Back in the 1930s, during the early days of sound film-making, Universal Studios was responsible for the first great wave of classic monster movies. So it is only appropriate that Universal presents an annual Halloween event that brings movie monsters to life: Halloween Horror Nights, to be exact. Last week, Universal provided a preview of the horrors that will be unleashed when Halloween Horror Nights opens on September 21. This year’s mazes and monsters feature fewer film franchises, in favor of television (THE WALKING DEAD), vidogames (SILENT HILL), rock and roll (ALICE COOPER GOES TO HELL), and even legends (Mexico’s LA LLARONA). THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is really the only film-related maze this time out. In addition, Universal’s own classic movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Phantom of the Opera) will groove to modern music in the House of Horrors, a year-round walk-through attraction that gets a big makeover every Halloween season.
The preview consisted of makeup demonstrations and interview opportunities. I got a few minutes to interview HHN Creative Director John Murder on camera, starting off with a question about the lack of mazes based on movie franchises this year. Universal’s usual selling point is bringing horror movies to life, but 2012 sees attractions based on a TV series, a videogame, a 1970s rock-and-roll album, and a Mexican legend; only the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE maze is primarily a film franchise.
“We’re expanding our brand,” said Murdy. “I’ve done a lot of horror movie franchises…almost every major horror movie franchise. But horror evolves. Talking about something like THE WALKING DEAD, I don’t think you would have seen that on TV even five years ago. It’s hugely popular, so as the genre evolves, we need to involve with it. Embracing videogames – that’s different for us as well. We need to be right there on that cutting edge.”
THE WALKING DEAD seems to present a particular challenge: Halloween Horror Night has presented zombies several times in the past (the London Street scene has featured scare zones such as SHAUN OF THE DEAD and ZOMBIEVILLE). How will Murdy make this year’s “walkers” specific to the AMC TV show?
“The walking dead has really great, iconic environments. I love working on properties that, if it’s a movie, there are multiple movies, because we get to pick and choose our favorite bits. With WALKING DEAD, we have two season to work with, so we get to watch all the episodes and select the things we think are going to be most impactful in a haunted attraction. And the Walkers are very unique; they’re different from a lot of other zombies. Working directly with (WALKING DEAD makeup artist) Greg Nicotero, we get to utilize the molds from the show to bring those to life. What we’re really trying to do is put you in the footsteps of the human survivors. We want to make you feel what they feel on the show as they try to navigate the zombie apocalypse.
According to Murdy, enormous research goes into each of the mazes, to decide which elements from a particular franchise will translate into a terrifying walk-through attraction. Taking the ALICE COOPER GOES TO HELL 3-D maze as an example, Murdy explained:
Last year, we did WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE. This (ALICE COOPER GOES TO HELL) is the album that was the sequel to WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE, so it was a natural for us. But I had a different little spin that I wanted to pitch to Alice: ‘I want to take your music, but I also want to bring in the idea of Dante’s INFERNO, and multiple levels of Hell, and particularly the Seven Deadly Sins, and poetic justice.’ I want to modernize that, informed by Alice Cooper’s lyrics and stage show.
In terms of scale and production values, Halloween Horror Nights exceeds other theme park Halloween attractions in Los Angeles, but the potential problem for such a large-scale event is the loss of a personal, intimate scare factor. Murdy says he takes that into account when designing the event.
When we design any attraction, we design it for whether it’s a dress rehearsal where we might have 3,000 people, versus a sold-out Saturday night. When we design the scares, we have to consider both of those scenarios and try to use our tool kit to impact our guests no matter what the situation is. But it’s not like when I was ten years old in my parents garage building a haunted house for the neighborhood kids. I’m building it for thousands and thousands of people.
Three of this year’s mazes are titles that should be familiar to anyone who regularly attends Halloween Horror Nights. Nevertheless, Murdy says there will be new scares inside.
