Horror movies come to life at Universal Studios's Halloween Horror Nights

Halloween Horror Nights 2014
Clockwise from top right: From Dusk Till Dawn, The Purge, Face Off, The Walking Dead

If you want to see your favorite horror movies come to life, and you reside anywhere near Los Angeles, California or Orlando, Florida, you nightmare has come true! Just hurry over to either city’s Universal Studios tour, where you will find Halloween Horror Nights in full swing.

Our sister site, Hollywood Gothique, offers this impression of the Los Angeles version, which acts as sort of a giant-sized promotional event for Universal’s upcoming DRACULA UNTOLD, not to mention the new FROM DUSK TILL DAWN television series on Netflix and the return of THE WALKING DEAD on AMC. If your taste turns toward older titles, there is also a maze based on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

HALLOWEEN HORROR NIGHTS REVIEW

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.

Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood
Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood

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.)

Face Off

Halloween Horror Nights 2014 Face OffTaking 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.

An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in LondonThis 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.

Clowns 3D with Music by Slash

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.

The Walking Dead: End of the Line

Halloween Horror Nights 2014: Walking Dead key art resizedWith 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…
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

Halloween Horror Nights 2014: Alien vs PredatorHere is a neat trick: AVP: Alien vs Predator is a bad movie, yet it yields a good maze. Why? Because it’s hard to go completely wrong with two of cinema’s most iconic movie monsters.
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

HHN 2014 From Dusk Till Dawn 2 retouchLike 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.

RIDES

Walking Dead Terror TramFor 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.

CONCLUSION

Halloween Horror Nights 2014: More Dead Than Ever
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.
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.

Insidious & Walking Dead at Halloween Horror Nights

This video tour of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood showcases the bloody mayhem of two walk-through attractions inspired by recent horror films: Evil Dead: Book of the Dead and the eerie shudders of Insidious: Into the Further.
Even if you did not care for the films themselves, you may get a kick out of the walk-through versions. Universal Studios’s annual Halloween attraction is known for meticulously recreating sets, scenes, and characters from the films, and the live aspect allows for an in-your-face approach you simply cannot get on the big screen. Thrill to the ghostly apparition appearing from behind a mirror! Shiver at the sound of chainsaws! Gag at the geysers of blood!

Check out a larger version below:

Paranormal Activity comes to life in Blumhouse of Horrors

“Sinister” producer Jason Blum discusses the difficulties of transferring cinematic horror to a live Halloween event.

Halloween haunted house attractions are no longer much concerned with childhood memories of dilapidated old mansions rumored to be inhabited by ghoulies and ghosties. Today, Halloween haunts are increasingly influenced by movies; this year, for example, Knott’s Berry Farm’s annual Halloween Haunt and Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights feature walk-through mazes based on such franchises as THE EVIL DEAD, CARRIE, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and THE WALKING DEAD.
Add a new name to this list of Halloween horrors inspired by the silver screen. One of the most anticipated haunted house events in Los Angeles this October is the Blumhouse of Horrors, a new live attraction from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, the company behind the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, INSIDIOUS, and SINISTER (which opens nationwide on Friday). These films eschew the modern torture porn approach to the horror genre in favor of supernatural shivers. Some of that subtly is on view inside the Blumhouse of Horrors, although gore fans will find a drop or two of their favorite grue as well.
The Blumhouse of Horrors shares some elements with Delusion: The Blood Rite, another L.A. haunt that mixes drama with scares. Set within a real location (the old Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles), the half-hour Blumhouse tour attempts to present a story – in this case, of a magician whose final performance ended with his mysterious disappearance from the stage, along with another man’s wife. Blumhouse of Horrors is not as heavily scripted as Delusion: there are a few dramatic vignettes, but not all of them relate directly to the main story; the characters we see represent the souls of all who died within the premises, whether or not they have anything to do with the magician and his lover. Still, producer Jason Blum believes there may be potential to spin the haunt’s back story into its own feature film.
Whether or not the appeal of Blumhouse of Horrors is strong enough to generate a feature film – remains to be seen. Blum himself says he won’t know until the box office results are tallied at the end of October. In our video interview, conducted on a press-preview night, while the kinks were still being worked out of the ghostly chains rattling in dark hallways, Blum talks about the transition from cinematic horror to the live variety and the challenge of attracting timid audiences to visit something really scary – downtown L.A.

