In 2006, Halloween Horror Nights made an impressive return to Universal Studios Hollywood - impressive in scale if not in quantity. The haunted areas of the park were nice, and the sheer scope of the back lot tour - including including a walk through a plan crash scene infested with zombies - was unlike anything you would see anywhere else, but there were only two walk-through mazes, The Asylum and the year-round Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula attraction, which was renamed Universal's House of Horrors for the October season. (Read a detailed review here.)
For 2007, Universal promised to upgrade and expand the haunt with more mazes, featuring not only their classic movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc) but also three slasher movie icons: Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface. We attended on opening night, Friday, October 6. Did Universal make good on their promise to expand and improve on their 2006 presentation?
The answer is yes and no. With the addition of mazes based on A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, there is a brimming bucketful of bloody mayhem that you did not see last year. The walking portion of the tram tour does take you deeper into the plane crash settings, instead of keeping you at a distance. And the old Van Helsing walk-through has been permanently transformed into House of Horrors, which besides Dracula's castle also features scenes from a variety of different horror films.
These changes are all welcome, but if you do the math you quickly see that there is not that much more this year than in 2006. The ELM STREET maze (set inside the year-round Shrek's Castle attraction) replaces The Asylum from last year. So now there is a total of four mazes instead of two - well short of what you get at Knott's Scary Farm and the Queen Mary Shipwreck; even the Magic Mountain Fright Fest can manage half a dozen. Also, if your memory is good, you will notice that some gags (like the strobe-light shock treatment from last year) have simpley been recycled and redressed slightly to fit into the new mazes.
To be fair, the usual Universal attractions help to fill in any gaps. A ride through Jurassic Park and/or The Mummy's Revenge is not completely out of keeping with the scary holiday season, even if they are not redressed for Halloween; and any excuse to sit through Terminator 2 in 3D again is good enough for us. There is a Bill and Ted Halloween Show for people who want to sit down for some laughs instead of being scared, not to mention a magic show and Chucky's Insult Emporium (which we, per our usual tradition, avoided like the plague). But we would trade all of this in exchange for more high-quality haunting grounds.
So, in terms of quantity, Halloween Horror Nights still falls short. But how about quality? The answer here is that, like last year, Universal offers impressive sets on a scale you will not see elsewhere. The mazes are probably shorter than the ones at Knott's (I haven't clocked them yet, so I could be wrong), but they are impressively detailed, taking you through a series of elaborate environments that live up to the promise of making you feel as if you have walked into a movie.
Because the new mazes are based on specific franchises, they tend to be distinctive rather than repetitive - you will not feel as if you are just seeing the same thing three or four times over (although the characters from the mazes do show up on the back lot tour as well). It is also nice to visit a Halloween attraction that foregoes the dubious pleasures of Killer Klowns and 3D Fairy Tales - all of which were cool at one time but which have worn out their welcome.
In short, if you hit a lot of haunts each year and you want to see something different - something you won't see elsewhere - go to Halloween Horror Nights.
Enough generalities. Now for specifics...
The Terror Tram. This was a highlight in 2006 - the chance to get off the bus and walk past the Bates Motel and into a neighborhood blasted by the debris of a wrecked jet liner was a memorable thrill. For 2007, you still walk past the Bates Motel and the Psycho House, where you catch glimpses of Norman and Mother, along with other ghouls sneaking up on you here and there. You will also see Leatherface with his chainsaw and a screaming victim, plus Jason lurking around a tend (presumably occupied by coital teenagers about to get slashes). The trek through the devastated neighborhood is slightly longer, allowing a closer view of the plane wreckage, but the horror factor does seems seriously diminished. Last year, you really felt as if you were walking into hell on earth, with zombies emerging from the roiling fog and chowing down on the remains of crash victims (one of whose throats memorably released a geyser of blood as the undead cannibal took a bite). This year, the scares are of a milder, traditional sort - actors in makeup walking by and rattling cans at you.
Also, the new back story for the tram tour is less impressive. Instead of the demented director who has turned the lot into his own private, living horror movie, we now have a crazy fan, dressed like a clown, who has supposedly escaped onto the back lot. One can only assume that this - the haunt's one concession to the Killer Klown cliche - was an attmept to pump up merchandize revenues (the crazy clown makeup is more eye-catching on a t-shirt).
Universal's House of Horrors. This was another impressive treat in 2007, thanks to the elaborate structure in which it was set. Fans who had been through the attraction during the rest of the year (when it was known as Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula) complained that it was virtually unchanged for Halloween, but if you had never seen it before, it was quite exciting.
