Halloween Horror Nights Preview: Universal Monsters

John Murdy and Slash preview the sights and sounds of Universal's new Halloween maze.
Dracula 1931
Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), Universal's first talking horror movie

Dracula, Frankenstein, the Phantom, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man. Decades past, these monsters haunted the silver screen in black-and-white, howling at the moon, snarling at villagers, terrorizing infidels, mesmerizing victims, and entrancing ingenues to their doom. Eventually they faded from projectors, to be resurrected in new, more colorful forms for later generations; however, their legacy remained tethered to the studio that had made them famous: Universal Pictures. For a while, they even had their own permanent home on the studio lot, the House of Horrors, but since it shut down four years ago, the monsters have remained in limbo, awaiting their time to return.

That time is now.

Universal Monsters Preview: The Monsters

The Sunday highlight of ScareLA's two-day convention last weekend was the panel devoted to Universal Monsters, a new maze being prepped for 2018's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. Creative director John Murdy and production designer Chris Williams discussed the development of project; they were joined mid-panel by unannounced guests Slash and Stacey Quinealty, who provided the attraction’s music and sound design.

The maze, currently under construction in Universal Plaza on the upper lot of Universal Studios Hollywood, will feature movie monsters that Universal Pictures made famous in its classic black-and-white films from the 1930s and 1940s: The Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dracula, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and Doctor Frankenstein and his creations, along with various supporting characters (Igor, Renfield).*

“We approached this with one goal overall, which was to scare the living – fill in the blank – with the Universal monster characters,” Murdy announced gleefully.

Murdy’s credentials as a classic horror fan are beyond reproach, but Halloween Horror Nights has pretty much kept its monsters locked in the crypt since closing the House of Horrors walk-through after Halloween 2014. The characters may be a bit old-fashioned for the theme park’s target demographic, and recent attempts to revive the monsters on-screen (The Wolfman, Dracula Untold, The Mummy) have fallen short of expectations.

With this in mind, Murdy and Williams’ strategy, with an assist from illustrator Mark “Crash” McCreery (Jurassic Park) was to design new but recognizable variations on the familiar faces.

“The way Chris and I approached the monsters - because this is an original take on the Universal monster films - is we wanted to look at the inherent story of every single character,” explained Murdy.

The results will be more gruesome and bloody than the originals, taking inspiration from actual mummies and real-life burn victims. For example, Frankenstein’s monster, having been assembled from dead bodies, will emphasize a cadaverous appearance, augmented by burned flesh that leaves exposed teeth (inspired by the character’s onscreen demise by fire in several of the movies).

Likewise, Dracula and his brides have been re-imagined for Halloween Horror Nights as supernatural addicts, splashed in gore as they dine on a bloody feast in a castle banquet room.

“If you think of somebody who has an addiction, they show that on their face,” said Murdy. “Dracula and his brides just happen to have a different drug of choice: it’s blood, so we show that by making their [skin] semi-translucent and showing every single vein that’s in the human face through that skin.”

The Phantom of the Opera, who was deformed from birth in Universal's original 1925 silent film, takes a cue from the studio's 1943 remake, in which the character was scarred by acid. However, Murdy and Williams considered the 1943 makeup too tame; instead, they took inspiration from Harvey Dent’s two-faced appearance in The Dark Knight. The extreme acid burn gives the Halloween Horror Nights version of the Phantom a skull like visage, which somewhat resembles the character's original appearance in the earlier film.

Showing the Invisible Man is tricky, for obvious reasons. Fortunately, the character famously appears onscreen wrapped in bandages, which come off to reveal the void beneath. To achieve this in a live attraction, Williams relied on a variation of an effect previously seen in the “Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield” maze, which used ultra-violet light and fluorescent masks to portray heads floating in darkness. In the same way, the Invisible Man’s half-bandaged self will wander through the maze.

Universal Monsters Preview: The Maze

By now, horror film fans are probably wondering how the Halloween Horror Nights maze will justify putting all the Universal Monsters in the same place. Though the screen versions of characters eventually met up in such monster rallies as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the original films take place in different locations and eras.

John Murdy and Chris Williams’ solution was to create a version of Castle Frankenstein containing rooms themed to suit to the characters.

“To find a reason for all these monsters to be in it, we looked at all the rooms you would typically have in a castle or a manor house, and we found a reason why one of our Universal Monsters would be in that room,” said Murdy.

Thus, the Phantom of the Opera will be playing the organ in the music room. The Mummy will prowl through a collection room filled with a sarcophagus and other Egyptian artifacts. Dracula’s blood feast will take place in the banquet hall, which sounds as if it will have visitors ankle-deep in "Shining" levels of gore. “There is a giant feast in this room, but everybody invited to this feast has been drained of blood, and their blood is smeared all over the walls,” said Murdy.

