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Sunday, April 12, 2015

UK Adventure 2015: The London Dungeon

On my way to Cardiff, my friend Mason and I passed the London Dungeon just near the London Eye, self-billed as 'the ultimate thrill-filled journey through London’s murky past.' I was instructed by Oni Hartstein to return to it once I was back in London, and when breakfast plans went awry Sunday, I opted to give it a go.

Alone.



There are multiple dungeons in various locations, including Blackpool, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, and San Francisco. The London one advertised 1,000 years of British history fit into 90 minutes split up into 18 shows and two rides, and promised to be a mix of both funny and scary.

Personally, I'm forever iffy about anything where you have no actual clue what you're getting yourself into. It could be fun, but an hour and a half inside this one building? How much of a 'ride' could one have inside this building? What constitutes a 'show'? And how scary is 'scary,' given the doors open out onto a popular tourist area in broad daylight? There were a few dozen imponderables.

Standing in line to get in helped answer my final question: a mix of pre-recorded video and animatronics made it look as though a madman was trying to axe his way into the line. Already a promising start.

When you first enter, your group is taken into a room with blank backgrounds and places to stick your head through and make terrified faces with no context. Once you're done there (and trust me, the results at the end are rather interesting), you're sped along into the first show -- within the Dungeon, a 'show' is essentially a one- to two-person scene performed in front of or amidst your group, bringing to life one of the more gruesome bits of London's history. This could be in a torture chamber, under the Houses of Parliament on the 5th of November, in a plague doctor's house, or in a pub in Whitechapel. There's light audience participation, most of it comical and only playfully insulting, and the gore (such as it is) is left primarily to the imagination or only described.

In fact, a lot of things are left to the imagination, and that's where this dungeon was at its best. There is one entire room -- the Sweeney Todd scene -- that takes place completely in the dark, with no live actors to speak of once things get rolling. Everything is sensory, using sounds, tactile effects, and sense of motion. It was legitimately the most terrifying span of time I spent in there, with a close second being one piece of the Jack the Ripper arc of scenes. (Strobes were used in that bit, which are bad for me in excess, but they were used sparingly twice for effect and it was an impressive effect.)

The actors overall are extremely entertaining and able to carry their scenes quite well. In reference to the promise of 'funny,' yes, there was a lot of humour present -- especially with the judges toward the end, who were extremely quick on their feet and whose entire scene is built around audience participation. Many of the actors have also mastered moving silently in the dark, which is both impressive and terrifying. And the way they execute any jump-scares is far more fun to me than just sticking them behind a curtain with a can of pennies. Any jump-scares either lead into a joke or a continuation of the scene, rather than just being there to fill in any dull stretches.

As to immersiveness... when they promise the 'sights, sounds, and smells of London,' they aren't kidding. They actually do pay attention to everything. Even and especially the smells.They're not enough to make you gag or feel ill, but they are very honest indeed about replicating the smells of rivers or plague-ridden villages. And the ambient noise is well-handled, too. It's where it needs to be.

The aforementioned rides? There's one at the beginning and one at the end. One is a water ride where you're surrounded by execution imagery (including a projection-faced animatronic of Henry VIII played by Brian Blessed); the other is ... well, it's a bit of a drop. While neither is screamingly high-tech or innovative, they're matched to their respective parts of the attraction quite well.

Honestly, I'm not a big haunted house fan these days because it's always a matter of them wondering how many times they can make you jump and shriek. This was much more chiller theatre than haunted attraction. It was scary when being scary was convenient or useful and didn't distract you from the story. Best of all, many of the scares were psychological, and you're definitely conditioned over time to expect certain things to happen when the lights go out. I personally prefer that far more than six dozen sitty-up corpses (there are some sitty-up corpses, but still).

End result: it certainly did not feel like the dragged-out 90 minutes I feared, and even as a definite not-fan of being jumped at by costumed strangers, I enjoyed the experience including the scares rather than in spite of them. A few skewed projections on some of the animatronics (something that could be fixed with the occasional nudge) did not ruin the experience, and I fully intend to go back next year and drag people with me.

Visit the London Dungeon website for ticket prices and package deals, videos, photos, and more.