Producer Jason Blum
Producer Jason Blum

Below, you will find a partial transcript of the interview – which is to say, our rambling questions have been shortened, while Mr. Blum’s answers remain intact.
Question: How did you make the transition from producing horror movies to producing a live Halloween event?
Jason Blum: We make almost all of our movies in Los Angeles. We use the same crew from movie to movie. A couple of years ago, we were on the set at launch, and we were talking about, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do all these scares that we do in our movies – to try and do them live. That conversation resulted in where we are today. It was a long road to get here, but we finally made it.
What are the lessons you learned from horror films that you can apply in Blumhouse of Horrors?
Jason Blum: You scare people in the same way, whether it’s a movie, a tv show, or a live event – which is, you distract them over here, and come at them with a jump scare [from another direction]. Secondly, we rely in our movies very much on narrative. I think the story is really important. I think scares are scarier if the audience is involved with a story, so with the haunted house, we tried to come up with a story first and build the scares around it. Hopefully, people will experience it that way.
Are there certain kinds of scares that work better in a live situation, when the audience is not separated from them by a movie screen?
Jason Blum: There are good and bad things about live. The bad thing is when you mess up, you don’t get another try. In a movie or a tv show, you can either re-edit it or shoot it again. But the good things are that the scares are three-dimensional, and we can do them and watch people’s reaction, and change our story or change our scares a little bit, and keep going. That’s very gratifying as someone who is a scare-maker.
What was it like for you to talk through the Blumhouse of Horrors the first time? Did some thing work better than expected, or not as well?
Jason Blum: There are surprises in both directions. That’s a really fun thing about this: there are certain things that do work way better than you expect. And certain things that when we were describing it – “Oh this is going to be the best thing!” – don’t work at all. That’s been a fun kind of discovery process.
So, will this be a work in progress – tinkering all month long?
Jason Blum: Yes, it will. I hope that we’ll do more of certain things and less of others, and learn from the people who go through. Hopefully people will come back and see something they didn’t see before or experience something new.
Chicken and the egg question: Which came first, the story or the location?
Jason Blum: The idea to do a haunted house came first; building came second; story came third. But the story came from looking at the building and working a story in that would work in this location.
Did you develop the story on your own or work with others?
Jason Blum: I didn’t come up with anything in here on my own. Our company provides a framework for people who are more creative than me, who are great at what they do, and we let them do it and encourage them to do it. Jennifer Spence and Tom Spence, are a production designer and an art director who have worked on many movies for us, and they were the creative forces behind this.
With INSIDIOUS, SINISTER, and now Blumhouse of Horrors, what lessons have you tried to carry through from the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY?
Jason Blum: What I learned from the first Paranormal Activity, and what we’ve tried to recreate in Insidious, Sinister, and now this haunted house, is how important story-telling is to horror. Most people think horror is about scares; most people put scares first and story second. We really put story first and scares second.
The Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles - now thats scary!
The Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles - now that's scary!

Is there a concern that you have set yourself a high hurdle to clear? Some people are afraid to make a special trip downtown, so perhaps “good” won’t be good enough to draw an audience?
Jason Blum: I think we have to be great to get people to come here. I didn’t want to lose money doing this, but profit was not the main reason we did this. We did this to develop a muscle in a different medium for the company. I think it’s a challenge. We have a guess how many people we hope to get in here, and if you ask me in a month I’ll tell you if we hit it or not.
Are you planning to resurrect Blumhouse of Horrors next year?
Jason Blum: I can’t think that far ahead. I’m just trying to make it to November 3rd right now!

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CONCLUSION

If the Blumhouse of Horrors keeps improving, it could rank among the best Halloween attractions in Los Angeles. Currently, its strength lies in the wonderful location, whose authentic atmosphere lends an aura of conviction to the action. However, the story-telling at Blumhouse of Horrors falls short of Delusion, and the ending (at least on preview night) was strangely anti-climactic. Here’s hoping the witch’s brew is fully double-boiled, toiled and troubled by the time Halloween rolls around.
The Blumhouse of Horrors is set in the Variety Arts Theatre, 940 South Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, CA 90017. Performances dates are October 4-6, 11-13, 18-20, 25-27, 29,31, November 1-3. Hours are 6pm to midnight. Tickets are available at the official website: $29 for general admission; $55 for VIP (front of the line).

