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.