Halloween Horror Nights 2015 review

A monster on the New York city street scene of Halloween Horror Nights 2015. Photo by David Sprague
A monster on the New York street.

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood continues to set the standard for sets, special effects and makeup, exceeding what you will encounter at any other Los Angeles Halloween attraction. Fortunately, the annual event also overcomes some habitual weaknesses this year, providing a better variety of haunt experiences filled more frequent scares than we have experienced in the past. Judging from opening night, this will be that best Halloween at Universal Studios Hollywood in many a year.

OVERVIEW

Like last year, Universal Studios has placed most of its Halloween attractions on the lower lot. Only the Micheal Myers maze and a few scare zones are situated on the upper level, which shows signs of construction. You can catch a glimpse of the new Harry Potter attraction, and, sadly, what used to be the old House of Horrors is now hidden behind plywood walls.

There is an upside to this. With all the construction, visitors are more or less funneled toward the escalators to the lower lot and to the tram tour. Even if you do not consult a map, you should find what you are looking for relatively easily, because most of it is packed into a relatively small area.

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MAZES

Halloween Horror Nights offers six mazes this year of varying shapes, sizes, and tones. Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home is in the upper lot where Dracula Untold resided in 2014. Insidious: Return to the Further is to the left as you exit the escalator to the lower lot. The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far and This Is the End are near Transformer: The Ride 3D. Crimson Peak and Alien Vs. Predator are a short tram ride away, on the back lot area.

In general, we noticed more scares packed into the rooms of the mazes, and they happened at greater frequency. Instead of a single character, there would be two, attacking in a coordinated fashion from opposite directions, and if you happened to miss a scare that popped just before you entered a room, it would strike again before you left.

The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far
The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far. Photo by David Sprague
The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far

Judging by the wait-lines, this maze seems to be the main attraction at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights. Located in a new, specially constructed setting to the left of the Transformers ride, The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far is based on the Terminus episodes from Season 5 of the AMC show, which means the emphasize is not only on the living dead but on cannibal humans. Outside, there is lots of activity, with zombies grasping at the fence separating them from visitors waiting inline. Inside, there were one or two familiar gags; otherwise, this was totally different from previous Walking Dead mazes. The grim and grizzly tone was quite effective, and we loved some of the imagery, such as the living zombie torsos. There was also a very dramatic “mass attack” –  combination of live actors and moving mannequins surrounding a single, helpless a human victim.

This Is The End in 3D
This Is The End maze. Photo by David Sprague
This Is The End

Based on the comedy-disaster-horror-fantasy film, This Is The End is the obligatory 3D maze. It’s a  mostly successful attempt to offer something colorful and zany without resorting to the tired killer klown theme. Memorable imagery, including an impaled Michael Cera outside and a fiery demon inside (with hellish light glowing through cracks in his rocky skin), is recreated with amazing detail, as are several scenes from the film. The result doesn’t work quite as well as it should, because comedy demands a setup and a punchline; with security guards urging crowds to keep moving, you might not stick around long enough to hear the punch line. (For example, the film’s riff on The Exorcist‘s “the power of Christ compels you” ends with the possessed delivering a snarky comeback: “It’s not very compelling.” If you don’t hear that last line, you might think you were seeing the original scene from The Exorcist, not the spoof version.)

Crimson Peak
Crimson Peak maze at Halloween Horror Nights 2015. Photo by David Sprague
Crimson Peak

This maze offers a sort of advanced live-action preview of the upcoming movie from Guillermo Del Toro, which looks like a fascinating haunted house film rendered in a grand fairy tale style. Crimson Peak appears inauspicious from outside, but stepping over the threshold takes you into another world of old-fashioned atmospheric horror, mixed with ethereal, beautiful imagery (dots of light dancing like snowflakes against the blue background seen through a window pane). There are plenty of jump-scares but also a great sense of anticipation as you head down the musty corridors. There are also some nice lighting effects that reveal visions from behind what look like solid walls or paintings, and one or two apparitions seem to appear out of nowhere (actually they’re just well camouflaged). There is one almost total black out section that leaves you feeling as if you have fallen into a void – expect a tickling sensation to reach out from the darkness.

