Halloween Horror Nights 2010: Review

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Because competition may be more friendly than cut-throat, I do not want to over-emphasize the "grudge match" between Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood and the Knotts Scary Farm Halloween Haunt; but if Universal - the upstart challenger - truly wants to wrest the crown away from Knott's - the established champion - then they will have to do better than their 2010 presentation. Not that there's been any drop in quality - HHN still features the most elaborate sets, costumes, makeup, and effects of any Halloween event in Los Angeles - but it's starting to feel a bit familiar. What's needed is a little innovation - a creative spark that will reinvigorate this haunt like Frankenstein's monster when given another shot of electricity.

Halloween Horror Nights continues to succeed at its intended  goal, which is to bring horror movies to life, turning them into amazingly detailed walk-through mazes that immerse fans in the worlds of their favorite movie monsters. The irony is that, in basing its attractions on successful horror film franchises, Universal has fallen prey to the problems that plague sequels and remakes, which tend to recycle the same elements from year to year, for fear of tampering with the formula for success.

Thus, after a one year hiatus, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees are back on the lot, because of recent remakes featuring the characters - even though neither the new FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009) nor the new A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010) was particularly well received. Jigsaw is back in "Saw: Game On," which despite the title change is essentially 2009's "Saw: Game Over," with a few tweaks here and there. We get Chucky shoe-horned into the Terror Tram. And the one new walk-through maze is based on HOUSE OF A 1000 CORPSES, a relatively minor cult item that basically offers another variation on the sinister sideshow/crazed carneval theme; it's even in 3-D, like your typical killer klown maze.

The fact that something has been done before does not necessarily mean that it will be done badly. So how do 2010's Halloween Horror Nights attractions stand up?

MAZES

Jason1_grindstone5x7 copyOverall, the mazes seem slightly less dark and threatening this year. There are still some great jump scares, but in an effort to jangle the nerves, the audio effects tend to be turned up loud from start to finish, offering few opportunities to build anticipation and suspense. One unfortunate dividend of focusing on individual films (the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th mazes are based on the recent remakes, not the previous originals and sequels) is that there is less material to work with, leading to a certain monotony. Jason/Freddy jumps out at you in the first room, then the second room, then the third room, etc - and it's always the same character with the same appearance. (The Elm Street and Friday mazes of 2007 and 2008 benefited from being based on franchises with lots of sequels, which offered some variety when it came to depicting the characters: for example, Jason could appear with a bag over his head, as in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II, instead of the familiar hockey mask.)

FRIDAY THE 13TH: KILL, JASON, KILL. Jason's back, but this maze is remarkably different from the ones seen in 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately, Jason isn't really given enough room to show off the difference between his current incarnation and the versions seen during previous Halloweens. The new Jason is supposed to take his cue from the performance by Derek Mears in the remake, who made the character more of an Olympic athelete, rather than the slow and steady menace that he was when played, most famously, by Kane Hodder in the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels VII through X (it was Hodder's performances that set the style for Universal's previous "Friday the 13th" mazes). Setting that aside, the new "Friday the 13th" maze does justify bringing the character back, by showing him in new settings and situations, with lots of new gore gags.

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A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: NEVER SLEEP AGAIN. Like the "Friday the 13th" maze, this one lives up to the promise of offering something new, this time a grim Freddy based on the 2010 remake. Unfortunately, the attempt fares less well. The remake's new Freddy makeup is not that impressive when translated into the live medium - it looks like putty smooshed around the face. And by focusing on a single film, the maze looses the variety made possible by pulling the best bits and pieces from several sequels. The result loses the "Nightmare" on Elm Street: it's fairly generic, with burlap tunnels and tight corridors that force you to walk past windows and doors from which Freddy can make his expectedly unexpected appearances. There area  few nice touches, fortunately: solid walls that disappear, revealing Freddy behind them, or that stretch as if pressed from behind (recreating a memorable image from the original film that was botched in the remake thanks to cartoony CGI).