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY producer will haunt Los Angeles this Halloween

Apparently, scaring people in movie theatres is not enough for Jason Blum, whose upcoming SINISTER is due to hit screens on October 5. The Hollywood producer, whose Blumhouse Productions is the company behind PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS, will take to scaring his fans in person this Halloween season, when he opens the Blumhouse of Horrors in the old Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on October 4. (One can only imagine the company synergy involved in having the live event start the day before SINISTER opens nationwide. UPDATE: SINISTER has been pushed back to October 12.)
An article in the Los Angeles Times explains the rational behind the Halloween attraction: Although Blum does not expect to lose money on the event, nor does he expect profits to match those of the successful PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films. Instead, Blumhouse of Horrors is a way of connecting with fans, building the brand name of the company, and possibly laying the groundwork for spin-offs and tie-ins:

And like any good producer, Blum is thinking multimedia. The story of a magician who absconded with a beautiful woman more than 80 years ago and still haunts the theater owned by her husband could live on past Halloween.
Blumhouse of Horrors artwork
“There may be a movie or a TV show or a reality idea here,” Blum said.

The back story of the Blumhouse of Horrors is that the theatre owner’s wife wanted to be the magician’s assistant, but she literally disappeared from the stage on closing night back in the 1930s, never to be seen again. Since then, the theatre has been closed, until now. Visitors who want to explore the mystery will weave their way through the Variety Arts Theatre from top to bottom, encountering scares provided by a a 25-person crew, many of whom have worked on Blumhouse productions. At a cost of several hundred thousand dollars (i.e., not quite what Blum spends on a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY film), the Blumhouse of Horrors will feature a cast of fifty ghosts and ghouls haunting the corridors and stage of the venerable Los Angeles landmark.
Blumhouse of Horrors runs from October 4 through November 3, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, plus Halloween night and the two nights prior (that is, Octber 29-31).
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Halloween Horror Nights: Red Carpet Celebrity Interviews

Unlike other Halloween attractions, Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights is closely tied in with the horror film genre – perfectly appropriate for company created such classics as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE WOLF MAN. Each Halloween season – which, for the major theme park events, launches in September – Universal offers mazes and monsters inspired by contemporary horror films. 2001 includes attractions based on  SCREAM IV, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, the upcoming prequel-remake of THE THING, and the recent remake of THE WOLFMAN, among others. (The latter two are Universal properties – marking the first time the Halloween event has taken much advantage of its own classic library, as opposed to hiring monsters from other companies.) Breaking with tradition, this year’s Halloween Horror Nights also features  mazes inspired by  “La Llarona,” a ghostly Mexican legend, and by shock-rock pioneer Alice Cooper, who recently released a sequel to “Welcome to My Nightmare,” his classic 1975 solo debut album.
On Friday, September 23, Universal Studios launched Halloween horror nights with the Eyegore Awards, which are handed out to celebrities in the horror genre. This year’s recipients were David Arquette (SCREAM), Jamie Kennedy, Rain Wilson (who starred in Rob Zombie’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES before going on to THE OFFICE), Bailee Madison (DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK), Emma Belle (FINAL DESTINATION 5), and Alice Cooper. Corey Feldman (THE LOST BOYS) hosted the event, whose presenters included, Rob Zombie (HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES), Adam Green (HATCHET), Thomas Jane (THE MIST), James Gunn (SLITHER), and Calico Cooper (Alice’s daughter, who accepted the award on his behalf).
As usual, the awards show was preceded by the red carpet arrival of this year’s presenters, recipients, and other horror celebrities. Check out the video for interviews with James Gunn, Sid Haig (HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES), Derek Mears (FRIDAY THE 13TH), Calico Cooper, Adam Green, and Halloween Horror Nights Creative Director John Murdy, who explains why FINAL DESTINATION 5 would not make a good Halloween maze but THE THING does.
Revenge Of the Mummy 1All of this of course, was merely prelude to the Halloween activities inside the Universal Studios theme park, which you can read about here. Along with the special Halloween attractions, Halloween Horror Nights also includes all the usual Universal Studios theme park rides: The Simpsons, Jurassic Park, and Revenge of the Mummy.

