Universal Studios Hollywood offers the biggest and most elaborate theme park haunt in Los Angeles, but can it live up to its own reputation? Read our Halloween Horror Nights 2017 review to find out...if you dare!
Have we ever seen so many black plywood passageways in the mazes of Halloween Horror Nights? Have they always been there and we simply never noticed? We think not. Production value has always been the power-punch that Universal Studios Hollywood used to knock out the competition, but much of what we saw this year felt like a fun house. In between the great set-pieces we have come to expect were unadorned hallways, chain-link fences, and occasionally unconvincing "exteriors." None of this was nearly enough to ruin the experience, but the execution was not on an order of magnitude that would clearly put other Halloween Theme Parks to shame.
If we seem to be taking a tiny scar and magnifying it beneath our mad scientist's microscope, there is a reason: Universal Studios Hollywood has always promised an immersive experience that would allow audiences to step out of the theatre and onto the screen to experience rather than simply watch their favorite cinematic scare shows. Props, costumes, makeup, and sets were essential to the entertainment value because - let's face it - creativity and innovation were limited by the need to process huge crowds as efficiently as possible. There is little room for drama, interactivity, and personalized scares when the customers need to keep moving or risk being trampled by those behind them.
Consequently, Halloween Horror Nights has a limited number of templates, which they reuse not only from one year to the next but also from one maze to the next. It goes without saying that every maze will feature multiple instances of monsters bursting through doors/windows/hidden openings - punctuated by an explosive rumble and a blinding strobe light. What sets the mazes apart is the visual overlay, the sense of entering a specific milieu, filled with icons both familiar and frightening.
Unfortunately, these corner-cutting corridors feel generic. Empty blackness might make sense in the Insidious maze if we assume it represents the supernatural limbo seen in the movies, but it makes no sense in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which is based on a horror movie that very conspicuously kept the lights on. After the umpteenth instance of a dark passage leading to a hidden character emerging from a hole in the wall, it becomes difficult to distinguish the mazes from each other; the only difference is the identity of the character, and even this becomes blurry when both Saw: The Games of Jigsaw and American Horror Story: Roanoke feature men in pig masks as the primary boogeymen.
All is not lost, however; there were terrors aplenty on the back lot...
Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Review: The Terror Tram
This year's ride to the back lot is titled "Titans of Terror Tram, Hosted by Chucky." Aboard the tram, the diminutive doll appears via video, rendered in unconvincing CGI with a voice that is no match for Brad Dourif's work in the films. Fortunately, this short setup - essentially a commercial for the next Child's Play sequel - quickly ends when visitors disembark to walk through a series of vignettes featuring Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger. In case you don't remember, these were the first three monsters that Universal Studios Hollywood sub-contracted for Halloween Horror Nights back in 2007, and we were less than enthusiastic about seeing them pulled out of retirement for a 10th anniversary reunion.
Well...we are happy to admit that we were wrong. The walking section of the tour seems considerably shortened, with the scares packed closer together. Chucky appears full-human size, chainsaw in hand. The Bates Motel has been transformed into the Crystal Lake Motel, where hapless camp counselors with damaged bodies seek - but do not find - help. The outdoor maze is populated by the Texas Chainsaw family. And the immense airline crash site features Freddy in various guises, including a pilot joking about "Kruger Airlines."
The kind of horrors perpetrated by Jason and Leatherface may be crude, but they work well in a Halloween attraction, providing memorably gruesome moments that hit hard and fast - like the victim whose crushed skull sprays "blood" ten feet in the air, dousing foolish voyeurs who lean in too close for a better look. We enjoyed the gleeful gore so much that we didn't mind seeing a famous gross-out gag recycled from ten years ago: the kid doubled up and squashed in a folding bed by Jason. This kind of stuff requires no story, context, or setup; it simply works, and there is plenty of it - yet we were still wanting more when the tram pulled up to take us away.
The Terror Tram is the highlight of this year's Halloween Horror Nights. Don't miss it.
Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Review: Scare Zones
Perhaps we're being too harsh, but Halloween Horror Nights seems to have diminished since moving most of its attractions down to the lower lot a few years ago. Once upon a time, we couldn't turn a corner without running into another scare zone; now they are few and far between. There are some masked marauders doing good work in Hell-O-Ween by the main entrance; their garb (Jack O'Lantern faces and vampire fangs) lent a traditional note to an otherwise grue-filled Halloween event. After that, the upper lot is mostly an empty path to the lower lot. The London Street, so well used in the past, now lies vacant and unused - a forgotten remnant of former glories.
In the lower lot, there is a Toxic Tunnel that generates considerable tension with bright-colored lights flashing in the darkness and echoing sounds assaulting the ear drums. Apparently, toxic waste has been causing mutations. There are some rather hideous denizens lurching about in the dark, their features horribly distorted. Strangely, their limbs seem little affected: they are still quite agile when attacking victims.
Our favorite scare zone is Urban Inferno, which (despite its name) feels more medieval than modern. With ancient statues and iron cages, this old-school explosion of mythical damnation features tyrannical demons torturing damned souls, and it seemed to us like a perfect prelude to Ash vs. Evil Dead: it felt a bit like Army of Darkness and put us in a mood to see Ash confront the forces of evil.
Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Review: The Mazes
As has been true the past few years, most of the mazes are on the lower lot, accessed via a long trip down the escalator. Insidious: Beyond the Further is near the Jurassic Park water ride. Four other mazes are set even father back, past the Transformers ride: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Ash vs. Evil Dead, Saw: The Games of Jigsaw, and American Horror Story: Roanoke. We were looking forward to The Shining and Ash vs. Evil Dead. Neither fully lived up to expectations, but both of them have their merits.
Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is essentially The Exorcist maze from Halloween 2016. It's in the same location and features a similar structure, except with an ax-wielding Jack Torrance popping out of the darkness around every corner instead of Captain Howdy. The likeness to Jack Nicholson is remarkable, but the gag was overused. The maze did a better job recreating some of the movie's subtler shivers, such as the twins urging Danny Torrance to "Come play with us forever." The woman in Room 237 is wonderfully realized as a sexy shadow against a shower curtain before revealing herself as a horrible walking cadaver. And the brief glimpse of costumed revelers ("What a wonderful party!") is the sort of creep-inducing horror that does not require rumbling thunder and flashing lightening. Best of all is a recreation of the bathroom scene in which Jack axes his way through the door, and Wendy slices his hand to keep him from entering: it's a full-blown scene, not just another shock moment.
Unfortunately, the layout fails to capture what should have been the key element of a maze based on The Shining: the labyrinthine quality of the Overlook Hotel and its hedge maze. In other words, the walk-through should have been more akin to a real maze; unfortunately, the cheap black corridors undermine the sense of being in the location from the film, and we never felt lost in an immense, haunted structure, where Jack is tormented by demons and fighting a losing battle for his soul. Danny barely makes an appearance (a motionless mannequin on his tricycle). Halloran is only a corpse. And where the hell is the magnificent ballroom and Lloyd the bartender?
Ash vs. Evil Dead gets off to a good start in a nifty recreation of the title character's trailer home, featuring a confrontation with a deadite who falls prey to our hero's flashing shotgun. After that, we get some pathways defined by nondescript solid wood fences, which lead to occasional encounters with more angry deadites. Ash isn't around enough, though he does show up wielding a chainsaw outside the famous cabin. There are some good scream-inducing moments, but they tend to be a bit generic instead of recreating memorable scenes from the series. However, there is a good bit at the end which will be familiar to fans of Evil Dead II.
American Horror Story: Roanoke is basically another one of Halloween Horror Nights' slaughterhouse mazes: you get to see one victim with her intestines being pulled out as part of pagan ritual (like a crude variation on the 1973 classic The Wicker Man). We found the decor here to be the least interesting of the evening, especially the "exteriors," but we do admit to being startled by the maze's biggest surprise (both literally and figuratively): an inanimate form - apparently much too large to be an actor in costume - that suddenly springs to life.