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SAW: GAME ON. Against our expectations, "Saw: Game Over"turned out to be the highlight of 2009's Halloween Horror Nights, so we are not complaining when we saw that this year's incarnation is a virtual duplicate. There are a few nice gruesome bits included, such as the "rack-crucifix," which neatly - well, not so neatly - twists off its victim's arms. (We are not gore fans, but this one effect is almost worth the price of admission -although flashing lights and screams may distract you from seeing what's happening.) The interesting point here is that most of Universal's mazes try to feature the villain as much as possible, but "Saw: Game On" maintains Jigsaw as an off-screen voice, focusing attention on the mechanical traps and torture devices. Our only disappointment was with a recreation of a scene from the original SAW, in which one victim must dig a key out of the body of another victim in order to unlock a device before it kills her; for some reason, the actress playing the role was camping it up, simply flopping her fingers through bloody guts as if playing a game, not engaged in a life-or-death race against the clock.

VAMPYRE MAZE

VAMPYRE: CASTLE OF THE UNDEAD. Universal's House of Horrors is retitled for 2010 (last year it was "Chucky's Funhouse"), but the layout and sets remain much the same. The main difference is that the walk-through is haunted by a bunch of ugly vampires based on a comic-book tie-in. The inspiration here seems to be to go anti-TWILIGHT, which is fine with us, but that will take you only so far. The vampyres need something of their own to make them memorable, beyond the fact that they are not like Edward Cullen; what we get are fairly generic, if effective at hissing and scaring in the dark. There is also a problem with the setting: House of Horrors is designed to feature several different environments: in some the vampyres seem appropriate (like Dracula's Castle); in some they do not (like Chucky's toy story or Frankenstein's laboratory). There is corridor of mirrors that we do not remember from years past - creating some visual distraction that allows the vampires to make effective surprise appearances from concealed doors, and there is a very effective bit at the very end, with a headless corpse that turns out to be alive.

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ROB ZOMBIE'S HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES: IN 3D ZOMBIEVISION

It may be Zombievision, but it's barely 3D. The flimsy cardboard spectacles create some color separation that makes certain highlighted objects stand out, but for the most part the techniques does not yield particularly memorable results. The walk through the various ghoulish scenes is creepy enough to be worthwhile, but the characters have not truly achieved the cult status that makes them ideal choices for a Halloween maze. Rob Zombie's fans will probably feel differently - and have a great time - but the average Halloween enthusiast will be less sanguine.

BACKLOT TOUR

TERROR TRAM: CHUCKY'S REVENGE is another awkward attempt to insert the killer doll into a location where he does not fit: last year it was in the House of Horrors; this year it is on the backlot. It's starting to feel like a pay-or-play situation, with an actor under contract who gets slotted into some movie just because the studio has already paid his salary and wants to get something back for its investment rather than letting him collect his check for doing nothing. The problem here is that, in spite of numerous sequels, the CHILD'S PLAY films were always a second-rate franchise, and although talking dolls are always creepy and unnerving, the tiny tike is just not credible as a serial killer.

TERROR TRAMTo some extent, Halloween Horror Nights acknowledges this by not featuring Chucky very much on the walking part of the tour (I saw one small actor in a mask and costume, a stationary doll or two, and some pint-sized silhouettes). Instead, most of the monsters are storm-troopers with de rigueur chainsaws. There are also some nicely camouflaged "plant" monsters, who blend in with the vegetation on the dark hillside.

Chucky is truly featured only on the video played on monitors aboard the tram, and truth be told, this footage is amusing - a parody of true-life documentaries charting the fading careers of celebrity has-beens. Chucky is seen in a montage of clips and still that portray him descending into drink as the career opportunities fade. In a gambit that borders on bad taste - but is pretty funny - we are told that the official explanation for the devastating 2008 fire on Universal's back lot was a cover story; the real culprit was a vengeful Chucky, angry at the way the studio had abandoned him.

