Long before “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and “Scream” hit the silver screen, a different sort of horror movie was taking shape. It involved a giant brass and mahogany projector, hand-painted glass slides and vivid images -including a sleeping man snoring so forcibly that he inhales a rat.
The surround sound was provided not by speakers, but by the audience. The animation came not from live action, but from the manipulation of the glass plates. And instead of a dubbed-in soundtrack, the music was live – and lively.
If this all sounds a bit old-fashioned, it is. In the very best way. And this thrilling, chilling experience is coming to Maine just in time for Halloween. Showman Terry Borton and his American Magic Lantern Theater will stop at Peakes Auditorium at Bangor High School at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28. On Sunday, Oct. 29, it heads to the Strand Theatre in Rockland.
“To experience how Victorians got their thrills in the dark is a great opportunity that probably hasn’t been seen in this town for 100 years,” said Kathlyn Tenga-Gonzalez, co-founder and artistic director of River City Cinema, which received a substantial grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts to stage the performance.
The magic lantern has a rich history that dates back to the mid-1600s. According to the book “Cinema Before Film: Victorian Magic Lantern Shows,” the early projector, backlit by a candle, was widely used by traveling showmen by the end of the 17th century.
By the late 1800s, the magic lantern had become a popular means of entertainment. It wasn’t uncommon for children to have toy lanterns, and families often had a home-size model. Large mahogany and brass projectors lit with “limelight” – produced by squirting hydrogen and oxygen on a piece of limestone – were used in theaters and large halls.
Today, Borton’s American Magic Lantern Theater is the only professional touring company of its kind in the United States. He uses antique slides hand-painted by illustrator Joseph Boggs Beale.
National Public Radio called Borton “a living natural treasure,” and the Boston Globe says the performance is “a step back in time so seductive, even curmudgeons will sing along.”
The program fits in well with River City Cinema’s mission to educate and expose area residents to not only current films, but the history of cinema, as well. And that history extends well beyond black-and-white movies and silent films.
“I think people really do want to see more of this,” said Jorge Gonzalez, River City Cinema’s co-founder. “I think we have aroused the curiosity of the community about this type of event – and Bangor is a film-loving town.”
Borton says the easiest way to think about magic lantern theater is “a movie before the movies.” Now 68, Borton grew up without television, and when he was a boy, his father would bring out the magic lantern as a Christmastime tradition. Borton’s great-grandfather was an amateur showman, and his projector and slides have become a family heirloom.
“A lot of it I learned at my father’s knee, and sometimes I can hear my father’s voice in my own,” Borton said from his home in Connecticut. “I remember the sense of the dark, the sense of the smell – there was smoke coming out of the chimney of the lantern.”
The Halloween show with its ghostly, flickering images was a special for Borton – and it still is.
“It was spooky. Some of the slides were very funny, some were very scary,” Borton said. “Our favorite was the rat catcher.”
That would be the snoring man who mistakenly swallows a rat – which gets rave reviews from youngsters in the audience.
“It’s very disgusting, very funny,” Borton said, laughing. “We’ll be using that one in the show. That’s still a classic.”
Another Halloween classic is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” which drives a lover mad with its methodical tapping. There will be swirling colors and a crystal ball, goblins, ghosts, bugs and monsters – great for youth and adults alike, though some of the imagery is a bit too intense for children younger than 6.
While today’s kids are saturated in moving images – from video games to television and the movies, Borton says his show still wows young audiences. Part of the appeal could be the energy of the audience or the beauty of the slides. Of course, it could also be the gross-out factor. One of the songs goes like this: “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they eat your eyes, they eat your nose, they eat the goo between your toes.”
Ah, the horror! Looks like “Friday the 13th” has nothing on the magic lantern.
The Bangor show takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, at Peakes Auditorium. Tickets cost $10 for adults, $5 for children 18 and under, and are available until Oct. 27 at BookMarc’s at 78 Harlow St. in Bangor and Borders on Bangor Mall Boulevard. For information, visit www.rivercitycinema.com or call 989-9494. The Rockland show takes place at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, at the Strand Theatre. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $6 for children 18 and under, and are available online at www.rocklandstrand.com, at the box office at 345 Main St. in Rockland, or by phone at 594-0070.