Halloween Horror Nights 21 Review

When the end of summer rolls around, there are only three words on the lips of most frenzied Floridians - Halloween Horror Nights.

Halloween Horror Nights is not just the biggest special event of the year at Universal Studios Florida, but it is also the largest Halloween celebration in the country. It’s an event that spans the entire park offering a plethora of thrills and scares for anyone brave enough to tread the dark and fog-enshrouded streets.

But this is not an event for the timid or especially for young impressionable kids. Horror Nights lives up to its name. It is a literal celebration of the dark, terrifying and the macabre. And the experience of being at Halloween Horror Nights is exactly like being a participant in a live horror movie. It’s a way to vent your darkest fears by being threatened in a totally safe, absolutely non-threatening environment. The streets may be clogged with costumed ghouls and monsters reaching out to grab you, but the principle rule at Horror Nights is that monsters cannot touch guests. For all the effective illusion, it is, after all, just a show populated by actors - scareactors -  in costumes and makeup.

So it’s perfectly okay to play the role of the stupid, typical horror movie victim who climbs the stairs when everyone is screaming at them to go the other way and then always opens the door when everyone knows they shouldn‘t. All that’s waiting on the other side are screams that are almost immediately followed by bellows of laughter. And there you have the essence of Halloween Horror Nights.

Supported by the kinds of lighting, sound, decoration and set design that could only be done by a major motion picture studio, this is an event that can truly be called a kick-ass good time.

This is the twenty first edition of Horror Nights, and as with all years past, the event has a theme and an iconic hostess. The theme of “21” is spinning the wheel of fate. And joining past Horror Nights icons such as Jack the Clown, the Caretaker and Fear himself is none other than Lady Luck. And while there is no haunted house or show based on her antics, she can be seen in one of the scare zones and on video at the main entrance.

There are three main elements to Horror Nights: haunted houses, scare zones and shows.
The haunted houses are elaborately staged and decorated themed mazes built into various sound stages around the park. Scare zones, on the other hand, are themed areas on the streets and other outside areas throughout the park. Like the mazes, they are populated with a healthy (or should that be unhealthy?) amount of monsters, ghouls and all sorts of fiends, vampires and zombies. Unlike the mazes, the monsters don’t pop out of a hiding place to scare their unwary victims.  They are, rather, milling in the crowds with them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be attacked by a monster everywhere inside Universal. There are plenty of areas and sidewalks outside the scare zones that are absolutely monster free.

This, of course, is hardly true of the haunted houses. The houses are a panic. And they are the main draw of the event.

Horror Nights 21 features eight houses. Each is a unique, self contained show. One of them is based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Another is a walk-through version of the newest remake of the soon to be released film, The Thing. And still another is a parody - if you can believe it - of the old 60s kiddy show H.R. Puffinstuff.

One totally intriguing concept is the premise of a house called The Forsaken. It sounds pretty ominous: Within an abandoned Spanish fort, the mutinous undead crew of Columbus’ missing fourth ship has returned with a vengeance. And, when you think about it, the very concept is a nice but curious nod to October’s second, albeit mostly forgotten, holiday, Columbus Day.

Premise and good intentions aside, however, there is little inside The Forsaken that will make anyone think of Christopher Columbus or grab a history book seeking clues about an obvious attempt by the Spanish crown to cover up the loss of his fourth ship.  The experience is, rather, much more reminiscent of John Carpenter’s fairly forgettable 80’s horror flick The Fog, in which the leper crew of a wrecked ship returns a hundred years later to reek havoc on the townsmen that stole their gold and then send their ship into the rocks. The sailors of  The Forsaken are, in fact, dead ringers for the lepers from The Fog from the bandage-wrapped faces to the light-up glowing green eyes.

But whether from a forgettable film or a forgotten page in history, it’s needless to say that these hapless sailors will pop out from everywhere to say hello. Not that they’re actually glad to see you, of course.

