Review & Video: The Empty Grave 2015 - Graveyard Shift

The Empty Grave was the last of four haunted attractions that Hollywood Gothique visited in Orange County the day after Halloween 2015. Did it have the capacity to shock nerves that had been numbed from exposure to Perdition Home, The Flesh Yard, and Motel 6 Feet Under? Read on to find out...if you dare!

If nature abhors a vacuum, the supernatural must abhor a vacuum even more - which makes an Empty Grave a troubling prospect, a sort of vacated Pandora's Box, which our mind fills with unanswered questions: Who or what was in there, and where now does it lurk? In its previous incarnation, The Empty Grave Halloween attraction toyed with this concept, presenting a haunt that was largely a void, filled mostly shadows and fog, suggesting a limbo-like netherworld inhabited by the souls of the undead. Since moving from Anaheim to Laguna Hills two years ago, The Empty Grave has radically revised its presentation, offering essentially a new haunted attraction, with its own distinctive graveside curb appeal.

Located within a building in the parking lot of the Laguna Hills Mall, The Empty Grave presents an inauspicious facade - it could be just another store or service center - but this innocuous appearance plays into the haunt's clever strategy, which becomes apparent only after you enter. The Empty Grave no longer presents an otherworldly realm of lost soul, nor does it pretend to house a castle or some other outre local. Instead, it is the most prosaic place of all: the workplace. The title for this year's theme is Graveyard Shift. You are not challenged to enter a mausoleum or descend into ancient catacombs. Instead, you are expected to clock in for your first night of your new job and...well, the job description is sparse to the point of non-existence, but your fellow employees seem to think that, whatever you're supposed to be doing, you're doing it wrong.

Like the previous incarnation of The Empty Grave, the new Graveyard Shift offers an extensive tour of terror, but the vast empty space of the old location has been replaced with a more traditional walk-through experience, featuring lengthy corridors and maze-like passages, with decor that puts a grim overlay onto everyday settings: offices, locker rooms, and conveyor racks have the taint of death on them, thanks to low-key lighting and judicious use of props and set dressing. The production design is relatively modest, but the advantage of being situated in a real building is fully felt, creating an authentic sense of moving through a workplace that has gone figuratively and perhaps literally to hell.

As you navigate through the corridors, you will encounter the usual assortment of strobe lights, fog, mazes, and monsters; fortunately, the Graveyard Shift theme unifies these disparate elements into a unique haunt experience. Agitated maniacs order you to clock in on time and get to work. Creepy co-workers glumly mop the floor. The only time anyone expresses any interest in you is when they ask how badly your day is going and then mockingly insist that it will only get worse. After a while, the ten-plus-minute experience starts to feel like an eight-hour shift in the nether regions of the damned, and you feel yourself yearning to clock out for good.

This clever concept enhances a haunt that is not the most elaborate in terms of special effects and mechanics: unlike Motel 6 Feet Under in nearby Anaheim (which also relies on a theme to distinguish itself from other Halloween horrors), The Empty Grave does not feature an over-sized pneumatically controlled spider; however, The Empty Grave sustains its theme from beginning to end more effectively, thanks to a diligent cast that generally opts for unsettling interaction instead of quick scares and screams.

The performances are enhanced by good costuming and professional-looking makeup and masks. The latter are not of the generic pullover variety; they are form-fitting, simulating the look of good prosthetic applications. There was a good personality types shone through the masks - some silent and spooky, some aggressively verbose - making it difficult to single out a favorite. Even on an off night (Sunday), there were enough occupants to prevent the Grave from feeling too "empty" - though, consistent with past strategy, there were several strategically vacant passages, intended to create an ominous sense of expectation for what might by lying in wait around the next corner.

Looking back, we wish that The Empty Grave had exploited the Graveyard Shift theme even more fully: there could have been more interactive elements; a task could have been assigned to us; there could have been an overbearing boss; perhaps there could have been more vicious hazing of the "rookie." Nevertheless, the 2015 incarnation of The Empty Grave was a novel experience that easily distinguishes itself in our memory from the many other haunts we attended that year. That may not sound like high praise, but consider this: it was the last of four haunts we visited on November 1, and instead of blurring into all the others ("seen it, been there, done that"), it stands out as clearly as if it were the one and only.

The Empty Grave runs every Halloween, usually throughout the month of October. It is expected to return to the same location for 2016: 23400 Laguna Hills Mall  in Laguna Hills, 92653. The official website is www.themtgrave.com.

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.