Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood 2015 Review

Horror_Nights_2015_4957It’s always a weird thing when the opening of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights comes and goes. There’s so much hype leading up to the event – from Creative Director/Executive Producer John Murdy’s cryptic messages and hints on social media, to the major announcement he and Art Director Chris Williams make each summer at ScareLA in Los Angeles, and the sneak preview of some of the mazes that Theme Park Adventure has been privileged to attend for the past several years. It’s strange, because before we know it, we’re there, walking through the mazes, shooting video in the scare zones, taking it all in, and then – just like that, we find ourselves driving home at 3 a.m. discussing what we liked and didn’t like about the event – and how crazy it is that HHN has already come and gone for us.

Halloween Horror Nights is a large-scale Halloween event that takes up the whole of Universal Studios Hollywood, and is one of our favorite major haunts to work with each year here in Los Angeles. We have the fortune of knowing both John Murdy and Chris Williams for years now through TPA and ScareLA, which makes it even more exciting when we get to admire their hard work up-close-and-personal each Halloween. Of course, it takes a small army of individuals to put on something like Halloween Horror Nights; it’s one of the most famous seasonal events in the world, and an incredible amount of effort goes into pulling it off. So before I dig my fingers into the raw meat and dissect Horror Nights piece by bloody piece, I want to say that we appreciate everyone who worked on this event – from design and vendor services, to the men and women on the front lines busting their asses each night to bring HHN 2015 alive for thousands of guests, in the most challenging conditions possible. Kudos and much love to all of you.

SCARE ZONES/SHOWS/ATTRACTIONS

Like most large-scale theme park Halloween events, HHN features several scare zones, each with its own unique theme, and hordes of free-roaming scareactors/monsters bent on raising hell and tormenting guests brave enough to pass through. Due to the physical size of Universal Studios Hollywood, the zones aren’t sprawling; they’re not even large. However, most of the scare zones guests find at Universal Studios Hollywood are well-themed and high-energy, making for some great scares as well as people-watching fun.

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This year’s Halloween Horror Nights features only one show, which is something we really wish the park would address. When you have 20,000+ guests crammed into your event, it’s crowd control suicide not to have a few shows (big and small in scope) to help suck up some of those guests for chunks of time throughout the evening. Even small sideshow stage-type performances would give visitors something more to do than fill the walkways or already-packed queues. Granted, Universal hasn’t had more than one major stage show during Halloween Horror Nights for years – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. Just as they find locations for mazes, they could – and should – find spots for a variety of entertainment productions during the event to better round it out.

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The Purge: Urban Nightmare

We’re fans of The Purge franchise, and definitely feel that this is a great theme for a scare zone. Set in the Metropolitan Sets on the studios’ famed Backlot, guests are shuttled to this location, which is also where several of the event’s mazes are located. Once dropped off, terrified visitors must walk through a downtown city area that is in the midst of the annual Purge – a 12-hour period once a year where extreme violence and acts of crime are not punishable. Needless to say, chaos reigns as people run through the streets – some being hunter, while others take on the role of hunters.

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The Purge: Urban Nightmare works very well this year; in fact, it is my favorite scare zone at Halloween Horror Nights 2015. You cannot beat the surrounding Metro Set environment. The lighting and soundscape are fantastic, and the talent was spot-on, from mask-wearing vigilantes to gun-toting militants. Watching guests dumped off of the tram at the beginning of this scare zone is truly a sight to behold – one of the coolest moments of HHN 2015.

Folks unfamiliar with The Purge may not truly get the gist of what’s taking place, but it doesn’t take much to understand that the folks in the creepy masks running toward you with machetes aren’t a welcoming committee!

Corpz

Perhaps the smallest of the Horror Nights scare zones, Corpz is located in the Parisian section of International Streets on the park’s upper lot. Themed as “The Lost Generation”, reanimated corpses of World War I soldiers limp and lunge from the fog as sounds of battle rages on from all directions.

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Decorated nicely, this scare zone is alive with high-energy scareactors in fairly-elaborate WWI uniforms. The downside to having a scare zone on this street is that you can literally see one end from the other; it’s that small, with very few places for monsters to hide, meaning they’re always on the go, darting in and out of the billowing fog.

