L.A.'s newest Halloween attraction could be a real contender.
New Halloween haunts are rolling into Los Angeles like a landslide of Jack O'Lanterns: first Paranoia Haunted Attraction, then Blumhouse of Horrors, and now Hell Break L.A. The latter had its media-preview night on Thursday, October 11, and although it suffered from a surfeit of opening night jitters and organizational oversights, the end result eventually paid off.
Hell Break L.A. continues a trend seen in Delusion: Presented by Haunted Play and the Blumhouse of Horrors: instead of relying on jump-scares and gotcha moments, the new haunted house offers a sequence of dramatic vignettes, featuring characters and dialogue that bring the back story to life and eventually pay off in a climactic moment designed to send you running out the exit as if being chased by a bat out of hell. It didn't all work last night, but judging from our conversation with the people involved, they have pinpointed the technical snafus and are working diligently to set them right for this weekend's performance.
Our evening did not begin auspiciously. When we first arrived, we were able to identify the location - an abandoned Sears Building in Hollywood - only by the flashing strobe lights in the tower windows, suggesting a mad scientist's laboratory. There were no signs on the main street (except for one advertising a blood drive, which never materialized in our sight); you need to circle around to the back side street to find the parking lot and a banner over the building's entrance, proclaiming that this is indeed Hell Break L.A. At least the building has been given an ominous overlay of lights: green gels in the windows and red beams splashed on the walls, suggesting the sinister nature of what goes on inside.
The media-preview was supposed to start at 7:00pm, but Hell Break L.A. did not even open for business until 9:00pm. Sadly, there was no "scare zone" atmosphere outside to prime the customers for the experience - or at least to alleviate the boredom. During the wait, we had ample time to see that the event consists of little besides the main attraction. There were booths for a couple radio stations but no fortune tellers or food vendors, not even a table with snacks and sodas. A food truck, parked outside the gate on the street nearby, seemed like a complete coincidence.
When the doors to Hell Break L.A. eventually opened, the staff made no clear distinction between general admission holders and VIP visitors; we all ended up in the same line. Initially, this did not seem like a major issue: we found ourselves in line behind thirty or so people, who were being allowed inside in groups of ten. Sounds like a short wait, right? Wrong! Progress was so slow that it took us nearly an hour to get inside. (We understand that this was the consequence of giving the actors time to reset for each new group. Our after-hours chat with the proprietors indicates that they are working on a way to shorten the reset time.)
HELL BREAK PRISON
Finally, nearly three hours after our arrival, we stood on the brink of Hell, hoping beyond hope that our time would not have been wasted. Thankfully, once we stepped inside, all previous frustration evaporated instantaneously, as we found ourselves inside a new and exciting Halloween attraction.
Hell Break L.A. sets the tone immediately. Its first scene consists of a novel twist on the "rules" one usually hears before entering a Halloween maze (e.g., "Don't touch the monsters, and they won't touch you). Instead of a friendly staff member, an angry guard lines the group up against the wall and treats them like worthless convicts, ordering them to shut up, stand straight, and listen up: no weapons, no photography, no cell phones, etc. The actor's performance was unnerving - enhanced by contact lenses that reduced his pupils to beady dots.
After that, Hell Break L.A. sticks to this approach, introducing you to a series of characters and confrontational situations designed to unnerve you rather than merely startle you. Entering the main body of the "prison," you meet the Warden, who tells you that scientific experiments on inmates have accidentally created a few zombies, but hey - "You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs." You are introduced to notorious serial killer Lars Kraven (we're guessing on the spelling; it could be Craven), who sits, Lecter-like, behind a glass pane, confronting you with words and unsettling eye contact, and promising all order of untold mayhem when he escapes. A scene in the prison chapel is disrupted when the chaplain becomes possessed; while we're distracted by his contortions, shrouded figures sneak in for a few pop-scares. There is a mental ward featuring an S&M sideshow as a prisoner is repeatedly tased - and begs for more. A ghastly childbirth scene features a horribly convincing newborn babe, red with blood, arms twitching. The tour climaxes with the botched execution (by electric chair) of Craven, followed by an attack of his zombie minions.
