When I was a teenager, I used to go out to watch bands then come home and excitedly write reviews of the shows I had just seen. I’d distribute these reviews to anyone who would listen and quite often, they would get published in fanzines which were photocopied during someone’s lunch hour, stapled together and sent out second class post to other excited teenagers. After a while, I stopped doing this. I became jaded, it was 1995, I was seventeen, and I decided that reviews were pointless. No one cared what I or anyone else thought, people went to watch what they wanted to watch and bought what they wanted to buy. So I stopped bothering. Until now.
“Oh ho”, you say to yourself, “it must be something really good to elicit this kind of turn around”. Indeed it is. However, if all of my forgotten teenage ramblings were ultimately pointless then this surely is the most pointless review ever written as it covers something which happened seven and a half years ago and which, most likely, you’ll never get to experience. Which is lucky, because I’m about to spoiler the crap out of it. Thing is, it has stuck with me so profoundly over the last few years, that I decided to write about it anyway, before I forget even more of it in amongst all the life sludge.
In 2009, I got tickets to go and see ‘It Felt Like A Kiss’ at the Manchester International Festival. I wasn’t particularly up for it to be honest. It was described as “an immersive theatre production” from the Punchdrunk Company and we had a friend at the time who was working at the event as a marshal. She hadn’t given much away but had told us that if we were thinking about going, then we should definitely wear sensible shoes because “you’ll need to run away from the monsters”. As the kind of person who won’t watch Doctor Who if I’m in the house alone, I was concerned that this might be a step too far for me but D went out and picked up tickets for it anyway and I agreed to go, partly because Charlie Brooker had given it a positive review it in the paper a few days before. Yeah the irony’s not lost.
I tried not to spoiler myself leading up to the event and managed quite well. All I really knew was that Adam Curtis was involved and that it was some kind of walk-through production. And about the monsters. On the day, D and I turned up at the disused office block at Spinngfields along with the other people in our allocated time slot. There were nine of us, I believe, wandering around looking a bit nervous in the lobby. A woman was wearing a pair of flip flops and I asked her if she’d not heard about the monsters? She almost left.
We were asked to sign waivers, which was a nice touch, and told that once inside we could leave at any time via one of the red curtains. I only noticed one red curtain, right at the very start. We were also told that we could take as long as we wanted, look at anything we liked and to enjoy! Yep. After that, we were bundled into a lift and sent up to some indeterminate floor high inside the building. We stepped out into almost pitch blackness and until our eyes adjusted, didn’t notice the huge grinning clown face which we had to walk through to continue the adventure. There was a section then like a traditional fairground funhouse. Wobbly floors, things hanging from the ceiling to skirt around, mirrors. But with low lighting and the promise of monsters, spooky as hell.
After a while we found our way into the main body of what I’ve come to think of as ‘part 1’. There, we walked through room after room of replica, cold war-era America. Houses, hotel rooms, TV studios, schools, CIA offices. Every single one furnished with items from that time and as detailed as any film set. Some of the rooms were devoid of people but the phenomenal attention to detail gave the impression that they might be back at any moment. Other rooms were occupied by mannequins – or were they? My team (for they had become my team the moment we got in the lift together) rootled through cupboards and filing cabinets, looking for what exactly? Evidence of something? Were we playing a game? At one point we followed the trail and popped out on the roof in a beautiful brightly lit roof garden. Astro-turfed and with a picnic of sandwiches and Twinkies laid out on the ground. Someone ate a Twinkie. There was music throughout. At times, contemporary American artists – Ruth Brown, Fats Domino – at other times a creepy score written, I now know, by Damon Albarn and performed by the Kronos Quartet.