This is our least favorite of the scare zones this year – and it really has nothing to do with the talent; they rock it, with the little space they are given and are non-stop from event start to finish, so we give them huge props for that. Corpz is an interesting theme, with cool costumes and a nicely-mixed area soundtrack to go with it. We just want more of it, and wish the footprint could somehow be expanded a bit so that there is a bit more physical space and personality to this particular piece of the HHN pie.

Dark Christmas

Perhaps the greatest scare zone we’ve seen anywhere last year – Dark Christmas – made its return for a second season at Halloween Horror Nights in 2015, and it’s still very popular with the fans!

Dark Christmas is a twisted mash-up of Western Christmas tradition and imagery and European lore, including the mythical Krampus, a beast that collects naughty boys and girls rather than bringing them gifts; it doesn’t end well for the little brats, ever. The zone is located on Baker Street on the Upper Lot, and is longer than Corpz, but still suffers the same challenges – very few hiding spots make it a long, non-stop night for talent there as they roam back and forth in the fog as bright lightning illuminates the street brighter than daylight.

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We love the warped Christmas music that makes up the soundtrack here, and get a kick out of the disturbing props that line the zone – children in cages, bodies literally strung up with colorful holiday lights, and a skeletal band making spirits bright.

So here’s the catch – Dark Christmas is so strong and so completely out there, that the shock and awe value of it seemed a bit depreciated this season simply because we loved it so damn hard last year. Does that make sense? It’s not a knock at Dark Christmas; the problem with having either scare zones or mazes that are so left-field and amazing, is that after the initial “HOLY CRAP!” honeymoon is over, we all become a bit desensitized to it. The talent is on their game, and it’s virtually the same as it was in 2014, so first-timers will be thrilled, and returning fans can rejoice in the repulsive revelry once again!

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While I think it’s great that Dark Christmas returned this year as one of Horror Nights’ scare zones, what fans really want is a full-blown Dark Christmas maze to experience! I’d be totally down for John and Chris to take it home next Halloween with a full-blown maze experience featuring demonic elves, bloodthirsty Santa, and the nightmarish Krampus. Hell, if Universal has to stick to their IP guns, then let’s hope John’s in discussion right now with the folks at Legendary Pictures, who have created the Krampus movie set for release this December.

The pump is primed, the fans love Dark Christmas, and now Legendary and Universal are about to drop the lore of the Krampus in movie theaters this holiday season for the masses; let’s see the maze for 2016!

Exterminatorz

Half bug and rodent, half human, these denizens of the sewers have risen to the streets to exterminate the careless men and women who dump chemicals down their drains carelessly every day as they go about their happy little lives.

And to make it burn even more, the scare zone is spelled with a Z!

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All teazing about the skewing of scare zone spelling aside, Exterminatorz is really well done, with high-energy music by Figure providing the perfect dubstep soundscape for this horrific mess in motion that ushers guests into the world of Halloween Horror Nights. Large props and set dressing along with a host of really great scareactors create a badass entry statement to HHN that has guests screaming and running in all directions, as the signature fire pots blast balls of flame into the night sky overhead.

While the lack of a “barker” at the core of this zone is a glaring omission to long-time Horror Nights fans, and one that they should bring back in 2016 as a signal of a bigger, less intimidated HHN, we’ll say that Exterminatorz is our favorite scare zone of 2015 at Universal Studios Hollywood. It was exactly the right pace and tone as the event’s “gateway” piece, and we completely loved watching the talent do their thing as thousands of fans flowed into the park!

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I think it was a wise decision not to have the Lower Lot be a scare zone as it’s been in the past. There are just too many people there, everyone is trying to figure out where to go, and the space just doesn’t allow for any theming, which is something they’ve struggled with in that spot for years. Best to let it go and focus on other locations – such as the Metro Sets – as scare zones; good call this year.

We’d be remiss not to mention the go-go dancers at the very front of Halloween Horror Nights; obviously, they also help set the tone and work non-stop to get the crowd pumped up, so we’ve gotta throw them some love too, since they’re kind of on their own in the entry plaza.

