[Haunt Review] Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood 2023

It’s not officially haunt season until Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights in Hollywood opens, and dear readers, it is now officially open! Chockablock full of new mazes, shows, and a new twist on the Terror Tram, there’s plenty for attendees to tackle whilst attending the bonafide haunt fave. Thankfully, opening night was a lot less hot than it was last year, making it a far more enjoyable experience for scare actors and attendees alike.

Featuring a decent array of familiar horror IP in the forms of Chucky, the incredibly popular Evil Dead Rise, and the hit Max series, “The Last of Us,” as well as some original new mazes, expectations were all over the place, but we did have a blast. None of this could have been made possible without the writers on strike. Without them, we would not have the iconic horror films used as inspiration for these mazes. We stand with the strikers in having their demands met.

With that said, for this review, I am breaking down each maze by the order in which we went through them rather than best to worst.

Halloween Horror Nights 2023 Mazes

[Haunt Review] Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood 2023
Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
The Last of Us

As one of the most anticipated mazes at Halloween Horror Nights 2023, The Last of Us maze did not disappoint. Guests take in a scene between Joel and Ellie before plunging into an overgrown Pittsburgh. Making our way through the cursed city, we encounter the infected along the way. In the process, we watch Joel and Ellie try to navigate each new obstacle thrown at them. One of the most fun parts of the maze was seeing how the infected evolved. From runners to the much-feared clickers and ending with appearances from the bloaters, seeing the detailed work done on the more advanced stages of the infected coupled with audio cues made sure to remind all how fricking terrifying the infection is in The Last of Us. With a satisfying ending, The Last of Us maze will sure to be a fave for many.

Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
Stranger Things 4

Based on the fourth season of “Stranger Things,” Stranger Things 4 transports us into Hawkins, Indiana to come face to face with Vecna. Opening up to the memorable Chrissy sequence, we’re taken through a journey of pivotal scenes and moments from the latest season, with plenty of Vecna pop-ups to startle unsuspecting victims. Where this particular maze struggles is in how long the audio lasts before the scares reset, particularly in the first half of the maze. Regardless of the conga lines that easily occur at Halloween Horror Nights, the delay of timely scares towards the beginning in sequence with the audio robbed of prime-time fearful moments.

As guests merge into the second half of the maze, scares become more timely, making things move at a much more brisk pace. There’s a bit of an issue with audio bleed-over into certain scenes, whether due to the open ceiling making it difficult to buffer out the bleed, so that does distract. Memorable visuals pulled from “Stranger Things” help give a one-two punch to guests’ senses as they try to escape Vecna’s clutches. With creeping vines, strong reds, and that darned clock following you around, you’ll truly feel like you’re in Vecna’s lair.

As it stands opening night, this is one of those cases where a little finessing overall will help elevate Stranger Things 4 just a bit more to hit a home run.

[Haunt Review] Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood 2023
Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
The Exorcist: Believer

I’ll be the first to say that The Exorcist: Believer maze at Halloween Horror Nights 2023 was a pleasant surprise. Previous iterations of The Exorcist at Halloween Horror Nights have greatly disappointed this longtime Exorcist fan, and what likely helped here is that it is based on the upcoming new movie. Featuring unfamiliar visual references and newly possessed victims, there is some removal of expectation involved when you consider that this is a slightly different story than before.

From start to finish, we get a clear story. From the origins of the possession to the disappearance of the two girls, guests take in their surroundings before the fun really begins. Red winding hallways and a newly designed demon (though, unsure if it is Pazuzu or not) create transitions. And then we come face to face with the possessed victims. Visceral and out for blood, they unnerve.

Though, we don’t get a definite ending to this maze, it does the job of getting attendees interested in the new film coming out. With enough new details and a distinct storyline to follow, count me in as a tentative believer in the upcoming Exorcist film.

Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
Holidayz in Hell

I’m a self-admitted holiday fiend. When it comes to horror, I love it when the holidays get the horror treatment. As one of the original mazes at Halloween Horror Nights 2023, Holidayz in Hell is arguably one of my top 3 favorite mazes as of opening night. Guests will walk through the maze taking in the holidays with a psychotic twist. Whether experiencing New Year’s Day festivities, Valentine’s Day romance gone wrong, or taking in a murderous St. Nicholas, Holidayz in Hell is a fun frolic of a time that requires little thought. Shout out to the murderous fiends in the Valentine’s Day section. The violence coupled with a little blown kiss elicited much giggling.

Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
Universal Monsters: Unmasked

Anyone who knows me knows that Universal Monsters are my jam. The classic horror faves that inspired my love of horror, the mazes based on these horror movie titans generally surpass my expectations. Unfortunately, this year Universal Monsters: Unmasked is a bit unfocused, focusing on presenting a tableau of horrors rather than a storyline that slaps you in the face.

Featuring horror icons like The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, we’re taken through scenes from their particular stories that, while impactful, don’t necessarily point to an overarching cohesive storyline. It’s a great introduction to these classic greats, but focusing on the tableau formula means that some icons get more attention than others. Ironically, The Invisible Man is a blink-and-you-miss-it addition to the maze that makes one question the necessity of his inclusion at all.

If the team had decided to focus on one or just two of these horrifying greats (like the Phantom versus The Hunchback given their Parisian focus), that likely would have created a more streamlined storytelling experience. In terms of scares and impact, Universal Monsters: Unmasked was definitely the weaker of the mazes opening night.

Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count

There’s a reason why Chucky has stood the test of time. With his murderous personality, foul humor, and strange charm, this delightful fiend is the gift that keeps on giving. With the arrival of Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count at Halloween Horror Nights 2023, fans are sure to have a blast walking through this maze. As guests travel throughout the year, we watch as Chucky takes great delight in building up his kill count. Pulling inspiration from both the hit USA & SYFY series as well as the numerous Child’s Play films, we see kills ranging from electrocution to stabbing and then some.

The best part about Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count is that it provides a tonal shift towards levity that is easily missing from most of the mazes featured at Halloween Horror Nights 2023. This isn’t a dig at those mazes. There is a certain level of seriousness that punctuates the bulk of the maze themes this year. With Chucky, you know that the character (as well as the maze) aims to take the piss out of things, which offers scares but with a side of pep-in-the-step. All in all, an easy fave. Oh, and all the kudos for the inclusion of gingerbread scent. A++.

Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
Evil Dead Rise

Of the Halloween Horror Nights 2023 mazes of the night, the Evil Dead Rise maze was the weakest for me. Utilizing the remains of last year’s Universal Horror Hotel, guests experience re-enactments of certain scenes, though surprisingly, not with real actors. The bathroom sequence as well as a couple of others featuring Deadite Ellie would have been more impactful had it been done by actual people rather than figures. The lack of immersion in a real performance sets the stage for a rather low-stakes take on the Evil Dead franchise.

As we move further into the maze, more actors start to pop up, with one scene serving as a memorable use of the distraction scare technique featuring Danny and Bridget. But as we approached the end of the maze, missing was a chainsaw-ed wielding Beth. This absence proved to be a major missed opportunity during our run-through, and likely would have given more back-and-forth intensity once encountering the Marauder.

It’s difficult to replicate such an intense gory film like Evil Dead Rise that also featured a mean spirit behind its scares. With such high expectations, this particular maze underwhelmed. Despite the replication of certain scenes, the execution doesn’t didn’t land.

[Haunt Review] Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood 2023
Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
Monstruos: The Monsters of Latin America

Another original maze coming to Halloween Horror Nights 2023 is Monstruos: The Monsters of Latin America. Greeted by a grave digger, guests enter the Cemetery of the Lost, where crypts transport us into the tales of three legendary monsters from Latin America. Starting with Tlahuelpuchi, we watch as this bloodsucking shapeshifter transforms, taking on its new form to begin to feed. Terrifying in its pursuit of blood, guests will have to try to escape from its clutches.

From one tale to the next, we then encounter the incredibly impressive La Lechuza, brilliantly displayed at its full height and power in wonderous animatronic form. This honestly might have been my favorite animatronic Halloween Horror Nights has ever had in recent years. Alas, we don’t spend as much time with La Lechuza as we do Tlahuelpuchi and the monster that follows soon after, El Silbón. El Silbón gets a fair amount of attention in Monstrous and with good reason. We witness a massacre and weave our way through blood and corpses with El Silbón not too far behind. Entering his sack of bones, guests must do everything in their power to escape.

