Halloween Horror Nights 2009 Review

Traditionally, Hollywood Gothique prefers to avoid taking a definitive stand on the enduring grudge match between Knotts Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood; we think both theme park events are worthwhile for different reasons, and there is no reason not to enjoy each on its own terms. However, in 2008, Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt had a decided edge over the competition: although Universal's Halloween event was technically superior, it was essentially a repeat of the previous year, while the Knott's haunt was loaded withimaginative new mazes that provided a pleasing variety of scare experiences, ranging from the ethereal (Labyrinth) to the gruesome (The Slaughterhouse) to the intense (Quarantine). 2009 sees the pendulum's bloody scythe swinging back in the other direction: with the Knott's haunt short on great new material, Universal's revamped Horror Nights emerges as the top of this year's theme park Halloween events, loaded with more than enough sadistic screams to satisfy the most masochistic scare-lover.

All of the major Halloween attractions have been revamped or at least rebranded. The generic nature of horror franchises allows for some reuse of familiar sets and props, but like Dr. Frankenstein stitching together a monster from old body parts, the result is something new, not only in the mazes but also in the scare zones and the live shows (which include "Rocky Horror Picture Show: A Tribute" and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure").

SCARE ZONES

Universal lists six scares zones for 2009: Saw - Let the Games Begin; Saw - There Will Be Blood; Shaun of the Dead; Welcome to Hell; The Meat Market; and Freakz. Of these, we encountered four on our journey through the haunted environs of the park:

  • Shaun of the Dead occupies the London Street area of the park, which in previous Halloweens offered a home to the likes of Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Victorian era atmosphere is gone in 2009, replaced by the modern, tongue-in-cheek horror of the 2004 cult zombie film, and the results are good, ghoulish fun.
  • Welcome to Hell replaces the toxic spill from Halloweens past in th New York Street scene area. The main features here are are towering demon, standing ten feet high and striding monstrously through the assembled throng, while an evil-looking street preacher admonishes the throng to curtail their sinful ways. Bothcharacters are impressively rendered, the one withoratorical skills, the other withand unbelievable physical grace as his stilts carry him unerringly through the crowds with nary a trip or a bump.
  • The Meat Market is on the menu on the old Western street, which formerly provided a ghost town setting perhaps a bit to reminiscent of the Knotts Halloween Haunt. Lots of revving chainsaw will rattle your nerves as maniacal butchers emerge from the fog, looking to carve their next meal.
  • Saw: There Will Be Blood is appropriately close to the Saw: Game Over maze in the far end of the park. The pig-facd scare-actors do an amazing job of sneaking up on their victims (quite a feat when your revving chainsaw should betray your approach from yards away), but this particular area - which contains the rides Jurassic Park in the Dark and Revenge of the Mummy doesn't have a distinct personality that lends itself to creating a memorable scare zone.

BACK LOT TERROR TRAM TOUR

The Terror Tram seems to grow each year, with longer periods spent hiking through the back lot instead of riding around on the tram. The setting is perfect for scares - like being lost in the wilderness on a dark night - and this year Universal Studios makes excellent use of sound effects to intensify the fear.

One common feature among many Halloween haunts is the "long walk" - i.e., passages and corridors where nothing happens while you move from one scene to the next, waiting for the scares for which you paid your hard-earned blood money. The back lot tour takes this potential weakness (the lengthy empty trail that needs to be traversed) and turns it into a strength with some incredible audio ju-jitsu. Unnerving growls emanate from the undergrowth and trees all around you, so that eve when nothing is actually happening, you walk in apprehensive dread of what might happen.

Some of the scenes are revamped version of previously seen material. As when Jason haunted the back lot last year, there are bodies piled behind a sign that says "NO DUMPING." And there is once again a tree adorned with hanging bodies; only this year, Jason's teen victims have been replaced by masked miners from MY BLOODY VALENTINE.

The Strangers (seen last year in the House of Horrors) are lurking around the Bates Motel, and fans of PYSCHO will be glad to see that Norman and Mother are still in the house above, on the hill. Past this, the WAR OF THE WORLDS plane crash (a year-round feature of the tour) has been transformed into the "Containment Zone," which is loaded with zombies. Although branded as if it were something new, this feels very similar to the 2006 presentation (which also featured zombies); the main difference is the addition of military personnel and equipment trying to quarantine the area. Needless to say, much cannibalism is on display, and the results are appropriately gruesome.

Of course this year's overriding theme is derived from the SAW movies, so Jigaw (or more accurately, his puppet facade) is supposed to be the devious intelligence manipulating the horrors on view (a role filled by the crazed horror director back in 2006). At several points, he interrupts the tour bus's live video feed of the tour guide, threatening the passengers to a little game of life and death. Video clips are cleverly interpolated to make it seem as if Jigaw is talking to guests on your bus, while warning that in order to survive, all must make it through to the other end ("Loose one, loose all," he intones ominously). When one guest turns up missing (well, dead, actually), the bus is sprayed with "acid" - leading to the reuse of a gag from 2006, in which the tour guide is briefly glimpsed as a fried skeleton).

