Over the course of the past fifteen years, Spooky House has managed to establish itself as a Halloween tradition in the valley: an excellent, elaborate haunt that's a cut above the competition because it's not just made up of black painted flats aligned into corridors beneath a tent. For the last few years, the haunted theme park was housed in a permanent location that contained three very long mazes with some truly impressive sets and mechanical effects, beyond what you see in other Halloween shows.
The expanse, however, did not come without a price. The lengthy trails (which often led outside into areas filled with glaring stone idols, dust-filled cemeteries, and swampy backwoods settings) were often under-staffed, giving your plenty of opportunity to appreciate the decor while wondering where were all the ghouls that were supposed to scare you. And in some cases, the place became so crowded that the staff started funneling the customers through without giving the actors time to reset for each new group, thus undermining the fright factor.
Well, Spooky House has moved to a new location this year, and perhaps the best way to describe it is to say it's the same thing, only different. Situated inside an abandoned movie theatre, it has lost some of the expanse and a little bit of the atmosphere that came from the exterior locations. Fortunately, this diminishment in size is offset by a higher density of scares. A lot of the settings are still impressively done, but you won't be comfortably admiring the props and decor, because you'll be too busy being scared.
Initially, the new location near on Parthenia. just west of the corner of Tampa, seems a bit disappointing, because the familiar haunted house facade that stood in the old location is missing. The abandoned movie theatre gives the haunt a bit of the temporary feel that you get from other Halloween attractions; it doesn't have the same vibe of the old permanent facility.
That's the bad news. The good news is that the new location gives a new feel to the venerable haunt. Even if you gone to Spooky House several times in the past, you will see some new stuff this year that makes it an almost all-new thriller. There are three haunted mazes, and though they are not as long (nor quite as elaborately decorated) as the old ones, they are much more densely packed with ghouls, noticably increasing the scare-to-square-foot ratio.
We went on a Friday night, early, and were pleased to see that we had beat the crowds. The parking lot was charging $5, but we easily found street parking around the corner. The entrance to the theatre is easy to find. It's surrounded by the now de rigeur booths selling souvenirs, snacks, and psychic readings, and you're likely to see a few random zombies mixing with the customers.
We started off with the first of three mazes, the Bloodshed Medial Center. This one is good gore-filled fun, although not that much different from the kind of thing you can see at most Halloween haunts. A lot of it is just blood-spattered walls and "corridors" fashioned from sheets dangling from the ceiling; nevertheless, it was effective enough to terrify the group who had gone in before us to the extend that they stopped dead and we caught up and passed them.
The familiar mad scientist character, seen in the old Spooky House (he of the rude one-liners as he screams about having created "Life! Life! LIFE!") pops up here, and it's certainly good to see him again, but his presence does remind us a bit of what Spooky House has lost: In the old location, this character was situated in what looked like a lab out of an old Frankenstein movie, complete with an elvated operating table that dropped from the ceiling, threatening to crash on the heads of the customers. That gag is absent from the new digs.
Next up was Turbidite Manor, which turned out to be the genuine highlight of new location. This maze is the brainchild of Nathan Hamilton, the so-called "junior partner" at the Hallowed Haunting Grounds. That wonderful amateur yard haunt is soon to be no more, alas! (2005 is it's final year), but some of its spirit survives in Turbidite Manor, which de-emphasizes the jump-out-of-a-dark-corner-and-say-boo scares in favor of capturing a genuinely creepy sense of being in a haunted house people by intangible phantoms.
The maze starts by threading you past some TV monitors while you wait in line. The on-screen video gives you the background, telling you that the manor dates back to an old boomtown during the goldrush era and telling you some of the sordid history of the former inhabitants. At the front door, a staff member explains the rules: as you moved through the house, you approach doors marked with green and red lights -- when the light is red you wait; when it turns green your proceed. The idea is that the place is now a museum, and you are going on an automated tour, with recorded audio telling you details of each room you pass.
