What could have been the king of 2016 Halloween haunts loses its crown jewel.
This is an awkward review to write. This past Thursday, Hollywood Gothique experienced what seemed likely to be the highlight of Halloween 2016; now a week later, we learn that the jewel in the crown of the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt has been removed. We still think event is worth seeing, but our banshee-like screams in its favor will no longer be quite so loud.
Knotts Scary Farm is batting nearly a thousand this year. The new attractions are impressive; the old ones deserve to be back. Crowds were large but not outrageously so. The scare zones were filled with monsters, keeping us ghoulishly entertained before we even started to wait in line. The mazes (in keeping with the past few years) were dense with scares, with few dead zones. The Skeleton Key Rooms provide a welcome brand of in-your-face horror: the closest analogy would be the difference between a magician sitting at the table with you instead of standing up on stage. And the one up-charge event was truly worth the extra dollars - but more on that later.
For Halloween 2016, Knott's Berry Farm offers two new mazes, four new Skeleton Key Rooms, and one new scare zone.
The Red Barn attempts to recapture the cannibal horror of Uncle Willey's Slaughterhouse - a long-time favorite from several years ago. The maze largely succeeds, but it does wind up feeling a little bit like a lesser sequel - delivering more of the same but not quite as good. Once again you will see victims in cages (presumably being fattened for the kill) begging for your help, but can you really spare the time to get involved? We couldn't.
Shadowlands is (with the possible exception of The Exorcist at Halloween Horror Nights) the best maze we have experienced so far this season. Based around a samurai theme, the maze benefits from a period setting that provides a distinctive look and feel - you're quite simply not going to see much similar at other haunts (except perhaps Revenge of the Ninja in Redondo Beach).
The sets are wonderful and convincing, filled with denizens that are more unsettling than grotesque - though there is more than one severed head, Shadowlands is at least as focused on evoking the atmosphere of a traditional Japanese ghost story. Consequently, some of it suggests a J-Horror film (such as the dark-haired girl who advances with spasmodic movements emphasized by strobe lighting), but to our nerdy delight, Shadowlands reaches much further back, evoking the kind of horror seen in classic Japanese horror movies from the 1960s and '70s, in which the hauntings, even if set in contemporary times, had their roots in feudal-era betrayal and death (think of Village of the Eight Gravestones or Ghost Cat Mansion). This was the longest line we say on opening night, but do not let that deter you.
New Skeleton Key Rooms
The major innovation for the Skeleton Key rooms is that they have been separated from the mazes. This is a good decision, because as we noted in our Knotts Scary Farm 2015 review, the Skeleton Key Rooms negated the advantage of Fright Lane tickets. The supposedly "faster" line turned out to be little better than general admission line, because Skeleton Key Rooms allowed in only a handful of guests at a time, at five-minute intervals, creating a serious slow-down.
This year, all four Skeleton Key Rooms are their own discrete attractions - single rooms or mini-mazes offering a more intimate scare experience, lasting a few minutes. A special Skeleton Key is required to enter, at an extra charge above the price of admission, but the cost is worth every penny.
We enjoyed all four. Ranking them in ascending order:
- Slasher puts you in a room with the titular character, who appears and disappears as lights flash on and off, sometimes, showing up unexpectedly close.
- Zozo re-purposes the séance room from 2015's Black Magic maze, offering an encounter with dangerous spiritual phenomena, including a surprising mechanical effect we will not reveal and a surprising demonic materialization.
- Prey is a mini-maze with a barn-like setting, filled with Jack O'Lanterns. The gag here is that you and your companions must find your way in the dark, using provided lanterns that need to wink out at crucial moments.
- Visions is the gem of the quartet. Guests are enlisted as ghost hunters and given iPad-like ghost detectors, which display phantoms invisible to the naked eye. The effect is truly startling, with the spirits actually seeming to exist in the real space seen through the camera's eye.
