The energy level was definitely low at the Knott's Berry Farm Halloween Haunt on the night of September 30. No doubt this was partly due to the thin crowd: without a multitude of victims, the electrifying feedback loop between the scarers and the scared was short-circuited; the chain reaction of screams galvanizing adrenalin in nearby visitors, who then scream in their turn, seldom took effect. However, this is not the whole story. Knott's Scary Farm's 2009 presentation is not a bad effort, but it is not their A game, just a B or a B-plus - which is still pretty good. Newcomers or those who have not visited in a while should still be thrilled, but the hard-core fans who go back year after year may be slightly disappointed.
Part of the problem is the lack of much new blood. There are only four new mazes (as opposed to the six that made their debut last year), and two of those are variations on themes that Knott's Halloween Haunt has used before. Also, the promised ZOMBIELAND scare zone never came to be; instead, there is a brief and rather pointless one-room "scare scene" tied in with THE STEPFATHER - you will be in and out so fast that you will wonder why you even bothered.
The other part of the problem is tired blood. Knott's Scary Farm's returning attractions pack their shares of ghoulish thrills, but they are a bit like hungry vampires - still wandering the land of the living, but in need of a transfusion to fully resurrect their former glory. A few even seem slightly scaled back, as if some cost-cutting measures were involved.
Fortunately, none of this will prevent you from enjoying a pleasant thrill of fear as you wander the length and breadth of the park. Knotts Scary Farm's old Western ghost town ambiance is still very much in effect, and the hordes of walking corpses infesting the three scare zones (Carnevil, Ghost Town, and the Guantlet) will keep you screaming your lungs out, even when you are not in a maze.
The Halloween Haunt's four new mazes are Dia De Los Muertos, Terror of London, Lockdown the Asylum, and Uncle Bobo's Big Top. For our blood money, Dia De Los Muertos: Day of the Dead 3D (located in the bumper car area) is the Halloween Haunt's horror highlight for 2009. The colorful imagery associated with Dia de Los Muertos is something we have never seen before in a Halloween attraction, and it is perfectly suited to a 3D maze (the glasses make certain colors, like orange, pop out, adding an extra layer of depth to your perception). The Latin flavor brings something truly new - from traditional legendary figures like La Llorona (the Crying Woman) to more modern superstitions like la Chupacabra, along with what look like Aztec gods and sacrificial altars - and the whole maze is densely packed with enthusiastic haunters, no doubt thrilled at the opportunity to do something different. For originality, this one deserves our most grateful, loudest scream.
We were also charmed by Terror of London, which replaces 13 Axe Murder Manor in the Mystery Lodge. An attempt to capture a bit of good old-fashioned horror, this walk-through makes good use of the available space to create the impression of winding your way through fog-bound London. Some sets are clearly painted flats, especially when moving through corridors from one scene to another, but there are several more elaborate areas, and at least some sections are actually outdoors, creating a more believable feel of wandering dank and dangerous back alleys. The Victorian setting and garb include a restaurant serving meat pies of out SWEENEY TODD, the mutilated victims of Jack the Ripper, ghoulish street walkers, and a mad scientist lab that seems to have dropped in from god knows where (I think the idea is that the Ripper's crimes were a cover for securing bodies for some kind of depraved experiments). With so many Halloween events offering trendy takes on the horror genre, we applaud Knott's Scary Farm for offering something more traditional.
Uncle Bobo's Big Top of the Bizarre - another 3D maze - replaces Killer Klown Kollege, near the Xcelerator roller-coaster. We are not big fans of of Halloween clowns - we think the theme is overused - but Uncle Bobo's was amusing enough to make us overlook our usual reservations. At least a few of the gags are recycled from Klown Kollege - this is still a clown maze - and the sets seem less elaborate, but this is good for a few squeals of laughter mixed in with the screams.
The last of the Halloween Haunt's new mazes is Lockdown The Asylum, which occupies the space formerly taken by the Mangler Asylum, in a corner of the park just past the Ghost Rider roller-coaster. Despite the similar titles, Lockdown is not just a revamp; it looks completely different. The new facade suggests a modern high security prison rather than Mangler's old Gothic asylum (which always looked more like a haunted house to us). The basic concept is the same: the inmates are running the asylum. The sets here are not always the most impressive: there are some prison cells and so forth, but much of the maze is corridors made of simple painted flats, and you seldom feel as if you are in a real place. Also, although Lockdown avoids recycled props from Mangler's Asylum, you will see some familiar set-pieces from other areas of the Halloween haunt, such as the dummy being zapped in the electric chair. The once-great Mangler's Asylum had run its course, so it is nice to see Knott's Scary Farm doing something new here, but it might have been better if they had dropped the "asylum" concept altogether and done something completely different.
