Queen Mary Dark Harbor 2010: Review

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The entrance to the Queen Mary's Dark Harbor

The Queen Mary's annual Halloween event (variously known in the past as the Queen Mary Halloween Terrorfest or the Haunted Queen Mary Shipwreck) has always been the odd-man out in the competition among theme park Halloween attractions (a subject addressed in this post). The Queen Mary is at a disadvantage to the extent that it is not, technically a theme park, yet it puts on an event too large to be categorized with common Halloween haunted house attractions; in effect, instead of being the big ship in a small pond, the Queen Mary is the lightest contender in the heavy-weight category. With the new Queen Mary Dark Harbor, the ocean-liner-turned-hotel hopes to even the odds by re-branding and revamping its Halloween presentation. But has the new crew of haunt designers achieved their goal?

The first point that needs to be made is that, although improvements are clearly evident, Queen Mary Dark Harbor is not a radical departure from the old Terrorfest or Shipwreck; over-selling the "newness" of the event risks disappointing those expecting something completely different. There are certain assets - the Fishing Village, the Dome, the Queen Mary herself - that have been redressed and tweaked; used well in the past, they are well used again this year, but they are still recognizable.

HELL'S BELLTOWER

DH arial venue copyWhere the Queen Mary's new Halloween presentation does excel is in the effort to unify the event, creating a central hub around which the rest of the action takes place. One notable innovation is that the first walk-through is not a separate maze but literally the entrance, a simple set of metal corridors, filled with fog and lurking monsters, that deposits you into the center of the event: you emerge beneath a mountain of huge metal cargo carriers, stacked precariously and surmounted by belching flames that earn the designation "Hell's Belltower."

At this point, fenced in by other cargo containers, you cannot see the surrounding parking lot or other signs of normalcy; there is only the Haunted Queen Mary, along with the various other attractions. It is like being in a little self-contained Halloween land, with a slightly carnivalesque atmosphere.

Ghouls of the slider variety prowl the pathways; vendors offer fast food and drinks; KROQ blasts music (thank god it's not the over-used Power Radio, which should never get another Halloween gig). A booth offers green-screen special effects photographs that can place you inside a coffin or render you as a severed head. A stage hosts live bands who turn up the volume loud enough to drown out the KROQ DJs only a few hundred feet away. An out door bar offers you a chance to purchase alcohol and relax amidst the demented nautical decor, which includes skulls and a huge shark suspended in netting 20 feet off the ground.

Among the demons prowling near Hells' Belltower, there is a trio including Queen Bundara, one of the three she-demons who form the mythology underlying the haunt. As is often the case, the back story does not clearly emerge in your walk around the park. A bit more scripting would better convey the back story - wouldn't it be unique, for a change, if all the characters were on the same page, not just randomly sneaking up to say boo but playing clearly defined roles that made you feel like part of an interactive drama (not that any haunt has ever excelled in this way, but I think the long-running 1980s play Tamara gives a glimpse of how it might work.)

After a quick tour of the haunted surroundings you will be well-primed for an excursion into more overtly terrifying territory, beginning with...

THE BARRICADE

Before waiting in line for the mazes, you might try wandering into The Barricade, a sort of scare zone that is completely different from anything seen in previous Halloween events at the Queen Mary. It's a large area, not far from Hell's Belltower, defined by metal doors and walls, into which you can wander, as long as you dare confront the monsters roaming within. They remain mostly inconspicuous until you enter, at which point they swarm around you one by one.

It's a nice idea but the entrance is vaguely defined, with little outside to lure you in; the only prominent sign is one saying that the area is off-limits to alcohol. Standing on the thresh-hold, you might not even know you are supposed to enter, and frankly The Barricade almost looks like an exit from the park.

Consequently, the barricade was scarcely populated on opening night, Friday, October 1.Perhaps as the month wears on and crowds grow thicker, there will be a natural inclination to move into the barricades, simply to get some breathing room, but for the time being it might not be a bad idea to put a hawker outside to lure in unwary victims or add some other kind of inducement.

THE MAZES

Not counting the long walk-through entrance, Dark Harbor includes five maze-type attractions, two on land and two on the ship. The actors, makeup, and costumes have been upgraded, but thanks to the memorable locations, the overall ambiance is familiar, sometimes with monsters lurking in the exact same hiding places (and you really can't blame them - they are good hiding places).

The Cage, like The Barricade, is completely new. Located inside the Dome (which used to house the Spruce Goose, decades ago), this is literally a maze, one that challenges you to find a way out. The techniques used are simple: lights shining in your eyes and black curtains without clear-cut exits. The joke is that you are in constant fear of walking where you are not supposed to go - of accidentally wandering behind the scenes, as it were - and this reticence leads you to retrace your steps over and over, heading into dead ends or back to the entrance. The trick here is to overthrow your inhibitions and stop worrying about the curtains: walk until you hit a plywood wall, then trace a path around the perimeter until you find an exit. This leads to another section, not quite as challenging but still visually confusing - a combination of chain-link fence and reflective surfaces that, in the low light, will occasionally leave you uncertain of where the next pathway is. Although not tremendously frightening, this maze is fun and distinctive, truly different from anything else at Dark Harbor (or at other Halloween attractions, for that matter).

Village of the Damned - the other land-locked maze - offers clearer echoes of Halloween haunts past. It utilizes the Fishing Village to good effect, but the old-fashioned atmosphere is not much of a change from last year's Vampire Village; the main difference is that instead of fanged blood-suckers, the old buildings are infested by ghouls dressed in nautical uniforms, appropriate for a seaside setting. The walk-throughs set in the Fishing Village always work, and Village of the Damned is no exception.

The three mazes on board the Queen Mary will, like Village of the Damned, be familiar to long-time fans of the location. The pathways are essentially the same as those scene in previous years, although in some cases the direction has been reversed, providing a slightly different perspective. The cast are more consistently in nautical uniforms than in years past, but it may be hard to tell the difference in the darkness and shadows.

Containment, set toward the back of the ship, takes you through some ominous service corridors where passengers are obviously not supposed to tread. The hallways seem to be haunted by a mad doctor looking for body parts. No doubt a ship can have a doctor on board, but this surgical theme is a bit at odds with the intent to unify Dark Harbor around the Queen Mary's haunted heritage.

Hellfire and Submerged are set mid-ship. Hellfire begins a bit innocuously but builds up interest as you delve deeper into the depths. Submerged is the most obviously re-imagined of the on-board mazes: true to its name, it features churning water bubbling up from broken pipes, suggesting that the ship is sinking and you may soon be up to your neck in brine - and who knows what lurks beneath the surface?

As with the Fishing Village, mazes set on the Queen Mary always work, thanks to the authentic flavor of the setting; the huge pile of aging metal offers production value that even Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood cannot match. Although these mazes (except for Submerged) are not radically revamped, they do benefit this year from the presence of professional actors. (2009 was cast with acting students who, though talented, presented a uniformly youthful appearance that was ultimately distracting.) Our favorite character of the night was an abandoned little girl (we are fairly sure played by a small adult) wandering lost in the uninviting bowels of the ship and begging for help.

AFTER-SCARE ENTERTAINMENT & FOOD

DH hells bells tower copyPart of the goal for 2010 was to create a sort of communal atmosphere that would entice like-mind Halloween-lovers to stick around after the scares, sitting down to have a drink at the bar and listen to live music from the nearby stage. Although the bar was welcome for refreshment purposes, we  did not feel inclined to stay much beyond the time it took to walk through the mazes.

The event simply has yet to achieve that sort of critical mass that turns it into a "happening," although there are glimmers of promise. The opening live act, a band called Acidic, was loud, fast, and furious, but their set was too short; they simply bugged out just when we wanted to sit down and listen, and there was no sign of any immediate follow-up act.

Meanwhile, the domineering Queen Bundara and her two sycophants put on some kind of a performance atop one of the cargo containers, but it had the feel of a West Hollywood S&M cabaret act gone bad (or some I'm guessing). I'm not really sure they fit in as well with the Queen Mary, as one would like. The ship itself has a reputation for being haunted, but its ghosts, real or imagined, are of the traditional variety, not over-the-top characters that seem to have stepped out of an oceanic version of Dungeons & Dragons. If the Queen Mary wants to go beyond ghosts for its scare, perhaps next year they will delve into Coleridge's Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which provides as fascinating a femme fatale as one could wish for, the "Nightmare Life-In-Death...who thicks man's blood with cold."

Ultimately, what prevented us from dropping anchor at Dark Harbor for an extended stay was the food situation. The menu is restricted to fast food worth snacking on while waiting in line, but there is nothing to induce you into sitting down and having a meal. If the Queen Mary really wants visitors to extend their stay, there should be a wider variety of culinary delights. Being an outdoor venue, there may be a limit to how far upscale Dark Harbor can go, but even Magic Mountain can manage a decent grilled caprese sandwich. The Queen Mary Hotel, with its fine restaurants on board, should be able to provide something more high-end than kettle korn, pretzels, nachos, and tacos. How about a nice margherita pizza?

CONCLUSION

DH daytime 2 ghouls copyThe 2010 Dark Harbor is a nice step in the right direction.  We like the idea of a self-contained microcosm, where everything is designed to fit thematically. But the holistic Halloween concept goes only so far. What visitors will most likely remember is not thematic consistency but the blast of heat from the belching flames atop Hell's Belltower.

One advantage of Dark Harbor - which has been true of all the Queen Mary's Halloween events - is the compressed location: you get five mazes, the Barricades, Hell's Belltower, the food court, the bar, and the stage - all in a relatively small area. In effect, the amount of actual Halloween entertainment is equivalent to that of Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights (minus the theme park rides and shows of course), but you can get to all of it without circumnavigating an entire theme park - which means that, after you been on every attraction once, you can go again without walking yourself into exhaustion.

The Queen Mary needs to kick  the party atmosphere up a notch and go a bit more upscale if it wants to be more than a fun zone for teens. Yes, the sale of alcoholic beverages is aimed at drawing a broader, older audience, but otherwise, the event has little to appeal specifically to adults. Dark Harbor is a blast of spooky Halloween horror, but to truly stand out from the competition, it could use a touch more sophistication.

Dark Harbor runs at the Queen Mary on October 8-10, 15-17, 21-24 and 27-31 from 7 p.m. to midnight. Tickets are $35 each, plus $15 for parking.