In 2009, the Pomona Fairplex (home of the Los Angeles County Fair) debuted a new Halloween attraction, Nightmare at Scareview Farms. Although the three walk-through mazes were not necessarily filled to the coffin lid with intensely fearful frights, they were impressive in scale, simulating city streets overrun by mutant vampires, a cannibal island populated by pirates, and a backwoods farm haunted by a pitchfork-wielding madman. For 2010, Nightmare at Scareview Farms expands to five mazes and adds some other entertainment as well. If the results seem stretched a little thin, the overall effect remains much the same, and the increase in size is immediately apparent - the haunt feels bigger and better than last year.
The Fairplex offers an excellent venue for a Halloween event. The Big Red Barn, which houses three of the five mazes, offers plenty of space, creating a wide-open feel different from most walk-through attractions. The farm-like surroundings also provide a perfect setting for "Pitchfork," the signature character of Nightmare at Scareview Farms.
The fairgrounds are large, and the official address (1101 McKinley Street) does not put you where you want to go. Remember to enter at Gate 9 on White Street, between Arrow Highway and McKinley. Then walk through the underground tunnel that leads from the parking lot to the fair. The Nightmare at Scareview Farms ticket booth will be immediately on your right as you emerge.
Although Fairplex seems to be a perfect setting for this kind of event, little is open during the haunt's hours of operation. You might be able to find a snack or some trinkets for sale, but if you're looking for food, you will have to go elsewhere.
THEME AND ATMOSPHERE
Nightmare at Scareview emphasizes the Pitchfork character; there are scarecrows and Jack O'Lanterns on view as you approach, in keeping with the setting in the Red Barn, but once you get inside, the various mazes offer a wide variety of environments, stretching from Transylvania to Egypt to an unnamed tropical island.
There is a definite attempt to set the mood early. After you pass the ticket booth, you immediately find yourself negotiating a sort of mini-outdoor labyrinth, bedecked with spiderwebs and other decor, that hides the Big Red Barn until you are almost upon it. From this point on, the surroundings are dotted with decaying trees, skeletal horses, and other macabre mementos, creating the sense of having entered a haunted area, with the "normal' areas of the fair hidden from view.
The atmosphere strikes a bit of a make-believe tone. Guests are invited to suspend their disbelief and pretend that they are walking through castles and crypts. The guides, who lead you through the mazes, do not make jokes at the haunt's expense, but there is a tongue-in-cheek tone to their banter. We also encountered a juggler - literally playing with fire - who expressed surprise as we emerged unscathed from one maze: "The last group wasn't so lucky," he informed us.
The overall impact is one of good-natured fun rather than intense tension.
No rides or roller-coasters here - you come for the mazes, and there are five of them. Three (Skull Island, Cleopatra's Tomb, and Transylania Terror) are in the Big Red Barn. Zombies of the Grave is set up in the outdoor area before the Barn, and Bride of Pitchfork is in the cow-milking barn further along.
Zombies from the Grave is new for 2010. This is the first maze after you enter Scareview. Outside there is a hearse, surrounded by some funeral chaps, one of whom guides you through. The maze itself is a bit thread-bare, mostly wooden flats to create a series of corridors, but it is dotted with some props and scenery that provide effective hiding places for the monsters.
Skull Island is essentially Pirates of the Dead Seas from 2009, emphasizing the last half of that maze (which was set on a cannibal island). We preferred last year's version, which began with an impressive recreation of a small port town, with nifty facades haunted by pirate ghosts. Skull Island seems scaled back, although many of the same props do appear.
Cleopatra's Tomb is another new maze, with theme well suited to Halloween (and when you think about it, why are there not more mummy mazes around town?). The set-up here is that you're searching an Egyptian tomb for a lost professor as you move through corridors decorated with sarcophagi. The effect is not totally convincing but the props do leave a good impression, and the many moving mummies you encounter are perfectly believable in the low-lighting. There is a living (resurrected?) pharaoh adorned with real live snakes (who seem eager to climb off their master and interact with visitors), and Cleopatra herself makes an appearance - angered at the presence of infidels in her resting place.
Transylvanian Terror is an improvement on 2009's enjoyable Vampire Vault, which offered modern mutant vampires. Many of the same set pieces are on display, but this time we get old-school, traditional Gothic vampires - just the way we love them. In addition, several werewolves lope through the haunted hallways. In a bit of geographic confusion that recalls old movies, we begin in what seems like a London Street (complete with a police "bobbie" acting as a guide) before reaching the vampire's castle. As with Cleopatra's Tomb, the sense of being in a Transylvanian tomb is not convincing, but feeling is right on target, so who's complaining?
The Bride of Pitchfork is a sort of sequel to last year's Haunted Barn, which was set (appropriately enough) in the Big Red Barn. 2010 sees the Pitchfork character transplanted to a new setting, with actual farm equipment - pens for holding cows, the machines for milking them - that creates the most convincing setting of any of the mazes. This maze seems lengthier than last year; the length sacrifices some of the intensity, but the perfect setting offers ample compensation.
