For the last few years, it seems like popular opinion about Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights has been a mixed bag. While the event’s production value remains unparalleled, an increasing reliance on popular IPs and staggering wait times caused by the park’s relatively small footprint has caused it to slip from its former perch as King of Haunts. But while it may not deliver the immersion of Dark Harbor, the atmosphere is as strong as it ever was, not to mention several mazes that should absolutely not be missed this season.
Hell’s Harvest, like other scare zones that have occupied its same spot near the entrance of the park, is handcuffed by the sheer volume of shops lining the way into Universal Studios Hollywood. The theme of the zone is a creative one, with chainsaw-wielding dolls, reanimated by black magic, filling the streets, but the immersion can only stretch so far. The theme of this area is typically limited to costumes and a handful of small photo-ops, but at the very least, the energy and the agility of the scareactors makes for entertaining people-watching.
HOLIDAYZ IN HELL
Holidayz in Hell may be the greatest scare zone to hit the backlot of Halloween Horror Nights. Ever since moving many of the mazes to this area of the park, the introductory scare zone has faced a great deal of pressure, having to pack a huge punch into a smaller area. Holidayz in Hell takes this idea and extrapolates it, creating an intricate series of vignettes beginning at the New Year and hitting every single holiday along the way. Even holidays that have rarely gotten the horror treatment, like Cinco de Mayo and Thanksgiving, are given grotesque makeovers. Outside of mazes, this scare zone is likely the most pure fun to be had in the park.
Monster Masquerade is a fantastic use of the Parisian street, placing Victorian-era ghouls alongside static tableaus of corpses with classical instruments. Where it suffers, however, is that for some reason, it’s only a one-way scare zone. Guests empty out into it from the Universal Monsters maze, but once they’ve escaped, they can’t go back in unless they go through Universal Monsters all over again. There is presumably a logistical reason for this, but given that it’s one of the more colorful scare zones in the park, it’s inconvenient to have to go through an entire queue and maze just to see it in all its glory.
Toxxic Tunnel is about as much as can be done with the interminable walk from Transformers to the backlot. The strobe lights add more atmosphere than they should, and the scareactors are surprisingly energetic throughout the entire night, given their mundane environment. Even the fictional backstory cleverly writes around the fact that the scare zone is no more than a long tunnel.
TRICK ‘R TREAT
The scare zone nearest the Universal Plaza always gets a bit of a boost from the massive pillars of flame erupting into the sky, and Trick ‘r Treat is no exception. The entire area is bathed in an orange glow, while masked revelers wander through crowds. These scareactors are some of the best around, coming within inches of terrified guests and never dropping character, even for a second. A few photo ops line the front of the New York building facade, but a few more versions of Sam himself running through the scare zone might’ve been a nice touch.
HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS
Returning for the fifth time (the fourth in as many years) the Halloween series is becoming a mainstay at Halloween Horror Nights. It’s understandable that, for some, Michael Myers carries with him a legacy that will always inspire dread, just like other classic figures of the 70’s and 80’s. All the same, there are only so many times that same mask can appear, accompanied by that exact same sound cue, before it hits a point of diminishing returns.
THE HORRORS OF BLUMHOUSE: CHAPTER TWO
The idea of one maze based on several movies from the same production company is a creative one, and worked well enough when last year’s version combined The Purge, Happy Death Day and Sinister. This time, however, there aren’t nearly as many engaging scenes through which to traverse. Where The Purge was filled with eye candy and Sinister brought the terrifying Bagul to life, the Unfriended portion of this year’s iteration suffers since so much of the film’s premise revolves around interacting via computers. Truth or Dare doesn’t fare much better, as even its most violent scenes are bland and uninspired, which may say more about the film itself than anything. The creation of a new villain, “The Girl,” to tie the two otherwise unrelated films together, is a novel concept, but doesn’t do enough to save this from being one of the weaker entries in this year’s lineup.
THE FIRST PURGE
The first maze that guests will see coming out of Holidayz in Hell is, for better or worse, The First Purge, and while the series may be at its peak popularity, the maze is a dud. The reason Purge-based attractions have worked so well in the past is because in the fictional Purge universe, the 12-hour event had already been going on for some time, creating a future that, while grounded in reality, was still a heightened-enough dystopia to create interesting scenery. With The First Purge dealing with, well, the first Purge, it’s still based in our own reality, and it’s an ugly one in which to be immersed; a collection of drab whites and grays, without many visually eye-catching scenes or villains to speak of. Even the film’s main antagonist, Skeletor, is almost always portrayed without any sort of mask or costume, making his scares boring and ineffective. There’s still mileage in the Purge franchise as far as haunted attractions go, but it should be far into the future of the NFFA.