“It’s not the same maze,” he replied, when asked about LA LLARONA, then switched to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE as another example. “I did TEXAS in 2007 and 2008, but I did the remake. I’ve always wanted to do the original. I know Tobe Hooper: he’s a big fan of our event; he’s come multiple times. Over the years, I’ve said, ‘Tobe, when are we going to do your movie?’ Growing up in the ’70s, that movie had a huge influence on me. Now we’re doing it, and top to bottom it’s a brand-new maze. So, some of the titles you may have seen before, but it’s a lot of new experiences.”
Unfortunately, I did not have time to ask on camera why an EVIL DEAD maze will be at Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt this year instead of Halloween Horror Nights. Later, I did manage to grab an off-camera moment between interviews Murdy was giving for other outlets to get an answer to this question. Although Murdy had conversations with the EVIL DEAD people, the project was not a priority, because the tie-in is with the remake, which does not come out this year and does not feature the character of Ash, so memorably played by Bruce Campbell in the original films. THE EVIL DEAD certainly seems like a natural for Halloween Horror Nights, but if it ever happens, Murdy will likely focus on EVIL DEAD II, the hysterically over-the-top sequel, which truly represents the apex of the series. You can read more about Halloween Horror Nights at Hollywood Gothique.
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. All 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.
Universal Studios Hollywood launches their 2007 Halloween Horror Nights this evening. The event will kick off at 7:30pm with the Eyegore Awards ceremony. Guests include producer-director Roger Corman, (TALES OF TERROR), actress Patricia Arquette (MEDIUM), actress Sherri Moon (HALLOWEEN, actress Shawnee Smith (SAW), writer-director-producer Don Mancini (BRIDE OF CHUCKY), and rocker-director Rob Zombie (HALLOWEEN).
Universal Studios resumed their annual Halloween presentation last year, after taking six years off. 2006 was short on the number of special attractions, even if those attractions were impressive in scale. 2007 promises to up the ante, including new mazes based on Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface, in addition to the classic Universal Studios monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman) who will be haunting the House of Horrors maze. Earlier this week, we spoke with Universal creative director John Murdy, the mastermind behind the Halloween Horror Nights presentation. Here is an excerpt of what he had to say. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Universal has had an erratic history with Halloween, which is odd considering their connection with the horror genre, going back to classic movies in the 1930s. Why have they been off the Halloween band wagon for so long? JOHN MURDY: We’re the studio that invented horror movies, pretty much. Sure, you can point to the German Expressionist films in the [1920 and 1920s], but really it starts with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1925 and the Golden Age of Universal horror films, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, and THE WOLFMAN, etc. So that stuff is in our blood; I mean, this is a studio founded on horror. We did stop doing Halloween Horror Nights for a number of years. I wasn’t actually involved in those earlier events, so I don’t really know why they stopped, except that it’s a major, huge, incredibly expensive production.
But last year…I came back to Hollywood – because I had been based in Florida – with one goal: to bring Halloween back. Because I love Halloween, and I grew up in this movie studio. Last year, was basically a baby step to get us back in the business, like putting your toe in the water to see if it would work. The good news for us was we exceeded our wildest dreams attendance-wise, so now it’s time to step it up and take it to an entirely new level. That’s what we’re doing with the relationship with New Line Cinema, having these attractions for NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETS, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Considering the legacy that Universal has in the realm of classic movie monsters, why did you go outside the studio vault to subcontract other monsters for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights? JOHN MURDY: I like the term “subcontract other monsters”! Well, like I said, Universal is the studio that horror movies, and we own classic horror – that’s just a given. I think of New Line Cinema, say from – well, depending on whether you’re talking about TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but really NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, because they call New Line “the House that Freddy Built” – from that point on, they really had a handle on the slasher film era of modern horror icons. We and our sister park in Florida had been talking about this for a long time, that while we have all these great horror movie brands, and we certainly use them and will continue to use them – we use them this year in Halloween Horror Nights – there was something very attractive to us about these three films in particular: FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETA, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. They fit in well with our horror legacy. They are monsters. They kind of are the modern-day equivalent of [our] characters.