Because the maze is based on a single film, there is a slightly repetitious air: the same black-clad malevolent spirit – looking like a veiled widow – pops up several times. Fortunately, the dark magic of the setting is more than enough to offset this, making this an early contender for our favorite maze of the year (we went through twice, and it held up).

Insidious: Return to the Further
Insidious: Return to the Further maze. Photo by David Sprague
Insidious: Return to the Further

This revised version of the previous Insidious maze offers some new scenes and scares, but the overall tone is much the same. (After all, once you have gone into the further, how much further can you go?) We enjoy the haunted house vibe, but some rooms are simply black curtains – not what we expect from Universal Studios; perhaps they are meant to convey the “further,” but they’re just curtains.

Also, the ghostly female figure is even more repetitious than the one in Crimson Peak. One unintentionally funny bit has her strangling a victim; since there is no payoff to the scene, the strangling just goes on and on, the live actor shaking a dummy representing a victim who is clearly long dead. On the plus side, there are many gaps in the ceiling from which the ghost can reach for you – more than enough to ensure that you will receive at least a few scares yourself, no matter how big a crowd surrounds you. We thoroughly enjoyed these new scare opportunities, even though we felt that some of the spookiness of the previous Insidious maze had been lost.

Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home
Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home. Photo by David Sprague
Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home

Though not an exact duplicate, this is more or less the Halloween: The Life and Crimes of Michael Myers maze from Halloween Horror Nights 2009. It recreates some of the same scenes from John Carpenter’s original (such as the strangulation of the P.J. Soles character), and even the pumpkin-masked kids from Halloween III: Season of the Witch show up, complete with the TV jingle playing in the background.

But some nice bits of business have been added, and we do have to say that Michael Myers seems to show up much more often, which really puts you on edge. We enjoyed his confrontation with a gun-wielding Dr. Loomis, whose revolver manages to knock the masked madman back if not put him down for the count. Also, there’s a great mirror maze with dozens of Michaels – so many that you will not know which are mannequins and which are actors.

Alien Vs. Predator

Essentially the same as last year. The monsters are great, and if you want to see them again, go for it. Just don’t expect much that is new.

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SCARE ZONES & TERROR TRAM
Dark Christmas Scare Zone. Photo by David Sprague
Dark Christmas

There are four scare zones on the lot of Universal Studios this Halloween: Exterminatorz, Dark Christmas, Corpz, and The Purge: Urban Nightmare. The Purge franchise also shows up on this year’s Terror Tram.

Dark Christmas, back on the London Street scene, is the best of the bunch. Like last year, it offers a demented take on the yuletide season, engulfed in fog and enhanced with distorted carols. This year the colorful Christmas lights seem brighter, offering an interesting contrast to the gloom. Enshrouded in mist, you stumble toward the lights, while strange shapes and silhouettes approach, some towering high above you, and then when they get close bright flashes of light suddenly reveal their snarling countenances. This may be the most well-lit scare zone we have ever seen.

Corpz, one street over from Dark Christmas, offers a WWI variation on the living dead, with uniformed zombies moving in and out of the fog while sirens and cannons echo in the darkness. THis one did not make as memorable an impression on us as Dark Christmas, but grim imagery and aggressive ghouls definitely earned their share of screams from victims passing through this street.

Exterminatorz fills the New York City street scene. As always, this is a brightly lit area, punctuated with bursts of flame, so subtlety is out of the question; the characters go for aggressive, in-your-face scares, accompanied by loud bursts of sound. The joke is that these exterminatorz are bugs, turning the tables on humanity, and one or two of the actors pull of some nice insectoid behavior. Our favorite got down on all fours – not face down but face up – and managed to move at an alarmingly fast clip with a very spider-like walk that sent his target screaming.

