-star Reece Shearsmith is pleasingly game, wandering the floor in costume before his opening speech and staying for the film afterwards. It’s a suitably classy endorsement for an evening with a bright dark future.

For further screening details and more information visit the Haunted Picture House website.

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Duncan Gates

Duncan trained on the Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and under Stephen Jeffreys at RADA. He's been longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize (2013), the Verity Bargate Award (2013), Channel 4/Touchpaper TV's Coming Up scheme (2014) and the Old Vic New Voices TS Eliot Commissions (2014). He's had plays on all over the shop. In an ideal world he'd be an anthropomorphic bird who solves supernatural crimes.

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