New Line up to this year has never allowed that; they have never licensed their characters to something in the Halloween industry. There’s a reason for that: they’re very protective of their characters. There’s a reason there’s eleven FRIDAY THE 13TH movies – you know, they’ve been around so long, and they’re very successful and have a rabid fan base, a very protective fan base. So we needed to convince New Line that, if anybody was going to do this, we could do this, and we could do it movie-quality, because we’re Universal. That’s exactly what we’ve done. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You said you were more than satisfied with the attendance for the 2006 Halloween Horror Nights. Were there things about the presentation that did not satisfy you – areas where you saw room for improvement? JOHN MURDY: Absolutely lessons learned. People coming Halloween, they want to go to mazes; they want to go to haunted attractions. I don’t think we had enough last year, so that’s one of the major deals with this year. Each of these New Line properties have their own attraction. We also have a new attraction called Universal’s House of Horrors, which is about an eleven-minute walk-through that encompasses the entire world of Universal Horror movies from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA up through PSYCHO to CHILD’s PLAY.
And of course we have the Terror Tram. When you talk about lessons learned, I look back on the Terror Tram as a great example of that. The truth is we had never done that before. We had never let 175 people every two minutes get off the tram and walk through our movie studio – through our famed back lot. We were probably a little conservative in terms of the path, of the barricades, because we really didn’t know what people would do, in all honesty. Would they go crazy and try to run all over the back lot. What we saw – and we adjusted last year, from week to week, on the fly – is if you take alcohol out of the equation (we don’t serve alcohol during Halloween, and that was a conscious decision), it’s a much safer and more enjoyable experience for everybody. The guests were actually really cool and really respective of the Bates Motel and the Psycho House, so this year we said, “Okay, what can we do to step it up? This is no walk-by the War of the Worlds plane crash set. Let’s take them into it. Let’s take them into the set itself. Let’s go in between the plane and the wing. Let’s find a way to do that.”
So absolutely there were lessons learned from doing it last year and getting back into the industry, and you apply them. Also, there’s a million websites out there; there’s a lot of blogs. We read all of that. As designers, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, we read it all, and then we try to give our fans what they want. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: I enjoyed the Halloween Horror Nights presentation last year, but I had not been on the Universal Studios tour for a long time. The scale of something like the back lot tour, with zombies lurking amidst the plane crash, was just something you wouldn’t see anywhere else. I got the impression from other people that what they saw at Halloween was not that different from what they had seen when visiting the park earlier in the year. You know, “the plane crash from WAR OF THE WORLDS is there all year, and they just added some zombies.” And the House of Horrors was basically Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula. JOHN MURDY: In the case of Van Helsing, that’s a very legitimate criticism. What’s different this year with that attraction is I changed that to Universal’s House of Horrors back in April. I designed it with an eye toward Halloween. As a baseline, on a normal day, we have anywhere from eight to ten characters in that attraction. There are twenty-five – at a minimum – for Halloween. That attraction was designed, whereas Van Helsing wasn’t, to go from scene to scene of different movies. That was done not only for the enjoyment of our day guests (and it has gotten incredible ratings from our day guests – they love it), but we were also thinking about Halloween while we were designing it, so we could create opportunities to dramatically amp it up for Halloween. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: So it’s not a year-round attraction with the capacity to expand for Halloween. JOHN MURDY: Absolutely. And then of course, the big event is the New Line characters, and each one has their own attraction. Those you can only see during Halloween. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: So how different will House of Horrors be from what we saw last year at Halloween? JOHN MURDY: Well, you wouldn’t have walked through it last year; you would have walked through Van Helsing. [Technically, during the 2006 Halloween Horror Nights, a temporary banner was hanging up over the Van Helsing entrance that identified the attraction as “Universal’s House of Horrors.] Dramatically different. With House of Horrors, what I wanted to do was – I’m a huge fan of our horror franchise here at Universal, particularly our classic horror films, and I felt we had never really given them their fair shake. Sure, we have Frankenstein as a character in the park, but these movies – there’s a reason they’ve been around seventy-five, seventy-six years and are still pop culture icons. That’s because they’re classic, and classic is