Knott’s Berry Farm’s annual Halloween Haunt pioneered the concept of basing walk-through haunted attractions on movies, usually tied in with some new release (THE GRUDGE 2, BEOWULF, QUARANTINE), but over the last few years Universal Studios Hollywood has taken the idea to its ultimate degree, building haunts around hit horror franchises for its Halloween Horror Nights presentation. Thus we saw mazes built around A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in 2007 and 2008. Last year’s horrors were based on SAW, HALLOWEEN, and MY BLOODY VALENTINE. 2010 sees the return of the SAW maze, along with new mazes based on the remakes of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13TH.
Unfortunately, in aping horror film franchises, Halloween Horror Nights has become a little bit like one, churching out sequels and remakes that convey that “been there, done that” feel. Universal continues to succeed at its intended goal, which is to bring horror movies to life, turning them into amazingly detailed walk-through mazes that immerse fans in the worlds of their favorite movie monsters. Unfortunately, focusing on individual films (such as the recent Freddy and Jason remakes) leads to a certain monotony. In each maze, Jason/Freddy jumps out at you in the first room, then the second room, then the third room, etc – and it’s always the same character with the same appearance. (The previous Elm Street and Friday mazes benefited from being based on franchises with lots of sequels, which offered some variety when it came to depicting the characters: for example, Jason could appear with a bag over his head, as in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II, instead of the familiar hockey mask.)
Here is a rundown of the horror-movie-inspired thrills and chils at Halloween Horror Nights’ 2010:
FRIDAY THE 13TH: KILL, JASON, KILL. Jason’s back, but this maze is remarkably different from the ones seen in 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately, Jason isn’t really given enough room to show off the difference between his current incarnation and the versions seen during previous Halloweens. The new Jason is supposed to take his cue from the performance by Derek Mears in the remake, who made the character more of an Olympic athelete, rather than the slow and steady menace that he was when played, most famously, by Kane Hodder in the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels VII through X (it was Hodder’s performances that set the style for Universal’s previous “Friday the 13th” mazes). Setting that aside, the new “Friday the 13th” maze does justify bringing the character back, by showing him in new settings and situations, with lots of new gore gags.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: NEVER SLEEP AGAIN. Like the “Friday the 13th” maze, this one lives up to the promise of offering something new, this time a grim Freddy based on the 2010 remake. Unfortunately, the attempt fares less well. The remake’s new Freddy makeup is not that impressive when translated into the live medium – it looks like putty smooshed around the face. And by focusing on a single film, the maze looses the variety made possible by pulling the best bits and pieces from several sequels. The result loses the “Nightmare” on Elm Street: it’s fairly generic, with burlap tunnels and tight corridors that force you to walk past windows and doors from which Freddy can make his expectedly unexpected appearances. There area few nice touches, fortunately: solid walls that disappear, revealing Freddy behind them, or that stretch as if pressed from behind (recreating a memorable image from the original film that was botched in the remake thanks to cartoony CGI).
SAW: GAME ON. Against our expectations, “Saw: Game Over”turned out to be the highlight of 2009’s Halloween Horror Nights, so we are not complaining when we saw that this year’s incarnation is a virtual duplicate. There are a few nice gruesome bits included, such as the “rack-crucifix,” which neatly – well, not so neatly – twists off its victim’s arms. (We are not gore fans, but this one effect is almost worth the price of admission -although flashing lights and screams may distract you from seeing what’s happening.) The interesting point here is that most of Universal’s mazes try to feature the villain as much as possible, but “Saw: Game On” maintains Jigsaw as an off-screen voice, focusing attention on the mechanical traps and torture devices. Our only disappointment was with a recreation of a scene from the original SAW, in which one victim must dig a key out of the body of another victim in order to unlock a device before it kills her; for some reason, the actress playing the role was camping it up, simply flopping her fingers through bloody guts as if playing a game, not engaged in a life-or-death race against the clock.
