“Stop giggling!” writer/director Nicholas Meyer yelled, at me actually, in a manner I couldn’t necessarily read as serious or not. But it made sense my nervous giggles would be met with tedium at the start of our Houdini séance — he was, after all, the mind behind the Adrien Brody-starring Houdini. Houdini was a serious subject to Meyer and the opportunity to get in touch with the man (in honor of the TV movie’s Bluray/DVD release, October 7th) was no doubt an alluring one — even if, well, the whole thing was not as authentic as the tchotchkes on the wall.
Seated in the Houdini room at Los Angeles’ curious and delightful Magic Castle (a members-only clubhouse for only the finest magicians on the world. Neil Patrick Harris, for example, used to be the place’s president — and that’s not an illusion, Michael). Set up with all the grandeur of a high street Victorian haberdashery, the Magic Castle is chockablock with illusions, tricks, traps, and other things that make the magic come alive. After being ushered into the trinket-filled Houdini room, we sat down for dinner with Meyer and Evan Jones, the actor who played Jim Collins, Houdini’s right-hand man.
Meyer was a commanding force from the second we all walked in the room — waxing on and on about his time in Hollywood and telling tales about the more Wild West-y days of movie-making in addition to bringing to the table a wealth of information on Harry and Bessie Houdini. Clearly, the man had a passion for it. We talked to both he and Jones about their favorite aspects of filming and what it’s like to be wrapped up into the almost fairy tale-esque ethos surrounding the man himself.
Houdini and his wife’s stuff was everywhere — handcuffs, milk barrels, photos, and other magical ephemera owned by the duo — all crammed into a tiny space to remind you that if nothing else, the room was going to play the part of séance host very well. And Mr. Meyer was nothing if not ready to fill the room with his own sort of performance. You see, his father Dr. Bernard C. Meyer wrote a book about the man titled Houdini: A Mind in Chains — A Psychoanalytic Portrait. As it so happens, that very book was the source material from which the miniseries emerged. “There are many books that will tell you about the life of Houdini,” explained Meyer. “But my father’s is the only one that deals with why he did what he did.”
But just as one must suspend disbelief when watching a magic show, “When you read a history or biography, you’re entitled to imagine that the book is as accurate as the author could make it,” Meyer stated. The trade-off being that it leaves room for such fun psychological diving, such as the ruminations in the film on Houdini’s time as an alleged spy for the British and American governments.
And a deep dive is exactly what we took, into the cheesy nuttery of what came next — any hope for an authentic attempt to contact dead people (Hey! You always gotta hold out hope) dead in the metaphorical water. But that should come as no surprise to fans of Houdini, who once famously wrote, “In the twenty-five years of my investigation and the hundreds of séances which I have attended, I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility of communications with the loved ones who have gone beyond.” Just like Hollywood, it was more about the performance and puffery than actual authenticity — but hey, that’s half the fun, right?
After an impressive and impressively large meal — with unending wine to boot — and a 20 minute break while the room was turned over, we returned to our seats and were met by Rob Zabrecky, our unnerving medium for the night. His intense stare in what was such an overtly goofy affair started me off on a giggle-gaggle of the highest order (when I get nervous and/or anticipatory, it is unavoidable), eliciting the aforementioned scolding from Meyer. The man who brought us some of the best Star Trek films in history was having none of it. But it wasn’t just me he had contempt for: Mr. Zabrecky got more than his fair share for doing too many “ramp up” tricks rather than just going right into the main event.
But soon thereafter, we were off — the attempted-to-be-hidden wires and pulleys speeding off into overdrive as the room went pitch black and we were instructed, Victorian Era-style, to create a circle by holding the wrist of the person to our right. Voices boomed and there were movements aplenty — the table, things on the wall, the milk crate behind me — and the wary voices of Bessie Houdini (Harry’s wife) and the medium that helped her during her last-ever séance to contact her dead husband. (Yeah, that’s a thing she did for 20 years.) It had all the horror and believability of a Disneyland ride. It was silly and goofy and corny and bizarre, but hardly a terrible way to spend an evening.
After all, escapism was totally the name of Houdini’s game.
Have you seen Houdini? Ever been the Magic Castle? Share your thoughts in the comments!