After a while things got a little more worrying. We turned a corner in a long, blue corridor with strobing lights and stumbled across a man (or mannequin?) lying face down on the ground. Should we check him? Try to wake him? We decided not to and stepped quickly around him hurrying down the corridor. We edged around corners, peeping ahead to check our path. We were dawdling along, paranoid and twitchy, no one quite wanting to take the lead. Which sounds silly now because we all knew it was a game. The threat was only imagined but the realness was unsettling. After a while, the person at the back of the group said, with a bit of a quiver “er, I think we’re being followed”. Several people soiled themselves. “Run!” I shouted and no one needed telling twice. We ran through a door and down several flights of stairs unsure if we really were being followed or not. With hindsight, I think not. This little burst of activity lead us straight into the centre piece of the entire thing, the 35 minute documentary by Adam Curtis, showing on a loop in a perfect replica of an American high school sports hall on prom night. As we walked in, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Who were all these people? But I twigged pretty quickly that they were the other groups of nine who had come before us. Although we may have felt completely alone on our adventure, the building was in fact teeming with other groups just like us, separated by a few minutes like carriages through a ghost train.
I won’t write about the film, you can watch it for yourself online and if you’re familiar with Adam Curtis then you’ll know what to expect. Although the realisation that some of the rooms we had walked through earlier were replicas of scenes in the documentary was a revelation.
The chance to sit down and have a stern word with myself was welcome although once the film had completed its loop, it was tempting to stay put or perhaps look for one of those red curtains? We soldiered on though, our team splitting now as some people chose to stay behind. There was a definite nuclear holocaust theme during part 2 and even seven years on I have a little shiver when I hear ‘River Deep Mountain High’ which was playing at great volume as we walked past models of towns destroyed by nuclear bombs. The sets became creepier too. The lab set up for electric shock therapy lit only a fraction of a second at a time with blinding white light, burning the after image onto our retinas. The rows of hazard suits and gas masks. The chemical stench of the gas pumping out around our feet.
Eventually we come to a sort of holding pen, a psychiatric ward where we’re asked to fill out a personality test. We are all given a number and when called, sent to sit in a room. We are given cards to read which tell a charming story of nine people who died in a fire in a fun house. We count heads. Nine of us. No red curtain.
We are funnelled into a winding series of challenges after this, our every move monitored on screens above our heads. A chainsaw with a note asking us to start it up (don’t think so). A gun on a table with an instruction to pull the trigger (nope). A mannequin facing into a corner with instructions to brush his hair (no, you brush his hair). We plough on but the fun really starts when we notice on one of the screens that the mannequin from earlier on is in fact not a mannequin but a real person with a chainsaw in his hand. And he’s coming for us. As we start running we hear the chainsaw start up somewhere behind us and those sensible shoes really come into their own and although I notice lots of things (the forest. Or is it a burnt out funhouse?) I can’t remember the exact order that they happened in.
We seemed to be running forever through dark corridors and eerie stairwells and all the while the cheery pop songs keep on coming. There is a row of turnstiles. Which one do we choose? There’s no time to think about it as we’re still being chased down by the chainsaw maniac and it doesn’t matter anyway because each one will only allow through one person. The team is split, each person being forced to end this game alone and in darkness. My tunnel is lined with draped fabric reminiscent of the high school prom from earlier but I see this only in brief flashes of light. I’m terrified of what I’m about to encounter. I needn’t have worried about what was in front of me though because as I timidly edge along the tunnel a chainsaw starts up behind me and I run as fast as my little legs will carry me, out of the tunnel, across the deserted underground car park and out into the streets of Manchester. I possibly would have run all the way home had a marshal not caught me and told me it was done. So there we were. Booted out into the night and sent on our way. It was definitely still light when we went in, how long have we been here?
Once you take away the beautiful staging and the film at the centre of ‘It Felt Like A Kiss’, I can see that it’s nothing more than a simple fairground scare. But the work and thought that went into that scare was so considered that the end effect gives me shivers even now. At the time, some critics panned the ending, finding no joy in the cheap slasher movie tactics which they believed detracted from the more serious themes (fear, violence, control) of the film. I disagree though. For me, it was all about the scare. I didn’t know it beforehand but being chased down a dark corridor by a man with a chainsaw is my perfect night out. The Americana which preceded that just served as a mind enhancing canape.
And by the way, I know this isn’t really a review, it’s an anecdote. But if you’re ever in Manchester in 2009, go and see ‘It Felt Like A Kiss’. 9/10, unmissable.