Satan & Shooting Fish in a Barrel: CFQ Post-Mortem Podcast 1:32.1

post-mortem podcast graphi copy

After taking an elevator ride with the DEVIL, Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski explore the subject of claustrophobic thrillers on this week’s installment of the CFQ Post-Mortem Podcast. CUBE, SAW, DEMONS, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL all feature hapless victim locked in inescapable situations – a guaranteed formula for suspense that we like to call “shooting fish in a barrel.”

Also up for debate: Spoilers. Are publicity campaigns and reviews giving away too much? Are viewers being told more than they want to know before they get a chance to see a film for themselves? Tune in for this epic debate.

And in case that’s not enough, a brief excursion into the realms of Halloween horror as the CFQ Podcast Crew explores the subject of seasonal haunted house attractions that brings horror movies to life.

The podcast wraps up with a look at some favorite personifications of Satan on screen: THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, BEDAZZLED with Peter Cook, and THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER with Walter Huston.

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Trick r Treat (2009)

“My dad taught me tonight is about respecting the dead. All the Traditions – putting out Jack O’ Lanterns, putting on costumes,
Putting out treats- were to protect us. Nowadays, no one really cares.”
–Principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker).

Michael Dougherty’s TRICK ‘R TREAT could be the best “Halloween” film of all time. Maybe that’s a heady pronouncement, but it is certainly the best horror anthology flick ever made. Now, given the spotty record of that black-sheep of the horror flick cannon, that might seem like a damning statement of faint praise. There is perhaps, no harder sub-genre to pull off in the land of filmic fear than the horror movie omnibus: the crafter of such a collection has to fight the hazards of the brevity and narrative compression for each patchwork piece; avoid the pit-falls of inconsistencies of tale, tone, pacing, performance; and the effectiveness of the Framing Device, a formula that often unravels like the straw on a witch’s broom. It’s a failing-ground for the minimally talented non-auteur: the mediocre filmmaker who can’t sustain a single, involving narrative can always turn to the Horror Movie Anthology format for a quick buck, right?*
So, when I saw the DVD cover for Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat at DVD Planet, I squinted at it as fiercely as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. I knew that Dougherty had solid credits behind him (he co-wrote X-Men and Superman Returns), but I was dubious, given the genre’s modern-day track record. Yet, I decided to give it a try. After all, the anthology film was one of the first of frights I cut my teeth on as a young horror buff trooping to the Compton’s Allen Theater in the 1960s and ’70s with my brother Mark. I loved the British Amicus classics such as Tales from the Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood, and Asylum; it was only later permutations of the genre that instilled doubts as I plunked down my hard-earned cash for this new film. 
There are moments where Dougherty’s cheeky-creepy post-modern take on those omnibus films of yester-year (and not so long ago) seems almost a little too sleek, a little too smarty-pants insouciant for its own good, maybe too-well crafted, but it’s impossible to deny the savor and commitment of this blood-dipped candy-apple of a chiller, which returns the former pagan holiday back to the delights of old-school frights. Anyone who remembers what it was like to be young, trundling out into the dark night, mask on head, treat bag in hand, steeling the nerve to go up to a stranger’s Jack O’ Lantern-lit porch to ring the doorbell will make Trick ‘r Treat a featured favorite for future October 31st viewings.
Guided by the spirit of fairy-tales and such genre stand-bys as EC and DC Comics (“House of Mystery” and “House of Secrets” come to mind here just as much as “Tales From The Crypt” and “Vault of Horror”), Dougherty’s smartly crafted filmic paen to All Hollow’s Eve traditions (while adding a knowing nudge here and there at the holiday’s entrenched commercialism and adult-party posteuring) is one inspired little “boo!” of autumn night angst. Perhaps Dougherty succeeded all too well in bringing the fear down to an adolescent’s mask-eye view: Warners, maybe a tad unsettled by all the kid grue and jeopardy, opted to pass on a theatrical release, and chose the direct-to-vid route. It’s one of the two injustices that afflict a film which should have received theatrical distribution to the respect and acclaim it deserves. (The other injustice is the lack of Special Features on the DVD, but more about that later.)