Besides the five mazes, Nightmare at Scareview Farms has added a small stage and a mini-theatre. The outdoor theatre consists of a decent sized screen and several chairs set beneath a roof; we were pleased to see 1957's CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN playing on screen.
On the night we attended, the stage was occupied by a solo singer-guitarist (backed by either recorded or synthesized accompaniment) who ran through some appropriate tunes with enjoyable gusto, our favorite being "Ghost Riders in the Sky" which was echoing in the distance like a welcome siren's song as we approached the haunt.
SETS & PROPS
Nightmare at Scareview Farms is impressionistic in its use of sets. The haunt does not have the money to go head-to-head in competition with Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. Scareview's mazes consist of wooden flats, decorated with set pieces that give an impression of the desire setting. They also provide good hiding places for monsters.
In its favor, Nightmare at Scareview Farms continues to aim big. Almost never are you walking down some confined corridor; the mazes are wide open, and there is a laudable attempt to suggest outdoor settings and street scenes. If not totally successful, they usually capture the right spirit, and every once in a while they hit you with a real eyeful, such as the Pharaoh's set in Cleopatra's Tomb. Our guide through this maze informed us that some of the props (the ones kept safely in display cases) were authentic. We find it hard to believe that real Egyptian artifacts would be on hand in a Halloween attraction, but they certainly looked convincing.
Scareview relies perhaps a bit too much on stationary statues, but among them there are several mechanical mannequins, such as a skeletal pirate still spinning the steering wheel of his ship. There are also a few figures that provide pop-up scares , but these need to be better situated. At the moment, it is relatively easy to pass them in the dark, barely realizing they are there.
As in 2009, the cast likes to lie in wait before popping out to provide a sudden scare. They achieve this either by using a secure hiding place or sometimes by simply standing in plain sight - perfectly still. With so many lifeless mannequins on display, it is easy to imagine that the haunt saves money by casting hardly any actors at all, but this is an illusion lulling you into a false sense of security that allows the actors to take you by surprise. The only area they need to work on is aggressiveness: one scare seems to be enough for most of them; only a few make the extra effort, pursuing their victims relentlessly as they try to escape.
We think the victims were a bit better this year. These show up mostly in the Bride of Pitchfork maze, where they cry for help or urge us to save ourselves. The frantic cries of despair sometimes struck a strained note in 2009, not so much this year.
As mentioned above, most of the mazes features "guides" of one sort or another, who either lead you an on expedition, or offer protection, or seek help in finding someone (a lost professor in Cleopatra's Tomb, a lost boyfriend in Bride of Pitchfork). Humor definitely creeps into the performances here, with occasional comments about guests' likelihood of making it out alive.
The star performers on the night we attended were the angry Egyptian Queen in Cleopatra's Tomb and a werewolf in Transylvania Terror - whose spastic contortions in the dark were all that was need to convincingly convey a transformation from man to wolf.
Many of the monsters rely on pullover masks; fortunately, these were all effectively horrible and convincing in the dark. This was especially true of the mummies: some bandaged wrappings and a mask were all that was needed to achieve an effective jump scare. The vampires tended to rely more on makeup, which worked quite well for them; their lycanthropic brethren, of course required masks.
MUSIC AND SOUND
Nightmare at Scareview Farms relies mostly on some appropriate organ music that drifts through the three mazes in the Big Red Barn. Set at a relatively low level, the music provides background ambiance without obtruding on the senses too much.
Instead, it is sound effects that impact the nervous system most jarringly. The cast love to slam on walls, creating explosive thuds that grate the nerves and build suspense: usually the sounds come not from ghouls in the room with you but from unseen monsters lurking around the next corner, creating a strong sense of apprehension about proceed to see what lies in wait.
On occasion, the actors augment the slamming with vocal effects - growling, etc. Again, in the darkness, this creates the impression of something close at hand, creating suspense even when the monster is in fact on the other side of a wall that you have yet to reach.
Although we seldom found ourselves shrieking, we did enjoy Nightmare at Scareview Farms. The variety on display is impressive, and we were overjoyed that several of the mazes - Zombies of the Grave, Cleopatra's Tomb, and Transylvania Terror - offered traditional monsters we associate with the Halloween season.
The haunt definitely offers even more than last year, making it a good bargain for the money. We hope it continues to grow and expand, hopefully creating more elaborate settings in the process.
Bottom line: this is solid Halloween entertainment for those who enjoy a good scare in a setting that is more fun than frightening.
Nightmare at Scareview Farms continues on October 22-23, 28-31 at the Fairplex, 1101 W. McKinley Avenue, Pomona, CA 91765. Hours are 7-11pm. Get more info at their webpage.