Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights has been a Southern California’s flagship haunted attraction for quite some time now thanks to their film tie-ins and big budget. We got the chance to visit the event during its opening weekend thanks to their amazing PR team, and stayed for the whole night, beginning at 7PM and finished at 1AM. This year, the flagship street zone and opening ceremony are tied into Michael Dougherty’s modern Halloween classic, Trick r Treat, and it was a welcome change from The Purge inspired opening of the last few years.
This year’s mazes include the previously-mentioned Trick r Treat as well as Poltergeist (based on the 1982 film), Stranger Things Season 1, Halloween 4, The Horrors of Blumhouse Chapter Two, Universal Monsters, and the Terror Tram. Overall, most of the mazes in this year’s lineup were at the very least “good”. However, the two standouts were Poltergeist and Universal Monsters. Poltergeist recreated the facade of the Freeling house from the film and the maze hit all the right moments that scared you as children. For the movie buffs out there, you might be interested to know that Steven Spielberg actually ghost directed Poltergeist while a very young Tobe Hooper was listed as the director on paper. Universal Monsters was a trip through the various Universal Monsters films of old, from Dracula to Frankenstein and many more. I loved that the event paid homage to these classic monsters and did so with terrific set design to sell their various environments. A big runner up award in this goes to Holidayz in Hell. It’s not quite a street zone, but not quite a maze and serves as a transitional area between guests and the New York street backlot mazes. Holidayz in Hell takes a year’s worth of holidays and, as it suggests, places them in some sort of Hell dimension with tons of gory props to look at along the way.
Unfortunately, the Stranger Things maze didn’t quite live up to its potential. In terms of set design and construction, its beautifully-crafted. Moving from the woods to the Byers house and then on to Hawkins Lab and the school – each look amazing. The designers and builders should be given big kudos for their work. Also, John Murdy (the director of Horror Nights) did an amazing job with the audio work in this maze. Where the maze loses its spark is in its scares. The Demogorgon is shown way too early in the maze and there is no real build up to what should be the final confrontation between it and Eleven at the maze’s climax. The biggest problem with the maze design of Halloween Horror Nights is its dependence on dark “Boo Box” hallways. What was once just a spice that could allow the event to hold large puppets (such as in the maze based on John Carpenter’s The Thing) is now simply everywhere – in every maze – multiple times. You just start expecting you turn into a dark corner hallway now.
Trick r Treat was a mixed bag with some really great beats separated by some more Boo Boxes. Also, I got the feeling that the designers of this maze didn’t quite watch the film closely enough as the scene in the maze with Kreeg didn’t happen that way at all in the film. But, I digress… In any case it is wonderful that this sleeper of a film upon its release has become the cult classic that it is today and garnered such attention. Between this and the maze from Murder House Productions, the Trick r Treat fan in me is very pleased.
Halloween Horror Nights features some terrific 2D and prosthetic makeups this year, thanks to the folks at Magee FX. This studio is also responsible for the prosthetic work on the Whoville citizens during Universal Studios Grinchmas event. They have done a great job of selling each maze’s and street area’s scare actors. For Trick r Treat (and its associated scare zone), they masterfully-replicated the masks of the various special school children who perished in the bus crash as seen during the film. In Universal Monsters, they brought to life some of the classic movie monsters of old, including Frankenstein. They are to be commended for their practical makeup work.
As usual, the park was sold out on the night we attended and, reflecting this, the Stranger Things maze had a two hour wait in line for standard admission guests! I highly recommend that you pay for the upgraded front-of-the line tickets – you will not regret it! On the food front, Horror Nights had a decent array of food options this year. We ate from the New York street backlot food truck and I had a tasty meatball sub while my wife had some good sliders. In the upper lot, you’ll find quite a few options as well, including my favorite Luig’s Pizza near Springfield.
Overall, Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights is a lot of fun this year, with tons of things to see and do. While I am concerned by the dependence on Boo Boxes between visual beats in the various mazes, Horror Nights has, as usual, gone all out on set design and makeup effects. I loved the focus on Trick r Treat and can’t wait to see what the event has in store for us next year. Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights runs through the end of October – you can find ticket information and more at their official website.