Universal Studios Hollywood
Well, folks, the haunting season is upon us. With the weekend opening of Universal Studios's Halloween Horror Nights in Hollywood, it's time for a month and a half of spooks, thrills, chills, and general Halloween goodness. We'll have plenty of coverage of a multitude of haunts around Southern California, since this is our favorite time of the year. So hope you're ready and into spooky stuff--you're going to get a lot of it over the next six or more weeks!
Today, we feature part 1 of our coverage of Horror Nights' mazes. As a programming note: part 2 will come in November, after I return to Universal Studios for their final weekend of operation. Why the long wait? Well, for the first time in our ten years of attending the event, Dan and I were not actually able to go through every haunted attraction. Beyond that, we didn't really get photos for the first three that we did go through, figuring we'd have time to come back. Though crowds at Halloween Horror Nights have always been packed, this has never been an issue before. But this year's opening weekend saw an unprecedented swell in crowds eager to experience the event's vaunted line-up of mazes, coupled with what appeared to be unprepared planning and management. The result was lines that exceeded two and three hours for many mazes through large portions of the night. And because of that, even though we utilized the strategic "get in early; start from the back; work to the front" strategy, we literally ran out of time.
More on the crowd issue in a separate editorial post toward the end of this week, when I take a look at Halloween Horror Nights' handling of capacity, haunted maze operations, and offer my blunt two cents (I promise to be fair, though). But lets run through the mazes we did visit first!
(Obviously, there will be some spoilers in this update. Photos are by myself and Dan Angona.)
Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield
Last year, Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home was the highest rated maze in Halloween Horror Nights history, and well deserving. Recreating the scenes of John Carpenter's 1978 classic, this maze and third iteration of the Halloween franchise was relentless, immaculately timed, and chock full of scares from multiple directions.
The sequel doesn't quite live up to the 2015 hit, but it still presented a very strong showing. My personal experience was significantly tempered by a 100+ minute wait at the very end of the night that was well above the advertised 60 minute sign--a wait that also cost me a chance of making it to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze before the park closed. However, from an objective point of view, the maze itself utilized a lot of the tools that made last year's version so successful. Unfortunately, after so much time queuing, there was no way the maze satisfy my expectations. But watching other guests' reactions demonstrated that, even at the end of the night, the energy and scares were still there and effective.
Based off my favorite horror movie, this was my personal most anticipated maze, because it was the one intellectual property that I had most wished Horror Nights would recreate. Not surprisingly, this is also the movie that Creative Director John Murdy has chased for ten years, finally gaining success in 2016. Also not surprisingly, this was the most anticipated maze and franchise for everyone else, because of the notoriety of the classic film.
Unfortunately, this all made for a disaster of a wait. The fourth maze of our night, we got in line after finishing up the three Metro Lot backstage mazes (see the next series) within an hour or so, taking advantage of the early entry. At the time we headed toward the Metro Lot mazes at 6:30, The Exorcist had already been open and was already a 45 minute wait. We made the call to save time on three mazes with the hopes that coming back to The Exorcist would still yield a relatively short line. Unfortunately, we were wrong. A line advertised at two hours wound up north of 2:30, in part because at least 30-40 minutes of the wait involved the maze being shut down while celebrities and Hollywood V.I.P.'s could have a private experience through the maze and be filmed. The lack of notice of this and the extended time it took, even with the maze staying closed after the "famous" names had exited, proved to be frustrating. As a result, I knew entering the maze that The Exorcist would also be impossible send me out satisfied.
Despite that major sour mood, in retrospect and thinking objectively about the maze on its own merit--divorced from the excruciating wait--I have to say that The Exorcist was a pretty strong maze and one of the best of the night. I was surprised with the amount of animatronics used--in greater proportion than the vast majority of mazes from previous years. This made a lot of sense, given the physics-defying actions Regan MacNeil performs in the movie while she is possessed, but it still felt noticeably odd to have a lack of live characters in the pivotal scenes.
Still, the maze recreated those memorable moments very well, and the scares and startles were frequent and jumpy--though in typical Horror Nights fashion, repetitive. For a haunt veteran like myself, the formula of "distraction -> sudden loud sound effect -> flashing strobes -> monster popping out of a door or box" (what I call a "boo box" and others a "boohole") gets stale pretty fast and just doesn't scare me. But from a theatrical point of view and on more casual guests, these moments were definitely effective and well performed.
American Horror Story
American Horror Story has a great fan following, and even though it is associated with rival Fox Studios, the franchise was a natural fit to be incorporated into Halloween Horror Nights. On this opening night, both Dan and I noticed a legion of AHS fans out in force, clearly lured by the popularity of the show, proudly displaying their "freak" status, eager to experience this compilation of three of the show's six seasons. Though lines were ok the first hour, once the night got going, this maze routinely had one of the top waits of the night, exceeding two hours.
The maze itself was relatively light on scares compared to the others, instead focusing on the visual eerie splendor from each of the three seasons utilized. The discomfort of the murder house, the spectacle of the freak show circus grounds, and the macabre of the hotel all provided some great imagery.
