Review: Halloween Horror Nights 2016

Halloween Horror Nights 2016 is a must-see event for haunts fans, but if you want to see everything, you need a fast-pass.

This is probably going to be less of a review than a warning: Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood is not worth your time unless you purchase a fast-pass ticket. The park is so overcrowded, the lines so ridiculously long, that a General Admission tickets becomes a de facto limited access pass – you will quite simply not have enough time to get to all the Halloween attractions.

This stands in contrast to Halloween 2015 – when, as an experiment, we managed to get through the entire park with time to spare, thanks to a combination of early entry (at 6pm, before the mazes open), careful strategy, and good luck. This Halloween, that is no longer possible. If you arrive during regular hours (starting at 7pm), you’re going to get to three or four – maybe five – depending on which ones you choose. (Worst lines on opening night were for Freddy vs. Jason and American Horror Story – in excess of two hours).

This is unfortunate, because the mazes are as elaborate and entertaining as ever: they are worth the money but not the wait.

The-Exorcist-Comes-to-Halloween-Horror-Nights-2016For us the highlight was The Exorcist, which uses a clever strategy suggested by the film: startling contrasts. Whereas the movie went from silence to sudden blasts of sound to startling effect, the maze goes from pitch black to sudden bursts of light, like visual explosions. The layout is actually maze-like, at least in its psychological effect on visitors, who cannot tell which direction they are going in the dark and often feel as if they have accidentally doubled back to revisit a room recently exited.

The effect is emphasized by what could have been a debilitating flaw: the recreation of the exorcism scene in Regan’s bedroom several times over. At first, confused minds are likely to believe that are back in the same room, but in fact each one depicts a different stage in the exorcism, featuring different effects: vomit, levitation, etc – sometimes with mechanics, sometimes with live actors.

Captain Howdy (well, the demonic face that flashes subliminally in the film) appears several times, first as a projection, then as a series of live actors. Even better is the horrifying “Spider Walk,” from the 2000 re-edit of the movie, here achieved with an animatronic figure. The overall effect captures the feel of the film while omitting most of its R-rated moments: The Exorcist maze is not as shocking as William Friedkin’s film of William Peter Blatty’s novel, but it does engender the same lingering after-effect, lingering in the mind after the show is over.

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Krampus

Krampus, the Christmas themed maze based on a recent film, has some beautiful snowy settings, a superbly well realized monster, and several good moments, but the maze felt underpopulated. Several rooms were simply empty, though filled with raucous sound effects presumably intended to underline some action taking place.

Krampus suffers from recurring problem with the mazes in Halloween Horror Nights: it uses its titular character over and over again, with repeated jump scares that become…well, repetitive. This happens again in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze, with Leatherface and to some extent in Freddy vs. Jason (though of course there are two characters there). This even happens to some extent in The Exorcist (especially with Captain Howdy), but as mentioned above, the confusing nature of the layout actually turns this into a clever bit of artistic jiu-jitsu, making the audience wonder whether they have gotten lost and returned to a previous scene.

Worth noting: The Krampus maze seems overshadowed by Freddy vs. Jason and American Horror Story, both in close proximity on the lower lot; the wait in line was reasonably well after 9pm, by which time the other two had surpassed two-hour waiting times.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Blood Brothers offered another bloody trip into the world of Leatherface (with some of the other clan on view as well). Even if you’re not a fan of gruesome horror, this one works very well, and there are lots of scares (which is a good thing, because with the crowds and the timing, you’re likely to miss several of the sudden appearances).

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The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead (now a permanent, year-round installation) did not disappoint. We feared the well might be running dry on this one, but it turned out to be an enjoyable thrill from start to finish. Halloween Horror Nights has been using this franchise so long, it makes sense to keep it running during non-Halloween months; despite our concerns about overexposure, it’s always worth revisiting.

Freddy vs Jason turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the night: the maze doesn’t really recreate the 2003 film; instead, it uses the title as an excuse to put the two franchise headliners in the same environment, basically as a gimmick, without really exploiting the potential (a mistake the film managed to avoid).

One final point about the mazes: though Universal Studios Hollywood bills this year’s Halloween Horror Nights “all new,” much of it is recycled from the past. Familiar bits appear in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and in The Walking Dead. Freddy vs Jason almost feels like an excuse to haul old set-pieces out of the mothballs from the Freddy and Jason mazes that have run during past Halloweens – including the giant Freddy head devouring a victim (a gag that reappears in the Krampus maze, with a giant Ginger Bread Man instead of Freddy).

This year’s Halloween Horror Nights has cut back on scare zones. Basically, the only theme is The Purge: Election Year, which is repeated at various points around the park. Fortunately, this theme works extremely well. You first encounter it inside the main entrance, extending to the New York City street scene. It’s back on the lower lot: first you go through a darkened tunnel with flashing lights; then you traverse chaotic streets on your way to Freddy vs. Jason, Krampus, and American Horror Story.

hhn-2016-purge-gauntlet-of-fearBest of all is The Purge: Gauntlet of Fear, a scare zone that functions more like a sort of outdoor maze, with a labyrinth of walls defining a path and cutting off any escape route, forcing victims to continue through to the finish. In a way, Gauntlet of Fear is no more elaborate than something you might see at a Fairgrounds (lots of cages with skeletons and bodies, metallic junk to suggest post-apocalyptic pandemonium), but there is something bracing about freedom this simplicity creates – providing some nice hiding places (abetted by fog), from which enthusiastic actors can emerge to elicit those jump-scares all self-respecting haunt fans demand.

Bottom Line: Halloween Horror Nights delivers fear with the kind of exemplary production value, makeup, and special effects we have come to expect. Just know going in: get a fast past, or resign yourself to seeing only a fraction of what is available.

Halloween Horror Nights continues at Universal Studios Hollywood on September 23-23, 29-30, October 1-2, 6-9, 13-16, 20-23, 27-31, November 4-5. Hours are 7pm to 2am every night; early admission starts at 6pm. Terror Tram closes at 11:45pm. The address is 100 Universal City Plaza Univeral City, CA 91608. You can purchase tickets at: halloweenhorrornights.com/hollywood.

Interested in more ways to enjoy Halloween in Los Angeles? Check out our Halloween Haunts master list.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.