Looking over reviews of our past paranormal encounters within the Reign of Terror haunted house in Thousand Oaks, we note a certain evasiveness regarding the intensity of scares. We praised the Halloween attraction for its convincing simulation of a dilapidated haunted house; detailed sets and ominous atmosphere were the highlights, but did the multitude of mechanical props - which hiss and jump and twitch - send a shiver down your spine and force a scream from your throat? Perhaps not so much - or at least that was our impression, as magnificent haunted surroundings tended to blind our senses to the actual fear factor. The result was a slight equivocation in our ultimate assessment. Yes, we ranked Reign of Terror among our "Must-See Halloween Haunts for 2009," but we never quite pinpointed exactly where it ranked in the exalted upper echelon of delightfully horrible Halloween entertainment. Well, the fence-sitting finally ends here. For 2010, we feel confident in declaring that Reign of Terror is the best walk-through attraction we have encountered this Halloween.
Why the sudden confidence? To ascertain our esoteric reasonings, read on...if you dare.
REIGN OF TERROR 2010 REVIEW: LOCATION
Reign of Terror is back in the Janss Marketplace, which offers pleasant, comfortable surroundings and several options for shopping and food. Unfortunately, most of the eateries will be closed by the time you exit the haunt; only the bars remain open late. If you enter from Moorpark Road, you must drive around to the back, avoiding the front parking lot in favor of the parking structure on the other side. From here, you will see the Reign of Terror ticket booth as you approach the food court; the haunt itself is set further back.
This year, the walk-through has been moved to a different building in the marketplace; it is located above Gold's Gym. This leads to the haunt's one disappointment: the entrance. In past years, part of the fun was the convincing facade of a Victorian mansion that stood outside the entrance, creating the illusion that you were walking not into an artificially created entertainment but an actual environment. Now, there is just a non-descript door, leading up a flight of stairs.
Fortunately, there is some compensation. The second floor has been decked out with props and settings that formerly were within the haunted house itself. Now they serve as atmospheric omens of the horror to come, putting visitors in the mood as they wait in line. The effect is not unlike Disneyland, placing you inside another world even before you enter the actual attraction.
One other advantage of the new location is size: there is even more to the haunt this year, including a whole new section. There is also room to open up some of the settings, creating wider spaces than previously possible.
REIGN OF TERROR 2010 REVIEW: THEMES AND ATMOSPHERE
As in years past, Reign of Terror offers traditional Halloween horror, in the form of a haunted manse. The overall mood is Gothic and old-fashioned; although the sets are not literally monochromatic, they suggested the style of "Old Dark House" movies in black-and-white.
The new section is named "Asylum." After winding your way through the more familiar Reign of Terror, you find yourself confronted with the imposing stone-cold facade for an entirely new den of horrors. Although the asylum theme is a bit generic and over-used, it works well in this context, thanks to a consistency with what preceded - an emphasis on traditional ambiance rather than gorey mahem. Yes, the inmates are still overrunning the asylum, and there are visceral shocks in store for you, but the feel is somewhat akin to Val Lewton's BEDLAM (1946) .
REIGN OF TERROR 2010 REVIEW: SETS & PROPS
The sets and props remain a highlight of Reign of Terror. Many of the familiar pieces are back in place, but rearranged so that the walk through is not entirely predictable. The new asylum settings maintain the high quality. You don't have to pretend you're in a scary place; you feel as if you are actually in a scary place.
I suppose it would take a side-by-side comparison to prove this to a scientific certainty, but on a purely subjective level, the the sets are as believable as anything on view in Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.
As always, the mechanical props lend a distinctive edge to the Reign of Terror. Yes, there is nothing quite like a live actor to send an unsuspecting victim screaming for the chicken exit, but there is something about the mechanical nature of the movements on view here that does indeed disturb - a certain spastic, twitching quality suggesting how a corpse or skeleton might move with all its organic parts not working properly.
REIGN OF TERROR 2010 REVIEW: CAST
As with the sets, we have not subjected this next assessment to scientific scrutiny, but our impression is that 2010's Reign of Terror is haunted by many more living ghouls than before, creating a more obviously intense scare experience. Some of the actors still suggest phantom wraiths whose mere presence is supposed to disturb you with uncanny suggestions of the supernatural, but there are more aggressive monsters as well.
These new ghouls take advantage of the new location, whose wider environs allow ample space for surprise appearances, including at least one slider in the Asylum area. Sliders are not an exclusively outdoor species, but it is a startling surprise to see one within these walls.
REIGN OF TERROR 2010 REVIEW: ATTRACTIONS
Resisting the prevailing October winds, Reign of Terror remains a stand-alone attraction, not a mini-theme park. Although there is not a separate entrance for each, one could distinguish Reign of Terror and The Asylum as separate attractions; each on its own is certainly as long as individual mazes at other Halloween events in Los Angeles. Together, they form a very effective whole - with consistently high and overall continuity of approach, but with enough variety to prevent lagging interest.
REIGN OF TERROR 2010 REVIEW: OTHER
As many Halloween haunts do, Reign of Terror makes effective use of music and soundscapes by Midnight Syndicate, adding an extra layer of sinister supernatural atmosphere.
REIGN OF TERROR 2010 REVIEW: SUMMARY
What more can we say? We visit a multitude of haunted houses, hayrides, theme parks, and other attractions every Halloween, and we enjoy all of them in one way or another - so much so, that it is often hard to single any one out for particular praise. But for whatever reasons, in 2010, we were even more impressed by this always impressive haunt. Reign of Terror is not the only haunted house you should visit this year, but it should be on top of your list.
Reign of Terror continues on October 22-24, 28-31 at Janss Marketplace, 215 North Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. For more info, visit their website: rothauntedhouse.com