The facades and scenery are much the same as in previous years, but retroffited to accommodate Chucky (i.e., it's dolls hanging from the tree, not Jason's victims). Also, the path has been altered in some cases to give you a slightly different view as you pass from the Bates Motel to the Psycho House, where you can see more "Mothers" (i.e., Norman Bates in drag) than you can shake a stick at. The effect is more campy than frightening.

The airplane crash site is just as awesome as ever, but the storm troopers do not do much to enhance it. In past year's, this area worked best when used to convey a sense of apocalyptic horror, in which the world seemed to be in total chaos, with zombies feeding on helpless victims in the yards of nearby homes. If Universal really wants to do something interesting with this area next year, they should fashion it into something based on LOST - now that would be interesting.

SCARE ZONES

LA LLORONAHalloween Horror Nights featured six scare zones this year. As usual, they fared best when taking advantage of the available locations.

LA LLORANA is basically a ghostly bride with a dead baby, walking through the ghost town street. She doesn't quite fit there - it's a Western setting, not a Mexican hacienda - but her (recorded) cries of "Donde esta mi hijos?" ("Where are my children?") is effective.

PIGZ are what you pass as you approach the Saw maze in the lower section of Universal (near the Mummy's Revenge and King Kong 360 3-D). There is almost no decor here, just some fog to hide the chainsaw-wielding maniacs.

NIGHTMARZ is set in the main entrance - basically, the go-go dancers are in Freddy Krueger attire this year.

FREAKZ is set in the mideval village street scene - a great location for Halloween horror. This scare zone always works, and 2010 is no exception.

KLOWNZ have taken over the New York City street scene. With blazing blasts of fire shooting into the night sky, the heat palpably striking your body, this one packs some bunch. And there is a great demonic-looking character - a giant on stilts - charging through the crowd.

LUNATICZ are running wild in the London street scene. This is an area of the Universal Studios theme park that evokes an old-fashioned Gothic atmosphere, perfectly appropriate for Halloween. Like the mideval village, this is one that always works, and the lunatics slot in nicely.

RIDES

If you have not already seen King Kong 360 3-D and the Simpsons motion-simulation ride, don't miss this opportunity.

CONCLUSIONS

Our trip to Halloween Horror Nights - on opening night, Friday, October 24 - went smoothly. There was a slight glitch with the King Kong ride, but it was fixed quickly. "Vampyre: Castle of the Undead" was down for a time due to technical difficulties, but that simply provided time to check out other attractions before heading back later.

Crowds were thick for so early in the season. It's great that Halloween Horror Nights is so popular, but Universal should exercise a little discretion in terms of the number of tickets it sells. If some visitors want to spend extra for the fast pass to avoid the lines, that is fine; however, it should not be necessary to purchase one simply in order to get to every attraction in the park before closing time.

One item that caught our attention was the number of skillful scaractors  on stilts, some of who could not only move at break-neck speed but also maneuver deftly through crowds and even perform pirouettes.

In general, we think Halloween Horror Nights would be better if it made greater use of its own monster movie legacy; it is certainly a shame that, on the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchock's PSYCHO, Universal Studios could not have found some way to feature the famous franchise. Yes, one could argue that Norman Bates is dated, but so is Chucky. Canning the killer doll in favor of Norman - or just about any other Universal monster - would be an easy improvement (and it would tie in nicely with the back story for this year's Terror Tram).

Bottom Line: If you have not been to Universal Studio's Halloween Horror Nights, you really owe it to yourself to make the effort. However, if you have attended on previous occasions, there may not be enough new and novel frights to make a return trip an absolute necessity.

FINAL QUESTION

If Universal was going to bring back both Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees for Halloween Horror Nights 2010, would it have really killed them to stage a Freddy vs. Jason fight somewhere on theme park's lot?

More in this series: 

  1. Halloween Horror Nights 2010
  2. Halloween Horror Nights 2010: Review