The Halloween 2009 incarnation of the Knott's Berry Farm Halloween Haunt was a noticeable decline from the previous year. With a few notable exceptions, the attractions left visitors feeling "been there, done that." Although there were four "new" mazes, two were variations on themes that had been used before, and the returning attractions were like emaciated vampires - still wandering the land of the living but starved of fresh blood needed to resurrect their former glory. A few even seemed scaled back, as if cost-cutting measures were involved.
There was also a major hiccup: In August, Knott's Halloween Haunt announced it would feature a scare zone based on the recent hit horror-comedy Zombieland; however, the deal fell through, and the attraction never materialized. Crafting a scare zone rather than a maze around a popular horror film may have seemed like an inexpensive way to add a product tie-in without building sets. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood (which, perhaps not coincidentally, featured a SHAUN OF THE DEAD scare zone that year) could get away with this, because Universal Studios had numerous outdoor settings (such as London street) that could be easily adapted for different themes; Knott's Berry Farm's locations were not so conducive .
Instead of the proposed Zombieland scare zone, Knott's Scary Farm offered a last-minute substitute: a one-room scare experience based on 2009's remake of The Stepfather. With only a single, feeble pop-scare (a circular saw descending from the ceiling), The Stepfather was so brief and pointless it hardly seemed worth the bother. Knott's staff rushed guests in and out so quickly they seemed embarrassed, especially when explaining it was time to leave because nothing else was going to happen.
As disappointing as The Stepfather was, in retrospect, the one-room attraction seems historically significant for two reasons: First, it prefigured the Skeleton Key Rooms that Knott's would add to its mazes a few years later. Second, this was attraction that Knott's created and branded as a movie tie-in. Although later Knott's mazes would sneak in movie references (e.g., Carrie in Virus Z), from this year forward Universal Studios would corner the market on movie-based Halloween attractions.
As usual, Knott's Berry Farm got a jump on the competition by opening its Halloween Haunt on the last Thursday of September (the 24th), but the energy level seemed low that year. (There were rumors that many veteran cast members had been let go.) At least, the hordes of walking corpses infesting the scare zones (Carnevil, Ghost Town, the Gauntlet) were still enthusiastic in their pursuit of victims.
Knott's Halloween Haunt's four new mazes were Dia De Los Muertos, Terror of London, Lockdown the Asylum, and Uncle Bobo's Big Top of the Bizarre. The first two were imaginative and original; the latter two felt like reconstituted leftovers.
Dia De Los Muertos: Day of the Dead 3D (located in the bumper car area) employed brightly hued imagery that popped into your eyeballs when viewed through the 3D glasses supplied at the entrance. The Latin theme added some new ingredients to Knott's Halloween menu, including legendary figures like La Llorona (the Crying Woman) and modern superstitions like la Chupacabra. The maze began with a demented Day of the Dead festival before moving into a graveyard haunted by a miserable ghost, crying for her children. Leaving the benign modern festivities behind, the path led into a jungle where Aztec gods practiced more ancient ceremonies, involving human sacrifice. With monsters, sets, and props unlike those in the other mazes, Dia De Los Muertos eschewed obvious shocks in favor of its own unique flavor.
At the other end of the color scale, Terror of London, which replaced 13 Axe Murder Manor in the Mystery Lodge, opted for shadowy Gothic atmosphere. A more traditional horror experience, this walk-through sent visitors down dank London streets, following in the footsteps of Jack the Ripper. Though some sets were clearly painted flats, the sense of immersion was well maintained, and there were several more elaborate areas, with sections actually outdoors, creating a believable sense of wandering through fog-bound alleys. The Victorian set pieces included a restaurant serving meat pies a la SWEENEY TODD, ghoulish street walkers, and a mad scientist lab that seems to have dropped in from another story line. (Best Guess: The Ripper's murders were perpetrated to obtain body parts for Frankenstein's Monster?)
Terror of London cleverly defeated a problem with many mazes: a cast too small to fill the spaces. Although live actors did inhabit key scenes, the uninhabited areas were, for once, just as interesting, building suspense in anticipation of what would come next. Visitors traversed empty cobblestone streets, saw bodies of mutilated victims, and heard voices remarking that the killer had struck again; meanwhile, a casual whistling of unseen origin suggested the perpetrator merrily making his escape. Saucy Jack's literal absence made his figurative presence all the more palpable, intensifying the unnerving sense of pursuing an elusive mystery.
Less successful were the other two debuts, whose claim to being "new" was largely a matter of rebranding. Uncle Bobo's Big Top of the Bizarre, set in the space near the Xcelerator roller-coaster that had housed Killer Klown Kollege, was yet another circus maze, recyling gags from its predecessors. It featured 3D, but the effect was not so remarkably used as in Dia De Los Muertos.
Lockdown The Asylum replaced the Mangler Asylum near the Ghost Rider roller-coaster. Despite the similar titles, Lockdown looked like a modern high security prison rather than an old Gothic madhouse. However, the basic concept was similar: inmates running the asylum. The sets seldom simulated a real environment, and there were familiar set-pieces from other areas of Knott's Halloween Haunt, such as the dummy zapped in the electric chair.
Returning mazes and rides were Alien Annihilation, The Labyrinth, Slaughterhouse, Club Blood, Cornstalkers, The Doll Factory, Pyromaniax, Black Widow's Cavern, and Quarantine. Some had been revamped, though not necessarily for the better, and even the good ones felt slack compared to prior years.
Quarantine's location no longer had a facade resembling a real building, and the opening gag of a falling fireman was gone. The Doll Factory was missing its star, a wonderful actress simulating the spasmodic movements of a life-sized doll. Club Blood's most memorable effect (a pregnant woman birthing a baby vampire) was ruined by replacing the live actress with a motionless mannequin. At least The Slaughterhouse remained good, grizzly fun, and Cornstalkers managed to survive the loss of its Wizard of Oz elements, creating the impression of a completely new pathway via the simple expedient of reversing the direction taken through the rustling corn rows, making it hard for even returning guests to anticipate where the scarecrows might be lurking.
Halloween 2009 raised am old question: Was the annual Halloween Haunt worth attending every year? Knott's was still relying on the cumulative impact of multiple attractions to draw crowds instead of creating new mazes spectacular enough to stand on their own. Dia De Los Muertos and Terror of London were solid efforts, but for the most part the mazes, on an individual level, did not match the excellence of single-maze haunted houses like the Old Town Haunt in Pasadena.
Read our original review Knott's Scary Farm 2009 Review.
More: Knotts History