When the Queen Mary launched Dark Harbor last year, there was a deliberate effort to re-brand the floating hotel's annual October event as one that could compete with the major theme park Halloween attractions, Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt and with Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. The Queen Mary Dark Harbor's maiden voyage turned out to be not a very huge departure from its predecessors (variously known as the Queen Mary Halloween Terrorfest and the Haunted Queen Mary Shipwreck); however, it did signal a sea change toward unifying the event's disparate pieces, emphasizing the nautical setting and avoiding many of the cliches of the Halloween season (e.g., no killer klowns or seductive vampires). As always, the Queen Mary herself provided all the necessary chills, thanks to those dank corridors that seem to extend all the way into the bowels of Hell.
Those piloting the vessel promised that 2010 was only the beginning; the themes and back story would expand, abetted by innovative ways of bringing scares to the audience - or bringing the audience to the scares. So does Dark Harbor 2011 boldly voyage into darkly haunted seas never charted before? Not quite: much is the same as last year, the old barnacles scraped away and replaced with fresh paint, the cabins aired out and redecorated, the crew primed and ready for another cruise into terror. In fact, the best way to describe this year's Queen Mary Dark Harbor is to switch metaphors from the bounding main to music: Dark Harbor 2011 is like a remastered CD - basically the same music, with perhaps one or two bonus tracks, but with improved clarity of sound that brings out details you might have missed before, making the result seem new.
As before, the entrance to Queen Mary Dark Harbor is itself a maze of long corrugated metal corridors, haunted by ghouls lurking in the fog. It's a nice touch: the Halloween fun starts not after you enter but as you enter. Also, the effect is to cut you off from the the comfortable surroundings, suggesting by walking into Dark Harbor you have left the normal world behind.
One improvement is that the entrance tunnel now leads you into the Barricades, a sort of wide-open scare zone fashioned of metal box cars, with signs indicating the various haunted mazes. (Last year, the entrance dumped you into the central area near the stage and food vendors; tucked quietly away, the Barricades could easily be overlooked.) As you exit the barricades, you find not safety but more horror: the "slider" ghouls at work in the street are not only aggressive but also very adept at sneaking up on you.
The five mazes are the same as last year, two on land and three on ship:
- The Cage (in the Dome that used to house the Spuce Goose) is a literal maze of hanging black curtains, which take some effort to navigate successfully, leading to a labyrinth of chain link fences filled with monsters. Strobe lights obscure vision, creating an unnerving sense that anything could be creeping up on you.
- Village of the Damned (set in the Fishing Village) is an extended walk through an atmospheric rendition of a village overrun by ghouls. The setting is perfect, and this one goes on for a great distance, offering plenty of opportunity for frights.
- Containment (on the stern of the Queen Mary) features crazed doctors and nurses, apparently trying to contain the outbreak of a contagion - although these health professionals seems unlike to make the pain go away anytime soon.
- Submerged (mid-ship) effectively exploits the obvious fear of drowning. This maze allows you to trek past the Queen Mary's allegedly haunted swimming pool, but if a real ghost exists, she stays well out of sight. Submerged also contains one of the most memorable characters: a spooky little ghost girl, lost and looking for her mommy.
- Hellfire (mid-ship, next to Submerged) is just what you would expect from its name, a descent into a hellish netherworld of the damned. This maze includes a walk over a perilous bridge set at a dizzying height above a cavernous dark room below. The bridge seems to buckle under your weight, and for a minute you feel as if you are about to plunge into Hell yourself.
The themes are nicely handled. During past Halloweens, it was easy for one maze to blend into another in memory; all those ominous corridors look much the same. Fortunately, Submerged and Hellfire are such polar opposites that they offer starkly different experiences; even Containment has its own personality.
Despite recreating these themes from 2010, the mazes are often noticeably different. The Cage now includes creepy hands extending from walls, some of them waving and brushing against you as you walk by. Hellfire features not only glowing embers but also actual "hellfire" - in the form of glowing electrical sparks that cascade down from the ceiling as you walk over the bridge.
There is supposed to be a back story tying all of these haunts together. Basically, Dark Harbor is ruled by Queen Bundara, some kind of haughty sea witch. This year, her two sisters make appearances, apparently outraged over having been banished from last year's festivities. As often happens with Halloween haunts, if you did not know the story going in, you would not notice it. Each of the mazes offers its own frights, without filling in any story details that would link them together or tie them in with the sea witches. The soggy make up on Mattenoot would suggest she rules the realm in Submerged, whereas Searer is burned to a crisp, presumably by hellfire; however, neither puts an appearance in to either maze.
The only witch with much visible presence is Bundara, who periodically appears atop a box car near the Barricades while her minions, the Barkers, urge passersby to declare their allegiance to the sea queen. The effect is sometimes funny, but the campy tone suggests a West Hollywood cabaret act that accidentally found itself at the Queen Mary.
We did note an opening night glitch or two on Friday, October 7. The haunted swimming pool in Submerged is so photogenic that the assembled press corps could not resist stopping to take pictures - and blocking the stairway leading out. This would have not been so terrible; unfortunately, the scare actors seemed ill-trained to handle the situation, breaking character to give directions to the exit. Presumably, this is what happens when one hires drama students (from nearby Cal State Los Angeles) instead of seasoned pros. The ghouls at FrightFair Screampark would have turned the delay into another scare opportunity, going after the milling crowd with angry shouts of "Keep Moving!
After the mazes, the stage offers live entertainment, and you can enjoy a variety of seasonal alcoholic beverages, including a Vampire's Kiss, a Skin & Bones Margarita, and Dead Pirate's Punch. The food choices are not quite as sophisticated, but there is quite a bit more than kettle corn and cotton candy - enough to make us sit down and enjoy a meal, which is more than we could manage last year.
The bands on stage for opening night seems at bit better in tune with the season than those we saw last year; some were even wearing costumes. Unfortunately, in between the live performances, a DJ was spinning the usual generic dance music, as if oblivious to the fact that Queen Mary Dark Harbor is a Halloween attraction. (Note to DJs: there is a huge catalog of Halloween-appropriate recordings, and we're not just talking about "The Monster Mash." With a little effort, you can find great song by popular artists - music that will play to a young crowd looking for a good time while still meshing well with the season.)
We left Dark Harbor feeling tingling with terror over our annual trek through the intimidating depths of doom that reside within the Queen Mary. However, we do wish that Dark Harbor could develop its themes to fuller effect. We don't want to sink the Queen Mary with this criticism. Frankly, we have never seen a back story fully exploited at a haunted attraction; Dark Harbor fares no worse in this regard than any other Halloween event in Los Angeles. If it were up to us, we would have Bundara and her sisters walk the plank, replace them with the "Night-mare Life-in-Death" from "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," and turn the Fishing Village into Innsmouth, as depicted in H. P. Lovecraft's novelette "The Shadow over Innsmouth." Now that would be something to see.
Dark Harbor continues at the Queen Mary (1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach, CA) on October 14-16, 20-23, 27-31; from 7pm to midnight. More info here.