timeless. I’m amazed all the time at how well known these films are. Sometimes people think, “Oh, it’s an old movie from the ’30s!” I was in the park only two days ago, and this little six-year-old kid came up to me with her dad and said, “Where’s Dracula? I want to meet Dracula!” I looked at her dad and said, “Dracula?” Her dad said, “Yeah, it’s her favorite movie.” I said, “Bela Lugosi, 1931, right?” He said, “Right, she must meet Dracula.” So these things have transcended being mere movies; they are part of the culture. What was exciting about House of Horrors was: in the past, we’ve taken those things, and [emphasized] just one movie – whatever the flavor of the month is. What I wanted to do was take the entire brand of Universal Horror and do an homage to everything: Dracula, Frankenstein, the fruit cellar from PSYCHO, Chucky’s toy factory from CHILD’S PLAY. So modern and classic are all together, and each room you go into a different movie basically. So it’s not just one thing. And like I said, it was designed so that we could bring in additional characters for Halloween that you haven’t seen in House of Horrors before. That’s really cool; that’s been the fun part of the project. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: That’s interesting. If you got to (I’ll mention the competition) Knott’s Scary Farm, they’ll do a maze devoted to a single movie, like THE GRUDGE or BEOWULF. Because they’re movie-based, they seem more appropriate to Universal, but you’re not doing mazes devoted to a single film; you’re doing the History of Universal Horror. And the Jason, Freddy, and Leatherface mazes are about the characters, not individuals films. JOHN MURDY: No, particularly with New Line, the beautiful thing about that is that you have so much to draw from. Think of how many FRIDAY THE 13TH movies there have been. You distill that down to the greatest scenes, the greatest kills, and you have so much to draw from. The same thing with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: how many dream sequences and nightmares have there been in those films? So you really get to pick and choose the best of the best, and it all basically comes down to the fans. We spend an awful lot of time looking at the fan websites, asking “What is their favorite scene from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or what is their favorite kill from FRIDAY THE 13TH,” and then we give it to them, straight up!
The environments are a huge part of it. With Jason, the idea of going through the woods at night to Camp Crystal Lake – that’s what we’ve done; we’ve created that. We created the camp; we created the woods. You’re going to go back and forth, outside and inside. It’s incredible; I’ve never seen anything like it.
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is the same thing. We set that in the asylum where Freddy was born, but we venture out of that into the dream world, so we hit the Roach Motel, that classic scene from the series that fans always talk about. And of course we have the Boiler Room and the baby carriage from [A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE] DREAM CHILD. All those things are there.
For THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, you look at that house from the recent films that New Line has done, the Hewitt House – that big, horribly decayed mansion, and we’re like, “Okay, let’s build it; let’s build the whole house! Let’s take you through the whole damn house and then take you through the meat factory!”
So we really try to hit all those environments that people love on the silver screen, but they’ve only seen it on the silver screen; they’ve never walked through it. The sets alone for these attractions are just breath-taking, because it’s movie-quality. That’s what we strive for – everything down to the tiniest prop and piece of set decor. We have thousands of pictures of these films, and working hand in hand with New Line, who are very, very into their franchises – and so are we. We were fans before we ever had this arrangement; I was going to their films when I was in high school, and beyond. So we paid enormous attention to detail, special effects, full sensory experience, preying on everything psychologically we could prey on – from sense of smell to things touching you – we tried to hit it all. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Being Universal Studios, you’re obviously bringing that level of film craftsmanship to Halloween Horror Nights, but one way in which it is radically different is that movies can be controlled down to the tiniest detail with retakes. JOHN MURDY: Yeah, there’s no retakes! CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Not just no retakes. You have a lot of actors out there, and at some point you have to turn them loose. JOHN MURDY: Hundreds of them! I personally train every single one. I’m not kidding! There’s a reason for that. The vision obviously comes from the Creative Director, but that is… I always start my speech to the actors the same way: “Up to the point we bring you in, we’ve created the back drop, but you are the show; you have to bring it to life.” I think the best way to do that is let them hear it from the horses mouth and let me show them every step of the way. You know: “Jason leads with his head. That’s the way he moves – his head first and then the body.” There are certain things about these characters that you learn by reading interviews with the actors who played them. Jason never runs. There’s no reason for him to run; he’s going to catch up with whoever he’s after. So we take this wealth of knowledge from the films and the people who have played them previously, and try to translate that to the actors. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: How scripted is it, and how much leeway do the actors have? JOHN MURDY: You know, we try to listen… It’s all figured out down to the tinest detail, but once you get that down, we do listen to our actors, and sometimes they come up with great ideas. There was one the other night on FRIDAY THE 13TH that I did not write. I came through as the Creative Director and thought, “What’s that? Somebody being creative!” But it was good creative. I was like, “Wow, I didn’t think of that, but that’s bitchin’!” Actors will always have comments, because that’s the nature of being an actor. You’re constantly on the quest to find your – it’s funny to say – you motivation. While your motivation on Halloween might be very simply – to scare people – there are a million ways to do it. Hopefully, we have that variety. Working with these people and spending that much time with them, you get to know every single one of them. When you have that many creative people in one spot, ideas inevitably come up, and it would be really arrogant for us not to listen to them. So we really do try to listen to our actors. There’s a scene I’m going to change tonight because an actor had a really cool idea. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: What’s the supply of actors like for Halloween? There is such a proliferation of these haunts that it seems a lot of these people would get snapped up by the competition. JOHN MURDY: We’re doing great! Actually, it was a big concern going in: could we find all these actors? But we have a wait list right now – a fairly extensive one, actually – because as word’s gotten out…I think for people who are fans of these films the chance to play Jason or Freddy or Leatherface is a dream come true. So we have a list of people waiting in the wings in case somebody decides they don’t want to do it, so we’re in a good position that way. Plus, we pay better than anyone else! CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: The Halloween Season is becoming bigger and bigger… JOHN MURDY: Second only to Christmas in retail sales. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: With all the competition out there from places like Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest, the Queen Mary Shipwreck, and the Knott’s Halloween Haunt, what can Universal offer these other places can’t? JOHN MURDY: Movie quality. It’s pretty simple. We’re the studio that invented horror movies; we do horror better than anybody else. The fact that there’s all these other events out there – I think it’s great. I love Halloween; I’ve loved it since I was a little kid, going trick-or-treating for the very first time. The fact that there is so much competition is good for Halloween in general. I’m glad there’s all that competition out there, because there should be. It’s a unique, mostly American phenomenon, even though it’s roots are in the old world. I think it’s wonderful how it’s grown year after year.
The two thing that we do differently… Nobody goes to the pains of detail that we do to deliver on a movie-quality experience to our guests – it really is like living a horror movie when you walk through these attractions. The other thing is our back lot. Aside from Halloween in general, back lots are pretty rare these days. The Universal back lot that has been there since 1915, where all of these famous horror movies have been filmed, is just something that nobody else has. To be able to take our guests down there at night, and let them get off [the tram], and walk through the most famous horror movie sets in history, that are still standing, that are the originals… you know, when we were lighting the Psycho House last night, there’s a moment when you go, “Oh my god! This is the Psycho House – and it’s the same one from 1960 when the film came out but 1959 when they filmed it.” To be able to bring that to life – nobody can do that. Only Universal can do that, and that’s what makes us different. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: This may be premature, but as deadlines arrive, ideas probably fall by the wayside – things you just don’t have time to get done this year. So I’m wondering: in your mind, are you already looking toward next year, to do the things you couldn’t do this year? JOHN MURDY: Oh yeah. I walked past something yesterday. It was a character idea, and I thought, “Oh, I gotta do that next year!” Your mind is constantly going, and you think of things – “God, that’s a great idea!” – but at some point you have to say, “I’ll save that for next year; let’s just get this year done!” It’s just such a massive production; it’s ridiculous how much work is involved in bringing something like this to life. But yeah, you’re always thinking into the future; at some point you have to stop yourself and focus on right now. I’m really exciting to show the public what we got for them this year. I don’t think they’ve seen anything like these New Line attractions. CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: Hopefully, this means Universal will be in the Halloween business for years to come. JOHN MURDY: I think so! RELATED ARTICLES: