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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: New life for undead at Halloween Howl

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Published:   |   Updated: October 25, 2013 at 12:05 AM

ZEPHYRHILLS – TThe recent jolt of cool weather is as timely as it is welcome, providing just the right atmospherics for a discovery that packs equal potential to inject spines with chills.

There is, it turns out, life after the most recent death of the Home Theatre in downtown Zephyrhills. Or perhaps we should say there is “unlife.” Either way, developments across Fifth Avenue suggest it’s hard to keep a good zombie down.

Even now, in their race to the witching hour, ringleaders of the former Friday Night Fright troupe are blending what they learned from their movie house experience with childhood memories and adult imaginations to turn the dead space formerly known as Hughes Furniture into a haunted house encounter visitors will cherish until Halloween 2014 creeps around.

What inspires them — Doctor Xombie and His Fiends (also known as Roger Boyes plus domestic partners Paul Bathrick and Dawn Gourlay) — may be as elusive as the Invisible Man, but that doesn’t worry Main Street Zephyrhills Executive Director Gina King Granger. After turning to them in desperation a week before last year’s Halloween Howl, Granger lashed her hearse to the trio for the 2013 incarnation faster than you can say, “Children of the night, what music they make.”

“We’ve put the haunted house in very capable hands,” Granger says. “After they did it last year, they said they were totally game to take it on again, and I totally jumped at the chance.”

Bathrick’s “Scary Sid,” a bumbling, wisecracking zombie who resembles — now more than ever — the late Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”) after a bad weekend, lurched out of last year’s haunt, as did Gourlay’s rasping “Dawn of the Dead.” Reprising their alter egos Saturday night, they’ll be fretful guides touring “Zephyrkills, City of Pure Terror,” a familiar town that’s fallen under the mutant spell of Boyes’ Doctor Xombie.

And, sensitive to the spoiler line, that’s pretty much all we’re going to say about that.

***

OK, except for this: Felicia Richards and Deano Dotson, the BeautyRadio salon owners and former theater managers who fled both for the old Dice’s ice cream shop on Gall Boulevard, are featured in a vignette inspired by “Sweeney Todd-Meets-Last of the Mohicans.”

The goal, Bathrick says, is to inspire in their victims — uh, visitors — the same sort of happy shivers he knew as a youngster when, as he recalls it, the Zephyrhills Fire Department ran the house.

“I just remember it was a great time,” says Bathrick, 38. “But lately it was lacking something. We’re trying to make it something fun again, something people will be talking about.”

Again, we’re not getting into what they have planned, except to say what they have planned is elaborate, clever and — as is usually the case with such things — fraught with perilously bad puns, all of it presented in black lights and swathed in a macabre soundtrack.

“We’ve done haunts before,” Bathrick says, “but this is the first time we’ve ever done one with someone else’s stuff ... and someone else’s money.” Yes, there’s a budget, Granger says, a small one; after all, Halloween Howl is the one Main Street event that actually turns a profit.

***

Not that they’re squandering it. Bathrick, again: “A lot of what we’re doing is taking old material and putting it to new uses,” a trick as venerable as Universal Studios’ multiple installments of its golden-era Frankenstein franchise. And this is where Jeff Sutton, Bathrick’s pal from childhood, comes in.

Identifying the unexpected utility in scraps and discards — a subculture of home-decorating Martha Stewart calls “repurposing” — is both crucial to haunting on a budget and, happily, the forte of Sutton, who, like Paul Massie in “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll,” plays a diabolical dual role, in this case practical engineer and phantasmechanical troubleshooter.

“I come up with the ideas,” Bathrick says. “Jeff figures out how to get them done.”

Sutton’s improvisational tinkering, tracing to his days as a penniless grade-schooler — “It’s what you do when you don’t have any money,” he says — is being put to good use here.

At this point, the crew could use just two things: More time and more actors after a death in the family cost the troupe several cast members. Prospects who imagine they have the fright stuff guts can contact Main Street: (813) 780-1414.

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