Jabbawockeez

When Universal announced this year’s big show as being the Jabbawockeez dance crew, there was immediate and mixed reaction from fans across the board. After digesting the news, I actually wrote a feature here on TPA as to why I thought it was a good idea.

Straight up, I am not the target audience for the Jabbawockeez (say what!?), so I knew that it wouldn’t be my type of show going into it, and that’s totally fine. From an objective point of view, I will say that I’d have put a lot more spooky/Halloween-appropriate content and music into the production to make it a better fit for Horror Nights. There is a glimmer of hope in the show’s opening number, but it quickly moves into typical Jabbawockeez material – which again, isn’t a bad thing… it’s just the way I would have done it or wanted to see it play out at HHN. Likely, the stage set and media used for the show were not produced just for the crew’s short run at Halloween Horror Nights; creating new media is expensive, so without knowing for sure – I would bet that the production is all from existing content that’s been used before, whether in Vegas or elsewhere.

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We enjoyed the show for what it is – and it should be said that when we watched, it was 1:30 a.m. That’s a tough time, because people are exhausted – both guests and performers. And you know what? The house was packed. During the performance, we saw people on their feet cheering, dancing along, and screaming for the Jabbawockeez; not one person left the venue during show. During Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, it was common for groups to get up and leave; we simply didn’t see that during Jabbawockeez, which speaks volumes about the show and its target demographic. As I figured in August, regardless of the fact that hard core fans miss Bill and Ted’s show, it appears that Jabbawockeez is a huge success for Horror Nights 2015.

Do I think Jabbawockeez will be an on-going fixture at Halloween Horror Nights? No, not at all. I’m pretty sure that this year, the dance crew needed a gig for October, as the group is being moved from Luxor to MGM at the moment. Universal needed a show as they figure out their own entertainment situation for HHN, so this was a perfect match. This time.

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The show is good for what it is – dance moves, interesting sequences that engage and include the audience, and pretty cool digital visuals to accompany the performance. The sound is loud in the theater, and it’s hard not to tap your feet and bob your head throughout the show. Again, it’s not my thing – but it was clear that the majority of audience members were having a blast, and were truly excited that they were at a Jabbawockeez show; a win-win for everyone, pretty much.

Kudos to Universal and the Jabbawockeez for bringing a fresh, exciting production to Halloween Horror Nights, and good luck to them in their new home at MGM Grand in Vegas!

Terror Tram: Survive The Purge

One of the signature attractions each year at Halloween Horror Nights is the Terror Tram, a large-scale attraction that utilizes the park’s world-famous Studio Tour and Backlot areas, including the Psycho/Bates Motel and War of the Worlds sets. Guests board Studio Tour trams at the regular loading spot, and are shuttled to the Backlot, where they are dropped off – and left for dead.

This year’s theme for Terror Tram is The Purge, which we thought worked very well. The story set-up is simple and solid – it’s Purge Night, and Universal has set aside a safe haven – Purge Party – for people to come celebrate the night free of violence in a family-friendly atmosphere until dawn comes, and The Purge is over. Naturally, the moment you get on the tram, you’re advised that this is not the case – and that you are being delivered directly to folks who’ve paid a lot of cash to take out their animalistic aggression… on you and your loved ones.

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As the trams reach the drop off spot on the Backlot, guests are sent directly into the clutches of bloodthirsty Purgers, armed with baseball bats, chainsaws, machetes and more. It’s a really great theme for this attraction, which for the past several years, has been dedicated to showcasing The Walking Dead.

The Terror Tram takes guests on a long hike through the dark Backlot sets, which are crawling with scareactors, small vignettes indicative of the cruel, raw nature of The Purge franchise. Scene after scene of carnage and torture line the walkway as Horror Nights guests make their way toward safety – or a bitter end.

One thing that we noticed right away is how good the soundscape is for Terror Tram this year. There aren’t any “dead spots” audio-wise, which is tricky for that section of the Backlot, due to the neighboring homes along the ridge that overlooks the Universal property. You’ll notice throughout the Backlot (and along the ridge, if you look closely), Universal has erected sound barriers to shield the residents from the screams and noises coming from Halloween Horror Nights below. I think that’s very cool of Universal, considering those residents opted to move next to one of the biggest working movie studios in the world. Don’t even get me started on that… All I can say (and I bet I speak for most of our readers here, too), is that if we lived up there, we’d leave the windows open and chill out on the back patio/deck and enjoy the sights and sounds of Horror Nights each year! Listen to them: the children of the night. What sweet music they make.

