Skull Kingdom – first impression

Copyright 2008 Steve Biodrowski

A trek to Woodland Hills last night brought us to the debut of Skull Kingdom. This is a brand-new Halloween attraction in Los Angeles, the latest of several affiliated with the long-running Spooky House.

Supervised by Mike Zatz and Erin Joyce, who used to run the wonderful Seaside Haunt (opening next week), Skull Kingdom features many of the same virtues (and some of the same cast) from former attraction: atmospheric settings, a strategic use of darkness to create disorientation, and a sense of moving through several convincing environments. In short, if you loved Seaside Haunt spooky lighthouse, you will enjoy Skull Kingdom’s haunted house.

Copyright 2008 Steve Biodrowski

Although the name may suggest a castle, Skull Kingdom more resembles an old manor. Part of the fun, as with Seaside Haunt, is that the entertainment is not restricted to within the maze. Last night there were two actors entertaining the crowd, including a demented chap named Bruno who did not restrict his activities to immediately outside the haunt but rambled about the sidewalk and across the street, thumbing a ride and washing a car’s windshield at a nearby service station.

Once you leave the outdoor antics behind and pass through the entrance, you walk through several narrow corridors, emerging into rooms where ghouls may be lurking around corners or in shadows (which are plentiful). Luckily, you do not have to get down on your hands and knees to crawl through a tunnel, nor were there any dead ends, but there is at least one room that features almost total darkness, forcing you to feel for a way out.

In the dim lighting we could not keep count of how many actual monsters were at work; for all we know it could have been the same half dozen over and over again, circling around us and taking us unaware from different directions as we moved from room to room. Whatever the case, although there are quiet moments that give you time to worry about what will happen next, you never go very far without something nipping at your heels, whispering in your ear, or leaping out of the darkness.

This is essential. No one wants to walk through a museum that merely looks spooky – that’s what the discount kiddy matinees are for. Skull Kingdom offers some aggressive actors who revel in inflicting terror on the customers, and that – perhaps even more than elaborate decor – is what makes a great haunt.

Being opening night, not everything was quite up to speed. The haunt was put together in a relatively short time, and we are told that there will be fine tuning, including an original score, by next week. In spite of this, there were no obvious glitches; the overall effectiveness was in no way noticeably diminished. We have certainly walked through far less effective mazes that running at the top of their game. Even though Skull Kingdom is not as elaborate as the best of the mazes at Knott’s Scary Farm, it evokes at least as much dreadful anticipation as you creep through each corridor, wondering what make be lurking around the next corner. It’s interesting to imagine that its creators believe it could be even better. (We certainly think it worth the return trip to see the improvements.)

Skull Kindgom is adjacent to a pumpkin patch that offers pumpkin carving and other family friendly entertainment, plus a small heard of moving animatronic dinosaurs! These are truly impressive, with excellent detailing, including great skin texture and coloring. They don’t walk around, but they do move quite a bit, blinking, twitching, rearing and roaring. They may not quite seem alive, but it’s as close as you could want to get to a nose to nose encounter with such beasts. (especially in the case of a fearsome predator)

The combination of pumpkin patch and haunt is a good one, although we suspect there will be not be an exorbitant amount of cross-over between the two attractions: Skull Kingdom is way too scary for the little tykes who would enjoy running through the hay. At least, your friends will have something to do if they are too scared to accompany you through the maze. Fortunately, the dinosaurs are free. These “terrible lizards” may not be a traditional part of Halloween, but they are fearsome enough to work as a sideshow attraction during this scary season.

This post has been updated to correct grammar and clarify meaning.