Halloween Horror Nights is back, with the most magnificent monster mayhem in Los Angeles. But will you get your money's worth in nightmares? Hollywood Gothique has the answer!
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood opened its 2014 season on Friday, September 19, with their traditional Eyegore Awards. Perhaps not coincidentally, statuettes went to John Landis, Robert Rodriguez, Greg Nicotero, and Slash, all of whom have their names attached to mazes on view this year; however, you can't blame Universal Studios Hollywood for indulging in some good, old-fashioned ballyhoo, can you? After all, the promotional event may get customers into the park, but after that, it's up to the mazes and monsters to deliver the Halloween horror. No doubt, you are eagerly waiting to learn whether or not they succeeded. Read on to find out - if you dare!
HALLOWEEN HORROR NIGHTS OVERALL IMPRESSION
As expected, Universal Studios delivers production values - makeup, sets, and effects - that are above and beyond anything available at other Halloween events in Los Angeles. If you want to admire the artistry that goes into making an astounding haunted theme park attraction, then Halloween Horror Nights is the choice for you.
The consistency of quality is a little bit of a drawback, however. Although all of the mazes and scare zones are notionally "new," long-time fans will experience a sense of déjà vu here and there. Also, as impressed as we were by the sights and sounds - not to mention the smells! - we found Halloween Horror Nights to be more fun than frightening - like watching your favorite old horror movie for the 1000th time and chuckling over scenes that scared you as a child. It's still great entertainment, but it's a different kind of entertainment.
This Halloween, Universal Studios offers more mazes than ever before: seven instead of six. There is a good variety of themes, but sadly no major horror movie franchise is represented. Instead, we're seeing generic mazes (Clowns 3D), mazes based on TV shows (The Walking Dead, Face Off), and mazes based on a single film title (An American Werewolf in London, From Dusk Till Dawn, Dracula Untold, and AVP: Alien vs. Predator).
Scare tactics remain consistent from previous years, though (to our perception at least) the jump-scares seem timed to a faster clock, hitting us with a more rapid-fire approach. Fans will recognize many familiar motifs, with old sets and effects rebranded for the new mazes. Unaware of the recycled elements, newcomers (along with those who skipped the past year or two) will simply thrill to the excitement of the phenomenal surroundings and shriek as the monsters lunge from their strategically situated hiding places, their appearances punctuated by flashing strobe lights.
UPPER LEVEL MAZES
As in 2013, construction on Universal's upper lot has left little room for the Halloween Horror Nights mazes. There are only two this year: Dracula Untold and Face Off (in the House of Horrors).
Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood
Based on the eponymous movie scheduled for release on October 10, Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood begins with some fine Gothic settings that excite our expectations far more than the film's trailer did. We almost felt transported back into one of Universal Studios' classic Dracula movies; we even suspected the maze had scavenged sets from Universal's House of Horrors walk-through attraction.
Unfortunately, the new film's image of Count Dracula is more action-adventure than horror - and not nearly iconic enough to make him a memorable monster for a Halloween Horror Nights attraction. Even worse, the maze seems to run out of sets midway through, after which that path is defined by black curtains!
Yes, you read the right: Universal Studios Hollywood - the production company that created some of the most memorable monster movie sets in the history of cinema - is using a technique that we would barely find tolerable in a disadvantaged home haunt. (This leads us to wonder whether Dracula Untold was a last-minute addition, included because of the fortuitous timing of the movie's release date rather than for its potential as a great maze.)
Taking its name from the Sy Fy channel reality show, Face Off is set in the House of Horrors, which is schedule to be torn down after Halloween Horror Nights closes in November. Although we enjoyed the variety of bizarre creatures haunting the halls of this venerable attraction, we found most of them inappropriate to the settings, which deliberately evoke the glories of Universal's classic black-and-white horror films of the 1930s and '40s.
These sets are the real star of the House of Horrors, and it was nice to walk through Dracula's Castle and Frankenstein's laboratory one last time. However, as much as we are delighted by the sight of a gyrating pole dancer an Alice in Wonderland costume, we found the image a little bit out of place amid the mad-scientist equipment.
We're not one to complain, but the House of Horrors deserves a better Last Hurrah than this. The Face Off monstrosities are great, but they could have been slotted anywhere in the park - even in a scare zone. House of Horrors should have delivered a House of Frankenstein-type monster rally, with the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Count, and the Monster reassembling for a final farewell. Sad to see the opportunity lost.
LOWER LEVEL MAZES
Every October season, one of the enduring joys of Halloween Horror Nights is taking the long trip down to the lower lot, listening along on the way to the recorded voice of the escalator, which delivers a delightful series of bon motts:
"Don't sit down or I will chew your ass off!"
"Forget about the hot girl on the next escalator - she's way out of your league!"
"Face Off and Dracula Untold are on the upper lot. Don't ask me for directions - I'm an escalator, not a GPS!"
After the laughs, the escalator will deposit you on Universal's lower lot, where you will find a few year-round rides (Jurassic Park, Revenge of the Mummy, Transformers) and two haunted mazes.
An American Werewolf in London
This is the first entrance you will see, to the right of Jurassic Park. Based on the 1981 film written and directed by John Landis, An American Werewolf in London is one of a handful of attractions that feels truly new at Halloween Horror Nights this year. Yes, it's situated in a familiar location, but the layout has been filled with specific scenes and images from the movie, so recycling of old gags is almost non-existent.
Entering through the Slaughtered Lamb pub, you will encounter the nightmarish werewolf Nazis attacking the hospital, Jack's ghost in various stages of decomposition, David's painful full-body transformation into a lycanthrope, and several amazing recreations of Rick Baker's monstrous werewolf - a four-footed ravenous beast rather than a man in need of a shave.
There's even a scene in a theatre screening See You Next Wednesday (a recurring inside joke in Landis's movies) - one of those moments Universal truly deserves credit for, showing a fan-like love for the minutia and trivia that the average Halloween-goer might overlook.
The only thing we missed was a spectacular ending, with David in werewolf form trapped in an alley and tragically gunned down by the police. Other than that, this maze delivers what Halloween Horror Nights does best: recreating a horror movie in real life - and letting you enter its world.
After exiting an American Werewolf in London, make you way to...
Clowns 3D with Music by Slash
You probably know we are sick to death of Halloween clowns, but we have to admit that this maze is better than expected. Sure, we recognize the same old settings (prison cells, a freezing room, etc), but we enjoy the day-glo 3D colors (every Halloween haunt should have at least one "lights on" attraction with high visibility instead of menacing shadows). Some of the special effects gags are memorably gag-inducing, particularly the sawing-a-woman-in-half scene (a combination of live actress and mannequin).
We're not really sure the monsters in here have to be clowns, and we cannot remember a note of the soundtrack provided by Slash, but we did have a good time, in spite of ourselves.
LOWER LEVEL BACK LOT MAZES
With most of the Halloween Horror Nights mazes pushed off Universal's' upper level, there is not enough room even in the park's lower level to house them. Consequently, after enjoying Clowns 3D and An American Werewolf in London, you will make a lengthy trek to see the final three mazes three in the lower back lot. This means that, in addition to the time allotted for standing in line, you should add an extra ten or fifteen minutes for walking. ("Alternative Transport" is available for those with mobility issues.)
The walk is not without its pleasures of anticipation: huge facades loom in the distance; the night air is filled with shrieks and flashing lights. As you approach your destination, you enter one of Halloween Horror Nights' best scare zones, The Walking Dead: Welcome to Terminus. Walkers shuffle in the darkness, impeding your journey past broken-down military vehicles -symbols of society's death rattle in the face of an enemy it could not destroy.
Nearer the entrance, you will see a perhaps too-cheerful soul welcoming you to Terminus, the safe haven promised in Season Four - a promise that ultimately proved too good to be true. Finally, you reach...
The Walking Dead: End of the Line
Though based on Season Four of The Walking Dead, this maze begins with the same prison set seen in Halloween Horror Nights 2013.The recreation is certainly justified, since both Seasons Three and Four were set in the prison; nevertheless, it is a bit disappointing to be experiencing familiar beats, especially after the preceding scare zone has raised one's hopes for a trip to Terminus.
Hollywood Gothique loves zombie mayhem, but The Walking Dead series has been running out of gas for the past season or two, and the enervation is beginning to show up in the Halloween Horror Nights mazes. Fortunately, after exiting the prison, there are just enough new scenes to make the trip worthwhile, including an impressive recreation of a tunnel filled with zombies trapped in the rubble of a cave-in. This scene answers one of the questions plaguing the rest of Universal's Walking Dead attractions: why don't the Walkers attack and eat you? Well, here at least - they can't, because they're stuck! They're still menacing as hell, and the menace is more effective because the situation creates a sense of believability missing elsewhere.
