We were fortunate enough to attend the media night of the 2012 Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights which consists of their annual Eyegore Awards red carpet ceremony as well as entry into their haunted event. Braving the freeways from sunny Orange County, we checked into the press desks and found an underpopulated nook near the red carpet.
Celebrities began to walk the line, and we were pleased to see the likes of Guillermo Del Toro, Corbin Bernsen, and the host of SyFy’s Face Off (and the host of the awards this year) McKenzie Westmore. The red carpet went from about 7pm to 8pm at which time the actual Eyegore Awards began. The inner workings of the theatre where it was being housed were fun – they had the place dolled up like a campground straight from the Friday the 13th franchise.
After leaving the awards show, we went into the park and walked through the Silent Hill maze, which takes elements of the game and two films into its design. The maze was well designed, with disturbing visuals and tons of “interesting” smells to discover. The room depicting the school bathroom was particularly challenging on the olfactory sense, smelling like excrement and foul water. I loved the “Armless Man” monster – they got that 100% right, but it was the Pyramid Head actors that stood out for me. They were very tall, walking on stilts I presume, and intimidated guests with their height and bulk of their head pieces. The only thing missing from them was the blade that the character is so often using. I would have hoped they could make that prop work, being that it would also serve as a crutch for the stilt-wearing performers.
The Halloween Horror Nights “Terror Tram” this year has been taken over by zombies from AMC’s The Walking Dead. The tram has always felt underused to me and, I am very sorry to say, seemed that way again this year. It always takes the same route through the backlot and Blackouts (employees who dress all in black and stand watch along the paths) seem far more concerned with yelling at guests to “Hurry up!” and “Keep it moving!” rather than letting the zombies do their job of scaring people. There were a few neat scenes set up along the guest path, with some random zombie actors just milling about in them for ambience, but we couldn’t really make too much out as those pesky Blackouts kept on pushing us forward.
The Walking Dead: Dead Inside maze, however, was a much better experience with lots of scenes from the TV show implemented along the way. The scare actors were all keeping in character for the most part – although, there was one zombie actor who kept telling guests he “Wanted their souls”. Tip for that zombie actor in The Walking Dead: “Walkers” don’t talk. You are working in The Walking Dead maze, not the Evil Dead one. The prop work was well done and very gruesome, with lots of fresh blood and body parts strewn about. Universal Studios is very interested in atmosphere, even at the expense of a missed direct-scare. This is best seen in the actors they have as victims for zombies to chew on. They scream, yell, and cry for help as they are being eaten. It really adds to the maze even if it is not a traditional monster scare. The set piece that I thought worked best in this maze was the bicycle zombie from the first episode of the TV series. The actor playing her was excellent, and the half-body effect worked like a charm. This maze was simply a lot of fun and a must-visit for fans of the show. (ed. note: Were those trees from the old E.T. ride?)
Halloween Horror Nights creator, John Murdy, is really working to attack guests on all levels, including the previously-mentioned olfactory one. This is nowhere better shown than in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze. What jumped out at me first about this maze, aside from the utter stench of rotting corpses, was the addition of a lot of prop replicas from the original film. The spinal lamp, taxidermy, steel door, and so much more. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of my favorite horror movies and they nailed it. The scare actors playing Leatherface were imposing and did an awesome job as did the victim actors in the maze. Of all the mazes I saw during my trip, this is the one that really made me feel like I was inside the movie set.
“Klownz” was back as a street zone and the monsters were, as always, bringing a lot of energy to their scares. The new “Witches” and “Toyz” areas also had interesting monsters and set pieces strewn about. Outside the Silent Hill and Texas Chainsaw Massacre mazes was a street zone with Silent Hill characters on it. Each Silent Hill monster was in character and did a great job in a VERY busy thoroughfare of people – it’s right in front of the escalators to the upper lot. Pyramid Head and The Boogeyman were on stilts, terrorizing guests, but I still missed Pyramid Head’s gigantic blade. I can’t help think that if they found a way to implement such a prop safely, it would have blown the doors off of that character.
Something about Halloween Horror Nights has always bothered me – and that’s that Universal Studios has no dedicated, sit-down restaurants inside the event. After walking around all night, I would love to sit my happy rear end down at an air conditioned restaurant and eat some well-prepared meals. Universal Studios has a real opportunity here to create a dining experience filled with horror movie props from their backlot prop house – their own “Monster Planet Hollywood”, so to speak. In any case, I would recommend filling up in one of the restaurants in the City Walk outside the event before entering. If you are eating inside the event, I would recommend Louie’s for some decent Italian fast-food.
I would be remiss to not mention this year’s La Llarona maze – so successful was last year’s maze that they brought it back with added effects and surprises. The Alice Cooper Goes to Hell in 3D maze featured some great lighting work – especially when viewed with 3D glasses. Additionally, the Bill & Ted show is back again with lots of humor and musical numbers sure to please.
There is so much to see at this year’s Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights that this review barely scratches the surface. Overall, this event was a great experience and I would have easily paid the money for a “front of the line” pass any night of the run. The best thing about the event is that, while not perfect, I have full confidence Creative Director John Murdy’s ability to keep topping himself each year in making the event better and better for guests. I would rate this event as a “Must-Go!” for the 2012 Halloween season.