REVIEW: Delusion: Masque of Mortality 2013

IMG_4249There’s no question; Delusion: Masque of Mortality was one of Southern California’s most highly anticipated attractions of 2013. When it was showcased this summer at ScareLA, fans went nuts as owner Jon Braver described what the elaborate theatrical experience would become for its third year. Ironically, the production’s setting – an old church – would prove to be the most challenging and ultimately, unforgiving venue that Braver has dealt with since Delusion began in Los Angeles several years ago…

Jon Braver is a Hollywood stunt man, having worked in such productions as The Dark Knight RisesCriminal Minds, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Challenging projects and pushing the boundaries are second nature to him, and he meets each one head-on with tenacity and gusto that is truly admirable. He is a control freak, but in a good way – a way that I totally get and understand, because he’s a perfectionist in all that he does and strives for.

IMG_4284In 2011 and 2012, Haunted Play’s production of Delusion blew the Los Angeles haunt scene wide open, offering a new type of haunted house experience to fans that was part theatrical play and part terrifying experience. Set within an old mansion, Delusion wove an intricate web of characters, interaction and live stunt work that left even the most veteran fans speechless and awed. The mansion was a perfect setting. Delusion was a haunting unlike Los Angeles had ever experienced. Even L.A.’s “social elite” were impressed, and Halloween fan Neil Patrick Harris joined up with Braver for Delusion’s second season as Co-Producer of the event. The bar had been raised two years in a row by Jon and his crew, so when Delusion’s third incarnation as Masque of Mortality was announced and details emerged at ScareLA that it would be in an old abandoned church in the hip Silver Lake district, word spread like wildfire among fans and entertainment industry circles. 2013’s production featuring a new locale, new characters and the very cool overlay of plague doctors was destined to be an unparalleled success. In fact, based on the growing demand and popularity of Delusion from 2011 and 2012, the production was planned to run through November of this year, and quite possibly longer, depending on on-going ticket sales. A deal was made with the property owner and the city, and Braver’s team went to work.

Delusion is a live theatrical production, in which small groups of guests are taken into the darkness by a guide and led room by room through a detailed and complicated story, each scene becoming more intense visually and emotionally until the group reaches the terrifying finale together before escaping – often screaming and clapping – into the chilled night air. Theme Park Adventure was right there with Delusion since its beginning and has been a staunch supporter of Braver and his team of actors and artists, celebrating the spirit of Haunted Play each year as one of SoCal’s biggest and best must-see Halloween attractions. We were terribly excited to check out the new digs and new story this past season, and expected a lot from Delusion, based on its first two years.

IMG_4219Production-wise, Delusion: Masque of Mortality was the strongest of the Haunted Play productions, hands down. Jon knows what can and cannot be done with live groups and actors and after three years of producing Delusion, the show has certainly hit its strongest theatrical stride so far. The experience was really long – approximately 50 minutes from beginning to end the night TPA went through with a group of guests. That’s a very long time, considering most “haunted houses” take between 7 and 15 minutes tops to complete. An intense, haunting experience lasting almost an hour certainly was both completely immersive, as well as unnerving for most; the crew should be very pleased and satisfied with what they delivered story and flow-wise.

Another aspect that wows guests each season as they experience Delusion are its elaborate film-quality stunts. In seasons past, we’ve witness people slide backward down halls, leaping and crawling along walls and ceilings like spiders, and plummeting from second-story windows. Expectations for “what’s next” ran extremely high this season as we stepped into the first scene of Masque of Mortality. Unfortunately, while the production of Delusion continued its impressive and upward trajectory, the stunts throughout were actually less impressive than they’ve been in both 2011 and 2012. What we didn’t know going into this, was that given the property and agreement with its owner, Jon was very limited in what stunts he could and could not pull off. Quite honestly, there were no stand-out moments stunt-wise as there were in previous years, and that was a big disappointment to us. That said, the heart of Delusion is its story and experiential execution; we get that, and do feel that the fantastic production value this year of the overall show far outweighed the lack of any stunt-based “wow” moment.

IMG_4252Delusion’s talent is second to none when it comes to acting. All paid professionals (huge kudos to Jon for that), the 2013 Delusion team not only rocked it, they knocked it out of the park with completely natural and relaxed dialogue, tricky lines to remember and a lot of guest interaction to carry out. Impressive is an understatement, and we have nothing but respect for the men and women who worked Masque of Mortality as characters this past season. I often say that talent can make or break a haunted attraction; we’ve seen that happen both ways over the years plenty of times. Theme Park Adventure was allowed into Delusion: Masque of Mortality to take some still photos (sorry – no video this year), and the team was nothing but great to work with; true professionals through and through. Braver’s team did him proud and we definitely feel they deserve all the recognition in the world for their hard work!