THE MAZES

For 2009, Halloween Horror Nights promises four "All-New Terrifying Mazes." The claim is a bit of Hollywood hype, but the results are so satisfying that you can overlook the exaggeration.

  • My Bloody Valentine replaces the Nightmare on Elm Street maze near Shrek'scastle. There are some lockers and a boiler room leftover, but the maniacal miner witha pick ax fills the space very well, and there are several new environments inspired by the epyonous 3D film. Although not an established franchise on par with HALLOWEEN, the MY BLOODY VALENTINE (a suprrise hit earlier this year) provides good grizzly grist for the bloody Halloween mill.
  • Halloween: The Life and Crimes of Michael Myers occupies the space occupied by the Friday the 13th maze in 2007 and 2008. You will briefly find yourself wandering in woodsy settings that seem more appropriate for Jason Voorhees than Michael Myers, but most of the maze recreates several famous moments from John Carepenter'sseminal 1978 film and its sequels (even the little loved HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH gets a scene - which we think shows real dedication on the part of the Universal crew). Our only problem with this maze is one we have not encountered at Universal in recent memory: the crowds were ushered through like cattle, packed in so tight that the line could barely movie - which resulted in several missed scares as the masked maniac jumped out at someone ahead of us and then waited until we had passed before making a return appearance. Bad move, Universal - when we go through a maze we expect to experience all the scares ourself, not see someone else get the benefit while we're stuck outside in a corridor, waiting to get into the room.
  • Saw: Game Over did not inspire us with much confidence. Despite Lionsgate strategy of releasing the films in time for Halloween, the franchise did not seem a good fit for the season, and we doubted that a an appropriate maze could come of it. We are happy to admit we were wrong. Jigsaw's demented traps and torture devices actually provide a wealthof settings and scenes that offer memorable horror images that can be recreated in a live environment withdisturbing effectiveness. Fans will love it, of course, and even non-fans (or those unfamiliar with the franchise) will likely consider this a triumph.
  • Chucky's Funhouse is a rebranded version of Universal Studios theme park's year-round House of Horrors walk-through attraction. What's different this Halloween (besides the banner out front announcing the name change) is that the classic monsters that usually make their home there (Nosferatu, Dracula's Bride, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Monster, etc) have mostly been replaced by demented dolls. Chuckywas always a part of House of Horrors, but he used to be restricted to a demented doll shop. Now he and other dolls wander the length and breadth of the maze, and the result is a wee bit monotonous. Despite his popular series of films, Chucky was never that great a character, and his little shoes are simply not big enough to fill the footsteps of the great monsters who have been evicted to make room for him. Next year, Chucky, go back to your Insult Emporium Show, where we can more easily avoid you altogether.

 THE SHOWS

Time ran out on us before we could get to the Rocky Horror Picture Show tribute, but we did manage to make it to Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure, a new version of the popular perennial. We had never experienced this particular attraction before, and this year left us scratching our heads and wondering why anyone thought the concept worth reviving. It has little to do with the BILL AND TED films (except for the vague concept of slacker dudes meeting up withcharacters pulled out of their cultural context), and the ribald jokes are less offensive than simply not funny. The best moments came when the cast were allowed to stop speaking the bad dialogue and simply dance along with the fast-paced music. The choreogrpahy was eye-catching, and all of the cast seemed to be multi-talented performers who could hande dialogue, singing, and dancing.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the Bill & Ted show is housed in the theatre that was home for the Creature From the Black Lagoon's Raging Rockin' Show; in fact, you can clearly see the boat from the Creature show (named Rita) on stage. Why Univesal would put the Creature on hiatus for Halloween is anyone's guess, but that show was much better than its rather weak replacement.

CONCLUSIONS

This year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood comes up short only in terms of exploiting the studios classic movie monsters. In past years relegated to the House of Horrors, they are almost invisible in 2009. While the new mazes and scare zones attract contemporary horror audiences, it's too bad that little traditional Halloween spirit is on display, and the attempt to "modernize" House of Horrors by filling it full of Chucky dolls (whose glory days at the box office are long gone) backfires, rendering the attraction less than it should be.

On the other hand, the back lot tour feels bigger and better than ever. (We are not sure this claim would hold up to actual measurement of distance travelled, but the attraction does convey that impression.) The mazes inspired by SAW, HALLOWEEN, and MY BLOODY VALENTINE provide familiar thrills for those who experienced TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET at the last two Halloween Horror Nights, but the new themes allow for more than enough new scenes and characters.

Even if you do recognize the odd piece of scenery, you come away feeling as if Halloween Horror Nights has been revitalized for 2009, a stitched-together Frankenstein Monster jolted back to life with a reanimating bolt of lightening. As you run in fear through the fog-bound streets, you may even find yourself crying out in demented triumph, "It's alive - Alive!"

UPDATE: The opening night of Halloween Horror Nights was preceded by the annual Chiller-Eyegore Awards. Watch a video of the red carpet arrivals, including Rob Zombie, Tobin Bell, and Rick Baker, at Cinefantastique Online.