Last night, we probably got a bigger adrenalin rush from Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood than we have in many years. The technical trickery at Universal Studios Hollywood always exceeds that of any other Halloween haunt in Los Angeles - that is a given - but last night's 2012 debut featured something else: a satisfyingly variegated variety of shocks and shudders. We won't pretend there was a dearth of gore - far from it - but somehow Halloween Horror Nights 2012 avoids the creeping sense of monotony that seemed to be setting in during past Halloweens, when virtually interchangeable attractions (Saw, Hostel) trotted out more or less the same atrocities under different brand names. (You almost expected to see a maze named "The Saw Remains the Same.") Yes, some familiar set-pieces return this year, but there are so many scares on view, and of such different kinds, that it doesn't really matter. Halloween Horror Nights 2012 has something for everyone - from the twisted flesh of SILENT HILL to the sinister spirits of La Llorona, from the shock-rock of Alice Cooper to the apocalyptic shock of THE WALKING DEAD.
The highlight of Halloween Horror Nights 2012 is the presence of the "walkers" from the AMC television series, who serve double duty here, infesting their own maze, The Walking Dead: Dead Inside, and invading the back lot Terror Tram tour. When you have seen one flesh-eating zombie, you more or less have seen them all, but there are memorable, iconic images from the television series that are brought to live here, creating a look that distinguishes this year's Walking Dead from previous zombies.
There is also a pleasingly consistent feel to the Terror Tram. Whereas previous years tended to mix and match bits and pieces of several franchises (e.g., Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface might show up), this year's Terror Tram is pretty much zombies, zombies, zombies (with a brief detour for a photo op with Norman Bates in front of the PSYCHO house). Unless our memory fails us, this is the first time Universal Studios Hollywood has utilized a television franchise in Halloween Horror Nights; the results definitely justify the decision.
Alice Cooper Goes to Hell in 3-D offers an over-the-top, almost campy concoction that should please both fans and newcomers. Imagery from his many stages shows (boa constrictors, death by hanging) merge with the 7 deadly sins to create a memorable portrait of damnation in many forms. Only one song is used from the eponymous 1976 album (i.e., "Go to Hell"), but Cooper returned to the damnation theme many times, providing numerous tunes perfectly suited to the horrors on view (e.g., "Eat Some More" is the soundtrack here for the sin of Gluttony).
La Llorona: La Cazadora de Ninos ("The Crying Woman: Hunter of Children") repeats some makeup and effects seen in the La Llorona maze at last year's Halloween Horror Nights; nevertheless, perhaps because the theme is based on an authentic legend (the crying ghost of a woman who murdered her children), La Llorona comes closer to an authentic Halloween feel than the gore and violence on display in other mazes. We were a bit wary when Universal Studios Hollywood started incorporating La Llorona into Halloween Horror Nights a couple years ago (it seemed like an obvious rip-off of the "Dia De Los Muertos" maze at Knott's Berry Farm's annual Halloween haunt), but the satisfyingly sinister results speak for themselves, providing a badly needed change of pace from the gore-filled approach of the other mazes.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Saw is the Law is modeled after the original 1974 film (not the remake, which inspired a previous maze at Halloween Horror Nights). It may take sharp-eyed fright fans to note the distinction, but this maze is set in a different location from its predecessor and features a grittier feel, in keeping with the source material. Some of the film's most grizzly shocks (e.g., the girl on the meathook) are recreated with ghoulish intensity. Of course, Leatherface is an ubiquitous presence, but chainsaws (a staple at too many Halloween attractions) are not overused; there are more than enough other atrocities on display to satisfy horror hounds without non-stop saws.
The new Silent Hill maze impresses with its recreation of the disturbingly distorted characters from the namesake videogame. There is also a pleasingly otherworldly sensation, created by ghostly characters who seem to appear behind walls - and then disappear just as inexplicably. Still, there is a lack of variety to the frights: there are lots of disfigured nurses, plus a few other bizarre beings, but the the scares are fairly standard issue (pop out from around the corner), with little sense of a theme or narrative progression. The only surprise is the incongruous bunnies seen near the end - which provoke not screams of fear but tsks of confusion, as people shrug their shoulders and mutter, "Huh?"
For Halloween 2012, Universal Studios Hollywood has taken its year-round House of Horrors walk-through attraction and rebranded it Universal Monsters Remix. You will see the same old sets and props, backed by a throbbing techno-electronic beat; as incongruous as that sounds, the effect helps rejuvenate the old familiar monsters, like a transfusion of new blood. The pulsing lights are more colorful, enhancing the monochromatic look of the venue (mostly inspired by black-and-white horror films), and the dancing monsters (some of them quite over-sized) seem electrified in a brand new way. There is also a great gag with a character who seems to be a stone fixture - before opening her eyes and coming to life. Little of it is really very scare, but it is certainly novel.
Halloween Horror Nights features a handful of Scare Zones. As usual, the best two are the ones utilizing the theme park's most appropriate settings: the London Street scene, with its Victorian atmosphere, is haunted by creepy Toyz. The Medieval Village is filled with hag-like witches.
There is a Clownz zone near the front entrance. The chainsaw-wielding performers do a good job harassing passersby, but the clown theme really needs to be retired in favor of something new. Why not use the Walking Dead instead?
There is also a Silent Hill scare zone in the lower level of the park (where the mazes for Silent Hill and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are situated). This last one is the least effective, stranding its performers in an inappropriate location (near the escalator) with little atmosphere. Universal Studios used to feature wonderful fog-filled scare zones on its lower level - down a side street a short walk from the escalator. This year, the street has been kept clear, probably to avoid scaring away any potential visitors to the new 3-D Transformers ride. Too bad.
Summing up: Halloween Horror Nights 2012 is not perfect. We think some of the dramatic potential of The Walking Dead could have been more fully exploited, and we are disappointed to see that props, sets, and gags are still being recycled under new brand names. However, it is churlish to focus on these flawed details when the big picture is so impressive.Frequent haunt-goers may be a bit too jaded to appreciate just how awesome Universal Studios annual haunted theme park event really is. We were forcibly reminded of this while walking through the back lot plane-crash: a young woman nearby was almost too impressed to be truly scared. Seeing her friends surrounded by zombies amid the devastated homes and torn fuselage, her reaction was not a scream of fear but a laudatory appraisal: "This is amazing!"
Yes, it is.
Update: Have attended the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt the night after Halloween Horror Nights, we wanted to drop a note here to say that, although both are excellent, this year we preferred the presentation at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Halloween Horror Nights runs on selected nights (mostly weekends) through October 31. Universal Studios Hollywood is located at 100 Universal City Plaza, Univeral City, CA 91608.
More: Halloween Horror Nights 2012
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- 2012 Halloween Recommendations: The Best Haunted Theme Park Events in Los Angeles (hollywoodgothique.com)
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- Knotts Scary Farm 2012 Review (hollywoodgothique.com)