Universal Studios launched its new Halloween Horror Nights yesterday, Friday the 13th. It has been several years since the famous theme park presented a Halloween attraction along the line of the Knott's Berry Farm Halloween Haunt, so this was a major event for horror fans. Considering that Universal practically invented the horror genre (with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man to their credit), the results were not as scarifying as they should have been, but the haunt did provide some spectacular chills and thrills on a scale you cannot see elsewhere.
Universal's advantage is that, being both a movie studio and a theme park, it has established, elaborate facilities that can easily be enhanced for the October season. With rides and attractions like Jurassic Park, Van Helsing, and the famous Psycho House, the park feels halfway haunted year round. For Halloween, it only takes the extra little nudge to push the park over the edge and into the abyss of horror.
Hollywood Horror Nights exploits this advantage to grand guignol effect in many ways, and yet the scares seem curiously scarce, with only two walk-through mazes and one other major horror attraction: the Terror Tram. Numerous scare zones (fog-shrouded areas of the park inhabited by monsters) help compensate for this, as do several other attractions such as the Chucky Insult Emporium (featuring the killer doll from the CHILD'S PLAY movies). Also, the usual Universal universe is open for business (including the spectacular TERMINATOR 2 - 3D, which is always worth a visit). However, at $49 a ticket, you have a right to expect more from a major Halloween attraction, and Universal comes up short. This is the first of two major problems.
The second major problem almost outweights the first: crowds and crowd-control. Universal has oversold tickets to such an extent that even if there were twice as many screams and shudders available, you would not have time to enjoy them after the wait to get inside.
We arrived shortly after 7:00pm - prime time for the start of any haunt. The evening was slightly dampened by cloudbursts, but the flashes of lightening only enhanced the ambience, evoking memories of Frankenstein's laboratory and the creation of the monster. What really dampened our enthusiasm was the ridiculously long lines outside the park.
Yes, this is a major attraction that draws huge crowds, but this is also Universal Studios: they deal with crowds every day - not only for the theme park but also for the concerts ath the amphitheatre nearby. They should have this process down to a refined science, but Friday night felt more like trial-and-error.
There were two long lines just to be searched before entering the park. By 8:30, we were thinking of giving up and leaving. Then some clown disguised as a security guard came by telling everyone to "fill in the spaces." The result: what had been two straight lines of relatively polite if quite frustrated ticket holders turned into a mob pushing forward through the bottle neck toward the search areas. Short people especially were likely to find themselves feeling like helpless cattle herded toward a slaughterhouse.
For all the trouble, little was achieved. The rudimentary searches by security guards would not have exposed anything that anyone was seriously trying to hide (I slipped a pocket knife through without even trying), and the contintual sound of the metal detector provoked no follow-up action that we could see - the guards just waved everyone on, regardless. Which left us pondering the mystery of why so little activity was taking so much time.
And our wait was far from over. Upon passing security, we had to stand in another line to hand over our ticket. All told, it was 9:00pm by the time we got through the front gate - a nearly two-hour wait just to get inside the park!
That gave us only three hours to thrill with terror, and our Halloween spirits almost disipated into the ectoplasmic ether when we saw the helpful directories with electronic messages warning of lines lasting 60 to 75 minutes to see the attractions.
At this point our frustration was so high that the emerging consensus trended toward abandoning the haunt altogether in favor of seeking a healthful repast at one of the many dining spots on the Universal City Walk. Fortunately, our frustration disappeared quickly, like an exorcised demon, expelled by the sights and sounds that greeted us inside. We decided to endure the further lines if only to receive something in return for the time we had already spent. And we were glad we did.