One of the film’s irresistibly clever ideas is to ditch a straightforward narrative, interweaving the four tales of fear (ala Pulp Fiction) during a single Halloween night in the Ohio burg of Warren Valley, which takes the holiday very seriously. After a terrific prologue (which will wind up as a chunk of the epilogue) in which a premature Jack O’ Lantern snuffer is turned into a grisly “Trick” by a tradition-defending beastie, the movie splits its narrative into a series of interlaced plot-lines. These include virginal Anna Pacquin (garbed-up as Little Red Riding Hood in one of the movie’s ironic touches), searching for Mr. Right before heading out to an unspeakable woodland bacchanal where she and her hottie gal-pals are going to party with their “dates”; a high school principal (Dylan Baker) who is also a season-minded serial-killer; a quartet of cruel youngsters who visit the site of a grisly local urban-legend to play an gruesome “Trick” on a mentally challenged girl (Samm Todd); and a grumpy old Halloween hum-bugger (Brian Cox, looking very much like John Carpenter) who seems to have a real chip on his shoulder towards the meaning of the season. And, popping up every now and then there’s “Sam” (short for “samhain”) a monstrous little sprite in burlap sack-mask and orange pajamas, who takes serious (and murderous) umbrage to those who deny respect to the traditions of the All Hollows Eve holiday.
Though it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see some of the “tricks” and “treats” coming (it doesn’t mitigate the fear and fun factor), you cannot help feeling a voluptuous glee in the manner in which Dougherty plays with filmic time and confidently weaves the various plot-lines together, breaking up the action with the occasional bit of comic-book graphic transition and having characters reappear for random bits in other stories. This yields some fine pay-offs: there’s an early scene wherein Cox, as Dylan’s curmudgeonly neighbor, is hammering at his window trying to get the Dylan’s attention (he’s distracted by matters of his own, to use an understatement) only to be whisked away from the glass by something unseen, produces juicy dividends when the scene plays out later on. Ditto for Dylan’s unexpected reappearance later in the episode, when his storyline solidly intersects one of the other narrative pieces (it would be irresponsible to give away any more details but it provides satisfying closure).
This is all dished up with equal parts camp and terror, with minimal computer fuss (it’s hard not to smile at the cheesey fun of a simple fx fixtue like a murderous scuttling severed hand). The movie captures the holiday’s autumnal sense of death and dread: maybe the neighbor next door will give you a big handful of candy, or maybe he’ll plant you in a moon-lit grave in his front yard; maybe the mean old man next door has a good reason for scaring kids off his stoop when they beg for candy, or keeping a loaded shot-gun on the wall; maybe putting a scare into the “Strange Kid” with the pumpkin fetish isn’t the best idea.
The movie’s best segment, which follows the EC-Comic formula to a T, and would definitely earn a Crypt-Keeper Cackle of Approval is the “Halloween School Bus Massacre”, with Gaines-style twisted twist and all, about a group of tweens who suffer the consequences of mocking the dead on All Hollows Eve. The way the tale unfolds (“It happened 30 years ago,” the mean but angel-winged gang-leader begins) – going from growing creep-out to outright terror – is near perfect. The flashback to a school-bus full of disturbed children (which to me resemmbled an hommage to the fitfully effective and fairly cruel ‘70s low-budgeter Devil Times Five aka Peopletoys), is one of the most unsettling scenes in a recent horror movie – and it’s totally done through masks and costumes! Glen MacPherson lays an October garnish of diffuse gold over the cinematography, which perfectly limns the unease and nostalgia of a great urban-ghost story. Given contemporary cinema’s penchant for preternaturally glib children, or swooning adolescent vampires, the fact that this story so rightly nails Halloween terrors from a kid’s point-of-view, is one of the most refreshing elements of the movie, and this segment neatly encapsulates one of the true pleasures of the film.
Sadly, Dougherty’s decision to put the kiddies front and center is probably what led Warners to sentence the movie to its DTV fate: the studio heads who viewed the finished cut must have gone apoplectic at the sequence in which a pumpkin-smashing tubby kid gets his grisly comeuppance when he’s fed some “Bad Candy” by Dylan Baker’s season-sensitive psycho principal. This is certainly the movie’s “gross-out” set-piece and the overall nastiest bit (it certainly plays into one of the worst All Hollow’s Eve fears). What is hackle-raising about the scene is the casting of the dotty school administrator: in a perverse and funny-queasy stroke, Dougherty gave the role to Baker, who was the unforgettably disturbing pedophile psychiatrist from Todd Solondz’s Happiness, and it is squirm-inducing to see him cozying up to the hapless victim on the porch step, waving a carving knife and good-naturedly teasing the doomed victim (“Oh, don’t worry, it’s for the Jack O’ Lantern, not you”): mental flashbacks to that earlier film left me in little doubt about just what Principal Wilkins was going to do. Certainly, the violence in “The Halloween School Bus Massacre” is more of the suggestive sort, and (for the most part) takes place off-screen, but it certainly had to have contributed to the general release jitters.Then again, given the playing time of many films these days, it could be a mixed blessing: Trick ‘r Treat will definitely wind up as any horror buff’s choice of chills come the dark, dead-leaf-bedecked long falls nights; the film seems destined to profit from a reputation as one of those Overlooked Gems.
