I was crazy excited to go to Halloween Horror Nights this year, not only because it means that the BEST TIME OF THE YEAR has arrived, but also because I missed last year's HHN thanks to one super bitchy ruptured appendix. (Yes, that's right - my appendix decided to burst halfway through October last year, and the subsequent two weeks that I was forced to spend recovering in bed put a serious damper on all of my 2010 Halloween plans.) I was particularly excited for this year because there are six mazes in addition to the Terror Tram - all of them new, apart from the Rob Zombie maze, which I obviously missed last time around. If your Halloween activity funds are limited and you have to choose between Universal's HHN (the hotshot upstart) and Knott's Scary Farm (the venerable haunt institution), it usually comes down to quality vs. quantity - do you prefer to have your pick of a dozen or more mazes at Knott's, or would you rather enjoy the crazy high quality of the makeup and sets at Universal? But with six mazes plus the tram and five scare zones, Universal is making a genuine effort to "up their game," as it were, even further.
In Part I of my coverage of HHN this year, I explored the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making each blood-spattered rotting corpse look just so. But we all know you really came here for one thing: To find out how everything looks in action. To that end, here are my thoughts on each maze, ranked in order from favorite to least favorite:
- La Llorona: Villa De Almas Perdidas: For some reason that I can't figure out (apart from the obvious link that he is a Mexican movie star and La Llorona is a legendary Mexican ghost story), Diego Luna served as the creative consultant on this maze. Well, I no longer care why or how he was recruited - all I know is that he did an awesome job and that this was my favorite maze of the night! La Llorona is a story more sad than scary, in which a lovestruck woman drowns her children to please a man and then is cast aside by him, but the maze manages to squeeze every last drop of terror out of the premise. From the candlelit adobe church facade to the lake where the children were drowned (and their lifeless bodies still float, face-down and motionless), this maze has both understated ghostly scares and classic funhouse "JUMP OUT ATCHA!" moments. Loved it, and hope there's a movie in the works!
- Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses: In 3D ZombieVision: While Knott's usually offers 2 or 3 3D mazes each year, this is the only one I've ever experienced at Universal. (By the way, THANK YOU, Universal, for offering 3D glasses free of charge! Loved not having to rummage around for that extra dollar. Seriously.) As always, I am a sucker for all things Rob Zombie, and therefore I totally enjoyed this walk through the twisted Technicolor world he created in his first directorial effort. The 3D was a nice touch, and the Captain Spaulding stand-in was particularly inspired. (But what was up with Otis's wig?!) This wasn't excruciatingly scary - although I did jump and scream during an encounter with Dr. Satan - but I loved every second of it.
- The Thing: Assimilation: I'm going to confess something: I'm not that familiar with The Thing. I love John Carpenter, but somehow I managed to avoid this movie until just over a month ago. I actually really dug it, even though it's basically Alien in Antarctica, but I'm no lifelong fan, so my opinion is pretty unbiased. And let me tell you, this maze rules! This was the longest line of the night for us by far, but I have to say it was worth it in the end. The frigid, snowy setting and the claustrophobic unpleasantness of being stuck in a room with a giant, bloodthirsty, shape-shifting alien make for a great maze, and the creature itself was huge and scary and constantly popping out where you'd least expect it. You may want to tackle this one toward the beginning of the night to avoid those outrageous lines later on.
- Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare: The second maze of the night (along with La Llorona) that's not, to my knowledge, based on a film. Instead, this one is "a terrifying trip through Alice Cooper's twisted mind." From what I can tell, Alice Cooper's fears include spiders, snakes, sexy nurses and his own face, because nearly every actor in this maze has been made up to look like Alice himself. The theme for this one wasn't as focused - basically, just nightmarish scenarios set to Alice Cooper's music - but it was still a lot of fun. Warning: You will probably get his songs stuck in your head after this. I've had "Welcome to My Nightmare" in mine for five days now. Gahhhh!
- The Wolfman: The Curse of Talbot Hall: I loved this maze, but I had to put it near the bottom of the list simply because it's the maze that takes place inside of Universal's year-round House of Horrors, and any HHN fan will tell you that they don't change the House of Horrors too drastically for the Halloween season. Basically, they take their standard House of Horrors, with its regular props and layout - which, don't get me wrong, is super fun and well-done and open all year round to boot - and integrate a character by throwing in a few more vampires or evil Chucky dolls (or, in this case, Wolfmans - Wolfmen?) than usual. Still, seriously, the House of Horrors rules and so does the Wolfman! It's always nice to include a nod to one of the classic Universal monsters at Halloween Horror Nights. Also, for this maze we had the incredible good fortune of being behind a very skittish boy in his early teens. If you ever get the chance to go through a maze with a 13-year-old male who screams like Ned Flanders, don't pass it up!
- Eli Roth's Hostel: Hunting Season: Sorry dudes - I skipped this one. It was a combination of very long lines, the fact that it was almost 1 AM and the fact that, you know...I just don't care for this sort of thing. At the makeup demonstration, John Murdy said that year after year, fans want their horror and their mazes to be "more and more extreme." I am not one of those fans, but if you are, I'm sure this maze will be right up your alley. [Fair Warning: Prepare to have a gun pointed in your face. My friend who did walk through the maze was quite disturbed by this, so I figured I would pass the word along.]
The "Scare Zones" this year were pretty straightforward: Scream (i.e., Ghostface Killers with knives), Freakz, Klownz (with chainsaws), Reapers (with chainsaws) and Zombieville. I loved Zombieville, which recreates a town overrun by - you guessed it - the undead, and Freakz, which has that "dark carnival" vibe that I dig so much, the most.
Overall, Universal's Halloween Horror Nights continues to reign supreme when it comes to seasonal scares in southern California. HHN has the best mazes, the best makeup and the most talented actors. When it comes to scaring the shit out of people, they're still the ones to beat.
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary passes to review this event.