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That’s right boys and girls. It’s time again for the World Series of fears, for another round of screams and laughter built around a handful of haunted houses, roving monsters, eerie music, scary lighting, tons of fog and bars every hundred yards or so selling drinks so expensive that they come with a mortgage.
In short, Halloween Horror Nights is back.
Don’t expect a home run from the 22nd incarnation of Universal’s seasonal candy corn, though. This year’s event features no central theme, no icon character, no discernable scare zones and, apparently, no real attempt at organization at all. In short, the event is kind of a mess. A friend of mine mentioned that he thought the idea behind the disorganization had to have something to do with all of the massive construction going on throughout the park. “While all the work was going on,” he said in a positive and somewhat forgiving tone, “they unearthed a lot of non-specific creatures that just roam everywhere, not in some specific confined area.”
Which, when you think about it, is a lot like saying “Uh, oh, company’s coming but we have other things to do and not a lot of time for preparation. So let’s just throw something together and hope nobody notices”
And that’s pretty much what Horror Nights 22 looks like.
That’s why there’s decorations on the streets but none with defining characters reacting around them. What monsters there are on the streets don’t stay in one place, they just seem to roam around. It’s an odd assortment too. There are ninja kind of warriors, sort of, with massive amounts of tattoos and some sort of spear sword. No idea what they’re supposed to be, although they do sort of look like something out of some video game or other. Then there are guys with big pumpkin heads left over from one of the scare zones last year, stilt monsters in black robes with skull faces on both sides of their head and black wings and zombies that stumble around the exit to the Walking Dead maze. These guys at least stay in one place most of the time, although the area was so dark it was hard to tell them from the stumbling guests that had been making multiple visits to one or more of the bar kiosks where it seemed to be the Happy Hour of the Living Dead. I know because I heard someone order a stiff one.
One thing that has become a tradition on the streets of Halloween Horror Nights are the riotous ruffians wielding roaring chainsaws throughout an unsuspecting crowd. Horror Nights 22 is no exception. The chainsaw maniacs are once again in the house. There is one slight change, however. All the chainsaw maniacs this year are chicks. That’s right, the big scary dudes in leather and tattered clothing have all been replaced by really angry women in orange prison jump suits.
Talk about PMS.
The tattooed warrior video game type guys aren’t scary, especially if you have a healing spell somewhere; the pumpkin-headed guys look as left over as they actually are; stilt monsters aren’t frightening in the least unless you’re simply scared of one falling over on you; the zombies are good except for the fact that you can‘t see them; and the chainsaw chicks are just plain silly.
Since these scare actors aren’t part of any particular zone and sort of move around in a group, there is a good chance that you won’t see any of them at all.
So here’s Larry’s scare factor for the Universal streets: Zero.
Of course, the majority of the scares at any Halloween Horror Nights comes from the numerous haunted house mazes scattered throughout the park. For the past few years there have always been eight houses. But since the former Amity/Jaws area (which last year hosted the absolutely terrifying Saws and Steam house) is mostly bare dirt behind construction walls, there’s no place to put another maze so this year there are seven.
This might seem like kind of a gyp since the price of admission doesn’t reflect the somewhat diminished aspects of the overall show. In fact, it may seem like one less maze means one less place to get scared. But take heart. The length of the lines will scare you to death. Working in tandem with the lack of scare zones, one less house results in one absolute terrifying nightmare of a wait in the rest of the house queues, to say nothing of the lines for the two shows.
I’m thinking, in fact, that the catch phrase in all the Horror Nights ads, “Once you’re inside, there is no way out,” refers to the queue lines.
And if that aspect isn’t scary, I don’t know what is.
Fortunately, the event planners have placed kiosk bars in all the queues near the entrance followed by lines of port-a-potties at the end. This way you won’t have to face a two-hour wait without the benefit of a stiff one, and since you’ll be doing the back and forth zombie shuffle inside the ropes for so very long, you’ll be able to get rid of that drink before actually entering the house. Of course, by then you probably will have forgotten the name of the house you were waiting for. But at least you will have had time to get to know your date better.
Since there is no theme to Horror Nights this year, the house topics are fairly random, ranging from classic movies and cable television shows to aging Vegas acts and even older rock stars. The seven houses are, moving clockwise around the park, Universal’s House of Horrors, Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare, Penn and Teller’s New Las Vegas, AMC’s The Walking Dead, Dead End, Gothic and Silent Hill.
Since time is a premium, and I figure you’ll just have enough of it for a single show and a visit to maybe three of the houses, let’s rate them from worst to best, excluding Silent Hill since it’s based on a video game and we decided up front that it was probably a waste of time.
Actually, we should have made that determination about the year’s worst house - which, oddly enough, also had the longest wait - Penn and Teller’s New Las Vegas. Last year Horror Nights featured it’s first 3D maze based on a storyline of a group of teenagers who inadvertently opened a portal into an alternate universe. It was not only good, but it was considered by nearly everyone to be the hit of the show. This year, the maze named after aging but notable Vegas comedy magicians Penn and Teller has the honor of featuring the 3D effects that so wowed the crowd a year ago. Unfortunately, aside from the three-breasted showgirl, the effects are totally impotent in this limp, mindless, forgettable waste of time. There are characters inside, although none of them are monsters, or for that matter, particularly scary. In fact, the scariest character in New Vegas is the animated puking prop at the entrance.