Worth noting: The Skeleton Key Rooms are so quietly tucked away that it is easy to walk right by unless you are looking carefully for them - especially Zozo, which didn't even have a sign identifying it on opening night. Also: what signage there was did not clarify that the rooms were only for guests with Skeleton Keys, which results in lots of people wasting time waiting for entry into rooms where they were not allowed.
New Scare Zone
The Hollows (located in Camp Snoopy, where Special Ops: Infected was situated the past two years) is the new scare zone. With scarecrow like creatures reminiscent of the old Cornstalkers maze, this area offers traditional Halloween-style atmosphere. We loved the characters, but we thought the zone would have benefited from more fog and lighting effects, instead of relying only on darkness and shadows.
Though advance publicity suggested that the Headless Horseman would be haunting this scare zone, we actually encountered him on the railroad tracks near Fiesta de los Muertos (in the Fiesta Village). The live effect was surprisingly convincing, with the decapitated ghost - clearly a live actor, not a dummy - astride his spectral mare, riding along the tracks or posing for pictures, unconcerned that the camera lens would expose the trickery.
Knotts Scary Farm resurrects eight mazes and three scare zones from Halloween 2015. Fortunately, they are worth revisiting.
Special Ops: Infected is in a new location (the Mystery Lodge, previous home of Nevermore). The result is substantially different. To begin with, timed entry (in the past, each visitor was assigned a specific time to arrive) has been abandoned; now the line works as in any other maze, with a general admission line and a Fright Lane.
More importantly, the Mystery Lodge provides a somewhat more claustrophobic experience, losing some of the impact achieved when the laser tag attraction was set in Camp Snoopy. The environment is more artificial, consisting of sets rather than available locations; there's less variety to the settings.
Fortunately, the essential fun of taking up arms against a sea of zombies remains. After an evening of running away screaming from monsters, it is truly cathartic to turn the tables, going hell bent for leather on a military mission to exterminate the living dead. The result is not really scary, but it is very exciting.
Paranormal Inc. - our favorite from Halloween 2015 - is every bit as good as we remember. As before, it begins with a spectacular introductory scene which climaxes with a spook erupting like a bat out of hell and flying over head, before leading visitors on a path into the ghost dimension.
The path seems slightly rearranged (if our memories are not failing us), minimizing the one weakness from last year: the sense that the maze started strong and slowly ebbed away as visitors proceeded deeper into limbo. The sense of a descent into infernal regions is a bit stronger, climaxing as before with some giant mechanical demons from the pit.
Dead of Winter: Wendigo's Revenge, which made its debut in 2015, returns with a new subtitle suggesting a more ferocious approach. We love the novelty of this maze's setting, which relies on brightness and contrast instead of the usual murky shadows. The white arctic terrain remains, with angular shapes suggesting architecture carved from ice, but the horrors inside are more graphic, with several impaled victims on view.
We thought the debut version of this maze seemed slightly short last year, but we left this year's version feeling more satisfied. Was it really longer? We forgot to do a mileage check, but we suspect that the trip seemed longer simply because there were more furry snow creatures impeding our advance.
Voodoo: Order of the Serpent - now in its third year - continues to earn our devotion with its amazing depiction of an alligator-infested swamp, where Baron Zamedi and various zombie minion lurk among vines and trees. There are several small huts or cabins where small voodoo vignettes play out - strange rituals that are best not to dwell on.
Without its Skeleton Key Room (which was spectacular last year), this maze gets off to a slower start than in the past. Also, on opening night, the first few characters we encountered seemed to think they were in The Red Barn, muttering, "You look tasty." (This is voodoo territory, people - not cannibal country!) But as we wandered deeper into the swamp, our well-remembered sense of being enveloped in its strange world took over once again.
Gunslinger's Grave: Blood Moon Rises offers few obvious changes from 2015, but we enjoyed it, nonetheless. With one of the shorter wait lines (at least when we went, early in the evening), this maze was pumping customers through at a rapid-fire rate. We raced in and out of old western settings, running from ghostly gunfighters and lycanthropic spirit walkers, with no time to stop for a drink at the saloon - not that the ghoulish proprietor would have welcomed our business, even had we been so inclined.