AVP: Alien vs. Predator
No doubt this is part of the reason Universal based their maze on the crossover title rather than either stand-alone franchise. Another reason probably has to do with limiting the scope of the maze for budgetary reasons: instead of recreating scenes from the entire Alien franchise - which would have required some expensive, original sets - AVP: Alien vs. Predator fits into an existing layout. In fact, if you look closely, you realize that this maze is not based on 2004's AVP: Alien vs. Predator, which was set in the arctic; instead, it more nearly recalls the 2007 follow-up Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, which was set in small-town America. Thus, Universal can reuse generic sets of wooded areas and houses - which are much less expensive than reconstructing, for example, H.R. Giger's distinctive designs for Alien's Egg Chamber and Space Jockey. (Had Universal taken the latter approach, they could very possibly have created the greatest maze in the history of Halloween.)
Whatever the budgetary constraints behind the maze, AVP: Alien vs. Predator realizes its titular monsters in fantastic detail. If you - like us - have long yearned to see a living Alien close up, in all its glory, Halloween Horror Nights offers the opportunity, and you will not be disappointed. The Predator design is not nearly as magnificent, but their physical presence makes an imposing balance with their enemy.
Some of the scares here are a bit repetitious: there are not one but two tiny corridors with an Alien on one side and a Predator on the other, recreating Odysseus' famous dilemma regarding Scylla and Charybdis. In place of that, we would have preferred more sequences from the AVP movies, such as the magnificent moment when an Alien, hiding overhead, spears a Predator with its tail and hauls up into the hair like a dangling morsel. Nevertheless, we'll take what we can get.
Also, keep your eyes open to avoid missing easily overlooked details. You path through one room directs your attention away from some victims plastered to a wall. Look closely and you will see they are not mannequins but actors - and at least one of them screams in pain as a chest-burster improvises a birth control through the ribs of its unfortunate "parent."
From Dusk Till Dawn
Like An American Werewolf in London, this maze effectively recreates a specific film, one never before utilized at Halloween Horror Nights. The result is fresher and more exciting than anything else at Universal Studios Hollywood this year - for us, the hands-down winner as the best maze.
The exterior offers a passable recreation of the Titty Twister bar from the 1994 film, here renamed "The Twister" to avoid offending delicate sensibilities. Outside, two actors try to recreate the Gecko Brothers, but nobody really cares about them, and they are instantly forgotten as soon as you go inside. There, to the strains of Tito and Tarantula's "After Dark," you encounter Santanico Pandemonium doing her sultry snake dance (with an artificial animal, unfortunately).
After that, it's one jump-scare after another. The hiding places are packed closely together, so you never have far to go before encountering a new danger. Also, the frequency of attacks is accelerated compared to previous years and even compared to some of Universal's other mazes this year: miss one sudden, starling encounter, and another follows almost immediately.
Since the vampires vixens sport demonic faces atop alluring figures, there is an attraction-repulsion vibe to the maze. Unlike the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt, Halloween Horror Nights has been lax at exploiting the erotic allure of vampires. This year, they finally get with the program, and the results are turbo-charged.
We have to give Universal Studios credit for one other reason: over the past few years, it has become de rigeuer for theme parks to include one Latin0-inspired horror attraction: La Llorona, Chupacabra, or El Cucuy. From Dusk Till Dawn fills the bill but in an entirely different way. Yes, it's set south of the border, but it's contemporary cinematic horror - high-octane and hot - not another urban legend of children's bedtime story.
One slightly churlish note: Among the dead bodies strewn in The Twister, we saw a mannequin that was recognizable as the possessed body from the end of Halloween 2013's Evil Dead maze - the one that received the spectacular chainsaw-through-the-face treatment.This leftover stood out as a bit of an anomaly in From Dusk Till Dawn, a maze that otherwise eschews recycled elements.
For Halloween 2014, The Terror Tram is "Invaded by the Walking Dead."
Well, hasn't it always been? Back in 2006, when Universal launched Halloween Horror Nights after years of October inactivity, there were zombies on the back lot, and they've been there almost ever since; calling them "The Walking Dead" doesn't change much.