The only really disjointed aspect of Terror Tram, is that whatever the theme – the Psycho House looms bigger than hell right in the middle of everything. Rather than ignore it (and why would they), it’s embraced, lit beautifully, and becomes a really great photo op spot, with Norman Bates, as his mother berates him and his guests from within the house. It doesn’t thematically make sense – but honestly, it doesn’t need to. It’s the Psycho House!

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Terror Tram is something Halloween Horror Nights fans seem somewhat torn about from year to year. The walking path/route never changes, only the props and small sets to match the theme. You can’t hide the Bates Motel, Psycho House, or the massive plane wreck from War of the Worlds, so they kind of just have to go with it and do the best they can each Halloween. We enjoy it, because it’s a rare opportunity to actually walk in this section of the property without being on a VIP Tour. That alone makes Terror Tram an interesting part of HHN.

Using The Purge as 2015’s theme for Terror Tram was a smart move and worked well, despite the fact that I was sure they’d incorporate Fear the Walking Dead into Horror Nights this way. The Purge: Urban Nightmare feels like a fresh breath of air after years of zombies roaming the Backlot. We definitely recommend Terror Tram this year, but plan ahead – it takes a considerable amount of time, and it closes much earlier than the rest of the event, due to those pesky neighbors and the sound concerns associated with using the Backlot at night.

MAZES

Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home

After last appearing at Horror Nights in 2009, everyone’s favorite boogeyman returns this year in full ’70s glory in Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home.

John Carpenter’s classic, Halloween, has always been my favorite horror film. When it was announced at ScareLA that the iconic franchise would come back to HHN this year, I had mixed feelings. The 2009 version of the maze was really well done, even with the inclusion of some of Rob Zombie’s rebooted Myers lore thrown in to the mix. In all, I felt the quintessential Halloween maze came together nicely in 2009; it was with great curiosity that I pondered what Universal could bring to the table again that would be bigger and better than the last Myers-laden maze.

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did get a sneak preview of Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home in the days leading up to the opening of HHN 2015. As our group approached the maze, I was surprised to see the Myers house once again used as the facade; I’m not sure what else it could have been – Haddonfield Memorial Hospital? However, the twist this time is that it’s the Myers house in “present” – as in 1978 – as opposed to the night Michael killed his sister in 1963; dilapidated, dirty, and inhabited by the slasher, who’s come home to haunt Haddonfield once again.

Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home is incredibly strong design-wise. From scenes that are “movie-ready” in quality to fantastic use of sound bytes from the film, John and Chris totally nailed it, in a very apparent love letter to Carpenter. Not only are there physical scareactors portraying Myers throughout the maze, multiple effects such as Pepper’s Ghost and shadow play also give the slasher a heavy, omnipresent role this time around. The maze looks and sounds fantastic.

There are repeat moments from the 2009 maze (it is after all, based on the film), but as John Murdy explained during our preview tour, they included a couple scenes that they felt they could do again and do better this time around. Additionally, there are new scenes that really work well, including the infamous bit when Michael vanishes behind a hedge, the back yard with hanging white sheets, and the climactic moment when Dr. Loomis confronts and shoots Michael at the end of the original film; this particular scene is somewhat choreographed, inspired by the Nazi Werewolf scene in last year’s American Werewolf in London maze.

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The finale scene is very surreal and dream-like; a Michael Myers fun house mirror maze type of room, where guests don’t know which figure is real, as they walk through dozens of the knife-wielding boogeyman. I didn’t know how I would like it, because the rest of the maze is so literal. In the end, it totally works. Totally.

Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home is a must-see at this year’s Horror Nights event. It’s my second favorite HHN maze of the year, and a delight for everyone that loves the franchise.

Insidious: Return to The Further

This was the second maze that Theme Park Adventure previewed in the days leading up to Halloween Horror Nights 2015. If you haven’t seen our sneak peek at Insidious: Return to The Further, be sure to check it out.

