Monday, October 22, 2018

Universal Studio's Halloween Horror Nights 2018

Universal Studio's Halloween Horror Nights is back again! This event is unique to other haunt events because Universal creates mazes that replicate horror films and television shows. I love the feeling of stepping into a favorite scene and being part of the action.

* Stranger Things

Stranger Things had the longest line through the entire night and it was a nice touch to have 80's hits play for people waiting. The demagorgon stalks you throughout the maze right from the first room. Walking into Will Byers' house with all the Christmas lights flashing was awesome and immersive. The alphabet lights flash and reveal "run" while the demagorgon tries to push through a wall. The upside down forest is beautiful and surreal to walk through while the portal to the upside down in the facility looked like the same set piece from the show. Fans of the show will love it, although there was a lot of demagorgon and not a lot of good guys. It's hard to have the main characters in the maze because of their age and the statues of them looked a little weird.

* Trick 'r Treat

Trick 'r Treat is the ultimate Halloween movie and the maze did a lot to get me into the Halloween spirit. Unlike the film, each section is separated and labeled: The Principal, Surprise Party, School Bus Massacre, Meet Sam, and Trick 'r Treat. Surprise Party had pretty awesome werewolf makeup and animatronics. Meet Sam is my overall favorite segment of the maze with creepy Trainspotting-esque Sam on the ceiling, a replica of the old man's bloodsplattered room with the flaming jack o'lantern, and the deranged trick or treaters. The jump scares with Sam made me squee because he's one of the cutest characters. The only drawback was too many rooms with no set and one jumpscare when there are plenty of scenes to draw on from the film.

* The First Purge

I'm not the hugest fan of The First Purge movie, but the maze was ok. The mannequin room was brilliant and it was genuinely hard to tell the difference between the actors and the mannequins. The Skeletor character is the one that recurs in the jumpscares even though he's not the true villain of the film. He is the most memorable and creepy looking though. There were some fun misdirection moments where there were two jumpscares in one room with the second being unexpected. The good parts of the film, namely the political commentary, didn't really make it into the maze and it ended with those awful jumpscare rooms. Overall, it's fun but nothing spectacular.

* Halloween 4: The Curse of Michael Myers

Halloween is one of my favorite franchises, so I feel a little giddy every time I walk in one of their mazes. The exterior of the gas station is reproduced down to the last detail and the iconic soundtrack sets the mood. Michael is wrapped in bandages at through the beginning of the maze. A scarred Dr. Loomis makes an appearance. I just love the small details like Michael appearing after the musical cue just like in the films. While I'm happy the third installment was skipped as a whole maze, it was a nice detail to see the masks here as trick or treaters and in the Silver Shamrock commercial on the TV. Michael finally gets his mask and walking through the hanging sheets is so creepy not knowing when he's going to jump out. I really loved this maze even though it's not my favorite film because it captures the holiday as it goes and keeps me on my toes.

* Poltergeist

Poltergeist is one of my favorite haunted house movies. The exterior of the maze with the house, flashing lights, and blaring soundtrack really sucked me into the story. Unlike the film, the maze goes straight for the horrific stuff starting with a grotesque scene in the kitchen. The goriest scene with the man shedding his face in the bathroom recurs throughout the maze with pretty good acting. The two rooms that had  a giant, lit up skull that rushes at you and splashes a bit of water. It's so unlike anything else in the park that it took be aback. The iconic clown makes an appearance as an actor and the spindly creature near the end of the film stands as a larger than life animatronic. The reveal of the corpses is done really well with coffins lining the walls uncomfortably close, filled with either statues or actors. Although the jumpscare room is used, it's not as much as other mazes and enough stands out beyond that. Even though there aren't a lot of scare actors in the maze, Poltergeist felt chock full of scares and detailed sets.

* The Horrors of Blumhouse Chapter 2: Truth or Dare and Unfriended

I honestly expected this maze to be the worst considering I hadn't heard good things about Truth or Dare and Unfriended occurs entirely on a computer screen, which is hard to translate to a maze. The Truth or Dare segment mostly occurs in some sort of church. Kind of out of left field, but I haven't seen the movie yet. The rooms are atmospheric and finally seem to get to the meat of the story where people are dared to cut out their tongues or slit their throats. Then Unfriended comes along with the last jumpscare of the film (which I hated) occurs over and over. At least the blender scene, the best death of the film, was recreated. The last few rooms were from something called The Girl. It should have been clearer that this was the story behind the girl in the Blumhouse title sequence. While it's enjoyable, it seemed like they ran out of material from the two movies for a whole maze. This was the least enjoyable maze but better than I thought it would be.