The Forsaken sails a course that begins in a Spanish fort (which is, as Horror Night aficionados will note, the castle set from the 2009 Frankenstein maze) that leads onboard the doomed ship itself. Since there is a storm raging on deck, expect to be spritzed with water every now and then.  The full ship’s deck set is very cool - as is the water-spraying everywhere storm blowing over it. Also, be on the lookout for the best scare in the house. That happens in a long ship’s corridor on an elevated pathway set at an absurd angle, which makes it awfully hard to walk in a strait line, but really easy to slip into the waiting arms of a bunch of dead historical figures.

                Larry’s scare factor: Since the girl I escorted through this maze was only gripping my right arm,                 dodging occasionally and screaming in my right ear, I’ll rate the scare factor in this maze as intermediate.

Right beside the entrance to The Forsaken is the maze that’s destined to become this year’s show stopper. It’s called The In Between. This is - with apologies to Chris Angel - a total mind freak with inter-dimensional sets straight out of the Twilight Zone, different freaks and monsters for every freaky scene and  an upside down vortex tunnel.

And as if all this weren’t enough, this haunted house really is in another dimension. The In Between is the very first 3D maze in the 21-year history of Halloween Horror Nights.

The whole thing starts out in a college dorm room where its ominously absent students have been playing with a Ouija Board and other magic stuff and have managed to open a portal straight into another dimension. This is entered through the vortex tunnel, which is a huge spinning cylinder with a catwalk path leading through the center. The spinning cylinder has the effect of making guests feel exactly as if they are actually turning upside down. This is, of course, a Universal standard special effect, and it always shows up in one of the mazes every year. But in a pair of 3D glasses, is really looks, well, unworldly.

Of course, the portal leads to a whole plethora of other dimensions, each with its unique stock of pop up demons. These are everywhere and seem to come from nowhere, since, in 3D, nothing looks real to start with.

The best section of the house is what I like to call the cords and mirrors room. Thin ropes are stretched from ceiling to floor on both sides of the path through this area, criss-crossing into a sort of net. Behind these are rows of full length mirrors. The low lighting and the 3D effects give the nets an eerie, unreal quality. And it’s nearly impossible to tell the real demons in this area from their reflections, especially since their reflections blend so nicely with yours. You’ll probably spend a significant amount of time screaming in this area, and don’t be surprised if you don’t get snagged in the net for good measure.

                Larry’s Scare Factor: In this maze, the girl was gripping my right arm, using the left foot shuffle to do the hide behind so she was screaming in both ears. And by her own admission, she had her eyes closed during at least part of the house. So this house gets a high scare rating.

Now, if what you’re looking for goes beyond the elaborate sets of The Forsaken or the dazzling special effects of The In Between and into the realm of good old fashion horror defined by gobs of gore and gallons and gallons of blood, then you really need to hustle across the bridge to the Amity section of the park where, right next to the entrance to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, you’ll find a charming house called Saws and Steam.

Saws and Steam, Into the Machine is a veritable scream fest. Its premise is simple too. According to the guide map synopsis, Spinning blades and crushing pistons threaten your every step as you’re forced deeper into the bowels of a mechanical nightmare.

Basically this is a dark creepy factory right out of The Terminator or the original David Hedison horror flick, The Fly. In one passage there are steel walls on both sides covered with blood-stained circular saw blades. As you begin to walk through it, the whine of the saws start and the walls start to move in on you.

This, boys and girls, is not for the squeamish.

In another scene, a butcher is literally filleting the leg of some poor corpse neatly laid out inside a cage. In another, pneumatic pistons are crushing whole pieces of various body parts. And, of course, blood-stained ghoul-faced butchers are leaping out at you at every turn.

The scene that even got me was one in which this butcher was reaching out to everyone passing by in an attempt to drag us all onto a long conveyor belt leading into a blood soaked cylindrical grinder.

All I can say is that if you were a fan of either version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you’re going to love this maze. Who, after all, could forget those scenes in the kitchen where body’s hung on meat hooks while others were chilling inside top loading freezers? Well, toss a bucket of blood over it all and you’ll find this and a whole lot more down the horrifying paths through the factory of Saws and Steam.

                Larry’s Scare Factor: In this one the girl wasn’t just clinging for dear life onto my arm and doing the back peddle hide behind shuffle. She was so wrapped around me it was like wearing a loudly screaming girl suit. So the Girl Suit Scare Factor on this one is off the scale.

Now while the houses are the main event of Halloween Horror Nights, they aren’t the only places in the park for a Monster Mash. And that brings us to the Scare Zones.

As I mentioned before, scare zones are outside areas decorated to a particular theme and populated with appropriate monsters. While not contained or claustrophobic in any way as the mazes tend to be, sometimes, as was the case with Deadtropolis, the Zombie Siege in the Sweet 16 event back in ‘06, the zones can be even scarier.

There are six scare zones in various areas around the park this year. Aside from the scare zone called simply “7” (the seven deadly sins) most of this year’s scare zones are curiously short. They range from scenarios in which maze walls switch around to areas were acid rain is causing the buildings to collapse into rubble.

So let’s take a stroll through the scare zones and see - if you’ll pardon the pun - what pops up.

Let’s begin with Nightmaze down the alley around the corner from Shrek. Universal says, Journey through (this) ever-changing maze of darkness (and) you won’t be scared the same way twice. Sounds good. Unfortunately, in actuality, you won’t be scared at all.

This was one of the most eagerly anticipated scare zones since the idea behind it was essentially a good one. Large black partitions form a sort of maze which is, of course, dark, choked with your standard fog and inhabited by scareact0rs in black robes. When least expected, these faceless denizens of the dark move the partition walls around to create new and unexpected pathways - trapping their hapless victims in an ever-changing maze of terror.

Unfortunately the panels are so big, so unwieldy and so slow to be moved around that the whole procedure is anything but unexpected and far more annoying than scary. And as far as being trapped goes, forget it. All you have to do to escape that fate is to simply use the sidewalk.
                Larry’s Scare Factor: None
                Larry’s Waste of Time Factor: High

Over in the far corner of New York is, however, something absolutely amazing. It’s called the Acid Assault and its right at the base of The Thing haunted house. The story is that degrading from the effects of acid rain, those that have survived the blistering decay are all alone in the city.

The Scareactors roaming this small New York section look, well, melted, and they aren’t - in true scareactor fashion - particularly happy about it. But what they’re probably a great deal less happy about is the fact that practically no one will notice them. The real show isn’t the people surviving the blistering decay. It’s the buildings forming the perimeter of the zone that virtually steal the show. How? They seem to literally dissolve and crumble to dust before your very eyes.

No, the place isn’t really falling apart. But that’s precisely what it looks like. The startling effect is achieved by an amazing projection and light show in which a film of the buildings coming apart from the top down and falling into rubble on the ground is projected onto the actual buildings with remarkable results. Coupled with some startling sounds and the effect is almost unbelievable.

But it’s supposed to be a scare zone, not the demolition derby and the special effects, dazzling as they are, create a situation of more show than scare. So while everyone is busy watching the buildings fall apart, the monsters get left, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the dust. And that’s got to sting worse than the acid rain.
                Larry’s Scare Factor: Minimal

The new icon representing Horror Nights 21 is Lady Luck, and you’ll find her tossing the dice in both of her incarnations in a fog choked New York alley. The zone is called Your Luck has Run Out, and it makes fine use of a Horror Nights scare technique called distract and attack. Multiple well lighted Lady Luck characters occupy the many balconies, fire escapes and elevated loading docks along this short alleyway while an equal number of her twisted evil twins roam the foggy street below. So the effect is simple but startling when it works. While you’re busy watching the gorgeous girl on the balcony above, the hideous she-beast below pops out of nowhere to get you.

It’s all simple misdirection, of course, but as with most magic tricks, it nearly always works. The only thing that works against this area is the amount of fog used in the alley. Some fog is creepy. Too much of it hides everything. Nonetheless, while this is a short scare zone, it’s one not to miss.
                Larry’s Scare Factor: The girl refused to enter the area and waited outside, so that should tell you all you need to know.

Once you’ve crossed under the archway into the scare zone known only as 7 you’re in for a dichotomy of thrills. “7” stands for the seven deadly sins - you know, lust, gluttony, greed, jealousy and the lot - which are manifested in the form of masked women on seven individual stages placed under lights throughout this long scare zone area. At the beginning of the evening, the seven women are seen as beautiful seductresses in gowns. But they change throughout the night until, at the end, you see how ghastly sins can actually be.

But, like the crumbling buildings of Acid Rain or the Lady Luck beauties of Your Luck has Run Out, the stage presentations are the distraction. Here for your scaring pleasure are a plethora of their minions milling through the fog and darkness. This is an area where misdirection really works, especially when somebody pops a chainsaw in your face.

7 is the longest, largest and most effective - if not most interesting - scare zone in the event and even when it’s crowded, distract and attack cooks, making it the scariest scare zone as well.
                Larry’s Scare Factor: Yikes!

The last two scare zones sort of go arm in arm and not just because one ends along a short path leading toward the Hollywood area where the next begins. They’re both short, dark and foggy. They’re both inhabited by creatures. But these are what I like to call “wandering” zones, because in both cases, the creatures slowly wander through the area. They don’t hide. They don’t attack out of the darkness. They just wander like zombies that have just eaten. And that’s it.

The first of the two is called Grown Evil, and the ravens, bats and other creatures wandering around in it are actually stilt walkers. Stilt walkers are cool to watch. But they aren’t particularly scary unless one of them trips and falls on you.

The other area is called the Canyon of Dark Souls. The decorations - giant skull-faced grim reaper figures lining the sides of the path leering down from the darkness - are pretty spectacular. Their scareactor counterparts are, however, are barely even interesting. These scythe-bearing reapers look pretty good, but they don’t actually do anything. They just wander. In fact, they’re almost indifferent. The whole thing lacks - if once again you’ll pardon the pun - soul so you get very little boo for your bucks.
                Larry’s Waste of Time Factor: Very high

The final element of Halloween Horror Nights is the shows. Generally there are two of them, each presented several times throughout the evening. While one of these shows changes from year to year, the other is a Halloween Horror Nights tradition. It’s presented three times nightly on the main stage at the far end of the park, and it’s called Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure.

Now for those of you that might not remember Bill and Ted, they were the two moronic but lovable party dudes played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves who used a telephone booth time machine to pass a history test in the 1988 Universal comedy, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (For those of you who don’t remember what a telephone booth was, it was a small free-standing metal and glass booth big enough for a person to stand inside that housed a pay telephone. For those of you who don’t remember what a pay telephone was, it was a coin activated land line phone used to make calls outside the home in those dark days before cell phones. For those of you who don’t remember what coins are, they were small metal disks people used as money along with paper bills before the Internet and debit cards.) These two excellent dudes returned a couple of years later in a second film, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which was released right around the time Halloween Horror Nights began at Universal Florida. Ever since, Bill and Ted return to host the Halloween extravaganza that satirizes all the year’s entertainment or controversial news.

You never know who will show up at a Bill and Ted show, but the results are nearly always hilarious. In this year’s edition don’t be surprised to see the girls from Sucker Punch selling Girl Scout cookies, Osama Bin Laden running from nearly everyone or Kristie Alley eating whole planets. Also get ready for a rock and roll dance party extravaganza.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is always a good time, but probably not for younger audiences. A lot of the language is, well, harsh, and probably not suitable for younger ears.

There is one more important element to Halloween Horror Nights outside the three already discussed. And that is alcohol.

Drinks of all kinds - from beer and wine to mixed cocktails and plain old fashioned shots - are readily available throughout the park during the event. In fact, in some areas outside service bars are no further than a hundred yards apart. And if that doesn’t make it convenient enough to stop for a quick one, there are beer and shot stands in the middle of each of the haunted house queue lines as well. Add to this the army of vampire girls wandering through the park selling jello shots, and you’ve got a party that Bill and Ted themselves would really appreciate.

Do be warned, however, that the Orange County Sheriff’s and the Orlando Police have cars stationed at all the Universal Studios exits at closing time. So if you don’t have a designated driver in your group, imbibing too much probably isn’t that great of an idea unless you want to experience the ultimate horror maze, namely the darkened corridor that twists and turns until it ends in the drunk tank of your local police department. As Bill and Ted would say, “Bogus!”

So designate a driver, max out that credit card and party on.

And oh, yeah...have a safe and insane Halloween.

By Guest Blogger Larry Talbot

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