When we reviewed the debut of Old Town Haunt in 2005, it was no secret that we found it strong on atmosphere but somewhat short on scares, thanks to a minimal cast of characters. Fortunately, we set aside our disappointment from last year and gave it a second chance this weekend, finding it immensely improved for 2006. Its environs look as dark, dank, and dismal as ever, but now it is loaded with so many sinister spooks and ghoulish ghosts that you have no opportunity to stand back and simply enjoy the scenery - you're too busy being scared!
We arrived about an hour before closing on Sunday night, traditionally a slow time. The cast was taking a break in an alley beside the entrance, and we were pleased to see well over a dozen monsters of various shapes and sizes, some in makeup, masks and robes, others in full-body costumes. After a short wait (punctuated by frequent, frightening visits from the wandering ghouls, sneaking up on unsuspecting customers), the small crowd of fright fans was allowed to enter in groups (usually six to eight, so the scares are not diluted), and screams of fear immediately began to echo from within the subterranean chambers of the haunt.
The Old Town Haunt takes you downstairs into tunnels and corridors where bank robbers were supposedly killed decades ago. The decor is fabulously frightening, and the haunt truly benefits from the feeling of being inside an actual location (not a bunch of painted flats set up in a parking lot).
The difference this year is that the lighting level seems much lower, increasing the moody mystery of the setting. Several familiar items (a ghostly apparition, nerve-rattling blasts of pressurized air, a howling mechanical monster) were on view from last year, but they seem to have been re-arranged and re-ordered for 2006, preventing any sense of predictability. Also added was that old but effective gag (used in Spooky House and the Seaside Haunt) of forcing visitors to crawl on hands and knees through a tiny tunnel. The gag is particularly appropriate and effective in this haunt, which is after all supposed to be set in a getaway tunnel beneath a bank.
The underground labyrinth feels impressively extensive - you won't be walking in and out in under five minutes, certainly. And it seems even longer than it actually is, because one of the gags is a movable wall that traps you in a loop, so that you retrace your steps, as if hopelessly lost and wandering in circles - making you briefly feel like one of the damned souls trapped in the tunnels beneath the scene of their crime.
Unlike our experience last year, there were ghouls and ghosts at every turn, so many that they were practically elbowing each other aside to get at us. Their aggressive attacks filled the darkened chambers with fear, and there was never a moment when we felt an opportunity for a scare had been missed.
It was almost - but not quite! - too much. Last year, the haunt felt almost like a trip through a museum - a fascinating series of tableaux too often lacking life (even of the undead variety). In 2006, every chamber is haunted; in every doorway lurks a menace; around every corner is another chance to scream.
The exit leads up a short flight of stairs to an alley. Just when you think the horror is behind you, more monsters emerge in hot pursuit back to the main street. A "slider" (one of those ghouls with the metal kneepads) usually gets a last scream from the girls on the way out. We found ourselves pursued by some furry beast resembling "Fluffy," the monster in "The Crate" episode of CREEPSHOW.
Our 2005 review praised the Old Town Haunt for its distinctive setting and for avoiding the numerous clichés seen at other haunts (e.g., black lights and 3D killer klowns). This is definitely a Halloween attraction that shows you something you have not seen elsewhere, and it's worth a visit even if you have been to several others.
Now, thanks to the enhanced fear factor in 2006, Old Town Haunt is no longer simply a cool setting with great props and lighting. It's a full-fledged fear factory of the first order, making this haunt a must-see for Halloween fans.