* Universal Monsters

Universal Monsters are iconic and classic, setting the bar for horror cinema for decades. The outside of the maze is kind of fun, merging modern with classic in neon graffiti style art of the monsters on top of the brick and wrought iron facade. The cemetery scene completely sucks you into the world of monsters. The first tableau is surprisingly hard hitting with Frankenstein's monster hugging the little girl he accidentally killed and saying "friend" over and over. The werewolf was not needed in the same room. I love the inclusion of angry villagers with weapons and the fiery windmill from Frankenstein. The Phantom looks much more hideous with half the skin on his face gone. The Invisible Man effect was a bit cheesy, using black light and neon clothing and bandages. The later werewolves and Dracuala's transformation into a wolf looked much better. The more gory tableaux surprised me like the dinner party where have been killed and some beheaded. This new version of Renfield looks disturbingly deranged. I take some issue with the only female monster, the Bride, being dismembered alive by Dr. Frankenstein. It looks amazing and makes sense considering the doctor's madness, but it was still disappointing to see. Having Slash compose new music instead of using the iconic themes already associated with each film was a missed opportunity. Most of it sounded fine, but fans of the old films know their musical themes. Overall, the maze did a good job making the monsters more scary while acknowledging their legendary past.

* Terror Tram: Hollywood Harry's Dreadtime Stories

Hollywood Harry AKA Coodles the Clown is a fictional old mascot of Universal who was fired and then lived backstage onsite with other clowns. His story along with his clown friends was its own Terror Tram from a past year. This one has him introducing 5 Tales from the Crypt style comic book stories in a video before the experience. Who Let the Dogz Out has humanoid canines chasing people with weapons. The tram always starts with being chased with chainsaws which gets me every time no matter who holds it. Kill Billyz has man-eating animals running a motel. The animals chase people in and out of the motel rooms. Skinless bodies are strung up in front of fires, which looked impressively grotesque. Scarecrowz Revenge has scarecrows planting corpses instead of corn. I thought this one sounded like the best segment, but it was just clowns and scarecrows elevated, attacking you on either side of some fences. Disappointing based on what was shown. Clowns on a Plane features a plane brought down by misbehaving clowns. The clown costumes were all different and creepy in their own ways. Nightmarez has captive people being tortured by clowns. It's a bit short and takes forever to get through. Then it ends with more chainsaws. Overall, I liked the concept as an original idea instead of from another intellectual property. Four out of the five sections were pretty decent and a vast improvement over the Walking Dead terror tram from years past.

* RIP Tour

The RIP Experience is back and much improved! I arrived early and rested in a room with a giant poster of Phantom of the Opera, phone chargers, free water, and comfy couches to wait before our buffet dinner. As always, the buffet dinner is amazing with a wide variety of food all fresh, hot, and delicious. In a separate room, there are some sets and a demagorgon from Stranger Things to take photos of and with. Afterward, a tour guide took my group of around 15 on every maze plus our very own VIP Terror Tram and the Jabbawockeez show. We went through the express lane and never waited for more than 15 minutes for a maze.

The guide was flexible with bathroom breaks and anyone could split off from the group and return if they wanted. There were two longer designated breaks with beverages and desserts in hidden lounges. One of the best things was free water bottles everywhere we went which is nice since there is a lot of walking. The only thing I didn't get to experience was the makeup demonstration. Maybe we ran out of time our something, but I didn't miss it. My friend and I ditched the dance show to go on a couple mazes again before the end of the night. I thought it was perfect, well paced, and flexible to accommodate everyone.

* Final Thoughts

Overall, the mazes are all enjoyable and fun. However, their format feels very formulaic, particularly with the rooms that are one actor, a black room, a railing, and a curtain for a jumpscare. This room is in every maze multiple times. It didn't work in The Exorcist from years past and doesn't work that much here either. These rooms are lazy with no real set design. It takes you entirely out of the atmosphere created and there's no real payoff. These scares lose effectiveness quickly. I hope this changes in the future because this aspect is feeling a bit stale. In years past, I dreaded the last room because it would end with the biggest scare and I don't have that feeling anymore.

This event has made changes based on what their audience wants. I was asked a few times to take their survey on the RIP tour so they can make even more improvements next year. I appreciate that they listened, brought back the RIP tour, and then improved it based on these surveys (and numerous complaints when it wasn't available). On the night I went, the lines were so long that many people left complaining. I highly recommend at least getting the express pass to avoid the stand-by lines that can get up to almost 3 hours. I hope the event continues to improve and change as years go on.

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