Hollywood Gothique is criminally late posting its review Heritage Haunt 2012: tonight - Sunday, October 28, is its last night this season, from 6:30 to 10pm, so jump in your cars right now and get out to Newhall; then come back and read this review later.
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let's get down to details. The Heritage Haunt was on hiatus last Halloween, but now it is back in a largely revamped version that retains most of the earlier strengths while ironing out many of the kinks that marred previous incarnations. Heritage is not the most spectacular Halloween event in Los Angeles, but it makes good use of its available resources to create something unique.
For Halloween 2012, Heritage Haunt offers three attractions, including Buccaneer Bay and a La Llorona Tour. Most importantly, the Newhall Ranch House - sadly missing the last time Heritage Haunt was in operation, back in 2010 - is back as the centerpiece of its haunting activities.
This year, the Ranch House walk-through feels almost completely new. Renamed Bloody Mary, it purports to tell the story of woman named Mary who was actually murdered there decades ago, her soul now haunting the house and threatening to drag visitors down to hell. The route has been altered, and only two or three of the animatronic figures seen in previous years remain, having been replaced by live actors.
This gambit has both strengths and weaknesses: the subtle spookiness of the old version (which exploited the Newhall Ranch House's reputation for being truly haunted) has been muted, in favor of a cruder form of scare, but there is a nice ghostly mirror effect at the beginning (this is "Bloody Mary" after all), and many of the pop-scares later on work very well, escalating toward the chainsaw wielding maniacs who chase you out of the exit.
The remaining two attractions are what might be considered "value-added items" - good to enjoy in addition to the main event but not really headliners in their own right.
Buccaneer Bay improves on the pirate displays seen in previous years, when the presentation was essentially a cool-looking yard haunt with little action. Now we get an outdoor walk around a pirate ship, haunted by numerous ghosts and ghouls. There are many nice decorations, and the scares a (relatively) mild, making this a good haunt for younger and/or timid visitors, who want to enjoy a little Halloween horror without risking a coronary.
La Llorona - which utilizes some of the other historical buildings on the grounds - edges a toward being a historical tour. A guide leads you through the homes, explaining the history of those who died and whose souls supposedly still remain on the premises. The darkened domiciles feature a few props and effects (lights and radios that turn on as if by an invisible hand), but mostly the creepiness comes from the settings and the stories. We think the tour is a good idea, but it is easy to see that it has more potential than has been exploited here. A few more manifestations would have been nice - maybe a seance, too. Or take a page from the Strathearn Park Ghost Tour: instead of a guide telling us about dead people, hire actors to play the dead people, who tell their own stories.
The tour ultimately leads to an outdoor graveyard around a chapel, an area not accessible during previous incarnations of the Heritage Haunt. Here, the guide leaves you to your own devices. Here the Newhall location - which does feel as it is is in the middle of the wilderness - really pays off with its air of authenticity. There are many ghosts lurking among the graves, mostly actors abetted by a couple of animatronic pop-scares. Here, the titular La Llorona shows up, and indeed she is crying, as her name implies. As in Buccaneer Bay, the actual shock quotient is low, but the spookiness of the setting is perfect for the enjoyable type of shivers that we prefer for Halloween.
Overall, Hollywood Gothique is glad to see Heritage Haunt back in business, and especially glad to see that they have scaled back, concentration on doing a few things well instead of spreading resources too thin. There was a healthy crowd last night, with some waiting in line, but there are plenty of free-roaming ghouls to ensure that you can never let your guard down. The $15 price tag is extremely reasonable in this economy, and the money all goes to a good cause, since Heritage Haunt is a non-profit event that raises funds for the upkeep of Heritage Junction. We're only sorry we didn't get out there sooner.
Celebrity Sightings: Hollywood Gothique met Michael Westmore and Patrick Tatopoulos at Heritage Haunt. Westmore is makeup artist who has worked on several Star Trek series and feature films, and has won an Oscar and several Emmies; his family has a long tradition in the makeup business, including his Uncle Bud Westmore, who was head of the Universal Studios makeup department during the era of such sci-fi creature features as The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Patrick Tatopoulos is a production designer who creepy creations can be seen currently in Silent Hill: Revelation; he also worked on the excellent Dark City, Independence Day, and numerous other films. Both Hollywood pros enjoyed Heritage Haunt; Tatopoulos even opined that it was better than Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.
The Heritage Haunt is located at Hart Park in Heritage Junction; the address is 24101 San Fernando Road, Newhall, CA 91322. Tickets are $15; parking is free. Remaining hours are 6:30pm to 10pm tonight. Website: www.scvhaunt.com