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Monday, February 2, 2015

Bay of the Living Dead: Ansel Faraj's Theatre Fantastique

Posted By on Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 12:54 PM

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Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a monthly column about the horror genre of the past, present and future. 

Last summer, in the first installment of this column, we met the young, maverick filmmaker Ansel Faraj. Only 22 years old, Faraj's feet are firmly planted in the cinema traditions of long ago. His no budget chillers are largely inspired by the tales of terror and the film noirs that his mom —who serves as his producer — might have watched on TV during her own youth.

Produced for peanuts, with whatever resources he has at hand, he has repeatedly managed to recreate the aura of the cinema of yesteryear. Faraj often takes his audience on a journey through dark netherworlds, where things often aren't what they appear to be. He creates his own noirish/Gothic effects on his home computer with impressive results. So far, Faraj's films have been released primarily online, though there have been a few theatrical screenings in Los Angeles, San Diego, and film festivals.

The young auteur attracted a great deal of attention within the horror fandom sphere when he talked several cast members from the classic, horror themed soap opera Dark Shadows to join his rep company of actors.

Dark Shadows veteran Christopher Pennock is fondly remembered by DS fans for his intense performances in storylines inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of good versus evil. The actor, who is still going strong forty years later, collaborated with Faraj on a delightfully creepy web anthology series titled Theatre Fantastique. The entire first season can now be viewed at YouTube.

Theatre Fantastique was inspired in part by TV classics such as The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff Presents Thriller (the latter of which currently airs on ME TV). Each episode offers a self-contained tale of terror, sometimes with bizarre twist endings. TF pisodes are short, 12-15 minutes on average.

The series began with The Madness of Roderick Usher, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's legendary The Fall of the House of Usher. This 19th century tale of terror  was famously adapted by director Roger Corman into a 1960's film starring Vincent Price. In Faraj's version, Pennock takes over the role of the doomed Mr. Usher. 

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"One of my biggest cinematic influences has always been Corman's Poe adaptations," Faraj told SF Weekly. "I wanted to honor both Corman and Poe, and that resulted in The Madness of Roderick Usher."

According to Faraj, the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote that the House of Usher is "the greatest of all haunted houses." 

"I knew Chris Pennock would be the best Roderick Usher since Vincent Price, and he is," Faraj said.

He also said that the influence of American International Pictures, the studio which produced the Corman/Price classic found it's way into this and  subsequent TF episodes. "Most specifically in Madame LaSoeur."

Madame LaSoeur is a creepy tale about making contact with "the other side," with disastrous results. Pennock is joined for this outing by three of his Dark Shadows co-stars: Jerry Lacy, Lara Parker and Lisa Richards.

"Madame LaSoeur was the reason I wanted to do the series," Faraj said. "I always wanted to do a mystery that takes place at a seance."

He said that he was once again trying to capture the feel of the drive in classics that were American International's bread and butter. "And that's why I brought back the Dark Shadows crew," he said. "Because Dark Shadows was of the late sixties and that's exactly right for this piece. Plus, I like working with them."

The DS actors seem to enjoy working with Faraj as well. 

"I love working with Ansel," Chris Pennock told SF Weekly. "His stuff gets better and better and has become highly actible! I loved my character in Roderick Usher—creepy, scary and iconic."

Pennock, now of a "certain" age, feels that his acting chops have been rejuvenated by working with Faraj. "I have loved being the headliner of Theatre Fantastique," he said. "Total joy! Feels like a rep company with all these wonderful actors! And then there's Ansel, who I'm convinced possesses genius and fearlessness!"   

Theatre Fatastique even produced a Christmas episode, the delightfully strange Family Wolff. It's a darkly disturbing comedy about a young man who brings his girlfriend home for Christmas. 

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"I wanted this to feel like a cartoon come to life," Faraj said. "What would Christmas be like at the home of a supernaturally affected family?"

You might, at such a gathering, meet the creepy clan headed by Pennock, which includes a psychotic, axe-wielding zombie. 

"I play Morgan Wolff, your basic zombie dad," said actor Douglas M. Eames. "In life he'd been an axe murderer, but he's more congenial now that he's undead." Eames said that he was directed to play Morgan like the dog in Disney's animated film Up. 

"What resulted was a bizarre combination of the Up dog, the sheep dog from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, and Jack Nicholson in the Shining!" said Eames.

In Ansel Faraj's world you can expect the unexpected, and his actors are enjoying the challenge. 

"I hope we work together forever," said Christopher Pennock. "I have a new life as an actor — thank you, Ansel!"

Faraj said that there was a Madame LaSoeur feature film was now being discussed.

Please visit Theatre Fantastique's YouTube page to view all the episodes.
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