Saw: The Games of Jigsaw and Insidious: Beyond the Further are "new" mazes that recycle franchises previously seen at Halloween Horror Nights. They are not exactly the same as their previous incarnations, but there is little to make them worth revisiting except for hardcore fans. Between the two of them, Saw has a higher frequency of distinctive tableau lifted from the film series - grizzly moments that showcase Universal Studios' excellent makeup and prop work.
On the upper lot there are two mazes: The Horrors of Blumhouse and Titans of Terror. The former is half outdoors - essentially a condensed version of The Purge: Gauntlet of Fear from the previous Halloween. The second, interior section plugs an upcoming release from Blumhouse, Happy Death Day. Unfortunately, the main character is a doofus in a childlike mask that is more goofy than terrifying. If this maze is intended to generate interest in the film, we're not expecting a big box office opening.
Titans of Terror (located in the Water World location) reunites the Freddy-Jason-Leatherface triumvirate from the Terror Tram, with mixed results. One big advantage is that the three star characters overcome the problem in the other mazes of seeing one main figure over and over again. The different environments remind us that Universal Studios can create wonderfully ominous settings when they put in the effort.
Freddy comes across better here than on the back lot; he's scarier in the dark interiors, and he has one of the best mechanical effects seen anywhere in this year's Halloween Horror Nights: a giant face swallowing a helpless victim head-first. (This is a variation on a gag seen in previous years - revised into something more effective. The old version - with a live actor being swallowed feet first - was good for a grim laugh, but it was pretty clear the character could just pull him/herself free with a little effort. This version feels more overwhelming and hopeless.)
The problem with this maze is that the other recycling is less effective - because it is recycled not only from previous years but also from the Titans of Terror Tram. You literally see Leatherface cut another victim in half and peel another face from a skull. If you have already been on the Terror Tram, it may not be worth your time to go through this maze as well.
The Walking Dead, a year-round attraction, is much the same as it was last Halloween. Housed in a permanent location, it features some of the most convincing settings; it's fairly extensive, with several great scenes. Our favorite bit is the caged zombies, mostly mannequins with one live actor in the corner near the slightly bent gate, which leaves a gap just big enough for a grasping arm to snake through and reach for fools who wander too close. When we went through, the attraction seemed slightly underpopulated compared to last Halloween - no tense standoff between guards and zombies in the prison. This one is worth revisiting if time permits, but if you have seen it before, you won't miss anything by skipping it this year.
Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Review: Conclusion
Opening night on Friday, September 15 was crowded, though not as bad as last Halloween. A fast pass is almost a necessity if you want to see everything - and if you want to spare yourself the agony of waiting in line over two hours to enjoy a five-minute walk through a haunted house. We took advantage of early admission (gates open at 5pm) to be the first in line for the Terror Tram when it began at 7:00pm (the event's official start time, though some mazes may open earlier). After that, we were able to reach each maze and the Terror Tram, pausing for a couple of rides, and still finish up by 11:30pm, giving us plenty of time to revisit any favorites.
In our final assessment, Halloween Horror Nights 2017 is not bad, but it falls short of the expectations set by the high standards of the past. The problem is too little variety. Despite crafting attractions around franchises as diverse as Insidious, Saw, American Horror Story, etc, there is a sameness in each walk-through, with familiar tactics repeated until they become predictable. The result is that we did not take advantage of the opportunity to go through any of the mazes again - because we felt as if we had already been through them again - and again and again.
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood continues on September 16, 22-23, 28-30; October 1, 5-8, 12-15, 19-22, 25-29, 31; November 2-4. Hours are 7pm to 1am weeknights; 7pm to 2am Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays. Gates open at 5pm for early admission; select mazes open at 5:15pm. Terror Tram closes at 11:45pm. The address is 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 91608. Get more information at our page devoted to the event or visit the official website here.