I’m not a huge fan of the Insidious franchise; it’s okay to me – but I just am not as crazy about it as many other horror fans tend to be. In fact, I haven’t seen any of the films past the original in 2011. So, I went into this maze pretty blind story-wise; not necessarily the best plan for an IP-based attraction, but in the end, it’s on the designers to make it impressive and enjoyable for everyone regardless of how familiar we may be with the movie/property it may be attached to. After taking the tour behind the scenes with John Murdy, and learning what went into making this particular maze, I was totally stoked and excited to see it in full action – and I completely said that it very well could be the best at Horror Nights this year, based on its design and technical effects used within.

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Unfortunately, when we made it to Insidious, one of the big effects – the Lipstick-Face Demon – crawling along a bedroom wall via projection, was not working; total disappointment fell over me as I realized the gag simply wasn’t going to happen as I stood there and guests walked past me through the scene. You see, when we attend HHN as media, we get Front of Line access – that’s good only once during opening night. So, we get one shot and one shot only at these mazes, unless we want to wait in the queue with everyone else – something that would destroy us time-wise when covering every aspect of the event. Knowing we had one shot an Insidious, and knowing we wouldn’t ever get to see that effect working – what a drag that was. We moved on.

Insidious: Return to The Further is a gorgeous maze. While it depends on lots of technical effects, the physical environment is really great – and guests will definitely feel that they have stepped into the movies. From fog creeping along the floor (mileage will vary, depending on temperature each night and guest traffic through the maze), to fantastic lighting, Insidious is definitely one of the aesthetically-pleasing productions at HHN 2015.

I’ve got to give mad props to Chris Williams, who really worked on making the home that guests walk through “vanish”, becoming The Further. The trick was explained to us by Murdy as he toured us through the maze; seeing it in action really was impressive. Was it perfect? No; it’s hard to make elaborate effects work completely when you have a constant flow of people passing through, and light leaks from different scenes. However, it worked well enough to be really badass, in my opinion. The trick is that as you walk through the hallways, the house around you fades to black, revealing only burning candles in The Further all around you. The walls/furnishings (grandfather clock, paintings) are printed media on the walls that become transparent when lights aren’t shined directly on them – kind of the same way scrim gags work (think stretching room in Disney’s Haunted Mansion). I’ve never seen this pulled off in a maze before – so big props to Chris and the team for getting this to work!

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The talent was definitely on their game, and the overall experience of Insidious: Return to The Further was very strong, despite my lack of knowledge about the film franchise. There are really great scares placed in every scene, and in the dark portions of the maze, anything goes! Special props to the “He’s got your baby!” dude – what a crazy character! That’s one of Horror Nights’ strengths – they get really good talent to fill these positions each year, and it’s something that John Murdy is very proud of and speaks to quite often.

Insidious: Return to The Further is definitely going to be one of the stronger offerings at HHN this year; if you’re a fan of the franchise, then definitely do not miss it. Even if like me, you’re not a follower of Insidious, I would say this maze is definitely worth a visit, for the special effects and disappearing room gag alone. Great fun!

The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far

In case you missed the memo, Universal has an on-going love affair with The Walking Dead, as it’s been prominent at Horror Nights for years now on both coasts here in the United States. We have fans ask us all the time when we think that will end. The answer is pretty apparent; TWD will continue to have a presence at Horror Nights until the Halloween after the final season. Until then, zombie up, because like it or not – the walkers aren’t going anywhere.

That said, when we watched the last season of The Walking Dead, all I could say over and over was, “Wow! This is begging to be a maze at Universal!” And so did Murdy and Williams, apparently. Not only did they move forward with a new Walking Dead maze – it’s the largest they’ve ever done here in Los Angeles.

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Universal Studios Hollywood fans will know that this year’s Walking Dead maze is located where just a year ago, the property’s iconic Stage 28 had stood since 1925. Countless films were shot on Stage 28, and it was in later years, known as the sound stage that housed Universal’s incredible Phantom of the Opera sets (also from 1925). The structure was demolished in just days, and the space has been serving as a staging area for components of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is under construction on the Upper Lot. Currently, it’s the home for the largest maze that John and Chris have ever created for Halloween Horror Nights, The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far.