On a technical level, Trick ‘r Treat is amazingly assured for a first-time director, and the film’s color palette nicely compliments those baleful comic-book thrills from the past; Macpherson’s photography, Robert Ivison’s editing, and Douglas Pipes’ music (the soundtrack includes a blackly comedic rendition of the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams Are Made of These”) compliment the film’s mood. Trish Keating deserves praise for the costume design (the masks of The Disturbed Kids of “The Halloween School Bus Massacre” episode are singularly chilling, while Anna Paquin’s chick support squad’s duds are a funny, ironic hoot.
The performers seem to all be clued in to the fun. Pacquin is quite good as the virginal miss who is well-prepared for any and all Big Bad Wolves, and the youngsters (especially Samm Todd) all deliver naturalistic, uninflected performances, giving their horrific scenes a greater sense of concern and investment. However, Baker and Cox are the stand-outs. Baker as the button-down, respectable town slayer (complete with a creepy son who loves “doing the eyes” on their “Jack O’ Lanterns”) does a terrific job; Cox steals the show as the movie’s “Scrooge” figure who has a good rationale (revealed in a fine twist) for his dislike of the season. Wearing a white frizzy John Carpenter mane of hair (he even gets to utter a choice line from Carpenter’s remake of The Thing), Cox gets a terrific Evil Dead-style battle with Sam that has a nice retro-effects feel and unexpected ending. If the film has a major weakness, maybe it’s the fact that the omnibus format has its own built-in Achilles heel: without a central conflict or identification figure, the empathy factor is a little thin at times (a good chunk of the cast are monsters, human or otherwise, thiough it’s hard not to root for Cox facing his own Trilogy of Terror-type beat-down in the latter part of the flick).
Sam himself is an endearing little boggart and one of the better monsters of the past few years. He’s actually a fairly complicated demon: pint-sized, in orange pajamas and burlap-mask, he’s seems rather vulnerable – until someone “disrespects” Halloween tradition, wherupon he launches into action (his main weapon is fairly cool and inventive) with results  that are fairly dire. His main screen time (he’s kind of the Ghosts of Halloween Past, Present, Future against Cox’s Halloween hating codger) is in the last third of the film, though he flits through the others inflicting damage, major and minor. That said, he’s no anonymous otherworldly avenger-slasher : there are definite Rules of Engagement on Sam’s mind, as well as propitiation. One of the movie’s smart points is that he doesn’t have a back-story, thus, dissipating his mystery and persona.
Aside from the injustice of not getting a theatrical release, the paucity of DVD Special Features is definitely a crying shame. The DVD offers both a Wide-Screen and Full-Screen version, and along with a set of language and subtitle selections in English, French, Spanish. The only real treat is “Seasons Greetings,” the director’s 1996 hand-animated short, which gives us our first glimpse of the burlap-masked Sam. The commentary by Dougherty on the short is actually more entertaining than the little film, which is a nice enough low-budget (albeit predictable) thrill, but it’s really a launching point for the future monster. Clearly, this was a labor of love for Dougherty and his small crew, laying down the creation of Sam (in Dougherty’s words,“9 months of blood, sweat and tears”) in hand-printed, hand-drawn, hand-colored frames, achieved by the director-writer with different-colored magic-markers. The short enjoyed success, playing a number of festivals as well as being featured on MTV’s Cartoon Sushi, and was scored by Evan Chen, with backgrounds painted by Dan KaNemoto, and “a lot of friends and students.”
One of the brightest revelations during the commentary by the creator, is how Dougherty came up with the “blood” on Sam’s face, following his triumph over his attacker: Dougherty had cut his hand while working on the ‘toon, and having an instant epiphany “flicked my hand and splattered blood over the art-work.” As nice as it is to have Dougherty provide narrative on this humble, chilly vignette, you are left craving more, like a trick-or-treater coming home with an empty bag: the Special Features begs for Dougherty’s commentary on the feature film, his take on the performances and effects, and, most of all, the travails that cheated Trick ‘r Treat from a full-blown film-release. Both the DVD, and horror movie buffs in general, cry out for it.
FOOTNOTE:

