The folks at Spooky House had a case of opening night jitters, but they still put on a good scare show, as you would expect from their past record.
Things got off to a slow start. The attraction was supposed to open at 7:00. When we arrived at 7:30, none of the three mazes was open yet, and there were other signs that the show was not quite ready: Construction was still underway on the snack booth; for the time being, the food and beverages were available on a table nearby. And there was a promotional display for the Seaside Haunt (an attraction in Ventura County, put on by Spooky House productions), with a dangling skeleton next to a video screen that was supposed to be showing some kind of presentation, but the screen was blank.
This early in the evening, the crowds were small; nevertheless, the line for tickets took nearly a half hour. We got the three-for-one pass, granting admission into all the mazes, then headed to the Spooky House "Dead and Breakfast" maze. This is the main Spooky House building, the first one you see when you drive up. We spent at least another half-hour waiting for the maze to open; at one point, one of the employees came out to apologize, explaining that they were waiting for the fire marshal to complete his inspection.
Then when they finally stated taking tickets, we were told we were in the wrong line, the one for those who had paid extra for VIP tickets that allow you to skip the regular line. There were no signs pointing this out, so if you go to Spooky House yourself, make note: the regular line for Dead and Breakfast is in front of the building, facing the street; the VIP line is on the side of the building, facing the parking lot.
In previous years, Dead and Breakfast looked a bit more like a haunted mansion, but the facade has been rebuilt to resemble more closely a motel. Spooky House is billing the maze as "all new" on their website, but the "newness" consists mostly of this face-lift to the front of the building. The maze is stll the closest one to a traditional haunted house, with many dark corridors and costumed ghouls jumping out to scare you. Some redecorating may have been done inside, but basically many scenes and effects will be familiar to you if you been through it before. There is the falling elevator, the mad scientist's lab, the shaking room, and there is the short section that takes you outside into what looks like a backwoods swamp where some unseen inhabitant of a pond splashes a burst of water at you. The familiarity is not a bad thing, really; these are good effects, and it would be disappointing if they were dropped from the presentation.
There were some opening night problems. The elevator did not have its ceiling on, so you could see the roof of the actual building. The result was that when the lights went dark and the elevator started shaking to simulate an out-of-control fall, all you had to do was look up and the illusions was ruined. Also, the very last room in the maze has a floor that shakes beneath your feet, but this was not operating when we went through.
Next we went to "Blood, Bath & Beyond" maze. By now the ticket takers had got up to speed, so there was no waiting. I barely had time to scribble down notes of my impression of the previous maze before I found myself embarking on this one.
The coupons and signs indicate that this maze is new, but it is basically the same one that was introduced last year. It has a very industrial feel to it, with lots of rusty lockers and metallic corridors (not to mention industrial music pounding in your ears). It's a fairly long maze with lots of decorations; much of it is dark, and the walkway is very uneven, so watch your step. The cast of ghouls seemed thin -- you could walk around several dark corridors with no one ready to jump out and scare you. Fortunately, things picked up by the end, with some enthusiastic actors doing their best to illicit screams.
Finally, we went through the "Realm of Lost Souls." This maze takes place mostly outdoors, with lots of ancient-looking stone idols and tombstones (at one point a werewolf even climbs out of a grave). This maze, like the other two, is billed as new, but the only obvious addition was a trench dug into the gorund at one point, forcing you to walk down at a steep angle into a narrow path that was easily blocked by ghouls admonishing you not to walk on the "holy ground." The highlight was one actress dressed up as the Wicked Witch of the West: although you might expect the familiar figure from The Wizard of Oz would to seem more campy than scary at this point, she managed to be wonderfully creepy, improvising derogatory comments about the frightened guests she encountered.
One off note: One of the highlights of the Realm of Lost Souls in past years was a dark tunnel that forced you to walk on your hands and knees in total darkness. At one point a plexi glass plate in the floor allowed you to see damned souls beneath you, and then you found yourself plunging face-first down a slide. Sadly, one of the ghouls was blocking the path to the tunnel, forcing us to take the "chicken" detour.
Overall, Spooky House put on a good show, on par with their work in previous years, and after the initial wait, things moved quickly. It was mildly disappointing that not everything was fully operational; no doubt, things will get up to speed during subsequent performances, but in future years, Spooky House should consider offering a "preview discount" for their opening night (a la the Queen Mary). Fortunately, we had a two-for-one discount coupon, so even with the minor glitches, the Spooky House show was well worth the money.
Update: October 17th 2004
At the kind invitation of the people at Spooky House, we paid a second visit to the Halloween attraction to see how well they had overcome the opening night jitters we detected in our first review of this year's presentation. (You can read the original review here).
This Saturday, Spooky House was in full swing, with crowds waiting in line for all three mazes (Dead & Breakfast; Blood, Bath & Beyond; Realm of Lost Souls). The ticket line was much faster, and most of the technical glitches had been erased. In general, the mazes seemed more fully staffed, with many more ghouls lurking in the dark corridors to frighten you, and several mechanical and lighting effects were operational that had not been before.
There were still a few minor nitpicks, but under the circumstances you have to cut Spooky House some slack: it rained Saturday night; consequently, some of the lights went out, and several of the sets were visibly flooded. Fortunately, this dank feeling enhanced some of the scenes.
On the down side, the large crowds occasionally resulted in a rushed feeling. In order to hurry the guests through the mazes, some scenes were not completely reset before each new group entered the room. To be fair, the cast often strove to compensate for this problem, aggressively trying to scare you even if they couldn't play out their familiar scenario.
In some cases, the ghouls even actively impeded forward progress, blocking the paths and cornering their victims. The best example of this was the graveyard setting. On opening night there had been only two or three monsters who jumped out of hiding places to make "gotcha!" appearances. This Saturday, by contrast, with no opportunity to resume hiding places in between each group, the zombies could not rely on surrpise for their scares; instead, they swarmed over the guests like something out of Night of the Living Dead -- you couldn't get by one without running right into another. It was nice to see that the actors were not trying to just rush us through, despite how busy they were that night.
Overall, my companions and I gave a big thumbs up to the evening's haunt, despite the crowds and the rain. If I have any remaining complaint, it's the lack of a "return tour" discount. After going through all three mazes and emerging to see that the lines had dwindled, we would readily have gone back again for half-price. Or if not a return tour discount, how about a month-long pass to go as often as you like? Spooky House is easily good enough to enjoy more than once per season. Anything to encourage repeat visitors would be a definite plus.