"Everybody's got to go sometime," used to be the advertising tag line for Knott's Halloween Haunt, years ago, but the real question was always, "Do you need to go this year?" I gave a positive response in this review of the 2008 haunt, because so much was new and different. Now that I've been to opening night for this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, I'm back to answer that question yet again, though not quite so positively.
Not that there's anything wrong with HHN. It is easily the most elaborate October attraction - as well it should be, coming from a major movie studio. The scope of Universal's scare factory remains unbeatable - the best sets, the best costumes, the best makeup - but not very much has changed from 2007.
Sure, they've added a scare zone inspired by THE STRANGERS, and some of those characters show up in the House of Horrors maze. The Freddy Kruger maze has been revamped somewhat (to suggest the Elm Street house rather than the asylum where Freddie was conceived). The back lot tour allows you to walk much further than before, offering some realistic "camping" scenes with Jason Voorhees lurking among tents and trailers, and there is even an outdoor maze (suggesting TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) before you get to the airplane crash setting.
It's all great stuff, but it's not that different from last year. After Universal Hollywood restarted its long-dorman Halloween attraction in 2006, 2007 represented a considerable expansion of HHN, which was bigger, better and more satisfying. It would have been nice if 2008 had engendered similar growth, but mostly we get just a few extra trimmings.
Bottom Line: If you haven't been, go. If you've been before and liked it, go again; just know beforehand not to expect much new.
I'll be back later to expand on the details.
UPDATE - 10/8/08: This review was originally written in a bit of a hurry, so I wanted to come back and flesh out the details. I'll save specific comments regarding individual attractions for when I post videos of the mazes and rides, but there are some overall points worth making.
LINES: First off, this place was busy on Friday night; the lines were long. You can get to all the Halloween mazes in one night, but if you want to see the shows and/or go on some rides, too, then you should seriously consider buying a VIP pass or a combo ticket that lets you into the park during daylight hours and during the night-time haunt.
SCARE ZONES: Advanced word indicated that there would be five of these, so we were surprised to see seven listed on the map we were given upon entering the haunt. A couple of these are pretty generic (just some free-roaming ghouls); the best ones are based around standing sets on the Universal Studios tour.
- London: This has a nice, traditional Gothic ambience, perfectly appropriate for Halloween. Our favorite zone.
Midieval Village: Also nicedly done, with primitive surroundings suggesting the plague.
Deadwood: This old Western ghost town recalls (inentionally or not) Knott's Scary Farm. It has a good old-fashioned spooky feel to it.
New York City: This is the one where the National Guard warns you not to enter because there's been a toxic dump that's caused some kind of outbreak. Flashy and cool.
The Strangers: new for 2008, inspired by the movie.
Front Entrance: No special setting here, just a few free-roaming ghouls (we saw Killer Klowns) and some gyrating dancing girls dressed in Freddy Kruger garb (it sounds stupid but it looks hot).
Pig Stye: I'm not sure that's actually what it's called, but the map makes a point that the area is patrolled by men in pigs masks with chainsaws. This is located in the back corner of the park that contains the Jurassic Park ride and Revenge of the Mummy, plus the Chainsaw Massacre maze. As with the front entrance, there is not much of a setting to lend atmosphere; it's all up to the actors to find whatever hiding places are available.
OVERALL: We love the convincing detail and elaborate scope of Halloween Horror Nights, but there is room for improvement. One problem is repetition. Having paid to license Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface, Universal seems intent on getting their money's worthy by using them over and over. Not only do they get their own mazes; they also show up on the back lot tour. In the case of Jason, this makes sense. - the unpaved outdoor setting is perfect for a killer famous for stalking the woods. But Universal has such a vast legacy in the horror genre, we cannot help wishing that they put more of it to use.
You will glimpse Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf Man, and Dracula (if at all) only in the House of Horrors. On the one hand, these monsters may seem old-fashioned to today's horror, but let's not forget: Universal has a remake of THE WOLF MAN in the works. Wouldn't it make sense to promote the film with its own maze at the haunt, or at least have a werewolf prowling the woods of the back lot (I'm sure there's enough turf there to accommodate lycanthropes and hockey-mask-wearing maniacs).
On the plus side, the back lot tram did feature a brief glimpse of the WOLF MAN remake, and it looks fascinating - reminiscent of the original but with a contemporary touch.
There may be practical reasons why Universal didn't feature the Wolf Man this Halloween, but his absence the studio's disappointing tendency to overlook their classic horror legacy in favor of emphasizing trendy flavors of the month. Sure, THE STRANGERS was a sleeper hit, but was it really such a blockbuster that we need to see the characters in the House of Horrors?
It may seem odd to complain about masked maniacs being utilized for a holiday that features masks and makeup, but the true Halloween spirit involves ghoulies and ghosties - witches, black cats, and skeletons. This traditional element tends to be sorely lacking in many modern Halloween haunts. There is no shortage of killer klowns, slaughterhouses, asylums, etc, but far too few graveyards, castles, and witches' covens.
Universal is far from the worst offender in this regard. Their House of Horrors is a perfect fit for the Halloween season, and it makes sense to offer a little variety in the form the the Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Chainsaw mazes. But the studio that produced DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE BLACK CAT, THE MUMMY, THE WOLF MAN and so many others could certainly manage to resurrect few more classic movie monsters for the October season.