The walk-through will begin in a graveyard (inspired by reference photos from Highgate Cemetery in London), where all the monsters are buried – until trespassing visitors provoke the restless creatures to rise from their tombs. Williams' production design also takes inspiration from Jim Morrison’s grave, in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery, which is covered in graffiti.

“We liked that idea, profaning a cemetery,” said Murdy. “We did more research and found that all over the world, there is street art about the Universal monsters. So as you approach the cemetery, it’s going to be tagged with street art with some of the Universal monster characters.”

The cemetery will lead to a crypt, where the Frankenstein monster will be seen with the corpse of Maria, the unfortunate girl who drowned in the 1931 film – the sort of esoteric detail that Murdy and the fans love, even if general audiences miss the reference. The Wolf Man will also appear here: the photo of the hairless sculpt for this character, shown during the presentation, suggested a vampire more than a werewolf; hopefully, that will change once the wolf-fur is added to the final makeup.

After the crypt comes the Castle (the tower has been visible on the Universal lot for a while, prompting speculation about what was in the works). This will be surrounded by angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks – who, in a departure from the old films, are dressed as peasants, not as respectable men in suits. Inside the castle is a vault where all the Universal monster movies are stored and, of course, the laboratory where Dr. Frankenstein is feverishly trying to assemble the Monster’s Mate before the villagers burn the place down.

The Bride of Frankenstein will be achieved with a variation of dismemberment gag seen in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” mazes at Halloween Horror Nights. The effect relies on a table deep enough to conceal the lower half of the body of the actress playing the bride, while her torso and head remain visible through a hole in the table. The lower body, including disconnected limbs, are prosthetics, creating a more graphic scene than Universal's The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) dared to show.

Universal Monsters Preview: The Music
ScareLA John Murdy, Chris Williams, Slash, Stacey Quinealty
John Murdy, Chris Williams, Slash, Stacey Quinealty at ScareLA

Underlining the visual horrors will be an elaborate score by Slash, who performed similar duties for the Halloween Horror Nights 3D Clown maze in 2014. For Universal Monster, instead of a single piece playing in variations from start to finish, Slash opted to score the entire maze with cues specific to each room, enhanced by Stacey Quinealty’s ominous sound design.

“I hooked up with Stacy, and we started working together like last time,” said Slash. “This time was a lot more extensive. I got a guitar synthesizer, and I started doing all kinds of orchestrations…having different versions of the same melody with different instrumentation. I worked tightly with Stacy to do the kick-ass stuff he does. It came out really awesome.”

The opening music in the cemetery acts as an overture, introducing the main theme, followed by a series of cues tailored to each monster’s personality and time period. Some are short transitional pieces; others are more elaborate, ranging from melodic and operatic to industrial and even dubstep.

Several samples of the finished music were played. In some, Slash's moody electric guitar work was clearly audible above dense, pulse-pounding soundscapes. In others, the MIDI guitar rig allowed the musician to access a wider sonic palette, using tones usually achieved with keyboard synthesizers. The result could be the ultimate play-at-home Halloween album, if Universal decides to release it.

Universal Monsters Preview: The Masquerade
Phantom of the Opera 1925
The Phantom disguised as Red Death in the 1925 film

The Universal Monsters maze will end with an explosive recreation of the Frankenstein Monster’s famous “We Belong Dead” moment.

But wait – there’s more!

“It’s not over, because the exit takes you to French Street,” said John Murdy. “We have two Universal monster characters whose stories take place in France, Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre dame. So taking a nod from the masquerade ball in [the silent version of] The Phantom of the Opera, we decided that we would do a monster masquerade scare zone that you will experience when you leave the maze.”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame will appear as he did during the King of Fools festival in the 1923 film, along with variations of other monsters: vampires, werewolves, etc. Presiding over this phantasmagorical spectacle will be the Phantom himself in his “Masque of the Red Death” guise (which he wears during a ballroom scene in silent film). In the Universal Monsters scare zone, however, this version of the Red Death will be a nine-foot-tall stilt-walker.

The Universal Monsters maze and the adjoining Monster Masquerade scare zone sound spectacular, just the thing to raise our interest after the disappointment of Halloween Horror Nights 2017 (too many black, empty corridors). Hopefully, these new iterations of the famous monsters will attract younger audiences more attuned to Stranger Things and The Walking Dead. As for us, if the monstrous masked ball turns out half as intoxicating as it sounds, all it needs is a bar serving Vampire Gimlets, and we will never leave.

Visit the official website for Halloween Horror Nights.

Footnote:


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.