Friday night I attended Halloween Horror NIghts 2013 at Universal Studios Hollywood and it turned out to be a great night of haunt mazes, quick scares and relatively short lines. What follows is more a recap of my night at this huge annual Halloween event than some strict media website review, though I’ll add my own commentary and try to keep it spoiler-free for those of you who haven’t seen it yet. Squeamish readers should expect to see some gruesome horror imagery in a few photos, so turn back now if you don’t want to subject yourself to some realistically simulated horror violence and subject matter.
If you want an all-encompassing review quote, here you go: Universal Studios Hollywood’s creative director John Murdy and art director Chris Williams have built another impressive walk-through realm of horrors, turning big screen and legendary tales of terror into living nightmares you experience in sights, sounds, smells and screams that envelop you. Murdy, Williams and their Halloween Horror Nights-making team have built a string of impressive haunt mazes this year based on top shelf films and TV series, with THE WALKING DEAD as the flesh-chewing star of 2013’s lineup running rampant across Universal’s historic theme park and backlot streets.
This second Friday in HHN’s event calendar opened with a light turnout since the date sits between the crush of opening night a week before and the official start of Halloween season in October, so maze lines were quite short after the ‘rope drop’ opening in THE PURGE scare zone. I began my HHN tour taking the Starway escalators down to the Lower Lot to hit the first two new mazes for 2013, THE WALKING DEAD: NO SAFE HAVEN and BLACK SABBATH 13:3D. In a new wrinkle, you board trams at the East end of the Lower Lot to be driven out onto Universal’s backlot where these two mazes occupy the film-ready city street facades. These streets proved an ideal setting for THE WALKING DEAD: DEAD ON ARRIVAL scare zone as you exit the tram and enter a swarm of Walkers amid a scene of urban chaos. Shadow plays of zombie infestation and killings flicker in the apartment building windows as you pass by an army tank crew that has clearly lost the war against the walking dead.
As zombies lurch out of the fog to terrify you, eventually you find the West Georgia Correctional Facility, the dilapidated prison compound that became the survivors base camp in Season 3 of THE WALKING DEAD. Navigate your way through a labyrinth of chain link fences that (barely) separate you from more ravenous Walkers and you’re inside the prison. I’ll preserve the surprises found within, but fans of the TV series will appreciate how well Murdy and crew have replicated the sense of scale and doom of this prison environment that contains memorable moments of horror and dread from the show. Kudos to Larry Bones and his Bone Yard Effects team for their superb recreations of the walker makeups and props, with direct support from THE WALKING DEAD’s own producer/makeup master Greg Nicotero once again. Those who escape the prison’s zombie hordes will find little sanctuary in the town of Woodbury, where the Governor has been up to his deadly tricks of course. THE WALKING DEAD: NO SAFE HAVEN is a very ambitious haunt maze even by HHN standards, and a very successful adaptation of the hit show about to enter its fourth season on AMC. The luxury of a large, open-air WALKING DEAD scare zone transitioning into this atmospheric maze makes this a standout star of HHN’s haunt lineup for 2013 and a must-see attraction at the Hollywood studio’s Halloween event.
Another stretch of the legs on the historic backlot leads you to BLACK SABBATH 13:3D, celebrating the legendary British metal band’s 19th album released earlier this year. This is Universal’s only 3D maze in its 2013 roster and it’s well designed in its use of vivid ultraviolet-reactive paint scheme as a hellish, psychedelic trip through Black Sabbath’s new and classic songs. While some haunt fans lodge a recurring complaint that such 3D mazes aren’t dark enough to be truly scary, I think the disorienting 3D designs and colors simply create an entirely different type of maze experience that suits the music-driven themes of the attraction. If I had a complaint about BLACK SABBATH 13:3D overall, it’s that the very loud sound effects track seemed to aurally drown out the band’s music which is supposedly the point of licensing Ozzy’s gang for an HHN maze. I know Murdy can put the music front-and-center successfully since he does just that with the dub step score in UNIVERSAL MONSTERS REMIX across the lot. Here I could pick out pieces of Black Sabbath songs, but I felt their music should be an immersive, overwhelming guide throughout the maze more like a concert experience than incidental music playing in the background of scenes. The songs simply got lost in the mix of thumps, screams and other sound effects to stand out as the star of this music-inspired maze. All the requisite pieces are there, but a finer balance needs to be struck to exploit Black Sabbath music’s potential here.
The Lower Lot hosts two more all-new HHN 2013 mazes, INSIDIOUS: INTO THE FURTHER and EVIL DEAD: BOOK OF THE DEAD. Both are faithful, talented adaptations of hit horror film properties into walk-through haunt mazes, filled with iconic callbacks to the movies that fans will appreciate even if they signal you know what may be ahead lurking to terrify you. In a way, the EVIL DEAD maze may prove slightly more successful in that it conjures up very specific, famous scenes from the 2012 film that stand out in one’s memory as particularly gruesome, frightening or plain creepy. EVIL DEAD: BOOK OF THE DEAD is also the more aggressive of the two mazes in scare designs that gives it a stronger in-your-face presence walking through this doomed cabin. I liked INSIDIOUS: INTO THE FURTHER as well, but even its best scares (numbering quite a few) are simply less gut-wrenchingly horrific just as in the suspense-shock laden film franchise that inspired this attraction. I quite enjoyed the 270° path through the seance scene, but found my tour through the hazy limbo of The Further to be oddly fog-free in my particular visit. I know others have experienced this scene as intended, but apparently the fog machine was being filled when I got into the scene. Such technical issues happen in haunts, as I well know having helped build them for over 20 years, so I give the benefit of the doubt to Murdy that his foggy interpretation of The Further works 95% of the time and I just happened to hit one of those off-moments.