Universal, like Knott's Scary Farm, decorates much of the inside of the park for Halloween, creating haunted "scare zones" that provide plenty of thrills even before you enter one of the mazes or go on the Terror Tram. Upon arrival, you are greeted by ghoulish go-go dancers writhing in the night, their full-blooded female figures a startling contrast to their skeletal visages. Further along, you will see a New York City back lot scene suffering the effects of a toxic waste dump, a London street scene haunted by Jack the Ripper and Mr Hyde, a Deadwood western scene set to the strains of songs like "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and "The Devil Came Down to Georgia," and a midieval village that gets extra special "cool" points for using the theme music from Dario Argento's deliriously over-the-top cult horror movie SUSPIRIA.
Along the way you will encounter more ghouls than you care to count, including more than one pig-faced maniac wielding a chainsaw. Our personal favorite was the seductive saloon girl who seemed eager to raise her skirts to tempt passing potential male customers for something more than a drink - a flirtatious approach doomed to failure by her skull-faced head.
Per our usual custom, we by-passed the first maze near the entrance, with its 60-minute wait time, on the theory that it would be more crowded, in favor of delving deeper into the park. Our stragegy was rewarded when we reached The Asylum, which was displaying a 30-minute wait time - which turned out to be closer to 15 or 20 minutes.
The Asylum is set inside a fairytale castle reserved the rest of the year for a SHREK attraction. As the name implies, the venue has been redressed to suggest an asylum overrun by the inmates. It's a familiar motif at Halloween haunts, but Universal handles this one with flair: lots of elaborate sets and lots of maniacs and madmen lurking in the shadows. Two of our favorites were a little lost girl who insisted, "You're my mommy!" and a blind woman waving a disembodied eye at us while saying, "I see you!"
One nice thing about this maze is that (like mazes at Knott's Scary Farm or the Queen Mary Shipwreck) it is very extensive, so that you feel you are getting your scream's worth after the wait in line.
Next, we headed to the backlot for the Terror Tram. Signs warned of a 75-minute wait, but it was less like waiting and more like speed-walking - once you got over the bridge, it was practically a race to keep up as you walked down the stairs and through the labyrinth of hand rails to the trams. In fact, we were moving so fast that we barely had a chance to pause and enjoy the video monitors that were displaying a gallery of ghastly clips from horror movies old and new, featuring monsters as diverse as Dracula, Tarantula, and the Evil Dead.
As you may have heard, the back story for Hollywood Horror Nights is that a film director, fired for his insane attempts to capture too much realism in his horror movies, lurks somewhere on the backlot, completing his misguided masterpiece. Unlike too many haunts, which in person give little evidence of the "legend" or back story described on their websites, Hollywood Horror Nights really does try to follow through on its premise, with the bus tour guide filling in the back story while showing clips from the Director's previous work. (We were giddy with glee to see the infamous eyeball-slicing scene from Luis Bunuels' silent surreal masterpiece "The Andalusian Dog" standing in for one of these.)
There was also a rude, crude, and lewd tone to the narration: our foul-mouthed female guide derisively referred to her passengers as "bitches and 'hos" and advised us all to keep our "asses in the seats," lest we lose an arm or leg - which she assured us, she would add to her collection.
This ride follows the path of the standard Univesal Studios tour but with a twist: the bus stops and lets you off on the backlot, so you can take your time as you stroll past the horrors on view, eyeing them face-to-face in a way that you never could from the tram.
Hand rails keep you from wandering away from the designated areas, and much of the horror takes place on the other side of these barriers, but this fact serves as a distraction, luring your attention away from your path and allowing lurking ghouls to sneak up on you in the darkness.
As advertised, the path takes you by the Bates Motel, where a variety of horrible scenes are taking place in the rooms, many of them spilling out doors upon you. Then you climb up a hill and encounter the Bates home itself, with Mother's corpse in the upper window, her voice scolding Norman, who lurks on the lawn, menacing passersby.
This trip through PSYCHO territory is fun, but it is surpassed by the spectacle of the "War of the Worlds" backlot, which features what looks like the wreck of a plane crash, the twisted fuselage and tail section a smoking wreck amid the rubble of demolished homes. As if that were not horror enough, this stricken section of suburbia has been infested with carniverous zombies, munching on the bodies of the deceased.