Approaching the massive Terminus facade, it’s clear that this maze is no joke. Design-wise, it’s unreal. There aren’t really many more rooms for guests to go through – the entire thing is just bigReally big – large scenes, open spaces – it’s pretty epic.

As with other Walking Dead mazes at HHN, this year’s follows the story/locales of the last season of the insanely popular AMC franchise; if you haven’t watched the series, the locales will be pretty much lost on you – however, as was the case with me in the Insidious maze, the design detail and abundant scares will make up for that and you’ll still have a great time going through this attraction.

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We’re huge fans of The Walking Dead, so we were really excited to see Wolves Not Far, especially after Murdy had been touting how large it is via Twitter in the weeks leading up to the event. As fans of both the show and of Halloween Horror Nights, we were definitely not let down. This maze is impressive from beginning to end, and everyone from the talent to Larry Bones and his makeup team should be very proud of what’s been accomplished. Within the maze, guests can plan on more zombies, more gore, and bigger scenes than ever before – and after all that, we still wanted more by the time we excited the final room!

If one word is meant to describe The Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far, it’s got to be “chaos”. Every where you turn are hordes of walkers, as well as other humans brutalizing the innocent. The main soundtrack of the maze are blood-curdling screams. It’s loud, nightmarish, and absolutely crazy. I don’t know how the scareactors in the maze can handle it all night; they must be wearing ear plugs!

This may well be my favorite iteration of The Walking Dead yet at Halloween Horror Nights; that’s a tough call, simply because all of TWD mazes have been fantastic thus far. If anything, Wolves Not Far continues that very proud trend at HHN, and the Universal team has absolutely done AMC proud once again.

Just for the sheer magnitude of this maze, it should be on your “Don’t Miss” list; get to it early however, as it’s one of the crowd favorites, and the line gets very long for it. Rightfully so – it’s a great component to Horror Nights this year!

This is the End 3D

This is the End 3D was an uphill battle going into Horror Nights for me on multiple levels. I’ve been completely transparent about it in the weeks leading up to the event. I’m not a huge fan of the film, I really don’t care for any of the movie’s lead actors, I’ve never liked “funny” mazes at any haunt, and 3D haunted houses were big in the ’90s and 2000s and should have stayed there, especially with the detail level of designs in dark attractions these days. That said, I put my personal preferences aside and went into This is the End looking at it as a designer, to see how the HHN team approached this particular project.

I was really thrown off as we exited This is the End 3D. I felt that all aspects of the maze fell short. The humor was pretty humorless. The scenes weren’t compelling to me as a haunt fan. I felt like the entire experience kind of got stuck in limbo, without ever truly maturing into perhaps what John and Chris intended it to be.

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The level of detail just isn’t there – especially when you stack it against the other mazes at HHN – some of which are staggering to look at. That tells me that something likely transpired in the production phase and the team ran into a major issue with budget and/or time. Probably both, because enough cash thrown at something can usually get it across the finish line in time. I hate to say it, but we felt like we went through a maze that wasn’t completed. And I do hate saying this, because we have utmost respect for the entire Horror Nights team. I simply cannot see something like Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home or Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness set next to This is the End 3D and shrug it off; there must have been some serious issues that the team ran into with this one, because it’s the most rudimentary product we’ve ever seen at Halloween Horror Nights. You have no idea how much it pains me to say that, but I am keeping it real.

did think the Lava Monsters looked cool, although the talent didn’t really seem to have the same advantage as other scareactors in other mazes – there were no clever hiding spots, no surprises; everything is so brightly-lit because of the 3D, you can see them a mile away. So, even the cool makeups were dragged down by the overall design issues this maze is plagued with.