Trick or Treat is back one more time, and we were glad for it. A trip through a witch's house, this is one of the few Halloween mazes anywhere in the Southland truly built around a Halloween premise, beginning on a porch step where visitors ring the doorbell, like trick-or-treaters seeking candy. Inside is a house of horrors worth of Hansel and Gretel, including the witch herself and numerous minions. Our favorite character was a simple ghost in quaintly retro garb: a white sheet with a simple painted face consisting of circles to represent eyes.
Unfortunately, this maze was robbed of its climax when the flying-witch effect was dropped in 2015, and nothing new has been added to fill the void. If Knotts Scary Farm brings this one back next year (which we hope they do), then they should add a new ending.
Returning Scare Zones
Knotts Scary Farm's returning scare zones are as much fun as ever. CarnEvil actually makes us appreciate killer klowns, and that's saying something. The old western Ghost Town remains a foggy delight. Our favorite is Fiesta de los Muertos, just because we love the skull-faced makeups and the mournful incarnations of La LLorona, who wail in anguish and despair for their lost ninos.
WHAT'S MISSING: FearVR
Now we come to the tragic part of our tale. The attraction that most amazed and thrilled us on opening night was the new FearVR, a virtual reality experience set a mental hospital. Relying on goggles and headphones, the attraction left us stunned and overwhelmed by its convincing simulation of being pushed on a wheelchair through chaos and destruction wrought by a terrifying girl with psychic powers. Apparently, her powers include opening the gates of hell, allowing the dead to return to earth, because we saw some zombies as well.
Unfortunately, some people raised objections to the maze's depiction of the mentally ill as dangerous villains, so Knott's decided to shut the attraction down. You can read our reaction to the situation here. All we can say is: we're sorry to hype something that our readers can no longer enjoy for themselves.
Though it's a moot point now, we will add that this was an up-charge event truly worth the additional cost - a steal at $10. Our only problem was not with the attraction itself but with the line: as they demonstrated last year with Special Ops Infected, Knotts seemed to consider their timed-entry tickets more guidelines than rules, which meant that schedule for 10:15 was optimistic to say the least (we didn't get in until 10:45, leaving us to ponder the reason for reserving a time-slot in the first place).
As usual, Knott’s Scary Farm overwhelms with sheer numbers: there’s so much to see that you’re bound to enjoy something. This can be a bit of a problem if you have a regular admission ticket: if you want to see all mazes and shows, you should go early in the season, preferably on a week night.
Even with a Fright Lane pass, seeing everything is a bit of an endurance marathon. Part of the reason for this is that there is more to see if you shell out for the four Skeleton Key Rooms. The lines were short on opening night, but they moved slowly because of the small groups allowed in at longish intervals.
Consequently, we did not have enough time to see this year's Elvira show, Danze Macabre. Nor did we make it to The Hanging: Finding Gory. We even decided to give The Tooth Fairy a pass, in order to make sure we got to make sure we got to our last few favorite holdovers. Not that there's anything wrong with the Tooth Fairy maze; but it's situated in an isolated area of the park, and we simply think the supernatural horrors of the nearby Trick or Treat, Voodoo, and Paranormal Inc. are more appropriate to the Halloween season. So with the clock ticking toward closing time, we had to prioritize as best we could.
For us, Knotts Scary Farm was by far the most enjoyable of our three theme park haunts so far this year. Had FearVR remained in operation, we would have given the annual Halloween Haunt a must-see recommendation. We still think the theme park is worth visiting, especially if you want to revisit the returning mazes, and we shouldn't let our disappointment over FearVR eclipse the wonders of the new Shadowlands maze and the novelty of the new Skeleton Key Rooms. So just pretend we never told you about FearVR; then you won't know what you're missing, and you'll have a great time!
More in this series:
- Our opinion on Knott's Scary Farm's decision to close FearVR
- Halloween Review: Knotts Scary Farm 2016