Back on the bus, the tour guide continued her spiel, denouncing the Director as a madman - and then suffering his revenge at the end of a chainsaw. This last effect is suggested through sound effects and a wet spray of what's supposed to be blood, rather than showing it explicitly, but the gag paid off when the overhead monitor came back on revealing a bloody skeleton - all that was left of our formerly beautiful tour guide!
Overall, this trip through the backlot is the highlight of Halloween Horror Nights. It may not be as intense as walking through a pitch-black corridor with no idea what's lurking around the next corner, but it provided something different: a sense of being totally engulfed in horror on an enormous scale, thanks to the zombie-filled aircraft crash site.
After that, we took a brief break in the form of sitting through TERMINATOR 2 - 3D - an attraction that is normally crowded but was more than half-empty when we sat down for it. It was a great way to rest our legs while enjoying the 3D thrills.
By this time it was 11:30 - only a half hour left. Using our precious time to best advantage, we skipped Chucky's Insult Emporium (pesonally I find the doll more goofy than scary, and I've never understood his appeal) in favor of stopping in at the House of Horrors, which we had skipped on the way in.
This is the Van Helsing attraction, based on the film from a few years ago, renamed and with more monsters added for Halloween (like Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers). It's a wonderfully elaborate labyrinth that takes you through two stories worth of dank chambers and corridors, including a mad scientist's lab that goes all the way up to the rafters.
Again, what's impressive is the sheer scale and verisimilitude of the thing: it feels like being inside a horror movie brought to life, an effect you're not likely to experience at many other haunts. Perpaps the best scare is the last one: a hulking, oversized werewolf lurking in the dark who lashes out at you as you walk past, only the sturdy chain round his neck holding him back and preventing his claws from making contact.
By the time we made our hasty exit, closing time was drawing nigh. We had to forego the pleasures of any other attactions: The Mummy ride, the Carnival of Carnage (which basically sounds like a freak show), Fear Factor (a "Dead Celebrities Edition" of the creepy-crawlie bug show), and Slaughterworld (more or less just the Waterworld stunt show renamed, or so we hear), and a live musical performance by a group called Mutaytor.
Regarding this last attraction, we have a question: as we have had occasion to ask too often in the past, when did bad dance music become synonymous with Halloween? Oh well, we'll keep our complaints to a miniumum this year, since Halloween Horror Nights had the good taste to use an instrumental excerpt from Alice Cooper's "Killer" on the soundtrack for the Director's video footage playing on the overhead monitors during the tour bus ride.
As we said at the outset, it would have been nice if there had been more entertainment specifically designed for Halloween, instead of just relying on the usual Universal attractions to compensate for the dearth of haunted mazes. But even if there had been more horror to chill our souls, we would not have had time to thrill to its scary pleasures.
Bottom line: the Halloween Horror Nights attractions are terrifyingly impressive, but they are too few and far between, and the ridiculous lines outside are inexcusable. We heard more than a few people deriding the derth of mazes and lamenting that that they had not gone to Knott's instead. We did not quite share their opinion, but we understand it perfectly: even on the most crowded nights at Knott's Scary Farm, you are like to share more screams with your loved ones. Universal's Halloween Horror Nights has elements that make it unique, but they are not enough to justify the price tag and the long wait for the average haunt-goer.
Nevertheless, Universal's presentation is impressive enough - and different enough - that it may be a must-see for hard-core horror addicts who have already been to Knott's and the Queen Mary and still find themselves wanting something more - especially something they have not seen before. Our recommendation: if you can get a discount price (either ordering online ahead of time or with a coupon at the box office) and if you can make it on a Sunday when it will likely be less crowded, then go for it.
UPDATE: For a somewhat more negative take on Halloween Horror Nights, read the user comment on this previous post.