Halloween Horror Nights 2013: Final Assessment

Black Sabbath 13 in 3D at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights 2013

After reviewing the Halloween attraction's individual mazes, Hollywood Gothique revises its initial impression and delivers a verdict.

Our first impression of 2013's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollwyood was one of mild disappointment. The theme park's upper lot, with only one new maze and some uninspired scare zones, did not bode well for an evening of terror. Fortunately, the four mazes on the lower lot provided enough Halloween horror to overcome most of our initial reservations.

WHAT'S WRONG

Because of construction, there is a shortage of mazes on the upper lot. Basically, you get Universal Monsters Remix: Resurrected in the House of Horrors and the new El Cucuy: The Boogeyman. The former is essentially unchanged since last Halloween; the latter is fairly decent but not truly a must-see.

The upper lot scare zones did little to fill the void. Two of them sport themes that desperately need to be retired: killer klownz outlived their sell-by date long ago, and Chucky is the Halloween equivalent of an aging performer who refuses to retire long after his career has faded (though the Chucky room in the House of Horrors maze is just fine),

Halloween Horror Nights 2013 features a scare zone based on THE PURGE.The third scare zone, The Purge, is a good example of a bad habit: Universal Studios Hollywood likes to rebrand old attractions and present them as something new. Halloween Horror Nights has featured a chaotic New York City street scene since its resurrection in 2006; this year's version looks little different except for a few "Purge" posters on display; also, there is a Rhys Wakefield look-alike, instead of a generic looney, delivering the spiel through the loud speaker. If you were not looking closely, you might not even realize you had walked through a Purge scare zone.

In general, the Halloween Horror Nights 2013 is short on scares, at least for those who have been attending long enough to spot the tactics involved. Monsters suddenly emerge, then disappear just as quickly. Opportunities to get more interactive and intimate with the frights are ignored, because that sort of approach is difficult to square with the necessities of moving large numbers of people through the attractions as quickly as possible. Which brings us to...

Even early in the season, before Halloween is in full swing, long lines make it virtually impossible to attend every maze without a fast pass. Get one if you can afford it. If you can't, skip Universal Monsters Remix and the Terror Tram; head straight for the lower lot instead; then go back and catch El Cucuy if you have time.

WHAT'S RIGHT

Black Sabbath 13 and Insidious: Into the Further are entertaining in quite different ways. The back lot scare zone leading to them (you have to take a short tram ride to get there) is one of Universal's best ever. Neither The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead nor The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven is particularly scary, but both do a good job of presenting memorable images from their namesake franchises.

Overall, this year's mazes are fairly dense and fast-paced: whatever their length, there is little if any wasted space; every room has some kind of scare, and they come at you in rapid-fire succession. You may not be screaming in fear, but you will be gasping in astonishment - or perhaps laughing in hysteria at the excessive gore in the Evil Dead maze.

Transormers-The-RideSurprisingly, the highlight of the evening (for us, at least) was not specifically themed for Halloween Horror Nights; it was Transformers: The Ride 3D, in the lower lot, near Evil Dead: Book of the Dead. This combination of ride, motion-simulator, and 3D movie-making is stunning in its ability to create the sensation (partly real but mostly simulated) of moving through a series of different scenes, each one highlighted by some dazzling computer-generated special effects photography, depicting battles between the Autobots and the Decipticons.

Essentially, the ride takes you past several enormous movie screens, pausing and gyrating in front of each while the action takes place, and then moving on to the next. Thanks to the 3D cinematography, the illusion of actually looking at something in front of you is powerful and visceral - and the motion-simulation is even more convincing, though not more amusing, than The Simpsons Ride in the upper lot. The result was not enough to turn us into a Transformers fan, but it very nearly justified the lengthy wait in line - and that's saying something. Now if only Universal Studios Hollywood would incorporate this kind of 3D motion-simulator ride into Halloween Horror Nights - perhaps to bring a Final Destination disaster to life - that would be something unique.

CONCLUSION

We get the impression that Universal Studios Hollywood is no longer choosing brand-name franchises on the basis of which would make the best mazes; rather, the goal seems to be to turn Halloween Horror Nights into a giant live-action commercial. The Terror Tram is no longer about telling a story involving mayhem on the back lot; it's about showing promotional footage from The Walking Dead's upcoming Season Four.

A scene from EVIL DEAD (2013) that is lovingly recreated at Halloween Horror Nights
A scene from EVIL DEAD (2013) that is lovingly recreated at Halloween Horror Nights

Fortunately, crass commercial considerations aside, the Universal Studios craftsmen have constructed some amazingly convincing environments, and some of the best mazes are based on franchises that are not particular favorites of ours. We would definitely prefer to see a little more innovation in terms of scare tactics, drama, and interactivity, but in the end it seems a little petty to critique a Halloween haunt that features a blood-drenched heroine shoving a chainsaw into the face of a possessed zombie, precipitating a red rain of misty gore upon astonished viewers. Really, isn't that lone worth the price of admission?

Halloween Horror Nights continues at Universal Studios Hollywood on October 18-20, 24-27, 31, and November 1-2. The address is 100 Universal City Plaza Univeral City, CA 91608. Get more info at the official website.

Interested in other Halloween theme park attractions? You can find them here.