Terror Tram: Survive the Purge
Terror Tram: Survive The Purge

The Purge: Urban Nightmare is an aggressive blast. You pass through this scare zone after exiting the tram to Crimson Peak and Alien Vs. Predator. The urban landscape is a perfect setting for legalized chaos, and it is filled with crazed “patriots” eager to purge their darker emotions by venting their anti-social behavior on you. Sometimes the fog is so thick you will have to stop or risk walking into a wall – giving the purge-happy kill-crew ample opportunity to sneak up on you. Best of all is Big Daddy’s truck, with a heavy-duty machine gun mounted in back, flashing as it “guns” down the crowd, including you. This was a noticeable improvement over the Purge scare zone in the New York Street Scene from 2014.

This Halloween’s Terror Tram, titled Survive The Purge, is built around the premise that we guests have been invited to a “purge party,” which turns out to be a ruse luring unwary victims to be hunted by decadent, rich “patriots” who pay big bucks to purge by murdering lower class “scum.”  There is something alarmingly appropriate about this scenario in the context of a Halloween event on the lot of Universal Studios, a company of rich, powerful people, selling tickets to working class tourists looking to party and have a good time. In any case, much of this back lot area, with its rural landscape, is a less appropriate setting for The Purge than the scare zone near Crimson Peak. Fortunately, setting and theme combine beautifully in the devastated suburban area, where the ruined fuselage of a downed plane raises a question so far never addressed in the Purge films: what happens on commercial flights during The Purge?

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CONCLUSION
Corpz Scare Zone. Photo by David Sprague
Corpz Scare Zone

Halloween Horror Nights is still a little short on quantity, but variety is more satisfying than it’s been for the past couple years. Sure, with a fast pass and/or a little careful planning, you could see all the mazes and scare zones with a couple of hours to spare, but in those mazes and scare zones you will not find yourself thinking, as we often have, that you are seeing the same scares over and over.

One reason for this is the limitation of The Walking Dead to a single maze, instead of also putting it in a scare zone and on the terror tram. The Purge fills those latter two slots quite nicely, replacing shuffling zombies with aggressive maniacs – providing opportunities for more wild and over-the-top performances instead of the usual one-note moans. Insidious and Crimson Peak are both haunted houses, but the settings are completely distinct, one contemporary and one classic. Yes, we’ve seen Michael Myers at Universal Studios Hollywood before, but he’s the only slasher icon on the lot this Halloween, so why not? And as for This Is The End – what can we say? It was a stroke of admirable inspiration to toss out the moribund circus-funhouse-clown approach (seen in so many colorful 3D mazes) and gives us a zany demon-filled comedic take on the apocalypse.

The retired House of Horrors is keenly missed, but at least some of its old-school charm was channeled through Crimson Peak – which, though based on an upcoming movie, made us feel as if we had entered into a classic fairy tale made scare for adults.

The quality of the production values at Halloween Horror Nights is as high as ever. More important, Universal Studios Hollywood seem to be working overtime to deliver scares this season. We noticed this in almost every maze, with multiple monster attacks occurring at shorter intervals, so that we never felt as though we were waiting for a scare that never came or that we missed a scare that came too soon.

We noticed less recycling this season, by which we do not mean bringing back a previously seen maze such as Alien Vs. Predator. Rather, we refer to the practice of pulling old sets and props off the shelf and re-purposing them for a new maze. Little if any of that was apparent. Consequently, we did not come away with the sense we had in previous seasons, that Universal Studios was simply pumping out Halloween Horror Nights the same way it used to pump out Frankenstein sequels – beautifully made but with little inspiration. Instead, for Halloween Horror Nights 2015, Universal took franchise they had used before (The Walking Dead, The Purge) and used them better than before. The returning mazes were good enough to deserve another go-round, and the new mazes truly seemed new, not disguised remakes.

Best of all, the different elements blend together into a satisfying whole – kind of like Frankenstein’s Monster, when you think about it. All those disparate parts, sewn together and rejuvenated with a jolt of cosmic energy, will leave you screaming happily, “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”

Halloween Horror Nights runs through November 1 on weekends and some weeknights. Hours are 7pm to 2am every night; the Terror Tram stops running at 11:45pm. The address is Universal Studios, Hollywood 100 Universal City Plaza Universal City, CA 91608. Get more info at the official website.

Interested in other Halloween events in Los Angeles? Check out our pages for Halloween Haunts and Halloween Theme Parks!

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.