After years of praising its atmospheric terrors, Hollywood Gothique is running out of words to extol the virtues of the Reign of Terror Haunted House. You really need to drive out to Thousand Oaks to savor its supernatural chills for yourself. For those late to the party, here's the nickle version: the sets are beautiful and convincing; the scares are frequent and intense; and the lengthy walk-through features several distinct sections, each with its own theme and tone - as if you were traversing half a dozen haunts crammed into one.
What's new and different for Halloween 2013? The routes and individual rooms have been shifted here and there, so that you never know what to expect, based on past experience. In addition to the original Haunted House, and the later additions of the Asylum and Blood Manor, and last year's Miner’s Revenge, there is now Quarantine, a postwar laboratory where experiments have gone horribly wrong. Each environment offers its own brand of horror, and we're glad to see that the traditional atmosphere of the Victorian Haunted Mansion remains intact, while the more gruesome frights have found a place in other sections of the haunt, such as a graphic surgery scene (live actors with prosthetics) and a bloody head battered against a window (a video clip projected onto the glass).
We were especially impressed by the Miner's Revenge (which we missed last year). Incredible as it may seem, Reign of Terror actually creates a masterful illusion of spelunking through an underground cavern, through a combination of convincing construction and suggestive sound design. Quarantine is a nice addition, offering a more high-tech form of horror, with red warning lights and sirens, and frantic characters in Hazmat suits urging you to flee the escaped contagion.
As nice as these two recent additions are on their own, when considered together, the contrast between them is illustrative of what's great about Reign of Terror: in Miner's Revenge, you feel a dreadful anticipation that prompts you to hesitate before advancing to encounter who-knows-what lurking behind the rocky crags; in Quarantine, you get more of a sensory assault, provoking you to run like hell rather than wait around to see what's coming for you.
We also enjoyed the use of open space before the Asylum. So many haunts are claustrophobic in nature, that it is a genuine surprise when you step into a wider area. The transitions between sections in Reign of Terror are not always obvious (at least, not when you are running and screaming), but you cannot miss the Asylum entrance, with its sign above the door, flanked by two gargoyles, and you might be tempted to pause for a moment and appreciate the architecture.
Bad idea! Not only is a crazed inmate waiting outside; there is also a creepy creature - a stilt-walker - waiting in the shadows, ready to pounce. There is a small chance of a log-jam here, as screaming visitors hesitate to advance into the Asylum, but the area is big enough to accommodate a few extra bodies while the stilt-walkers strides among them, inflicting frights.
Haunt-chasers rave about the sets within Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios (and rightly so), but the work inside Reign of Terror is every bit as impressive, and the scare strategies are, frankly, more effective. The approach is simple, even obvious, but knowing the approach won't help you.
Reign of Terror features a malevolent mix of mannequins and costumed actors, and you never know which is which. The moving monstrosity in the corner may turn out to be a mechanical device; the silent static figure lurking in the shadows - which you take to be a dummy - may turn out to be a live actor, waiting to pounce when your attention turns away to some other perceived threat. The uncertainty arouses expectations that even the most careful perusal cannot allay. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to fully anticipate what is coming at you next.
But it will come for you... in the dark.... when you least expect it.
Reign of Terror is open on Halloween Night and November 1, from 7pm to 10pm. The haunt is located above the Gold's Gym in Janss Marketplace, 197 North Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks, California. Click here for their website.