Only a brief walk past some cells, filled with angry prisoners (including one ghastly contortionist) struck us as conforming to the traditional haunted house scare strategy: the inmates tend to hide, waiting for you to peek in, so that they can jump out at you. Other than that, Hell Break L.A. actually did a better than Blumhouse of Horrors at sticking to its story and building to a payoff.
Not everything went according to plan. Some scenes were not timed so well; certain effects did not come off as planned; a few moments fizzled instead of flaring to an explosion. In one notable bit of technical trouble, the Warden's speech was continually interrupted by emergency announcements over the loud-speakers. The first couple times, it was amusing to see him pause and then blithely resume, as if the emergency was not worth his attention. After that, it became tedious.
Also, there seems to be an inherent problem with these drama-based haunts: when the audience enjoys a scene, they are reluctant to move on; instead, they wait around for me. Fortunately, Hell Break L.A. usually has a guard on hand to move you along. One area that needs work is the ending: when Kraven escapes his electrocution, it is too obvious that he is ahead of us - through the next door we are supposed to use. Why would we follow him? Hell Break L.A. needs to add some threat from behind, to drive us forward, into the waiting arms of Kraven's minions.
THE HAUNTED MAZE
After escaping from Hell Break Prison, you circle back around to the entrance and stand in line for the so-called "haunted maze." We say "so-called" because it is haunted by no one except a few guards who help you find your way out if you get lost. Yes, this really is a maze, with multiple pathways - very dark, making it hard to find your way by sight.
Still, it is not a particularly difficult maze. In fact, it is rather like a series of tributaries that feed into a river: pretty much whatever path you take, you will eventually rejoin with the main route and find your way out. Strangely, the occasional guards are a bit too eager to shine a flashlight in the right direction, so you're like to be in and out in a few minutes at most.
Although the cast and crew do not have all the icing on the casket yet, Hell Break L.A. is nevertheless a pretty creepy treat for Halloween 2012. The story line is engaging; the performances are solid. We were particularly impressed with the first guard and with Kraven; the latter managed to be intimidating even though we were safely separated from him by a wall of glass.
The available space is nicely used. The sets are reasonably convincing, especially the chapel, Kraven's cell, and the electric chair. Even the unadorned corridors are used cleverly: shrouded in darkness, the shabby walls, with exposed ducts and support beams, suggests a prison going to hell.
The "Haunted Maze" is mildly amusing, but it's more of a value-added item, and we're not sure it's worth the extra $7 for the "Double Attraction" ticket. On the other hand, it comes included with the VIP ticket, so if you don't mind paying extra to avoid waiting in line, then you might as well find you way through the maze. (This assumes, of course, that staff actually get around to separating the VIPs from the General Admission customers.)
If Delusion 2012: The Blood Rite is your kind of haunted house attraction that leaves you craving more, then Hell Break L.A. may be the way to get your next fix. Hell Break is not jumping to the top of our must-see Halloween list, but if it sticks around, it could be a contender.
Hell Break L.A. continues through October 31 at the Sears Building, 5601 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90038. Hours are from 7pm to 1am, with Kids Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays 1-5pm; on Halloween, the haunt will be open from 2pm to 1 am. Tickets are $35 General Admission (prison maze); $42 Double Attraction (prison and haunted maze); $55 for VIP Front of the Line (prison and haunted maze) $55. Matinees are $20 for Kids, plus 1/2 off for parents. To get more information at the official website, click here.
Looking for more ways to enjoy Halloween in Los Angeles? Check out our alphabetical list of Halloween Haunts, or visit our pages for Theme Park Halloween Attractions and for Halloween Haunted Houses and Hayrides.