As with this year's Walking Dead maze, there is lip-service paid to the fourth-season plot development regarding Terminus, but hearing about it doesn't mean you get to see it. Instead, the Terror Tram and the back lot tour remain mostly unchanged from 2013, with guests menaced by zombies and by roaming bands of chainsaw-wielding humans who (we are told) are so frenzied that they may not make a distinction between the living and the dead.
If Universal is going to use the Walking Dead brand name, we would like to see more of The Walking Dead on the back lot. Instead of using the iconic Psycho house as a photo-op (have your picture taken with Norman Bates), redress it as Hershell's farm house, and stage the climactic battle from the end of Season Two, with the humans failing to fend of an onslaught of Walkers.
Fortunately, though there is little new, the old stuff is still good, and if you have never walked through the back lot during Halloween, you will get a kick out of the experience.
You can also enjoy many of Universal's' year-round rides: Transformers 3D; Jurassic Park in the Dark; The Simpsons; and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. We have experienced the first three and recommend all of them, though the Simpsons Ride is probably the most wacky fun - and the best motion-control attraction we have ever experienced. On the other hand, if you prefer a ride with real motion, Jurassic Park in the Dark brings you face-to-face with some convincing animatronic dinosaurs.
Halloween Horror Nights offers five scare zones for 2014. We already mentioned The Walking Dead: Welcome to Terminus, which you encounter on your way to the three mazes on the lower back lot.This is one of the best, thanks to its felicitous location. The others are variable - a bit generic, or stuck in weak location - but two stand out.
The Purge: Anarchy greats you as you first enter Universal Studios Hollywood and approach The New York City street scene. Rapid "purgers" roam the streets as it did in Halloween 2013, creating a sense of chatos. But that scare zone has been a chaotic free-for-all since Universal Studios Hollywood resumed its Halloween event back in 2006.The only distinguishing features are a few Purge posters and some masked characters (who might be mistaken for The Strangers).
Skullz- on stilts! - dance and scurry in your path as you exist the escalator to the park's lower lot. The performers are impressive, but the area is such a jumble (with rides for Jurassic Park, The Mummy, and Transformers practically elbow-to-elbow) that it's difficult to create an atmosphere themed to the monsters.
Mask-a-Raid is a highlight, turning Universal's old Medieval Street into pre-Revolutionary France in the grip of decadent nobles, who enjoy hiding their faces behind masques while indulging in evil debaucheries. The period settings and costumes are unlike those in previous years. (There is even a French Bistro on the corner, serving real food - and it's good!)
Dark Christmas is a bit ill-timed for a Halloween attraction, but seeing the London Street bedecked with demented decorations is enough to overcome any reservations. The Krampus - a sort of demonic counterpart to Santa Claus - haunts the foggy shadows, seeking ill-behaved children to punish. The fog is thick here, so be careful where you step: while distracted by a giant stilt-walker, do not be too surprised if a dwarfish demon takes the opportunity to sneak up on you. The slightly off-key carols on the soundtrack enhance the malevolent mood of this imaginative scare zone.
Halloween Horror Nights 2014 is spectacular in scope, yet it feels - if not stuck in a rut, then locked in ghoulish groove. Much on display has been seen before: the "all new" Terror Tram Tour is very familiar, and many of the mazes have a recycled feel. Whereas Universal Studios used to create scenes that felt custom-made for each particular theme (whether it was Jason's Camp Crystal Lake or Freddy's Elm Street house), more recent mazes feel like new wine in old bottles - as if the characters are being forced into pre-existing sets and locations (e.g., AVP: Alien vs Predator). It's as if Universal has given up on making the best possible Halloween haunt; instead, they seem to be maximizing profits by keeping down budgets.
The results are still good; the Guignol remains Grand enough to shock neophytes and delight fans. True connoisseurs of terror, however, will find it difficult to slake their thirst for novelty and and more refined, sophisticated horror. Halloween Horror Nights remains a must-see for its spectacle (the plane crash site, swarming with walkers), and as long as Universal can deliver mazes like From Dusk Till Dawn it will rank among the best Halloween attractions in Los Angeles. But it's no longer a severed-head-and-dismembered-shoulders above the competition.
Halloween Horror Nights runs through November 2 on weekends and some weeknights. Hours are 7pm to 2am every night; the Terror Tram stops running at 11:45pm. The address is Universal Studios, Hollywood 100 Universal City Plaza Univeral City, CA 91608. Get more info at the official website.
Interested in other Halloween events in Los Angeles? Check out our pages for Halloween Haunts and Halloween Haunts: Theme Parks!