Pasadena's underground lair of scares is bigger and better than ever.
Hollywood Gothique began its Halloween Season 2009 with a trip out to Pasadena to enjoy the frightful fear-mongering located in the lower depths of the Old Town Haunt. Since its inception in 2005, this underground walk-through maze has consistently been one of the best Halloween events in Los Angeles - so much so that we almost begin to take it for granted. The question is whether the cast and crew can revitalize their attraction from year to year, offering something new, so that visitors are not merely walking through the same old musty catacombs. Not to keep you in suspense, the answer to that question is yes: the 2009 incarnation of Old Town Haunt is better than it has ever been.
We arrived on Friday, opening night, against the advice of the owners, who had expressed concern that they would still be working out the kinks in the rusty chains clanking in the dungeon. They need not have worried. We were the very first to make the descent into the darkness of Old Town Haunt's subterranean world, and the ghouls were as lively as undead creatures can possibly be, offering enough spirited performances and pop-up scares to delight any Halloween fan.
There is a nice mix of old ghouls reanimated for yet another Halloween, along with new converts to the land of the living dead. Our favorite newbies were a masked madman who seemed to be eviscerating a corpse and a ghastly contortionist recreating something very like the "spider-walk" from the restored version of THE EXORCIST.
Most impressive was the extent to which Old Town Haunt feels new for 2009. The old familiar effects and props were much in evidence (including the pitch black crawlspace), but the layout seems significantly changed: not only are there several new rooms; the corridors connecting them have been altered or expanded so that, even if you have been through in the past, you do not know what to expect around each new corner.
The new rooms include a hall of burnt bodies and a cellar with a trick wall from which monsters can make unexpected appearances. There is a "Green Room" filled with vines and foliage that provide good hiding places for ghosts and ghouls. And there is a small room based upon the remake of THE STEPFATHER, which will be opening in theatres shortly.
If there is a weakness here, it is that Old Town Haunt relies on darkness to enhance its ominous ambiance - a technique that, although effective, robs visitors of the opportunity to appreciate much of the detail work in the sets and props; in fact, while screaming your way through the lengthy labyrinth, percpetion blurs until the rooms and corridors blend together, and it is possible to emerge without realizing that several new areas have been added this year.
This is especially true of the Stepfather room. Posters from the film paper over the set, but unless you are a cyborg with mechanically enhanced night-vision, you will not notice them, nor the changing portraits hanging from the walls - the effect of seeing the painted subjects shift from normal to skeletal as you change your point of view is completely lost in the shadows. Even if the light were brighter, the temptation to run through the room would prevent any perusal of the decorations. The result is an effective but generic jump scare with the "Stepfather" leaping off his couch as you round the corner. This is an area that might be improved by forcing visitors to pause for a moment and see something resembling a brief scene before being allowed to continue their trek through the tombs.
It is perhaps not fair to complain about a slight mis-step after having been forewarned that not every detail would be perfected on opening night. It is unlikely that anyone walking through Old Town Haunt would perceive this as a flaw; rather it is a minor missed opportunity - something new and different that goes by so fast it barely registers instead of driving home the fact that you are seeing something you had not seen before.
This diminutive disapointment is more than off-set by the density of doom and gloom that suffuses the clammy catacombs. There literally seems to be an apparition around every corner, often materializing from the most unexpected areas. This is definitely not one of those Halloween haunted houses that leave you walking down long, empty corridors in search of of a few grim ghosts that materialize only at odd intervals; there really is so much to see that return trips pay off nicely, revealing previously overlooked horrors worth perusing. We made three excursions into the abyss on Friday night, and noticed new details each time, while vicariously enjoying the enthusiastic screams of the foolish customers who dared to make the descent with us.
We imagine that those screams will echo even longer and louder through the rest of the Halloween season...
We will be posting a video of opening night in the near future. Check back.