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Halloween Horror Nights 2011: Opening Night Review

Last night, on September 23, the Halloween season officially launched with this year’s simultaneous debuts of the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt in Buena Park and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. Unable to attend both, we opted HHN, partly because of proximity but mostly because the ratio of new-to-old attractions at the upstart Hollywood Halloween event far exceeded that of the venerable competition provided by Knotts Scary Farm. Halloween Horror Nights 2011 promises six walk-through mazes, five of them new for 2011, and we were eager to sample the eerie delights, which run the gamut from legendary terrors to modern science fiction, from classic horror to modern mayhem, and from sinister science fiction to shock-rock theatrics.

Our bottom line reaction: the high quality of sets, makeup and special effects at the Universal attraction remain unparalleled by any other Halloween event in Los Angeles or the surrounding environs. Unfortunately, the novelty of this year’s mazes is often more a matter of branding than substance: the names are new, but familiar setting, effects, and set pieces are resurrected once again – a bit like putting old blood in new bottles. This will probably do little to lower the scream quotient among appreciative fright-seekers, especially those who do not make an annual pilgrimage to Halloween Horror Nights; hardcore fanatics, eager for something new, will perhaps be somewhat disappointed, although they will undoubtedly still have a hair-raising time.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review: The Mazes
Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review
Halloween Horror Nights creative director John Murdy (left) guides a pair of guests past the queasy horrors of The Thing: Assimilation.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 features six mazes – more than ever before. Quantity, fortunately, has not led to a drop in quality; all are executed with the precise professionalism we have come to expect. But do theY deliver the nightmares we demand from our haunts?

THE THING: ASSIMILATION, inspired by the new prequel coming from Universal Studios, is probably this Halloween’s highlight. The arctic location of the story provides environments unlike any we have encountered in the past, and the science fiction nature of the menace – an alien that can mutate into many forms – provides ample opportunity for novel special effects (courtesy of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, who worked on the film). The only thing missing is the sense of paranoia inherent in the concept (your best friend, standing beside you, could be the thing in disguise – a concept admittedly hard to pull off in the haunted maze). Other than that, this is a winner, filled with shock scares and creepy critters that will definitely leave you feeling that you have seen something new.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review
Yes, we’ve seen this effect before (in the old Elm Street maze), but it’s great to see it again!

LA LLARONA: VILLA DE ALMAS PERDIDAS is a bit of an anomaly at Halloween Horror Nights: it is based not on a well-known film franchise but on a Mexican legend of a “Crying Woman,” whose soul wanders the Earth, searching for its lost child. The legend is a good fit for Halloween, providing spooky thrills rather than shocks, and the setting is fairly novel for Universal Studios Hollywood (although Knotts Scary Farm has featured La Llarona in Dia De Los Muertos maze for the past few years). Some of the effects are recycled (an oversized mechanical head, devouring a victim, is left over from the old Nightmare on Elm Street maze), but overall this is the kind of haunt we like to see, one that stays true to the traditional feel of the Halloween holiday. (NOTE: La Llarona appeared at HHN last year, but only in a scare zone, not in a maze of her own.)

ELI ROTH’S HOSTEL: HUNTING SEASON is located near The Mummy’s Revenge ride, at the far end of the theme park, in the same building that previously housed Halloween Horror Nights’ Jigsaw mazes and, before that, their Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze. Guess what? It’s the same bloody rose by another name, with lots of peeling, chopping, and mangling of human flesh. Fortunately, despite the familiarity, this maze does deliver on its own terms; the grand guignol gruesomeness is effectively infectious, even for those who are not fans of Roth’s films.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review
Welcome 2 My Nightmare

ALICE COOPER: WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE – based on the shock rock veteran’s recently released sequel to his 1975 classic album – benefits from a heavy rotation of musical  soundbites Cooper’s creepy classics. Conceptually, however, it falls a little bit short of its source material. Many of the sets look overly familiar; at times it seems as if we are once again walking through the old Nightmare on Elm Street maze, with Cooper surrogates standing in for Freddy Krueger. Spiders, guillotines, and electric chairs are on display (all features from Coopers various live shows), but we think the maze would have benefited from having even more on stage theatrics incorporated. Songs like “I Love the Dead” and “Welcome to My Nightmare” provide opportunity for more than just jump-scares; they could act as soundtracks for terrifying vignettes acted out before our eyes – sucking you into the nightmare instead of just letting the nightmare shout “Boo!” If nothing else, we were mightily amused by the attraction’s exterior, which borrows the AMITYVILLE HORROR gag of making the haunted house resemble a face (with windows where the eyes would be) and takes it one step further, painting those eyes with the familiar Cooper mascara.

THE WOLFMAN: THE CURSE OF TALBOT HALL is, like The Thing: Assimilation, based on a Universal Studios property. It is also a rare example of Halloween Horror Nights dipping back into Universal’s classic horror legacy, based as it is on the recent remake of the 1941 classic THE WOLF MAN. Gothic horror is the way to go for Halloween, and the Wolfman is a perfect fit for the setting: the House of Horrors, a year-round walk-through that is filled with many more monsters during the Halloween season. The problem here is that the permanent location is, well…permanent. The layout and sets – designed to suggest a trip through the history of horror movies – remain the same from year-to-year, and a werewolf has almost always been a part of the experience. So what we’re seeing is not so different from what we have seen before; rather, the ratio of werewolves to other monsters has simply shifted in favor of the lycanthropes. Again, this maze might have benefited from incorporating more specifics from the source material – actually staging a few scenes instead of just hiding monsters in corners from which the can appear unexpectedly.