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It’s a shame we only do Halloween Horror Nights once a year; I would be willing to bet that there will be major tweaks and fixes made to This is the End 3D in the weeks to come, because there is no way the design team can be satisfied with it the way it was on opening night. There’s just no way. The level of excellence John and Chris have established over the years have taken the event over the top, with camera-ready scenes and world-class art direction. For whatever reason, This is the End 3D just doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen or would expect from the HHN team. That bugs the hell out of me, because I know this team – and everyone has seen what they’re capable of. In my own experience as a designer, I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt, everything that is wrong with This is the End 3D points to a major problem during production; one that was likely out of the team’s hands for the most part. And that’s a damn shame. Regardless of how much I personally disliked the IP as a maze theme, we never want to see something fail at any event. This is the End 3D unfortunately, has that distinction.

If you’re short on time or not certain you want to commit 90 minutes or more in line for this maze, we cannot recommend it; it should be the first thing you cut at HHN if you’re short on time, or simply not a fan of the theme to begin with.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator

If you loved AVP in 2014, I have good news; you’re going to love it again this year! If you didn’t get to see AVP in 2014, I have even better news; you get to now, because it’s almost exactly the same as last year’s version!

And that’s a hell of a thing that leaves us a bit confused. Alien vs. Predator is a really solid experience. Guests find themselves in close quarters between Aliens and Predators as they battle it out in a farm house somewhere in rural America. The fighting is brutal, and humans are simply in the way; you can imagine how well us humanoids fare.

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The scares are plentiful throughout the maze – I especially love the pop-up “facehuggers” that slam into windows – they’re startling as hell and great fun! The talent also works it, whether Predator or Xenomorph, popping out of walls when you expect it – and coming at you when you don’t. It’s quite literally, all-out war!

Of course, the Queen at the end of the maze is stunning and will quite literally, stop people in their tracks; she is massive, and looks incredible – one of the gnarliest props/figures we’ve ever seen in a maze anywhere; she’s amazing, and as I said last year in our review, worth the wait alone just to see her in action.

Now, the question that begs to be answered is why did this maze return for a second consecutive year with practically no alterations made to it? There were some minor tweaks here and there, but for all purposes of discussion – it was the same maze. And to the best of my knowledge, that has never happened at Halloween Horror Nights.

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The company line is “due to popular guest demand”. And I believe that people loved the maze last year – it was really good. However, even when IPs return to Halloween Horror Nights, the team changes them up big-time, so that they are very new experiences. That isn’t the case with AVP: Alien vs. Predator, and so, it bugs me. It bugs me in the same way This is the End 3D bugs me in that I have a gnawing feeling in my stomach that this was the result of some serious tinkering with HHN’s 2015 budget by corporate at Universal. Other theme park haunts – including Knott’s Scary Farm, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, and Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest all repeat mazes – sometimes for years – before they are cycled out. That’s not Universal’s method at all, which tells me something bigger is at work this year behind the scenes and it’s affected the entire 2015 HHN operation. The fact that Universal isn’t offering a VIP Horror Nights experience either seems to reinforce in my mind at least, that someone’s playing a shell game with Murdy’s budget, and some “value engineering” decisions had to be made to meet that mandate. That’s my honest guess and opinion as an outsider. I could be wrong. I could be spot-on right. However you cut it, something major changed this year, and the cut corners are very apparent when you look for them.

But I digress; in closing, I’ll say that if you didn’t see AVP: Alien vs. Predator last year, this is an extremely rare opportunity to fix that! And if you did see AVP last year and enjoyed it, well, this is an extremely rare opportunity to check it out again – it’s just as good, if not a bit better – than last year’s maze. If you did catch this maze in 2014 and are looking for ways to cut down on wait times, I’d say you can bypass this one too – use that valuable time on new HHN experiences.

Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness

Whenever a haunt introduces a maze that’s based heavily on an IP that no one is familiar with, that’s a huge problem. Through the years, we’ve seen this occur at Universal as well as elsewhere. Anyone remember Beowulf at Knott’s Scary Farm in 2007? How about Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood last year at Horror Nights? Pretty mazes, but no one knew what the hell they were looking at, what the characters were supposed to be, or what the surroundings were in relation to the story. Any time you put the cart before the horse in a haunted attraction with an IP that isn’t available to the public yet, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Personally, I hate it when this scenario plays out because it is so problematic.

Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness is the latest Horror Nights maze that is based on a film that won’t be released in theaters until October 16, more than half way through the Horror Nights run this season. Not the greatest scenario in the world experience-wise for us guests.