VAMPYRE: CASTLE OF THE UNDEAD. This is set in Universal Studios year-round walk-through attraction, thes House of Horrors, which was designed to provide a sort of tour through the history of the horror genre, starting with old-fashioned classic horror movies like DRACULA and moving through the decades to include PSYCHO, CHILD’S PLAY, etc. For the last couple years, Universal Studios Hollywood has taken to re-branding the attraction for Halloween: last year it was “Chucky’s Funhouse”; this year it is “Vampyre: Castle of the Undead.” The layout and sets remain much the same – this is a fixed location – the main difference is that the walk-through is haunted by a bunch of ugly vampires based on a comic-book tie-in. The inspiration here seems to be to go anti-TWILIGHT, which is fine with us, but that will take you only so far. The vampyres need something of their own to make them memorable, beyond the fact that they are not like Edward Cullen; what we get are fairly generic, if effective at hissing and scaring in the dark. There is also a problem with the setting: House of Horrors is designed to feature several different environments: in some the vampyres seem appropriate (like Dracula’s Castle); in some they do not (like Chucky’s toy story or Frankenstein’s laboratory). There is corridor of mirrors that we do not remember from years past – creating some visual distraction that allows the vampires to make effective surprise appearances from concealed doors, and there is a very effective bit at the very end, with a headless corpse that turns out to be alive.
ROB ZOMBIE’S HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES: IN 3D ZOMBIEVISION
It may be Zombievision, but it’s barely 3D. The flimsy cardboard spectacles create some color separation that makes certain highlighted objects stand out, but for the most part the techniques does not yield particularly memorable results. The walk through the various ghoulish scenes is creepy enough to be worthwhile, but the characters have not truly achieved the cult status that makes them ideal choices for a Halloween maze. Rob Zombie’s fans will probably feel differently – and have a great time – but the average Halloween enthusiast will be less sanguine.
BACK LOT TERROR TRAM: CHUCKY’S REVENGE is another awkward attempt to insert the killer doll into a location where he does not fit: last year it was in the House of Horrors; this year it is on the backlot. It’s starting to feel like a pay-or-play situation, with an actor under contract who gets slotted into some movie just because the studio has already paid his salary and wants to get something back for its investment rather than letting him collect his check for doing nothing. The problem here is that, in spite of numerous sequels, the CHILD’S PLAY films were always a second-rate franchise, and although talking dolls are always creepy and unnerving, the tiny tike is just not credible as a serial killer.
To some extent, Halloween Horror Nights acknowledges this by not featuring Chucky very much on the walking part of the tour (I saw one small actor in a mask and costume, a stationary doll or two, and some pint-sized silhouettes). Instead, most of the monsters are storm-troopers with de rigueur chainsaws. There are also some nicely camouflaged “plant” monsters, who blend in with the vegetation on the dark hillside.
Chucky is truly featured only on the video played on monitors aboard the tram, and truth be told, this footage is amusing – a parody of true-life documentaries charting the fading careers of celebrity has-beens. Chucky is seen in a montage of clips and still that portray him descending into drink as the career opportunities fade. In a gambit that borders on bad taste – but is pretty funny – we are told that the official explanation for the devastating 2008 fire on Universal’s back lot was a cover story; the real culprit was a vengeful Chucky, angry at the way the studio had abandoned him.
The facades and scenery are more or less the same as in previous years, but retroffited to accommodate Chucky (i.e., it’s dolls hanging from the tree, not Jason’s victims). Also, the path has been altered in some cases to give you a slightly different view as you pass from the Bates Motel to the Psycho House, where you can see more “Mothers” (i.e., Norman Bates in drag) than you can shake a stick at. The effect is more campy than frightening.
The airplane crash site is just as awesome as ever, but the storm troopers do not do much to enhance it. In past year’s, this area worked best when used to convey a sense of apocalyptic horror, in which the world seemed to be in total chaos, with zombies feeding on helpless victims in the yards of nearby homes. If Universal really wants to do something interesting with this area next year, they should fashion it into something based on LOST – now that would be interesting.
Halloween Horror Nights would be better if it made greater use of its own classic movie monster movie legacy. It is certainly a shame that, on the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchock’s PSYCHO, Universal Studios could not have found some way to feature the famous franchise. Yes, one could argue that Norman Bates is dated, but so is Chucky. Canning the killer doll in favor of Norman – or just about any other Universal monster – would be an easy improvement (and it would tie in nicely with the back story for this year’s Terror Tram).
Bottom Line: If you have not been to Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights, you really owe it to yourself to make the effort. However, if you have attended on previous occasions, there may not be enough new and novel frights to make a return trip an absolute necessity. If you have not already seen King Kong 360 3-D and the Simpsons motion-simulation ride, this is certainly a good opportunity to do so.
By the way, if Universal was going to bring back both Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees for Halloween Horror Nights 2010, would it have really killed them to stage a Freddy vs. Jason fight somewhere on theme park’s lot?