  • In compelling contrast, that Canadian indie fave, The Signal offered the terrific twist of one scary-brainy narrative helmed by three different directors.

The Score: All This and Halloween II – Interview with composer Tyler Bates

In his last few scores, composer Tyler Bates has watched the WATCHMEN and observed THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, spent a DAY OF THE DEAD and survived DOOMSDAY, but as potent – and as diverse – as those scores were, it’s been his work for Rob Zombie that continue to be his edgiest, evincing the most severe sound design and the most potently frightening musical attitudes. Currently, this aggressive approach is audible in HALLOWEEN II, which opens nationwide today.

Bates first hooked up with the head-banging rocker-cum-director in 2005, when he scored Zombie’s second feature, The Devil’s Rejects, a follow-up to 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses, which Zombie had scored himself along with producer Scott Humphrey. Bates’ had scored a little more than two dozen films since moving to Los Angeles from Chicago, where he had grown up writing, recording, and playing in local rock bands. Most of his soundtrack work was TV-movie fare, a couple of forgettable sci-fi- spoofs like Tammy and the T-Rex (1994) and Roger Corman’s Alien Avengers (1996), but when his powerful score for Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) came out of the blue like a furious, rampaging dead thing, Rod Zombie took notice. He brought Bates in to score Devil’s Rejects, asking for music that reflected “bleakness.” Bates provided just that, with an array of ambient sounds and layered sonic textures that gave the film a clear sense of malformed naturalness.

“I wanted it to feel like you were underneath a car muffler, because you feel so dirty when you watch the film, because of the visuals,” Bates said. “I wanted the music to reflect some of that.”

Bates continued to provide music macabre for movies malevolent, scoring Slither for James Gunn and See No Evil for Gregory Dark (both 2006), not to mention rejoining Zach Snyder for his epic incarnation of Frank Miller’s 300 (2006), and then found himself in Rod Zombie territory once again. First, he scored the Zombie-directed fake trailer, Werewolf Women of the SS, included in the Tarantino-Rodriguez double feature, Grindhouse, and then he scored Zombie’s pointed remake of John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 slasher film, Halloween.

In revisiting Halloween and its unique piano-and-synth score, which Carpenter had composed and performed himself for the original film (and many of its sequels, later assisted by synthesist Alan Howarth), Bates paid tribute to the original by arranging a version of the Carpenther theme in the darker aesthetic in which Zombie had crafted his remake.

“We would definitely respect John Carpenter’s original score,” Bates said as he was embarking on his score for Halloween. “I’m not really too interested of making it orchestral, but I would imagine you could expect a similar graininess to that of Devil’s Rejects, but a different timbre, ultimately. I create sounds for each movie, besides the few synths that I have. I like to make as many of the sounds from abstract sources as possible for each specific movie. We’ll see where it goes, but it’s definitely going to be kind of grimy and organic. I think that going back and trying to maybe [rework] it in a unique way that’s still within the same parameters John Carpenter had at the time are what makes that music work. He didn’t have all the bells and whistles available to him, and probably not all the skills of today’s film composers, so I think getting as much into that mindset is going to be necessary to make the music pay off, and give people the intense experience that they had when they saw first film.”

