Thirteenth Floor Entertainment adds new tricks and treats to the Haunted Hayride, but the result is a mixed Halloween bag.
Please read this to understand the full context in which this review was written.
Hollywood Gothique has been a fan of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride since it made its debut ten years ago. Throughout that time, the annual Halloween event has expanded, changed location, added attractions, and altered its theme from year to year; nevertheless, the essential template remained the same from one Halloween to the next.
This year offers some interesting innovations, but other changes suggest that the L.A. Haunted Hayride may be losing its way in the woods. Although the new theme is great and the attractions remain enjoyable, there are problems with organization, and in one case the presentation has been compromised in order to move customers quickly in and out. Consequently, L.A. Haunted Hayride 2019 falls short of its peak performance.
L.A. Haunted Hayride Review: Midnight Falls
Last year, Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group purchased the L.A. Haunted Hayride from its original owner, Ten Thirty-One Productions, but there was little visible difference, as the 2018 version presented a greatest-hits compilation of past favorites. This year's differences are fairly apparent, manifesting most obviously in a new theme which overlays the entire event: Midnight Falls.
From its inception, the L.A. Haunted Hayride had a carnivalesque ambiance, which sometimes overwhelmed the annual theme; the Purgatory scare zone was always filled with clowns, and though the cast of characters haunting the woods of Griffith Park Old Zoo may have changed, it could be difficult to see the differences while riding the tractor in the dark. Looking back, the only year that stands out in our minds is 2014's Echoes from the Rift), which really did feel unique.
Midnight Falls does not reach quite that exalted level, but it is clearly distinct from previous incarnations of the L.A. Haunted Hayride. The setting simulates a small Midwestern town with a dark secret. Ghoulish inhabitants of the town (an ice cream vendor, a local councilman, etc) interact with visitors on the grounds and haunt the mazes. The Haunted Hayride itself takes us into the nearby woods, where we see the satanic ceremony responsible for unleashing the evil haunting the town. It all ties together very nicely, with similar looking goat-headed creatures appearing in multiple places, providing a continuity that was seldom apparent in the past (even if intended).
L.A. Haunted Hayride Review: The Haunted Hayride
The 2019 Haunted Hayride uses the same basic strategy: stretches of empty woods to build suspense while approaching atmospherically illuminated settings down the road, a tractor speed that makes it easy for monsters to keep pace and harass victims at will, and spectacular set pieces that go far beyond having costumed characters jumping from behind trees. A giant arachnid bursts forth from a hiding place. A demon rises a hundred feet in the air atop a granite throne (similar in concept but completely different in look from a famous gag seen in past years). The deaths of a couple necking in their car are punctuated with an explosive jet of blood, droplets of which may reach those sitting in the Haunted Hayride's trailer.
One element that seems much changed is the style of performance, which used to make the Haunted Hayride feel like a Halloween version of Cirque du Soleil. The horror is more blunt, less ethereal, but that is in keeping with the small town setting and theme. This year's in-the-tent set piece near the end does not include demented mimes in a choreographed nightmare ballet; instead, a fisherman laughs off rumors of a swamp creature - until he hooks something unexpected.
The only real problem is length. Not to put too fine a point on it, but lasting under fifteen minutes, this year's Hayride feels truncated, and it lacks a climax big enough to make you forgive the shorter ride.
Fortunately, compensation comes in the form of a cemetery-themed scare zone on the walk back from the Haunted Hayride. In the past, this has been a dead space, leading past the skeletal merry-go-round and into a tented gift shop, so it's great to see the area haunted by malevolent vampires, who taunt and tease like a cat toying with a helpless mouse. It might not be enough to stand on its own attraction, but as a sort of encore to the Haunted Hayride it provides a perfect value-added bonus.
L.A. Haunted Hayride Review: The Mazes & More
L.A. Haunted Hayride 2019 features three mazes, two of them new and one of them significantly revised.
Midnight Mortuary - new for Halloween 2019 - is a walk through a family-owned business with rather peculiar practices. The bald maniac wielding a sledgehammer inside the main entrance is hardly the most welcome sight for bereaved mourners, and the method of cremation in the back yard is closer to a barbecue than a crematorium. The proprietors are not only maniacs; they are knee-deep in the supernatural evil haunting Midnight Falls, as evidence by the goat-faced familiars lurking in the shadows and the giant goat head that erupts unexpectedly from a gaping hole in the wall.
The settings are good, and there are a couple of forking paths, including an option to crawl through a body-storage space in the morgue. The only note of disappointment is the emphasis on jump-scares. There is a little bit of interaction, but most of the frights consist of sudden appearances or standing still and suddenly shouting boo. This is effective enough to convey backwoods crazies, but it's a bit more generic than we expect from the L.A. Haunted Hayride. Still, Midnight Mortuary is a lot of fun.
Also new this year Roadkill Ranch, situated in the space formerly occupied by the House of Shadows dark maze. With an impressive facade, a creepy maze-like barn, and an exterior path defined by hay bales, this one provides atmosphere reminiscent of Cornstalkers at Knott's Berry Farm Halloween Haunt. It fits in nicely with the Midwest setting and provides a good impression of penetrating the dark secrets of Midnight Falls: approaching the entrance feels like leaving the town behind for more rural climes; then emerging from the barn to the back yard feels even more like going down the rabbit hole - though one haunted by more sinister forms of animal spirits.
Sadly, on opening night, Roadkill Ranch was severely underpopulated, with perhaps half a dozen characters divided between inside and outside.The exterior sight lines were too clear for monsters to sneak up on victims, and inside they mostly kept their distance. Little fear was generated, and the one attempt to instill urgency - a female "victim" in no apparent trouble urged us to save ourselves - left us wondering what we were supposed to be running from and why she was staying behind if it was so dangerous.