ROB ZOMBIE’S HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES IN 3D is the sole holdover from 2010. This is about as close as Halloween Horror Nights 2011 gets to providing a Killer Klown maze; although it’s a bit closer than we would like, we have to admit that this maze works a bit better than we recalled from last year. The 3D effect – basically color separation provided by flimsy cardboard glasses – is mild but it does add a little bit of extra dimension. The enthusiasm of the cast of characters as they go about their ghastly business is impressive, and the gore is sometimes so over-the-top that it borders on camp (check out the chick sawing into someone’s brain!). Not our favorite approach to Halloween but one that works on its own terms.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review: Other Attractions

Of course, Halloween Horror Nights 2011 offers more than mazes. There are scare zones, shows, and the Terror Tram back lot tour.

The Terror Tram, like the House of Horrors, suffers somewhat from familiarity: it’s basically the same ride from year to year, with different narration and video on the tram, presenting a different theme to tie together the same sets you’ve seen before: the Bates Motel, the WAR OF THE WORLDS plane crash, etc. We skipped this year’s incarnation SCREAM 4 YOUR LIFE, due to the unfortunate fact that the tram stopped running before we made our way down to that section of the park. (Warning: the trams stop running at midnight, even if the park remains open for another hour or two.) A fan of Hollywood Gothique (yes, we have fans, and they like to introduce themselves to us, for which we are eternally grateful) informed us that we had not missed much in the way of mirthful mayhem. Oh well…

The Scare Zones (scattered around the park in order to insure a frightful evening’s worth of entertainment even before you stand in line for an hour to get into a maze) did their job, effective as usual, but there was a slightly generic quality this year. Once again there are dancing girls near the front entrance, but there is little ghoulish about them unless you get close enough to see the makeup on their faces (and who really looks at faces when bodies are gyrating like that?).

There are some men in skull masks on the way to the Hostel maze, but there is little decoration, only a few wisps of fog – barely enough to qualify as a “zone.” The Western street goes unused this year, with only a fortune teller and some snack stands – nary a monster in sight. The New York Street scene fares considerably better, with its geysers of flame heating up the night air, and its crazed klowns and stilt-walkers appearing infesting the area. So ubiquitous are they that, ironically, it’s easy for them to sneak up on you: while your eye is distracted by one, another is appearing at your elbow.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review Zombieville
Zombieville, set on the London Street

London Street and Medieval Village, with their fog-bound streets and cobblestones, provide remarkably potent atmosphere: you know you’re in for sinister scares the second you start down the block, and the monsters lurking in the shadows do not disappoint. The “Zombieville” theme for the London street was a bit generic, but it works (it’s a bit like the Shaun of the Dead zone from two years ago, just without Shaun). Still, nothing surpasses the old-fashioned frights of a few years back, when this street was loaded with characters appropriate for the setting: Jack the Ripper, Mr. Hyde, etc.

As usual, we skipped the Bill and Ted Show, whose sophomoric antics never struck us as particularly funny. Contrary to our usual habits, we also passed on the Simpson’s motion-simulation ride (one of the high-lights of Universal Studios), instead opting for a river-rafting adventure through Jurassic Park in the Dark. It’s basically the usual Jurassic Park ride, with the lights down low, making the dinosaurs even more sinister. On a somewhat muggy night, the opportunity to splash down a rolling river of water was quite a relief from the heat – and even the spitting dinosaurs were more a benefit than an annoyance.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review: Conclusions

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 is not as new as we would have liked, but each year it offers ever increasing quantities of fright. This year there is also a satisfying variety – so much so that, even if one maze is not to your liking, another will be. Not all of them are great, but all of them are worth a walk-through, and even if some of the effects seem familiar, they are great effects – worth seeing again.

Finally, our biggest complain lies not with Halloween horror but with practical difficulty. Our T-Mobile coverage failed us (our cell phone kept insisting there was no signal available). We don’t blame Universal Studios for that. We do, however, blame them for the fact that we could not find a working pay phone anywhere in the park. Not that they don’t have pay phones, mind you; we found four of them, in various locations. And – NONE OF THEM WORKED! Come on, guys, seriously; help your paying customers out by providing a little useful convenience. Sure, we all carry smart phones and iPads these days, but sometimes batteries run dead, and we need to resort to old-fashioned methods. Please make sure those methods actually work.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review: Post-Script

Per their usual custom, Universal Studios launched Hallowen Horror Nights 2001 with the Eyegore Awards on Friday night, which were preceded by the red carpet arrival of various celebrities in the horror genre (HATCHET writer-director Adam Green, Derek Mears of FRIDAY THE 13TH, and many more). Rob Zombie, David Arquette (SCREAM), and others were on hand to present or receive awards. We will be back later with video of the red carpet interviews, and with video of the mazes.

Halloween Horror Nights 2011 Review: Useful Information

Halloween Horror Nights 2001 takes place at Universal Studios throughout the Halloween season. Tickets range from $37 to $57 in advance, $62 at the door. Front of the Line Passes are available for $69-89, or you can take advantage of the VIP Experience for $169-189. There is also a Day-Night Combo Ticket for $85.

  • Location: Universal Studios Hollywood, 100 Universal City Plaza, Univeral City, CA 91608
  • Dates: September 23-24 & 30; October 1, 7-9, 14-16, 20-23, 27-31.
  • Hours: 7pm through 2am on Fridays and Saturdays; the park closes at 1am on Sundays and Halloween Night, which falls on a Monday this year.