The revamped version, which is now called House of Horrors year round, is no longer specifically tied to the limp VAN HELSING movie from 2004; instead, it attempts to take you through the history of horror, from the silent PHANTOM OF THE OPERA up through modern hardcore horror. The structure of the building is essentially unchanged (you will recognize the same paths and stairways), but the Van Helsing set does a good job standing in as a backdrop for classic Universal Monsters like Frankenstein and the Wolfman.
Further along, the settings radically change as you go from room to room, offering glimpses of the shower scene from PSYCHO and Chucky's doll factory from CHILD'S PLAY. The variety of settings spices up the attraction, making it feel like more than just a re-run of last year. And yet, like the Terror Tram, the scares do feel a bit muted. The most obvious disappointment comes at the very end. In 2006, you passed out of the relatively brightly lit Frankenstein laboratory into a room so dark that you could not see the lurking werewolf - until it lunged out at you. This year, as you step into the room, you clearly seem some maniacs with sharp implements in what looks like a meat-packing plant. - horrofic imagery to be sure, but lacking the stunning visual surprise from before.
A Nightmare on Elm Street. This one clearly has the best potential, because of the numerous dream sequences in the film series. The beginning of the maze is not too auspcious - it looks like the entrance from last year's Asylum - but once you're inside, going from room to room is like taking a scence-by-scene tour of Freddy Kruger's greatest hits. You'll go through the asylum where Freddy was conceived; you'll see Freddy being born from between an obese pair of legs; you'll tread through the roach motel and feel your feet sinking into the soft surface beneath you; you'll even see Freddy pop out in the infamous boiler room.
If there is a weakness here, it is that the maze is more effective at creating crude shocks than at capturing the nightmare feel of the dreamscape that Freddy inhabits in the films. And no attempt was made to recreate the gravity defying stunt of his victm being pinned to the ceiling by unseen hands, nor do we get the outrageous geyers of blood for the death scene of Johnny Depp in the first ELM STREET movie. Maybe next year.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Chainsaws and Halloween don't really go together, but they have become a part of the season in spite of the holiday's traditional origins (which are all about souls and spirits and witches' familiars). Rather than a series of scenes from different movies, the chainsaw maze is more like a tour through a specific location, taking you into the Hewitt house and through the meat-packing plant (based more on the recent remakes than the 1975 original). The sets are dark and grim and claustrophobic, and with Leatherface makes numerous appearances, chainsaw roaring. If this is your cup of blood, you will certainly appreciate the opportunity to walk past the demented dining table where the chainsaw family breaks bread and bones (metaphorically speaking).
Friday the 13th. Like Leatherface, Jason Voorhees is not really a Halloween character - at least, not originally, when he was just a mean guy with a mask and a meat clever. Later, he morphed into a zombie (in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 6, actually), his supernatural status entitling him to a role in the October Holiday. Universal's maze does not emphasize (or even really acknowledge) this aspect of the character, instead simply focusing on the image of the hulking character with the sharp blade.
As with the ELM STREET maze, you will get a sense of jumping from film to filme, witnessing famous scenes (including the infamous spear through the two lovers in bed - an image swiped from Mario Bava's '70s flick BAY OF BLOOD), and there is also a nice sense of walking through the woods around Camp Crystal Lake. Considering how lacking in atmosphere the films were (the emphasis was alwasy on the gore), it is surprising to note that the maze version actually does make the woods feel creepy.
The maze also deserves some kind of credit for the most effectively tasteless gag of the evening. You enter to the sound of amplified huffing and puffing of sexual activity and assume you are hearing two teenagers just prior to being spiked, clubbed, slashed, or bashed. Instead, you see Jason (an actor in makeup, without the mask hiding his face) in an embrace with a dummy mean to represent a mangled female. So much for rumors that this year's event would be more family-oriented!
As you can see, this year's Halloween Horror Nights was a bit of a mixed bag - definitely different from last year, with more to see and a few new mazes. Whether or not you think it is an improvement depends perhaps on how much you love slasher horror (as opposed to classic horror). It's not unusual for haunts to have actors dressed as Jason, Freddy or Leatherface, but this is the first time that these characters have gotten star billing. The best of the bunch was always Freddy Kruger (thanks to the dream imagery of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, he was always more than a simple slasher icon), so it's no surprise that his maze would be the most interesting of the three; the other two are good for some crude jolts, but you won't get the uncanny sense of the supernatural that is essential for an authentic Halloween thrill.
Despite the shortcomings in some areas, Halloween Horror Nights still comes highly recommended because of the high-quality settings. Never once will you feel as if you are walking through a temporary strucutre of painted flats and cardboard coffins, nor will you see off-the-rack props available elsewhere. In a way few other haunts manage, Universal Studios transports you into another world, where horror characters seem alive. Now, having ramped up the number of mazes and monster, they only need to ramp up the number of scares.