By THOMAS F. JOHNSON
The dark magic of Old Tucson Studios’ Nightfall begins with actors in a dressing room applying garish clown makeup as they prepare for the park to open.
Most notable among them is Rob Jensen, who played a serial-killing, junkyard-owning clown named Pappy in last year’s special effects show.
Though he appeared to be killed off last year, Jensen said audience response was so positive that Old Tucson brought him back this year as the comedy show protagonist.
Nightfall’s streets seem oddly empty 10 minutes before opening, as the actors get into their places, techs direct what goes where and rear-projected scenes in windows flicker to life one by one.
When the clock strikes 6, crowds of visitors file in. After an introductory show of gunpowder-blanks and dueling evil-circus-stereotypes ends, the streets come alive with the sounds of chainless-chainsaws wielded by evil clowns.
Roaming creeps include a butler with a face wedged in the deep end of the uncanny valley, a fat vampire and an inexplicable killer bunny.
Some characters sit motionless as mannequins on the park’s many benches, moving whenever poor schmucks try to take pictures with them.
“Carnival Caverns” works well as one of the park’s more harrowing experiences, building a creepy atmosphere with garish colors, 3D visuals, creepy music and constantly blaring electronic horns.
Features such as a clown-monster head popping out above a pit of bodies and a horrifyingly ludicrous clown-spider succeed as creepy visuals.
Sadly, other walkthrough attractions aren’t too scary, though at least the lines were relatively short and fast moving.
“The Aftermath” and “Iron Door Mine” rely on jump-scares and lots of rubbery, obviously-fake animatronics rather than mood and mystery.
However, “The Aftermath” gets points for its creative post-nuclear/zombie apocalypse setting and the giant spider animatronic in “Iron Door Mine” is neat.
The comedy show, featuring Pappy testing inventions on asylum inmates, just did not work well.
There were numerous special effects failures, such as an oral enema in which viewers could clearly see the tube spraying green “puke.”
The humor was either juvenile or clumsily topical. The show also included a cringe-worthy gay stereotype that would likely make Dan Savage spontaneously combust with rage if he was in the audience.
Jensen, the show’s creator and main writer, said he let cast members add their input to the show.
The main special-effects show, “Death By Dawn,” was also written by Jensen with cast input, but it worked far better.
The plot involves two ghost hunters and a rich Texan stumbling across the ghost of an evil ringmaster who haunts the ruins of his old amusement park.
The show’s finale can be summarized as, “Everybody died! And then everything exploded! The end!” It was hokey, but the compelling kind of goofy that makes people watch B-movies.
Jacob Pattison’s ghoulish and physical performance as the Ringmaster provided a show highlight.
Pattison said that most of the costumes, animatronics and special effects for both the show and the rest of the park were designed in-house.
Propmaster Bryan Remaley, who worked in Hollywood for 10 years, handles mechanical aspects while propmaster Andrew Kinworthy handles the art design.
Remaley said about 80 percent of Nightfall’s props are made entirely in-house and another 10 percent are built mostly in-house but use off-the-shelf parts.
Construction of “The Aftermath” required heavy machinery to transport some parts, such as the wrecked freeway area.
Most Nightfall construction begins in June every year, though work on a barrel mutant started in April this year.
Ramaley said Old Tucson ropes off construction areas so visitors can’t sneak a peek. Secrecy has gotten easier, however, now that the park closes for the summer.
In addition to building sets, Ramaley and his crew handle maintenance. He estimates the electronic and pneumatic props get triggered at least 1,000 times a night, so they require lots of upkeep to keep from turning into piles of twisted steel and melting latex.
Ramaley willingly admitted to technical problems in the attractions, but said his crews work hard to constantly tweak and improve the exhibits.
Overall, Nightfall is a corny, yet endearing event that is as fundamentally Tucsonan as saguaros and an underfunded school system. Behind-the-scenes crews put lots of love into every animatronic skeleton and rubber murderclown face.
Self-respecting citizens owe themselves at least one visit.
Nightfall at Old Tucson Studios
When: Thursday-Sunday, through Oct. 28
Where: Old Tucson Studios, 201 S. Kinney Road
Admission: $25, with discounts available