Writing a review of Halloween Horror Nights is always a bit problematic. HHN is, without a doubt, the premeire Halloween-themed event in the country, perhaps the world, and as such has reached a level of quality that cannot be denied. The problem is, the people who create it know this too, and seem content to rest on their laurels rather than actually move the event forward. Oh, sure, they’ll TELL you that they are progressing…look no further than their 2010 slogan “A New Era of Fear Begins”. But is anything REALLY new happening? A new Icon, a new slogan, a new set of haunted houses. You’d think this would be enough to thrill. But are we really getting anything new, or are we just getting the same old stuff, tarted up with a new dress and lipstick, then trotted out and ballyhooed as “new and Improved”? Time to find out.
I’ll begin with what I feel to be the most important ingredient in the HHN mix: The haunted houses. These are the things upon which the quality of the event hangs. Many a lackluster year has been saved by good maze design, just as a few good years have been sabotaged by bad ones. (I’m looking at you, HHN 15.) The houses at HHN 20 were a mixed bag…when they were good they were very very good and when they were bad they were Hades. We were very lucky to be attending on a Wednesday night…our longest wait for a house was 45 minutes. Our first house was the HHN history house, “Hallow’d Past.” which we literally walked right into.
“Hallow’d Past” did indeed continue one notable HHN tradition, that of recycling old ideas under the guise of something new. I enjoyed this maze, but it mostly came off as a missed opportunity. The outside of the house was particularly disappointing, as it had no facade at all. The only things visible on the outside were the two pumpkinhead statues from HHN18 (I think) Gog and Magog. While I think these guys are impressive in their proper place, here standing in front of a huge expanse of undecorated warehouse wall, they looked sort of sad and small. “Hallow’d Past” was divided up into two sections, the opening one being more or less an actual warehouse of HHN memorabilia. There was lots of cool stuff in here, as well of lots of vintage posters and advertising material from HHN past. As a hardcore fan, I probably enjoyed this section more than a lot of people…indeed, I got rumblings from my friends that they were getting sort of bored with it. In the second part of the house, the past literally came to life, with selected scenes from past hit houses. There was a lot to like here, too, such as the “Alice cannibalizes the White Rabbit” scene from Scary Tales (III?) and the spine ripping scene from “Body Collectors”. I also spotted a steampunk Frankenstein’s Monster from my favorite house from last year, “Creation of the Damned”. All in all, it was a nice enough mix, however I felt the two-room callback of “Dead Exposure” was a bit much. True, it was a great house, but there are other mazes that deserved at least part of that space. Castle Vampyr, Demon Cantina, and Ghost Town come to mind, and those are just off the top of my head. In fact, there were a LOT of past mazes that deserved recognition here that simply didn’t get it. Somebody REALLY liked that strobing blacklight effect from Dead Exposure, I guess. I liked it too, but two rooms? The house had a good intensity, but I think that mainly came from the fact that all of the scareactors were bunched up in the back half of the maze. Honestly, I think my main problem with “Hallow’d Past” was it’s length…it just seemed to be getting good when wham, bam, thank you sir, it was over.
The verdict: Good for what it was, could have been better. SHOULD have been better. Final score 3.5…Two-and-a-half points for nostalgia factor and one point for intensity, minus a point-and-a-half for what could have been.
A quick juke to the right and a stroll through Barney the Dinosaur’s front yard and we arrived at our second maze, “The Catacombs”. Catacombs was this years money-saver, a minimalist maze utilizing very little in the way of sets and props. It was also much too dark inside to make out much of anything at all. However despite these flaws, Catacombs turned out to be one of my favorite mazes of the event. The basic conceit of this maze was a museum exhibit about the Paris Catacombs during the Black Plague that has become haunted by the spirits of those who perished during that time. Eventually guests are transported physically into the haunted Catacombs themselves. Universal does “dark cave” pretty well, and although I recognized several of the crypt and catacomb pieces from other events, they were well-used here. But the main reasons I enjoyed this maze were twofold: first was the costumes. These were very simple,not much more than a set of black rags, a wide-brimmed hat, and a plague doctor “Raven” mask, but there was something about them, the way they caught the (rather scant) light and cast shadows made them appear much more formidable than they actually were. When the actors spread their arms and leaped out, it actually appeared to me at points that a gaint black bird had swept past me. Whether that was intentional or not, it was quite an impressive effect. Add to this my second reason for enjoying this maze, the intensity of the cast. Catacombs was literally a scare a second, and the actors were pursuing those scares ferociously. This helped the maze immensely, and it is really what put it over the top for me. The maze also had a veneer of historical verisimilitude overlaid onto it that gave it an air of respectability, if not outright class. A minor, yet impressive effort, that just goes to show that size isn’t everything.
The verdict: A whopping 4 out of five points for intensity, scares, and just downright spookiness. Would have score higher if it had had a bit more variety. In fairness, my friends didn’t enjoy it half as much as me, but screw those guys let them write their own damn reviews. Yeah.