Unfortunately, for this and the other two Metro Set mazes--our first three of the night, not a lot of photos were taken, because I initially went with the approach to experience the maze as a regular guest first, taking minimal or no photos, to get a more pure experience before returning later for photography. That later never manifested due to the aforementioned reasons, so I'll try to get more and better photos when I visit at the end of this Halloween season.
Freddy vs Jason
Freddy vs Jason proved to be an interesting maze in that the execution and theming felt a little old school--nothing spectacular, just solid visuals (and maybe the most reused scenery of all the mazes), with most of the focus being on the scares. And scares there were! Although again, they came in a very repetitive manner, the scares here did mix up styles by including double team scares from Freddy and Jason, similar to the Alien and Predator maze of last year and two years ago. The energy here was great, with solid timing and absolutely commendable work by the cast. It's just that, again, after a few startle attempts, the pace and cadence started to feel the same with each passing scene, even with the addition of double team scares. For someone like myself, that had zero effect, though I would again say that for those who don't frequent Halloween Horror Nights every year or ever, the interaction would be more effective.
This maze also boasts alternate endings, with either Freddy or Jason winning. On this trip. Jason was the victor, but I never made it back to see how it looked like when Mr. Krueger came out on top. Guess that'll be on my list for next time.
My favorite maze of the night also coincided with a very unique experience for me--at least at Halloween Horror Nights. Through the timing of our entry into the maze and our pace through, Dan and I wound up being pretty much alone at the head of a small group isolated from anyone in front of us. This means that we were able to enter every scene pure, without having witnessed what might have happened to the group ahead of us as is the case of a "haunted line" syndrome. And wouldn't you believe it? That does make Halloween Horror Nights mazes a helluva lot more enjoyable! Even though, again, the scares were the same exact time as every other maze, being able to take our time and enjoy each room and amble through methodically allowed the boo box startle scares to have maximum efficiency, since there was actual anticipation built up.
It helped that Krampus was actually our first maze of the night, and we hit it very early on basically just after it opened. But the interior of the maze was also splendidly decorated and richly immersive and familiar to anyone who has seen The Krampus movie. And even to those who have not, the twisted nature of this dark Christmas tale could easily be appreciated. From murderous gingerbread men come to life to children being devoured (another re-used animatronic to veteran attendees, but a fun one) to frigid winter come indoors, this maze was full of wonderfully devilish scenes that turned a typically warm, fuzzy, family oriented holiday into gore and shock and horror. Even the scents used were welcome--gingerbread and apple spice to harken to the holidays--a far better decision than poop or rotten corpse like usual.
I only wish I had actually gotten scenes of the interior to illustrate all this.
That wraps up a rather truncated maze update for today. We did not have a chance to go through the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Maze. Dan went through The Walking Dead Attraction prior to Halloween Horror Nights opening and reported it to be a mash-up of Walking Dead mazes from the past--with a lot less talent. Even though the nighttime version was purported to have double the cast, in actual operation, this seemed hit or miss. For some of my friends, it seemed the same density as during normal operations, while other friends did feel that the maze was improved with additional scareactors. So if there's one maze that can be missed (given a choice), this one might be it.
Ultimately and unfortunately, the crowd levels did adversely impact our experience of the event, and it really opened my eyes to the huge disparity between having Front of Line access (for those who purchase it and for press and VIP's on opening night) versus attending without. Though I have gone to Horror Nights multiple times in past years under both capacities, even as a "regular guest," I had always been able to experience everything I wanted with time to spare and then go back and hit up one or two favorites again. Not this year. With the event having well hyped and monster line-up of mazes, ever-expanding general popularity, and a combination of a new wait time measurement system and apparent inability to manage the crowds as well as in previous years, I failed for the first time ever to "do everything." And though I thought that the opening night surge plus addition of media/press and V.I.P. celebrities (and "celebrities") attending might have played a factor, according to multiple sources, Saturday proved just as bad for wait times and even worse for many mazes.
All of that being said, the mazes themselves (the ones we saw, anyway) were strong--among the best the event has offered. Although no single maze exceeded my all-time favorites from past years (like An American Werewolf in London and last year's Halloween), as a combined line-up, they demonstrated Horror Night's continued improvement in quality and theatrics. My main complaint is the lack of creativity in the actual scare department, but I recognize that my reaction is subjective, and the scare direction is a deliberate decision made by the designers for an event that is more focused on the recreation of horror movies and franchises as opposed to pushing the psychology of actual scares. At Universal, the scares are complementary to the immersive environments of the famous films and shows that Horror Nights brings to life every year. So, as has been the regular case at this event, casual guests will probably find the mazes scary, but frequent and regular attendees of Horror Nights or haunts in general will not--and may even be a little bored at the repetition.
Anyway, we will have more from Horror Nights throughout this week, including a look at the scare zones (or should I say--one scare zone throughout the park broken up into multiple iterations) and the Terror Tram, which was actually an improvement this year. Plus my more expanded take on the issues that have come to plague Halloween Horror Nights and how Universal may resolve some of them. For now, go forth and have a spooktacular week!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.