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That said – I’m going to call Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness the best maze at Halloween Horror Nights for 2015. The design is staggering, haunting, and absolutely mind-blowing. Since we don’t know the story – wait – here’s the blurb from IMDB:

In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds… and remembers.

And… I still have no freakin’ idea, really. But anyway, not knowing a damned thing about the movie Crimson Peak, we have no choice than to go through this maze and judge it solely on design aesthetics. Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness is the most breathtakingly gorgeous maze I have seen at Halloween Horror Nights in a long time; maybe ever. We know that the film’s writer/director Guillermo del Toro worked very closely with John and Chris up until opening night, and was very pleased with how the maze came out.

The best we can tell, is that this is a true Gothic haunted house story that has a very sinister, violent streak. And that’s about it. Each of the rooms in this maze are really beautifully designed; the photos Johanna were able to capture using the ambient lighting throughout Crimson Peak speak for themselves. The scareactors seemed a bit hesitant (not all, but some) getting used to their environment; I have a sneaking suspicion that they simply don’t know exactly what they are supposed to do or be – they’re kind of in the same boat as the rest of us, and have to make it up as they go.

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From the facade to the ending, Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness is my favorite kind of haunt attraction. I have always preferred spooky and Gothic to in-your-face violence and gore when it comes to Halloween attractions, so the moment we laid eyes on this maze, I was completely into it and excited. I purposely avoided looking at any images of it online in the days leading up to the event; there are so few surprises for us when it comes to haunts, we take what we can get and leave it as spoiler-free as possible when we can! I’m glad we did in this case, because our excitement was real when we finally saw – and gawked – at the facade before going in.

In a nutshell, Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness is the attraction to see this year at Halloween Horror Nights. It’s in the Backlot, so you’ll need to make your way to the Lower Lot via the escalators and then walk for a bit to the tram shuttles that will take you the rest of the way to the Metro Sets area. Whatever you do, do not miss this one – I can only imagine that it will look even better following this week’s tweaks, and as the cast settles in to their character roles, this maze will only become stronger as the HHN run goes on. Huge kudos to John and Chris and the install team that brought Crimson Peak: Maze of Madness to life; it’s truly an extraordinary effort, and is the absolute pinnacle of Halloween Horror Nights’ excellence in maze design and execution.

And that’s it! Our in-depth look at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights 2015. It should be noted that here in Southern California, temperatures have been over 100 degrees in the days leading up to the opening night of HHN. Inside the mazes, temperatures have easily been 110 – 120 degrees, and the team at Universal has been killing themselves to get this event installed and open for all of us to enjoy. A HUGE thank you to everyone that is associated with Halloween Horror Nights, from management at Universal to the vendor/fabricators, to the men and women who work the event’s front lines each and every night during the run to scare the living daylights out of fans. Props and mad respect to each and every one of you! Here’s to cooler weather in the weeks to come, and a fantastic season!

– Rick West

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6 Responses to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood 2015 Review

  1. Rob says:

    The music in Exterminatorz is actually an awesome track called Centipede by Knife Party: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKzsktuqwyU

    Thanks for the awesome review!

  2. Rick West Rick West says:

    That’s interesting – Figure tweeted out that the music is his; could he have taken the track and remixed it?

  3. Murdy recently did a Q & A on twitter and someone asked him about AVP being repeated exactly the same. His response was that in all honesty it would be so expensive to do the higher ups would only green-light it if they did it two years in a row. So with all the construction going on the money for HHN must be less than in previous years.

  4. Rick West Rick West says:

    Yeah, there’s absolutely no way that all of the recent projects at Universal Studios Hollywood HAVEN’T affected the park’s budget for events such as HHN – and likely Grinchmas – this year.

  5. exley2013 says:

    FYI, more then half of the scenic elements and props for this year’s version of ‘Dark Christmas’ are brand new for this year’s HHN. And many of the repeated elements have been relocated. Only the Scareactors have remained the same from 2015.

  6. plague says:

    I wish Uni would stop bowing to a few people complaining. Every year it the event seems whittled down from what it once was.
    Needs the barkers back at the entrance and yes, bring back Bill & Ted’s.

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