Bates’ music for Zombie’s Halloween, released in 2007, was a potent mix of organic and synthetic musical disturbia, effectively washing the film in an undertone of continual unease.

“It was difficult trying to adapt the classic John Carpenter themes into the context of Rob’s filmmaking style,” said Bates. “The nature of those classic themes works really well with an inhuman and sometimes robotic ‘bogeyman’ type character, but in Rob’s films Michael Myers is humanized, which calls for a broader musical palate than the design of the original film. I reworked John Carpenter’s classic theme for Rob’s initial presentation to the studio when he decided to do the first of the two movies, which came together pretty naturally, but when I actually began scoring to picture, the two did not coexist very naturally.”

Tyler Bates’s latest score finds him joining forces with both Rob Zombie and Michael Myers again, on the director’s re-imagining of Halloween II. The film picks up where Zombie’s Halloween left off, and focuses on the struggles of Laurie Strode (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) and killer Michael Myers (played by Tyler Mane). Bates’ score gives due cognizance to the classic John Carpenter theme from the original film, but quickly dispenses with it and delves headlong into even darker and very distressing musical landscapes.

“In the new film we decided to do more of our own thing instead of being reliant on the classic themes as much as the first film. This enabled me to really expand the sonic and melodic scope of the film. I think the end result is a movie that really feels like a Rob Zombie film through and through.”

The new score is thick with dissonance and disharmony, occupying a territory of unusual percussive electronic effects, heavy chords of synth and horn, and multiple processed effects that wash the film in nightmarish tonality that is thoroughly disquieting.

“Like each of my projects, I try to expand the sonic palate on each of Rob’s films,” said Bates. “In this case, my primary goal was to create new ways of sonically unsettling an audience. I approached this score with the knowledge that we would be more reliant on original motifs as opposed to the classic Halloween themes, so it freed me up melodically, and also provided the opportunity to implement different rhythms that aren’t particularly characteristic of the classic themes we all associate with Michael Myers.”

The Halloween II score is viciously bleak, with barely a respite existing within its omnipresent relentlessness. Bates characterized Michael Myers and his unstoppable presence through that aggressive, driving ruthlessness.

“Rob really wanted to imbue this movie with an underlying emotional current,” he said. “There is quite of bit of ‘head space’ music in this film, which is where the emphasis on emotion is most apparent.”

In working with Rob Zombie on this film, Bates was brought in earlier than usual and actually began scoring immediately when footage was available during filming.

“Rob and I had a lengthy discussion about the movie before production began,” said Bates. “The music process started with working up the new version of ‘Love Hurts,’ which is in the end credits crawl. It served as an inspiration piece for Rob. The editor Glenn Garland, sent cut footage to me during principal photography, and I wrote music for every scene that came my way.”

By the time Rob was done filming, the new music served as the temp score for the entire film, said Bates.

“From there, Rob experimented with placing various cues in different spots of the film, then sending me a new cut of the movie to show me exactly how the music worked in the context of scenes I had not scene to that point. This was an unusual process for us, but Rob wanted to edit the film on the east coast for a change of scenery. I continued to work on music as the film took shape, then Rob and I finally got together to finalize the cues in the film.”

In crafting his sound design, Bates has put together an interesting array of textures, sound fragments, percussive tonalities (indeed), and grating sonic intensity. The score is completely captivating in its method of crafting scary music and upping the ante of fear in the film.

“The most challenging aspect for me is to do better than the last one,” said Bates. “I don’t think that is a challenge necessary to overcome. Some degree of dissatisfaction with your previous projects is a healthy motivational tool for doing your best work.”

Halloween II soundtrack by Tyler Bates
Unlike the Hip-O records soundtrack CD currently for sale, the digitally distributed Abattoir album (above) consists entirely of music by Tyler Bates

Bates’ first Halloween score was never released as a soundtrack album (two cues, including his reworking of the Carpenter theme, were included on the Hip-O records soundtrack album). The currently available soundtrack CDs for Halloween II feature only one cut by Bates (the rest of the tracks being pre-existing songs); fortunately, an entire album of his music marks the debut of his new label imprint, Abattoir Recordings, which is digitally distributed by E1 Music. A physical CD release with previously unreleased music will follow later with the DVD release of the film.

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