Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Universal's Halloween Horror Nights 2009

Oh, Knott's...you know I love you. You'll always hold a special place in my heart - you were my first, after all. But when it comes to southern California amusement-parks-turned-haunted-attractions, you've got some serious competition from Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights.

Admittedly, I'm a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to HHN. Apart from one lone year of attendance some 15+ years ago, which I remembered as vaguely disappointing, last year was my first HHN experience, and to say that I was blown away would be an understatement. First of all, when compared to other haunts in the area, Universal is absolutely terrifying. Granted, they have fewer mazes than Knott's - only 4, plus the amazing Terror Tram (and 6 scare zones) - but what they lack in quantity they more than make up in quality.

What is it about Universal's take on the Halloween season that makes it stand out from the crowd? Part of it is the setting: The Psycho house, the Bates Motel, a plane crash set from War of the Worlds and the park's House of Horrors attraction are all used to maximum effect. Part of it is the attention to detail; the mazes here are immersive and all-encompassing, tantalizing (and terrifying) every sense. Part of it is the caliber of actors they hire at the park. Is it because these "scareactors" are Hollywood hopefuls or simply because Universal has higher standards? Either way, every last chainsaw-wielding maniac in the park seems admirably committed to staying in character. And, finally, part of it is the fact that Universal has the luxury of creating mazes that evoke specific horror movies, which gives the proceedings a unique thrill. I don't know about you, but seeing Norman Bates and Michael Myers in the flesh is a little bit like a celebrity sighting for me. I practically want to ask for their autographs.

Here are my detailed reviews of the mazes, ranked in order from best to worst, according to my personal preference:
  1. Terror Tram: Live or Die! Last year, the Terror Tram was loosely Freddy Krueger-themed; this year, the host/primary antagonist is "Billy, Jigsaw's messenger of doom from the Saw horror film franchise." [Full disclosure: Despite the fact that I absolutely love horror, I can't stand the Saw movies - I find them completely uninteresting.] Obviously, last year's Terror Tram was better. That being said, holy @#$!, the Terror Tram is awesome! This is the best maze/haunted ride I've experienced to date, bar none. Lots of scares, a creative use of the Universal backlot's natural terrain, and yes, the opportunity to see the Bates Motel and the Psycho house up close and personal. It warms the cockles of my heart - until I run away screaming, of course. Oh, and it lasts a good 15-20 minutes. Honestly, if this were the only attraction that Halloween Horror Nights offered, I would still want to go.
  2. Halloween: The Life and Crimes of Michael Myers: OMG OMG A HALLOWEEN MAZE!! My anticipation level for this maze was off the charts. As I remarked to my boyfriend in line, "I'm so happy right now. How often do you get to see your favorite movie of all time in maze form?!" The maze begins when you cross the threshold of the Myers house, but the fun begins before that: Michael's murder of his sister plays out in silhouette on one of the home's upstairs windows. Once inside, you feel instantly transported to 1978 Midwestern suburbia. (Is that The Thing I spy playing on the television?! That is, of course, the movie playing on TV on Halloween night in the original film.) You wind your way past little Michael standing over the body of his sister, Michael's bedroom door (plastered with photos of clowns and "KEEP OUT" scratched into the woodwork in a nod to Rob Zombie's reimagined version), a creepy kitchen, etc. There is a very convincing Dr. Loomis warning you not to enter Smith's Grove, the asylum from which Michael escapes. You'll see Lynda strangled by ghost Michael, wearing Bob's glasses. They even remembered Halloween III: Season of the Witch, also known as "the Halloween without Michael Myers." Brilliant! If you're a fan of the series, this maze is a must. You won't be disappointed.
  3. Chucky's Funhouse: Okay, I feel the need to clarify something here: I'm not a fan of Chucky or the Child's Play movies - but especially Chucky. Last year, his role at HHN was to hurl insults at the crowd very, very loudly; this year, he gets his own maze. Luckily for him, it's housed inside of the House of Horrors, a year-round attraction that Universal jazzes up for the holiday. (Last year it paid tribute to classic monsters, which is far preferable...but I digress!) The House of Horrors is inherently spooky and an effective setting for a maze. Thus, Chucky's Funhouse scared me silly. Fortunately, like the Saw-themed Terror Tram, you can certainly enjoy this maze even if you don't enjoy its namesake. Watch out for the line, though - that's where Chucky gets his big opportunity to, you know...hurl insults at the crowd very, very loudly. Ha ha?
  4. My Bloody Valentine: Be Mine 4 Ever: Despite the cheesy name, this is a very cool maze. The movie on which it's based is a fun but forgettable little trifle, but the mine setting really works. Watch out for that pickaxe!
  5. Saw: Game Over: I've already made my feelings about Saw abundantly clear, so it should come as no surprise that the Saw maze (not the same as the Terror Tram, mind you!) was my least favorite of the night. Still, it was a lot more fun than watching one of the 4,527 Saw movies - but when set against the other mazes, this one pales in comparison. Oh, and the whole thing smells terrible. Yes, I know it's intentional, but ugh!
In addition to the mazes, there are a few really cool scare zones. My favorites were "Freakz," featuring demented carnival escapees including one spectacular stilt performer, and a positively inspired tribute to Shaun of the Dead, which has a real-life Shaun brandishing a cricket bat and leading Zombie Ed around on a kiddie harness. Brilliant!

If you only visit one Halloween theme park attraction this year, make it Halloween Horror Nights. It is truly as close to actually being in a scary movie as one could hope to get - and I, for one, can't wait to see which horror movies they'll bring to life next year.

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