As for the Halloween Haunt's returning mazes, we would have preferred to see a few of them revamped or reinvigorated. Some of them had been changed, but not necessarily for the better, and even the good ones felt a little bit slack and under-populated on Wednesday.
- Quarantine no longer features a facade suggesting that you are entering a real building; once inside, the maze is much the same as last year, but the old falling fireman gag is no longer in operation, and the intensity level feels diminished, thanks to fewer live monsters. We did, however, see a vicious dog in an elevator that we had missed last year.
- Club Blood resurrects the pole-dancing vampire vixens and mutant-demon babies that first infested the dance club in 2008, but this attraction too suffers from slight cutbacks: the great scene from last year - a pregnant woman birthing a monstrous off-spring (via a pneumatic arm that shoots the creature out from between her legs) - substitutes a motionless mannequin instead of an actress for the unfortunate mother. And the room with the vampire leaping down from the ceiling was unoccupied when we walked through - the bungie cords hanging limp and empty. Thankfully, the giant bat creature was still menacing victims on their way toward the exit.
- Cornstalkers retains its moody mystery, but some elements have been deleted: although the description on the official Knott's Scary Farm map still mentions THE WIZARD OF OZ, you will see no sign of Dorothy, the Wicked Witch or the Tin Woodsman this year. The maze has also been trimmed down and re-arranged - or, more precisely, you now walk through in the reverse direction from last year, in an effort to make the familiar twists and turns seem different.
- Labyrinth again supplies the feeling of a fractured fairy tale, emphaszing the strange and the bizarre over shock effects. We appreciate the subtle approach, but we did not see quite the same variety of mythical creatures that were on hand for the debut in 2008. Thankfully, the impressively-sized rock creature (which reminds us of something out of THE NEVER-ENDING STORY) was still very much inevidence.
- Judging from reactions to the video we posted last year, Alien Annihilation was not a big favorite, but we enjoyed its colorful creatures (this is another 3D maze). As with some of the other returning haunts, it seems less densely populated a year later, but we still love that big mechanical monster at the end. This is set in a laser tag facility, so you can rent a gun and defend the Earth, if you have the heroic nerves of steel required to face down the alien enemy.
- The Doll Factory was our favorite newcomer back in 2007, and it was just as good in 2008. The third time was not quite the charm, unfortunately. The twisted take on childhood toys is still creepy and disturbing (love those demented bunny rabbits!), but one or two key items were missing, like the memorable doll-lady moving with spastic jerks as if she were not quite assembled right.
- The Slaughterhouse remains good, grizzly fun; in concept it sounds like a generic TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE rip-off, but it works so well that it stands on its own terms.
Due to time restraints, we missed Pyromaniax and Black Widow's Cavern. Both are old familiar rides that have been around for years, so fans of Knott's Scary Farm should know what to expect from them.
When you visit Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt on an annual basis, each year raises the same question: is there going to be enough new this year to justify a return visit? In 2008, our answer was an ecstatic yes, thanks to a combination of new attractions and returning favorites. Our enthusiasm for 2009 is somewhat more muted. We took two trips through both Dia De Los Muertos and Terror of Lodon, enjoying the scares every bit as much during the second excursions. We appreciated the other new mazes and enjoyed revisiting our favorites from last year. By the time the midnight hour had passed, taking the ghouls back to their graves, we had savored more than enough night terrors to justify the return trip to Buena Park.
However, no individual maze managed to surpass the excitment of Old Town Haunt in Pasadena; the triumph of Knott's Scary Farm is the cumulative effect of horrors piled upon horrors, like a bloody buffet of Halloween treats too big to fit into your candy sack and overflowing all around you: mazes, scare zones, demented shows, etc. If you want to gorge yourself on all this and more (including conventional rides and roller-coasters for those who want more than just Halloween chills and thrills), you will be satisfied. But if you are a finnicky epicurean, seeking new refinements, you may find yourself feeling a bit like a gourmet food critic who has wandered into Soup Plantation, enjoying the variety and quantity but wishing for just a little something extra. Seen from that perspective, this year's Halloween Haunt gets three out of four stars.