The first couple of corridors are very mild. You look through a window onto a display room while the narration gives you directs your attention to certain details. It doesn't take too sharp an eye to see almost immediate evidence of paranormal activity beyond what the narration describes: including moving drawers and ghostly shadows dancing on a wall, although no dancers are to be seen.
Things really get intense when you enter a room filled with gamily portraits (of the morphing variety, whose countenances turn monstrous when viewed from the right angle). The audio narration turns garbled and then cuts out entirely, replaced by period music as if the long-lost era has made a combeback -- and then, the stairs start creaking as if someone is walking down them, and you can see the shadow of the ghost who is descending, but there's no one actually on the stairs!
The is not only technically impressive; it is also genuinely unnerving. From that point on, you move through a house in full haunt mode. There are more atmospheric special effects (a ghostly looking glass, in which a woman in a chair rocks her baby and gets up to leave in an endlessly repeated cycle), and eventually more tangible ghouls appear (the mansion's former owner, ordering you to leave his house). It's a unique presentation among this year's Halloween mazes -- a definite must-see.
The exit from Turbidite Manor takes you past a screening room showing a short film called "Death by Megaplex in 5D," which runs every thirty minutes. Since the film was in mid-screening, we moved on to the next maze, Spooky House 16.
This one comes closest to recreating what was seen in the old location -- many of the familiar treats (settings, props, and characters) were on view, along with some clever new tricks. Unlike Turbidite, which utilizes optical illusions for eerie effect, this one is packed to the rafters with shrouded shades, made-up monsters, and menacing mechacal effects.
You get some of the standard stuff: actors jump out at you from dark corners, scream, pound on the walls and otherwise make loud, unnerving noises. But there are some other neat gags, as well, such as haunters crawling on hands-and-knees (with clacking metallic knee pads) in dark, tight corridors, making it difficult to pass without tripping.
And there was a very successful effort to come up with innovative ways of hiding the haunters, so that they could take the unwary customers by surprise. Our personal favorite involved a dark room illuminated by blacklight, with a series of shrouded skeletons against the wall, where they were mechanically raising and lowering -- with the glowing wires clearly visible, thanks to phosphorescent paint. The wires are a ruse, however; those are not mechanical props but actual living breathing actors who pounce on you as you pass! A great gag.
Having finished with the mazes, we wandered back to see Megaplex Massacre. There free 30-minute movie suggests that the original intent for the new Spooky House location was to use the film as a back-story for the haunt (which is, after all, located in a multiplex theatre). For whatever reason, none of the mazes are based around the events in the film, which portrays a series of bimbos getting killed off in an abandoned movie theatre. Sadly, the film itself almost unendurable -- we haven't seen anything this bad since the 1970s (we were reminded of plotless atrocities like THE STEWARDESSS IN 3D, which existed as an excuse to string together an almost random selection of scenes featuring hot babes). Fortunately, the experience was enlivened by the occasional intrusion from ghouls in the haunt, who either crept around slowly or, on one occasion, leapt out from behind the screen with a roaraing chainsaw.
When the film was over, we washed the bad taste from our brains by taking a return tour through the Spooky House 16 maze, which was almost as good the second time around -- maybe even better, in some ways, as the cast had had some time to warm up for the evening's performance and was showing even a bit more enthusiasm for scaring the all-too-eagerly screaming visitors.
Spooky House also features a dance club room called Club 13, designed to keep the teeny-boppers on premises even after they're through being terrorized. Our experience is that dance music has little to do with the season, so we took a pass on this particular feature.
Overall, we were thrilled with this year's Spooky House presentation. Although the new location is in some ways inferior to the old, the haunt itself features enough familiar stuff to satisfy expectations, balanced by new gags and effects that make the theme park seem fresh and reinvigorated, instead of old and worn-out. We've occasionally heard hard-core haunt addicts echo our complaints about the low ghouls ratio in past Spooky House presentations; this year, we feel the problem has been addressed and solved. Even if you've been many times before, it's worth going again; and if you were disappointed in the past, it's time to give the haunt another chance.