Overall, Roadkill Ranch feels like a missed opportunity, a good concept in need of better execution.
Trick or Treat gets a face lift this Halloween, with a new facade presumably representing a typical house in Midnight Falls. The basic premise remains - the walk-through simulates the experience of door-to-door trick-or-treating - but the execution has been bungled this year.
Trick or Treat has always had an interactive element to it: guests would knock on a door or a ring a bell to summon whatever waited inside each house. There is a doorbell on the new facade, but ringing it provokes no response; instead, you simply walk inside, where you encounter a ghastly scene of carnage before exiting through the back yard and eventually moving on to other houses.
From that point on, with one exception, all the monsters are standing in front of their doors or sitting on the porch waiting. Consequently, there is no pause of anticipation, no sense that the upcoming scare is your fault because you asked for it by ringing the doorbell. Instead, you hurry by each creature, which seems moored to its location, taking notice of your presence but not necessarily doing much about it. At least Frankenstein's monsters comes stumbling forward - a mixture of threat and entreaty as he groans, "Friend?"
As if this were not bad enough, Trick or Treat transforms into a dark maze at the end - just some empty, unlit corridors and a birth tunnel. It's as if leftover bits from the old House of Shadows/In Between maze were hauled out of the mothballs and tacked on, for no particular reason.
Presumably, the change to Trick or Treat is intended to move customers through faster by not having them pause at each house, but that mitigates the walk-through's scare strategy. Thankfully, one stop still relies on a doorbell to trigger a scare - another mechanical goat's head, this one over-sized but smaller than the gargantuan one in Midnight Mortuary. It's a good moment - and a reminder of how much better this walk-through used to be.
Los Angeles Haunted Hayride 2019 also provides live entertainment on their "Midnight Falls Halloween Festival" stage. Unfortunately, we have not been enthralled by any of the acts presented by L.A. Haunted Hayride since magician Andrew Goldenhersh did an incredibly smooth and graceful version of the straight-jacket escape routine in 2010. This year, we distantly heard some keyboardist-vocalist stumbling through an awkward rendition of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and decided to pass.
L.A. Haunted Hayride Review: Problems
In a nutshell: traffic, parking, overcrowding, no time estimates, no lost-and-found, and no customer service.
Opening Night showed signs of poor organization, which hopefully will be addressed in the coming weeks. For the first time we can remember, there were no road signs pointing to the destination. This may not be a problem for fans, but newcomers could have difficulties. L.A. Haunted Hayride is located in Griffith Park's Old Zoo, which is the sort of place where following the official address on your GPS may not take you to the actual parking lot.
The line of traffic going into the lot was longer and slower than we remember. Traffic was funneled down toward two attendants, who were not enough to handle the flow. Additionally, customers with VIP parking were being directed to another lot, which was full before opening time. So there was a long line of cars heading toward a third attendant, who was telling cars one by one to make a u-turn and go back, exacerbating the traffic flow problem.
Outside the main entrance, the line to get inside stretched father than a city block, with visitors slowly squeezed through the usual metal-detector process. Inside, wait-times for the attractions were short toward the beginning of the night, but within a couple hours, the line for the Haunted Hayride was so long it was extending into the main through-way, interfering with foot traffic. No wait times were posted, and the attendants in line offered no estimates, so customers could not make informed choices about where there time would best be spent.
As detailed here, there was no lost-and-found booth and no customer service booth. Anyone looking for either or both was given the runaround. ("I'm going to direct you to the ticket booth," said one attendant, just to get rid of us. The people in the ticket booth were nice, but they couldn't help.)
Needless to say, some General Admission customers were unhappy with the situation, and the absence of onsite customer service only exacerbated the situation. We can excuse opening night gaffes, but a long-running event like L.A. Haunted Hayride should have things under control after ten years of operation.
One other note: the unpaved terrain of the L.A. Haunted Hayride's location is covered in hay, which conceals rocks on the pathways. Not just little rocks. Ones you could stumble and trip over. We encountered one in line to the Haunted Hayride itself and removed it, only to see the person behind us trip over another. We expect uneven footing at this event, but is it too much to expect the lines to the attractions to be clear of obstacles?
L.A. Haunted Hayride Review: Conclusion
Despite the organizational snafus, L.A. Haunted Hayride remains entertaining. The Midnight Falls theme reinvigorates the event, adding an overlay perfectly suited to the woodsy area around Griffith Park's Old Zoo. The new Midnight Mortuary maze is solid, and the Haunted Hayride itself features some spectacular scenes.
However, the 2019 Los Angeles Haunted Hayride feels diminished in some regards, its impact blunted by shorter ride, less interaction, and not so much of the special artistry that imbued the event with its own unique brand of Halloween alchemy, both chilling and fascinating, nightmarish and magical. We prefer those spectral and uncanny forms of fear, which past L.A. Haunted Hayrides have offered in abundance.
L.A. Haunted Hayride 2019 Ratings
L.A. Haunted Hayride’s 2019 theme, Midnight Falls is great. The Haunted Hayride itself is good, but we expected more from it. Midnight Mortuary is a welcome addition to the lineup, but it was too reliant on simple jump scares. Trick or Treat remains an entertaining concept, but suffered from diminished interactivity. Roadkill Ranch is an interesting setting that needs more monsters. At least on opening night, Customer Service was virtually non-existent. (Note: If Customer Service were not factored in, the overall rating would be 82%.)
The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride runs through November 2 at the Griffith Park Old Zoo. The address is 4730 Crystal Springs Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90027. For more information, call (818) 871-9486, or visit: LosAngelesHauntedHayride.com.