Visually impactful, Monstrous: The Monsters of Latin America is a strong conceptual maze. With the focus on three monsters, however, the story gets a bit muddled along the way. But with the grave digger reminding us how close muerte is, the theme brings itself full circle.

Terror Tram…The Exterminatorz

[Haunt Review] Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood 2023
Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
The Terror Tram at Halloween Horror Nights is generally fun. It’s a trek and a good way to get a break away from the crazy linepocalypse chaos of the rest of the mazes. It’s part maze, part adventure through the Universal Studios backlot, and, depending on what theme the Halloween Horror Nights team selects, it can be a huge hit or a bit of a mess.

For Halloween Horror Nights 2023, we got the rise of The Exterminatorz. The premise is we’re being taken to the backlot amidst an insect uprising devised by Larry Larva whose goal is to exterminate humans from planet Earth. While Larry Larva keeps threatening me with a good time, the general vibe of The Exteriminatorz was good ol’ cheesy silliness. From bipedal insectoid hybrids to victims covered with bugs and Larry Larva making his appearance throughout the experience, there are a lot of good things to focus on.

Aside from the cheesiness, which my lactose-intolerant self greatly approves of, The Exterminatorz storyline didn’t quite mesh like previous Terror Tram themes. It’s cute and silly, which is what the premise calls for. Set against the backdrop of the backlot, it didn’t quite mesh, especially as we are taken out of the premise via Bates house photo-ops and the emergence of the Jupiter’s Claim set.

Overall, Terror Tram…The Exteriminatorz was okay. A fun distraction, but didn’t 100% land in execution.

Halloween Horror Nights 2023 Scare Zones

[Haunt Review] Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood 2023
Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights
There are three scare zones featured this year at Halloween Horror Nights all located up on the upper lot. There’s a bit more distinction between two of the scare zones at the beginning of the park. Opening up the event is the Ghostz, a horde of monsters ready with chainsaws to stoke up the anxieties. While they’re a bit hard to check out later on in the evening, they do make a heck of an impact at opening. From there, you head into the New York portion of the upper lot, which has you run face to face with the Toyz scare zone. With monsters dressed up as a variety of different toys with a bloody twist, each one is unique and distinctive.

With the third scare zone, El Terror de las Momias, you go from Monstruos into this Latin-American-themed scare zone. With many featuring elaborate costumes within their mummified states, this scare zone is great fun and provides a clear connecting point to the Monstruos maze.

While we didn’t get to spend too much time in the scare zones, of what we were able to see, the scare actors were firing on all cylinders. Keep up that energy, guys!

Final Thoughts on Halloween Horror Nights 2023

Courtesy Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights

Due to timing, we were unable to attend the two brand-new shows featured at Halloween Horror Nights 2023. With that said, between the shows, the Terror Tram, and the mazes, there is so much for attendees to do while attending Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights. With our version of the Express Pass, we were able to complete all the mazes by 12:30 am, which should give you a general idea of crowds as well as how to plan out breaks.

If you do attend with general admission, make sure to get there as soon as Halloween Horror Nights opens and head to the lower lot. The Last of Us, Stranger Things 4, and The Exorcist: Believer were some of the most popular mazes, even at the beginning of the night, so those line queues fill up fast. If you can swing the Express Pass, which features a drastic price difference from General Admission, I’d still recommend it if only to provide yourself a reprieve from stressing over making it to everything.

All in all, Halloween Horror Nights 2023 was a blast. There were bumps along the way in terms of maze execution but seemed much smoother than last year’s outing. Price is always a factor, but if you’re able to check out this year’s Halloween Horror Nights, I’d recommend it. Pop-out scares, be damned.

Halloween Horror Nights began on Thursday, September 7 at Universal Studios Hollywood with eight frightening haunted houses. It will run select nights through Tuesday, October 31.

Sarah Musnicky
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