Welcome witches and warlocks,
I had the pleasure of attending Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood this year and figured I would offer up a few thoughts on the event for my fellow haunt enthusiasts. Just so everyone knows where I am coming from, I have only ever attended the Universal Studios Orlando version of this event, so I was eager to go to this event. That being said, I did only get to go through each house once, so my thoughts are limited to a one time view which may not account for any bad runs or improvements made over the course of the event. Like my other reviews, I will be putting the houses in the order that I saw them with some random thoughts on the various shows and scarezones I saw thrown in for good measure.
The Shining (House)
This was the first house I got to experience at the event and I walked out feeling, well, disappointed. My problem was the set design. To be honest, the sets they had were for the most part good to great, but there was a lot of dead space. More than once we found ourselves walking through a completely blacked out hallway going from one set to another, to the point where it became aggravatingly noticeable. I feel like they could have at least slapped some of The Overlook’s wallpaper up on those blank, black walls to make it seem as if we were still in the hotel rather than some formless void. Apart from the sets, the cast was doing their absolute best to get the scares, so I have to applaud their efforts. Even though there were not very many good hiding places, they kept trying and were effective. All in all, I really wanted to like this house, but empty black hallways and poorly designed hiding places for the cast puts this near the bottom of my list for the evening.
American Horror Story: Roanoke (House)
I will be honest; I was not expecting much from this house because I figured it would be mostly Pig Face. Man, did they nail this design. The sets were absolutely incredible with tons of unique hiding spots for the cast. At times, it felt as if the actors were coming from everywhere creating a constant sense of unease walking from room to room. What is more, they did not just stick to the safe Pig Face character, but brought in so many different faces from the season that I was impressed with how many characters they represented. All in all, this was the star of the evening with killer design, a great cast, and well placed hiding spots that kept the scares coming throughout our whole walk through.
Ash vs. Evil Dead (House)
Allow me to say, right from the top, that I know I missed at least two things in this house. There was a particular show scene and an actor placement that I could see happening in front or behind me, but never got a good look at myself. What I did see of this house was okay, but not great. Once again, I found myself face to face with a lot of black walls, though this time there were sheets hanging down that I had to push through or vines that I had to move aside. I realize that the sheets were supposed to represent us being outside the trailer park and the vines were for the forest, but there were so many of these things throughout the house that it became aggravating. What made this even more frustrating is that the blank areas were made all the more apparent by the incredible detail they used on the scenes they chose to represent. Apart from the set design, the cast was rocking and rolling to get their scares. Some of the hiding spots were well hidden, but quite a few either made the actor traverse too much space to be effective or were just hidden by a plain white sheet. All in all, black walls do not equal scary, but the cast was doing their best to strike fear into the guests.
Saw: The Games of Jigsaw (House)
This was one of my favorite facades of the event as it was simple, but perfectly set the stage for those who know the Saw franchise. Inside the building, the sets were a great representation of the movies with plenty of bloody traps along the path. The main problem was that, though the cast was doing a good job, the entire thing felt repetitive. Pretty much every room was a trap that was being used as a distraction so that a pig mask actor could jump out at us. While this was effective for the first few rooms, it became predictable after the fourth or fifth trap. What made this even sadder is that some of the hiding spots were rather good, but they became easy to spot once one realized that the actor in a trap was just a distraction. All in all, this sits squarely as a middle of the road house for me since the excellent set design and actors are hampered by the monotony of the source material.
Toxic Tunnel (Scarezone)
There are no real sets here, just the long tunnel that leads to the backlot being repurposed into a scarezone. In a way this makes the walk more entertaining, so it is effective at making the walk more interesting. The actors, costumes, and lighting are good, but it is basically just us acting as a herd of cattle as the cast members try to create scares. The lighting alone can be rather blinding making it easier for the actors to catch the guests off guard. All in all, this is certainly not going to be anyone’s favorite place to hang out, it is not designed that way, but it provides some fun on walks to and from the backlot.
Insidious: Beyond the Further (House)
Remember all those comments I made about sets being lacking not too long ago? Well, this is an example of a house where the sets are very lacking, but it works from a story standpoint. Those who have seen the movies in the Insidious franchise already know that the Further is an area mostly devoid of color or light with occasional rooms or areas that are full sets. This house puts us into the Further early on and leaves us there for the majority of the proceedings. As such, the black walls felt entirely appropriate and, better yet, were designed to disorient us or hide the various actors we encountered. While the story was impossible to decipher (to be fair, the movie it is based on has not been released yet) there were a lot of interesting visuals from both the new movie and some of the past films. All in all, this was a good house with solid scares that puts it in fourth place on my list.