Larry’s scare factor: zero.
Next up is Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare. I was actually looking forward to this one since it was said to be one of the all time favorite mazes at Universal Studios Hollywood’s version of Halloween Horror Nights. It‘s based on aging rock star Alice Cooper’s popular mid-1970s album. The best part of this maze is the Alice Cooper soundtrack. Unfortunately, you do need to be a lot older than the average age of most Horror Nights enthusiasts to remember many of the tunes. But it doesn’t take a fan to realize the topic is insanity since you find yourself wandering through an insane asylum. The overall look is quite good. Of course it isn’t any different than any of the other asylums-based mazes featured at nearly all of the other 21 Horror Nights shows. And while there are plenty of hanging rubber corpses throughout the maze, the characters behind them aren’t particularly frightening. They’re crazy, demented even, but not really scary. The scariest character in the whole maze is, in fact, a grizzled looking Alice Cooper in a Mad Hatter-size hat leering down at guests from a balcony in the final scene. It’s actually kind of sad. Looks like school’s out forever.
Larry’s scare factor: zero.
At least Universal’s House of Horrors isn‘t sad and pathetic. This beautifully designed and lighted house pays homage to the most venerable of Universal Studios long line of movie monsters. Found along the twisting corridors are none other than The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. There are many awesome aspects to this house, not the least of which is a four foot high narrow corridor into a pyramid that you have to practically crawl through before the mummy(s) jump you. The theming is wonderful. The decorations rock. The lighting is as good as it gets and the characters are classics. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single scare in the whole maze since the characters are about as scary as the rotating figures on top of the Monsters Café sign in
Unfortunately, Larry’s scare factor: zero.
You’re probably saying to yourself, “Wait a minute! That’s half the houses! Isn’t there anything scary at Horror Nights this year?” Well, once again, take heart, because we’re about to enter the high scare area with AMC’s The Walking Dead. This house is, of course, based on the cable television show which is in turn based on a series of wonderful black and white graphic novels of the same name. The house begins in the same place as the series, namely at the front door of a hospital where the recent dead - those that haven’t decided to sit up and take a stroll, anyway - are wrapped in sheets and piled in heaps. From there it’s a tour through the zombie apocalypse. The winding pathways take you through hospitals, department stores and even back yards that are devoid of folks but brimming with zombies. They jump at you from windows and through the broken boards of fences. The sets are creepy and so is the light. The scare actors stay in character and the make up is awesome. The only thing that surprised me is the fact that AMC’s The Walking Dead is a house. I really expected it to be a scare zone like the one featured at Horror Nights 16 called Deadtropolis where the whole
Nonetheless, Larry’s scare factor: seven.
Next up, and even scarier, is a house based on a good old fashioned haunting called Dead End. It’s a tour through a house filled with broken toys and dusty furniture and a dazzling assortment of ghosts and special effects. Some of the scares in this house are the oldest in the book, like one scene where there’s a couple of benches filled with seated mannequins. Only one isn’t, and she’s the one that pops up and scares you to death. This is old school Horror Nights, but it really works. Then there are faces appearing in sheets, transparent ghosts in window glass that suddenly jump at you out of doors. It’s a classic and very scary ghost story.
Larry’s scare factor: nine.
And here, finally, is the best of show, the maze to give you nightmares, the one, the only, Gothic.
This is the story of a cathedral under renovation. Unfortunately, the demons and ghosts that have taken residence inside aren’t happy about it and decide to strike back. Expect one creepy set after another. Expect the statues to come alive. Expect to see stone demons flying over your head. And a cross isn’t going to help you in here, because you’re already in a church. This is the only house or outside area where I’ve ever known a stilt walker to be scary. I’m not telling where he is. But he looks like a statue. And you’ll come out of your shoes when he comes alive. We were following a couple of teenage girls who screamed themselves hoarse in this house, and for very good reason. This is the kind of house filled with the kind of scares Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights built its reputation around. It’s definitely not to be missed.
Larry’s scare factor: a solid ten.
There are also two shows featured this year at Horror Nights, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure in the Universal amphitheater at the rear of the park and Twenty-Penny Circus; Fully Exposed in the Beetlejuice Theater at the edge of the
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is a traditional, yearly parody of all the news and entertainment events of the previous year. It’s always a musical romp and a rousing good time. Unfortunately, despite the size of the amphitheater, it won’t be a walk on this year. Expect a one to two hour wait. And yes, there is a bar nearby the wait area. And a restroom too.
Halloween Horror Nights begins tonight, Friday, September 21 and runs on selected nights through October 31. Prices for admission vary, and certain discounts are available. Express passes that help avoid most of the wait times are also available for at an additional cost. Horror Nights is considered an adult event that is inappropriate for children under ten. Costumes are not allowed.
By Guest Blogger Larry Talbot