After my mournful despair expressed over the lack of originality on display in this year's incarnation of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, it is ironic to note that the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt offers even less that is new and novel: only two walk-through mazes and the Sleepy Hollow Mountain Log Ride. Nevertheless, Knotts Scary Farm 2010 manages to impress with sheer quantity and variety: the Halloween theme park event not only offers dozens of mazes, shows, and scare zones; it also provides a wide spectrum of themes and tones, ranging from grim and grizzly (The Slaughterhouse) to moody and ethereal (Cornstalkers) to clownish and campy (Uncle Bobo's Big Top of the Bizarre). Although Knott's Berry Farm cannot match Universal Studios in purely technical terms terms, the wide range of imaginative haunted attractions includes something for every Halloween-loving soul.
Our overall impression of Knott's 2010 Halloween Haunt was that it was a bit crowded this early in the season (Saturday, September 25), but the lines moved quickly. Only the Black Widow Cavern Mine Ride and the Sleepy Hollow Mountain Log Ride were too intimidating: what scared us off was not the prospect of the horrors contained therein but the possibility of waiting so long in line that we would miss other attractions.
Knott's Berry Farm is big and it is not laid out in neat cubicles, so it is possible to lose your way. Even if you make sure to obtain a map as you enter the theme park, you may still find yourself a bit disoriented, but the uniformed staff (if not necessarily the monsters) are eager to point you in the right direction. Definitely wear comfortable shoes; you will be covering a lot of ground.
As always, Scare Zones are scattered through the Knotts Halloween Haunt. The scare-actors tend to somewhat match the theme of their area (such as the Old Western Ghost Town), and you can go the whole night with barely a chainsaw in sight (unlike at Universal, where the shock of the roaring engines soon numbed any sense of shock). In any case, there is a multiplicity of monsters of every shape and size. Our favorites were a couple of birdlike creatures:though the simple masks were no match for the prosthetic makeup one sees at Halloween Horror Nights, the physical performances were perfectly impressive.
VIRUS Z is set in the Fiesta Plaza, which housed Quarantine during the previous two Halloween seasons. Some of that old feeling has been retained: the walk-through features a town full of people transformed by a virus into cannibal zombies. Fortunately, the setting is completely revamped, offering a satirical take on 1950s Eisenhower culture (although a theatre with PSYCHO on the marquee would date the events as taking place in 1960, the hair styles and clothing are reminiscent of the previous decade). The running joke is that we are in the town of Pleasanton, which is obviously no longer very pleasant. We trek through "Mama's Dinner" on our way to the the local school and other landmarks typical of small town America and the warm, fuzzy values they supposedly represent - and all of it has gone to hell.
To some extent, this maze recalls the "Containment Zone" from Universal's 2009 Halloween Horror Nights, albeit on a much smaller scale (the Universal attraction was set on the back lot plane crash sight). Although lacking the scope of its competitor, Virus Z works well because the concept is good (archetypal normality turned upside down), and it can be executed well without impossibly lavish production values. We especially appreciate that, although there is clearly some satirical intent, the maze is not overtly "funny."
Worth noting: although this replaces Quarantine - a short, intense maze meant to simulate a single location - Virus Z is much longer, taking you through several different simulated locations. All in all, this is an ambitious walk-through - not just a haunted house or an asylum, but an entire town of terror.
FALLOUT SHELTER in 3D (set in the 3D laser tag facility that housed Alien Annihilation in 2008 and 2009) is definitely smaller in scope, depicting an undergound fallout shelter, where survivors of a nuclear holocaust have begun to mutate into god knows what. The first thing to say about this maze is that it does not utilize the 3D element in a memorable way. The setting is simply not a good one for 3D: Befitting the maze's concept, the walk-through feels claustrophobic and drab, a utilitarian space meant for survival, not luxury; the monotonous stack provisisions effectively establish the setting and atmosphere, but they lack the sort of day-glo colors that pop off the sets and characters and into your eyeballs. So don't bother paying the $1 for the 3D glasses (unless you plan to also visit Dia De Los Muertos).
Nonetheless, this is a sold concept, which is put to good use, showing us something different from what we see in the other mazes. Fallout Shelter could have been just another cannibal zombie maze; instead, we see mutants of various sorts prowling the tunnels: some are still mostly human; others are almost completely monstrous. Toward the end, things grow increasingly weirder, with several phosphorescent mechanical monsters that look like retrofitted elements from Alien Annihilation; although recognizable, at least they offer the only small concession to 3D in the maze.
We revisited several old mazes on our tour through Knott's Scary Farm's 2010 Halloween Haunt, just to see how they were holding up. (You can see videos of most of them here.)
DIA DE LOS MUERTOS, in the bumper car facility, impressed us last year with its novel theme. It is not as jump-out-of-your-skin scary as some, but the colorful decor are a visual treat. And La Llarona (the Crying Woman - a Mexican legend) fits in much better here than she does in Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.
TERROR OF LONDON - set in the Mystery Lodge - presents good old-fashioned Gothic horror, with fog-bound cobblestone streets haunted by Jack the Ripper, leading to some crazy mad scientist's laboratory. We're not sure, but we think the maze is telling us that the Ripper's murders were a method of gathering body parts to assemble into a Frankenstein-type monster.
LOCKDOWN THE ASYLUM (near Ghost Rider) takes you into a maximum security facility overrun by the inmates. The old electric chair gag makes a reprise near the end of this one.
CLUB BLOOD (immediately following Lockdown) offers the same hipster vampire fun seen for the past two years. It's pretty cool, but it could use a few new vampire faces or some variation on the familiar theme. As with last year, the pregnant woman giving birth to a vampire baby was portrayed by a dummy - far less satisfying than the live actress seen in the 2008 debut. And the bungie-jumping vampire was no where to be seen when we went through.
THE DOLL FACTORY is back, yet again, in the Wilderness Dance Hall. Perhaps it is just over-familiarity, but the settings for this one are starting to look a little plain and thread-bare. Still, it is a creepy concept, and we are happy to report that the spastic mechanical doll girl was back in action.
LABYRINTH returns to the Balloon Race facility. We were delighted by this maze's debut in 2008, because it offered a memorable change of pace from most haunted attractions, filled as it is with mythical creatures suggesting a fractured fairy tale; with so many mazes emphasizing jump-scares, it was nice to see something more subtle. Two years later, we still enjoy the fauns and fairies, but the lack of scares is more notable. This one is still distinctive, but it could use a shot in the arm.
As always, the key to the appeal of the Halloween Haunt is quantity. Knott's Scary Farm is a larger event than Halloween Horror Nights, and it is filled to the brim with spooks and ghouls of every sort: not only are there over a dozen haunted rides or mazes; also there are Halloween-themed shows, like the Hanging, and the conventional roller-coaster rides are in operation. Equally important: the mazes are long - worth the time it takes to wait in line.
There is not really enough new this year to justify a visit for someone sitting on the fencepost, but those who missed 2009 should definitely do some catching up.