The Titans of Terror Tram Hosted By Chucky (Tram Ride)
Being that this was my first ever Terror Tram, I have to say that this was mighty interesting. To be honest, Chucky’s involvement was minimal, but it was still a lot of fun having his sarcasm permeating his few brief scenes. When we stepped off the tram and were confronted by the crew of chainsaw wielding Chucky’s, I was impressed. The first part with the Camp Crystal Lake Hotel was fun with plenty of victims and Jasons running in and out of the hotel rooms. There were even a few bloody show scenes along the way. Now the second half with the Sawyer meat factory was kind of a bummer. This scene did not have a single ground level actor, just Leatherface and his family up above us a bit, swinging their weapons in our direction. Given how thick the crowds were during this portion, it was barely effective as we could see everything coming. These same crowds were actually used to an advantage in Freddy’s section as there were many different versions of Krueger walking through the crowds to get scares. If there was more room for the flocks of people this probably would have been a more effective zone, but the line was backed up thanks to the final scene. The finale of our Terror Tram walkthrough was a much more effective use of Leatherface and his family. This time, we are once again in the Sawyer family packing plant, but all of the characters are at ground level with us. There are even some victims in this section that serve as a nice distraction for the scare actors. As we got back on the tram we are treated to a little end piece with Chucky and a trailer for his new movie Cult of Chucky. All in all, it was very cool stepping off of the tram and getting to walk the backlot a bit, but I feel like the beginning and the ending had the best design for the actors to get their scares.
The Horrors of Blumhouse (House)
This stands as one of the better houses of the evening. While I might not think The Purge is at all scary, the cast was intense and able to catch me off guard. Transitioning indoors we are treated to a preview of sorts of the upcoming movie Happy Death Day which was fun. The set design on these scenes was consistently good and the actors were pretty decent to boot. The highlight of this house, though, was the Sinister section. The sets during this portion were incredibly well realized and creepy. Especially good were the cast members who were not supposed to be scary as they were good at creating ambiance by staring down the guests. I will admit that this portion of the house was the greatest offender when it came to the black walls problem, but there were constantly actors populating these darkened sections so that they did not feel empty. All in all, this was a solid house with a great cast and some inventive scares along the way making it my second favorite of the night.
Titans of Terror (House)
Given that we had already seen Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface on the Terror Tram, I was not expecting much from this house. Then I saw the brilliant façade and the clever framing device they used to set up the proceedings. The Krueger and Leatherface portions had scares coming out of absolutely every corner, which did their source material proud. To be honest, though, I missed a lot of the actors in the Jason portion of the maze, but the set design and smells were so good that it still made me feel as if I had stepped into Camp Crystal Lake. The other issue I had with this house is that the Leatherface scenes were almost exactly identical to some of what we saw on the Terror Tram, so the repetition was a bit aggravating. All in all, this was still a solid house that had my favorite framing device of the evening giving it the number three spot on my list.
The Walking Dead (House)
This is the exact same attraction that they have during the day, but with a few extra actors added to increase the fear factor. Honestly, the sets and effects are phenomenal because it is a year round attraction so they were built to be permanent fixtures. As far as the scares themselves go, we honestly did not get more than one, so it felt lacking in that respect. All in all, it was not that much different by night than by day so this is an easy one to skip for those who have seen the daytime version.
The Jabbawockeez show is incredibly entertaining. Their dance moves are solid, the humor works, and the vibe is just fun. Fans of the group will love this production as it really shows off their skills. My only problem with this is that I wish it were actually themed around Halloween in some fashion. All in all, do not expect any references to the Halloween season, but this is still a fun show that is worth seeing.
This scarezone was mighty impressive. The costumes were very distinctive, the actors were on point, and there was plenty of space for chasing or moving around. The trick or treat turned dark not only worked really well with the cityscape, but it also served as a great first thing for people to see as they entered a Halloween themed event. This also gets bonus points for being where they enact the closing scareamonies every night. All in all, I enjoyed my brief walks through this zone and would love to spend more time here in the future as it truly captures the Halloween spirit.
All in all, this event is hampered by inconsistent set design, but still has some great things in its favor. The sets they did build were usually quite impressive and most of the casts I saw were utilizing the space as best as they possibly could to get a scare so we still had a lot of fun. Going forward I would love to see them step up their game on the sets and find some more clever spots for the scare actors so that they can do what they do best.
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