Immediately after The First Purge is a much-needed palate cleanser in Poltergeist, a breakout hit that has stolen the show in 2018. Even those unfamiliar with the source material won’t be lost as they make their way through the Freeling house, as well-placed audio cues parse out the bones of the story without beating guests over the head with them. There’s a true sense of progression, as first a relatively peaceful version of the children’s bedroom is presented, followed up a few scenes later by the same room, plunged into chaos. Remarkable animatronics and well-placed jump-scares are used in tandem to create an impressive finale to an instant classic.
Viewed in the daytime for those with early entry, Stranger Things comes up a bit short, being located inside a sound-stage with wide open doors. For those who wait until after nightfall, however, the maze becomes far more true to the atmosphere and the tone of the series. The iconic Byers house, complete with Christmas lights strewn about, feels as authentic as any walkthrough ever has. Hawkins National Laboratory tows a careful line between the bright, fluorescent lights that its white-collar nature would call for, and the utter chaos that ensues once the Demogorgon is brought over to this side. The house is not without its faults, however: Eleven, who is for all intents and purposes the closest thing that HHN 2018 has to an “icon,” only shows up once, and it’s in mannequin form, recreating the season one finale opposite a live Demogorgon. After she’s been plastered all over every bit of Horror Nights marketing, it’s a bit of a letdown to see the lack of a live Eleven, plus all-too-brief appearances from Sheriff Hopper and Dr. Brenner, in order to allow for what seems like an endless army of Demogorgons around every corner. Even still, Stranger Things may be the most genuine adaptation that Universal has seen in years, making it a definite highlight of the season.
TRICK ‘R TREAT
Anthologies have always done well for haunted attractions, as has been seen with American Horror Story and the first version of the Blumhouse of Horrors, and Trick ‘r Treat shows exactly why. With several linking stories, there’s enough variance in the characters and set pieces that boredom never gets a chance to set in, transitioning from a villainous principal to werewolves to undead trick-or-treaters within just a few minutes. And even though the film is over a decade old, Sam is still a new enough icon to bring some much-needed freshness to the event, bringing with him a campy old-school Halloween atmosphere that is more fun than most other mazes.
Once upon a time, horror films were Universal’s bread and butter, and while this is far from the first time they’ve been trotted out for Halloween, each iteration seems to improve on the last. Universal Monsters Remix was a bold choice that shouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did, and where music played a big part in the success of that maze, so too does it here, thanks to a soundtrack provided by Slash. Each monster sets up shop in their own distinct setting, from the crypts of Dracula to Frankenstein’s lab, not to mention the palpable irony of an absolutely gorgeous scene featuring The Invisible Man.
AMC’S THE WALKING DEAD
Having been a permanent attraction at Universal Studios for just over two years now, AMC’s The Walking Dead is still hugely impressive, even if the massive helicopter has been removed. The visual effects are dazzling, making for epic set pieces amidst burning cabins and besieged prisons, while the scareactors are hidden in a variety of well-concealed spots. Obviously, since it’s year-round, it’s not a necessity, but it definitely adds to a night of haunting.
Jabbawockeez puts on a stellar show, as they have since joining the Halloween Horror Nights lineup in 2015. The problem is, as it’s always been, that it’s just so incongruous with the rest of the event. It’s a fantastic dance show, to be sure, but at its core, it’s still just a dance show, and not even a horror-themed one at that. The crowds aren’t suffering, so clearly it’s not that much of a hindrance, but stepping into the Castle Theater shouldn’t feel like stepping outside of Halloween Horror Nights altogether.
TERROR TRAM: DREADTIME STORIEZ HOSTED BY HOLLYWOOD HARRY
Part of the problem with Terror Trams in the past is that there wasn’t much that could be done in order to create a sense of cohesion amidst the scenes. The progression of Whoville to the Bates Motel to a gigantic plane crash was always a jarring one, but Dreadtime Storiez deals with that in a more clever way than ever before. The demented clown, Hollywood Harry, is simply immersing guests in his collection of horrific fairy tales, which seems on the surface to be an inconsequential decision, but it accomplishes so much more. From a narrative standpoint, each scene is now its own self-contained vignette, so there doesn’t have to be any mental gymnastics connecting chainsaw-wielding dog-men to a bunch of clowns running amok in a plane crash.
With only a single show and three rides to tide guests over between scares, Halloween Horror Nights lives and dies by its mazes, and the 2018 offering just isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. The west coast version may not want to encroach on Orlando’s territory by using original concepts for their mazes, but it may be what the event needs to come back rejuvenated for 2019. While the chance to walk through classic horror films has always been a huge selling point, at least an added emphasis on original houses would keep guests guessing as to what might be lurking around the next corner. When Universal does hit, they hit big, but at this point, they can’t continue to rest on their laurels, because other haunts certainly aren’t.
Halloween Horror Nights runs on select nights through November 3rd at Universal Studios Hollywood. For more information, visit www.halloweenhorrornights.com.
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