The story line of Delusion has always been very convoluted; so involved, that I’ve said each season that most guests have no clue what’s really going on story-wise, as they move from room to room and come into contact with new characters and plot twists. Masque of Mortality’s story was definitely just as complicated as it’s been in years past, and my gut feeling is that most visitors grasped only bits and pieces of the tale as events played out all around them. Most people have very small, very brief attention spans when visiting something like Delusion or the Blumhouse productions, which are also very similar in nature. Most people simply don’t get heavy stories; they’re there for a spooky experience with thrills, chills and some scary moments. The end. A lot of thought, writing and hard work goes into the intricate stories Jon tells each season at Delusion; I don’t think it’s necessary to dig so deep to get your theme or story across. Haunted mansion where terrible things happened once upon a time; check. Old mansion where telekinesis experiments were carried out on patients and now they seek revenge as spirits; check. An old church with dark secrets where folks sought refuge from a plague now haunted by strange creatures and occult followers; check. It doesn’t need to be explained exhaustively for guests to get it. If Haunted Play didn’t invest so much effort into a really deep story line next year, I don’t think the production value of the show or its huge success would waver one bit; I really don’t. People are reacting to the immediate and clear “dangers” around them as they proceed through Delusion; not the horrors of the written story unraveling. Haunted attractions – any attraction doesn’t really work that way. However, the stories are very clever and if complex character development calls for deep story, then it’s Jon’s sandbox and we will continue to appreciate and love all of the hard work he and his team put into the show!

IMG_4199The location of Delusion: Masque of Mortality was the ultimate downside to this season for Braver and company. Set in a church smack-dab in the middle of a quiet neighborhood, there were a few residents nearby that were really not happy to see the production land near their doorsteps. And to be frank, a very vocal few caused major headaches for the Haunted Play team, even to the point of law enforcement getting involved. It’s not my job to go into those specifics, but it absolutely makes it painfully clear how critical it is to have the support of the surrounding community when heading into a venture such as Delusion. Even one unhappy neighbor can bring a haunt to its knees. In this case, a few residents that really didn’t want Delusion there anymore pressured the city into yanking their permits, causing Jon to have to cancel the remaining shows throughout November even though tickets had been sold, fans were excited and cast members thought they had employment through the rest of the month. A really ugly and unfortunate premature end to what should have been Delusion’s best year yet. Not good for anyone involved, except for the sour grapes neighbors who didn’t want Haunted Play there in the first place.

One thing that Delusion does, as well as other similar productions, that I really don’t like personally, is that it separates people from the group. I don’t like being separated during an experience like this. While I totally get that many people do like that and are terrified of being alone, I couldn’t help but think of what we were missing as we waited by ourselves in the darkness ahead of the rest of our group. And I think that is a big miss for someone trying to get the most out of a night out at an attraction like this with friends and loved ones, going in as a group. This is a personal gripe – Delusion did it, The Purge: Fear The Night did it, and I just don’t think it’s all that great gimmick-wise to do to paying customers that want the full experience and show. Again, many people find being pulled out of the safety of the group to be the ultimate thrill and love it; it’s just not at all my favorite way of doing things.

IMG_4122Which brings me to the most complicated aspect of Delusion. I’ve been around and around with Jon about this, and he remains steadfast in his declaration that Delusion is not a “haunt” or “haunted attraction”. Haunted Play at its core, is designed much like a theatrical experience you’d find in New York with such a production as Sleep No More (it’s cliche, but that’s the stick by which all these things are measured currently). That is the justification for the $60+ price tag that I’ve made known I struggle with when it comes to these stand-alone events each October. Jon’s argument – rightfully so – is that people elsewhere don’t blink when ticket prices are much higher for live productions, and that Los Angeles should be no different. And to be fair, he is correct, especially given the sophisticated nature of the entertainment scene here in Southern California. The question then is, if Delusion isn’t a haunted attraction, why does it coincide with the Halloween season each year, as opposed to say, opening in spring and running throughout the summer? I’ve asked Jon this, and he knows I don’t let him off the hook easily regarding these matters as long as he is adamant that his production is not a haunted attraction. Furthermore, Delusion uses social media and traditional media that trumpets it each season as a haunt, including a segment on a Halloween special this year on the Travel Channel. Jon freely admits that there are horror elements and frightening visuals throughout the production. But he refuses to give in to my reasoning that if it looks like, acts like, smells like and capitalizes on the Halloween season each year – it’s a haunted attraction! I look forward to many more drinks and spirited debates with him in the future; he’s a good guy, and we go head to head about these things with utmost respect and friendship at the core.

So there you have it – whatever Delusion: Masque of Mortality was, it was really good and completely polished while it lasted. I hate that it came to such an abrupt, undignified end, because it deserved much better, as did the fans or fellow haunters that couldn’t see it during October and were so excited to see the show this month. The production was gorgeous, the environment completely effective, and the talent was world-class. Theme Park Adventure supports Jon and Haunted Play wherever it takes them next year – and we will be rooting for them every step of the way.

If you experienced Delusion: Masque of Mortality, we’d love for you to join the discussion and share your own thoughts and comments below!

– Rick West

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