Straight out the back and a another quick right turn brought us to the much hyped “Havoc: Dogs of War”. By this time it had gotten full dark and the crowds were starting to get thicker. Still, the wait for Havoc was posted at a very acceptable 15 minutes, and as it turned out we didn’t even have to wait that long.
As I have said, I had heard a lot about Havoc, mostly about it’s intensity. I have to admit, it WAS rather intense. Havoc’s plot was even simpler than that of Catacombs: Government installation is breeding super-soldiers. Super soldiers go crazy. Super soldiers get loose and attack. Lather, rinse, repeat. Not the most original of plotlines to be sure, but more than enough for a good haunted maze. Havoc looked great, and ought to get some kind of award for fake bulkhead design. I daresay every single piece of futuristic-looking wall and doorway that rested in the A&D warehouse was utilized here, with many new pieces no doubt being created. Sound and lighting design was good, with many revolving lights, screaming alarms, flashing computer screens, and other science fiction-y signifiers of “EMERGENCY!” were pressed into service. The atmosphere of Havoc was very nearly unmatched, even by the much more elaborate soundstage houses. It felt great, nearly perfect, and there were tons of jump scares. It was just like a scene from one of those “Hey, the zombies/monsters/aliens are attacking my underground installation!” B-movies. But. And it’s a big but. Every scare was exactly the same, delivered by people who also looked more or less exactly the same. The escaped Dogs of War, or “DOWs” as they were referred to, were played by big, jock-y looking guys who were all required to shave their heads in order to take the roles. I believe a couple of them also shaved off their eyebrows as well. I realize that this was supposed to come off as intimidating, but the fact is when you start shaving all the hair off people they all start looking the same. It was as if I was being scared by the same guy again and again. Granted, the scares had intensity, but they all had more or less the SAME intensity. Every single scare that I can recall was a big bald guy slapping a wall or a locker door and screaming at me. Perhaps this is novel to some, but to me it was like a flashback to my High School gym class. It worked once, even twice, but by the end of the maze the effect became numbing. What’s in THIS room…oh yeah, a futuristic bulkhead and another angry bald guy. YAWN. And this went on room after room after room. I’m sure this had a greater effect upon the easily intimidated, but I’m afraid it left me a bit cold. The lack of variety really hurt what might otherwise have been a standout maze.
The verdict: 3.5 out of 5. Two points for great atmosphere, one point for intensity, but minus a whopping 2 for uninspired, repetitive scares…but what the hell, I added half a point for the bulkhead design. Those were some damn fine looking bulkheads.
It was full dark now, and we decided to take five for a ride on Men in Black: Alien Attack, one of my all-time favorite theme park attractions. Neither of my friends had seen it, so they were suitably impressed. My score: 398,405. Not bad considering I hadn’t ridden in over a year. I even nailed Frank the Pug! Cody managed to score well over 200,000…a wonder since he had never ridden before. The guy is a machine.
Then it was back into the fray. We were too late for the current showing of Bill and Ted, so we pressed onward into Amity and came upon our next maze, “The Orfanage”. I had been really looking forward to this one. As a hardcore HHN geek, I had been waiting for the character of “Cindy” to get her due, and this year she certainly did, and how. Not only did she have her own house, she was all over the streets as well. I might even go so far as to call her the unofficial icon of HHN XX…she certainly was more animated than the cool looking but ultimately personality-free “Fear” character. One strike against the Orfanage right off the bat was that it was crammed into the dreaded choke spot, the JAWS extended queue, not an auspicious spot for mazes. Not only does this location result in horrendously long queues, in the past it has been home to such well-intentioned misfires as “SAW: Game Over” and the much-reviled “Dungeon of Terror” and “Reflections of Fear”. Yet another strike was it’s blatant similarity to “The Skool”, to the point where it used many of the same props and more than a few of the same scareactors. (The short ones.) I am pleased to report that these caveats aside, the Orfanage managed to please…mostly. It delivered the scares right from the start, with none other than Cindy herself popping out and declaring “Nobody tells Cindy what to do!” The rest of the house bore this out…the recreation of Cindy’s fiery revenge in a burnt out orphanage was nearly perfect, right down to the charred wood smell. There were a number of interesting effects in here, including a floating “ghost” girl and the much vaunted “open flame” effect which was actually not in the house at all, but instead was realized with a flame bar placed outside a window. It was a nice try, but the even quality of the flames as they rose and fell more resembled a gas barbecue grill than a raging house fire. I also have to say that I’m a bit of a sucker for the whole “creepy children” thing, so I enjoyed it for the most part. A closing scare by Cindy (again) formed a nice bookend for the maze.
The verdict: 3.5 out of 5. Two points for great atmosphere, another point for Cindy herself. Minus two points for it’s short length and similarity to previous houses, but we gain half a point for the burning wood smell, which was scarily authentic.
Wow, this is getting long, isn’t it? And believe it or not, I’m trying to keep it short, so let’s break here and take it up next time when I detail the much more elaborate (but not necessarily better) soundstage houses, the scarezones, and finally I’ll go mano-a-demon with the dreaded Fear himself. Was he a living nightmare or just another rubber-covered stiltwalker? Come back next week to find out!