The final two mazes offered in 2013 were the most experimental in design and intent, EL CUCUY: THE BOOGEYMAN and UNIVERSAL MONSTERS REMIX: RESURRECTION. I was won over by Murdy’s similar Latino legend maze that debuted in 2011, LA LLORONA, so I was curious to see how this new concept of nightmarish lore would introduce EL CUCUY. Veteran character actor Danny Trejo‘s imposing voiceover narration was a nice touch, though it became hard to follow walking from scene to scene — granted, a tough task to accomplish given guests walk through mazes at different paces and my late night visit made for a quicker than usual tour through the maze. I liked the opening movie theater scene as an imaginative start, but felt the overall design afterwards was a little too generic in detail until we entered El Cucuy’s lair. As noted, I can’t tell if it was the late night hour or not, but the monster talent in this maze seemed to lack full-bore scare energy as well: the masked Boogeymen appeared content to lean out of their hides rather than pop out to shock and surprise, and little effort was made to go for secondary scares in-character after an initial jump out to visitors. I’m sorry to give EL CUCUY the lowest “marks” out of HHN’s 2013 mazes but it clearly had the most room for improvement in execution and personnel for the night — though I encourage Murdy and maze managers to inspire this crew to step up their game and make the most of what can clearly work better than it did on my particular maze visit.
On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by UNIVERSAL MONSTERS REMIX: RESURRECTION. Due to my work completing ELI ROTH’S GORETORIUM in Vegas and some family obligations last Halloween season, I didn’t get to Halloween Horror Nights in 2012 and missed the debut of REMIX. I’d heard from a couple friends they weren’t impressed much with the blend of classic Universal monsters and a dance party dub step soundtrack, but never got to decide for myself. I was glad to read this summer than REMIX was returning so I could sample it first hand, and found the unlikely blend of these two concepts oddly successful. Refitting USH’s daily operating House of Horrors attraction for HHN is always a challenge for Murdy, but the REMIX theme definitely takes the “curse” off this year-round venue. Confining the HOH space to one theme in years past, such as THE WOLFMAN maze, simply never seemed to work since the attraction contains too many different horror film themes as built. By literally, deliberately mixing all of Universal’s classic horror monster characters in this rather freeform dance music genre as some pseudo-Transylvanian frightclub actually works quite cleverly. I didn’t find the music overbearing at all, though the dub step genre can pound your ears into submission when volume-abused, and the conceptual transformation of the classic monsters into their club-going alternate selves in some scenes also fit this maze’s mission. Perhaps the best surprise of all was the amount of very solid scares generated in the maze, a trait for which this venue hasn’t gotten high marks in several years before REMIX. I don’t know if the music served as a very devious element to distract you from surprise scares or if the REMIX cast were simply doing their jobs very well — maybe both statements are true — but the damned thing worked and worked well! I applaud Murdy and Williams for even dreaming up this hard-sell haunt maze concept last year, and I’m glad their initial success was rewarded with a REMIX: RESURRECTION in 2013.
I can only offer a partial reaction to the rest of Universal’s offerings for Halloween Horror Nights 2013, as some long line waits for INSIDIOUS and EVIL DEAD mazes prevented me from taking the TERROR TRAM to encounter the rest of the backlot attraction redressings of the Bates Motel/Psycho House and War of the Worlds crash scene. I did catch a late showing of BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT HALLOWEEN ADVENTURE stage show, which was its usual blend of semi-raunchy comedy, hot dancer bodies and musical satire. Kudos to the talented cast and crew that run this show, but I didn’t find the overriding Oz theme particularly effective as the basis of this year’s live show, and its reference back to Disney’s feature from February seemed both dated and not very inspirational in pop culture fodder.
Overall, I was very satisfied with USH’s Halloween Horror Nights 2013 and congratulate Murdy, Williams et al on their continued string of haunt triumphs. I’d read this summer than some HHN regulars were critical of THE WALKING DEAD’s return as somehow “played out” in our current zombie-filled pop culture consciousness, but found the IP put to great use at HHN this year, taking the franchise to a bigger, more robust exploitation of this horror genre hit as only Universal can achieve on its backlot. While I count one reluctant “miss” in the otherwise strong lineup of haunt mazes, none of the themes were unworthy of HHN’s reputation or high standards of design, and all had their good scare moments even if some mazes had an abundance compared to others.
To all haunt and Halloween fans in the Southern California area or elsewhere if you’re willing to travel, I highly recommend visiting Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights event this season with this caveat: to get your full scares-worth of entertainment (and ticket price) value, strongly consider upgrading to the Front of Line pass if it fits your budget. You will literally save hours waiting in maze lines over the entire night and enjoy the overall HHN experience much better. Crowds are always an issue to contend with at HHN given Universal’s comparatively small footprint on the hill, and while I caught the event on a “slow” night on the calendar, going into October the rest of you may not be so lucky. Note: on the night I attended, Universal offered an early admission to HHN beginning at 6:30 and limited to the Lower Lot haunt attractions only. Should you get the same opportunity, by all means take them up on it and go visit THE WALKING DEAD and BLACK SABBATH mazes early — hell, you can even take a spin on the TRANSFORMERS ride while ahead of schedule! If you can’t manage the price of the Front of Line pass, such an early admission strategy will help you see the most haunt for your buck at Halloween Horror Nights.
Either way, go head up the hill and get your scare on at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights in 2013 — it’s an elite SoCal haunt event not to be missed.