REVIEW: Knott’s Scary Farm 2013 Shows

IMG_2952One of the biggest aspects of Knott’s Scary Farm and its annual Halloween Haunt event in Buena Park, California, is its impressive entertainment roster. While Theme Park Adventure has admittedly bypassed reviews of Haunt’s major shows in favor of focusing attention on mazes and scare zones over the years (we’re not huge fans of theme park entertainment usually), we understand that there are many folks that attend the Scary Farm primarily because of the shows and various forms of live entertainment. With that in mind, TPA spent one evening this season at Knott’s solely to see the shows and take a few pictures so that we could pass along our thoughts as part of Halloween 2013’s content here on the site for our readers!

The biggest news entertainment-wise this year regarding Halloween Haunt is the return of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. It’s been over a decade since Elvira took to the stage at Knott’s, performing kooky, cheesy routines peppered with dance numbers and off-color humor. This summer, when Knott’s Berry Farm announced the Mistress of the Dark’s return for the 41st Annual Halloween Haunt, I admit, I was really surprised. You see, growing up with Haunt, Elvira simply was part of the whole package. There were mazes, Ghost Town monsters, a hanging in Calico Square each night, and Elvira in the Good Time Theater. Elvira was a sexy TV host/icon, and also had two movies – Elvira Mistress of the Dark (1988) and Elvira’s Haunted Hills (2001) under her belt. For Haunt fans in the ’80s and ’90s, Elvira simply was part of Knott’s Halloween Haunt.

In later years, Elvira’s popularity began wearing off, and I can remember all too well watching droves of unimpressed teens (and adults) getting up and leaving after the first dance number and her fairly predictable monologue. 2001 saw the final Elvira show at Halloween Haunt; she was released from the event by company management, and for the next decade, new shows such as Dr. Cleaver’s Psycho Circus, Hacks!, and others including the magical antics of Ed Alonzo were produced for the venue, later renamed the Charles M. Shultz Theater. At the same time, Knott’s became tangled with New Line Cinema over its use of characters throughout the Haunt; specifically, Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th). As a result, we saw Knott’s move away from horror icons and IPs. And you know what? Knott’s proved that it doesn’t need outside IPs for success; the Scary Farm event has been bigger and stronger in past recent years than ever before in its four decade run without popular icons as themes.

IMG_2932Which brings us full circle to the return of Elvira for the 41st Annual Halloween Haunt. I was truly surprised by the announcement this summer for multiple reasons, the main one being I was – and still am – skeptical that Elvira continues to be a viable IP for Knott’s. And I was bewildered that Knott’s didn’t bring Elvira back to play the nostalgia card last year for the 40th Anniversary instead. More than a decade has come and gone, and my generation of Halloween Haunt fans have grown up; another has without Elvira being part of the Scary Farm experience for them. Today, audiences are looking for edgy, modern and relevant entertainment at theme parks. I wasn’t so sure that Elvira could bring that, to be frank. The challenge would lie in producing a show that centered around the Mistress of the Dark, but would be good enough to keep butts in seats for the duration. Granted, there are a lot of old school Haunt fans out there; I’m one, and I know plenty of others. However, for an event that pulls in on average of 30,000 guests each night, I was not too sure how many of those folks Elvira would appeal to; I honestly still don’t have that answer. I was partially concerned that the first week or so would see throngs of older fans attending Haunt and Elvira’s new show, and that attendance might taper off after that. Apparently, numbers have remained fairly strong for her show, which is great news for Knott’s, and for Elvira, assuming she wants or is contracted to return in 2014.

IMG_2955This year’s show is called Elvira’s Sinema Seance, and it features loads of well-choreographed dance numbers and of course, the Mistress of the Dark herself. The dance team is very good – they’re The Academy of Villains, who gained recent notoriety on America’s Got Talent. The set design for Elvira’s show is also really polished and looks fantastic, featuring a great LED centerpiece screen that is state-of-the-art (in my opinion, just as good as the Magical Map screen used at Disneyland for the Fantasyland stage show Mickey and the Magical Map). Money – big money – was definitely spent on this year’s Elvira homecoming production, and it shows.

So the big question is, how is she? Cassandra Peterson, who plays Elvira, is 62; in all honesty, she doesn’t look that much different than she did the last time she took to the stage at Knott’s Scary Farm, which is a great compliment to her and her persona. Here’s the catch – while Elvira hasn’t changed that much physically, neither have her jokes or routine, something that has disappointed different Haunt fans and thrilled others. I mean, it is Elvira. I did hope that she’d have a barrage of really witty, 2013-funny jokes and comments. And there were some. But for the most part, her dialogue hasn’t changed much at all in the past decade, including the, “What’s your favorite ride at Knott’s?” routine. Don’t get me wrong – people laughed, and we chuckled (and after careful reflection, I assure you, it was not out of “respect” for an iconic performer). However, we didn’t find ourselves belly laughing and shocked the way we did with Ed Alonzo, who lights up the stage with brutal humor and really funny material. The song and dance numbers – they were just as we expected from the show, complete with really corny horror-parody lyrics rather than just performing straight to popular music; I’ve never been a fan of that. In the middle of the show (which doesn’t feel more than 25 minutes in its entirety), there is a long video bit that plays as Elvira does a costume change. A really long video bit. LONG.

IMG_2934REALLY LONG.

I don’t mean to sound too down on Elvira – because I’m not. I understand and get it that she is a Haunt icon; I grew up with her being part of the Scary Farm that I fell in love with and attended each year. It’s just… the same ol’ same ol’. If you saw her prior to 2001, you’ve seen this show. There’s nothing new to see, other than a fancy LED screen and some choreographed dancing. Sorry; that’s just the way it is. Now, if you’re a huge Elvira fan – and there are a lot of you – you’ll be really stoked, because the show is just as it was back in the day; for you, that’s truly very cool. For those lukewarm to the whole Elvira shtick, I think it’s safe to say that you can pass on Sinema Seance and not feel like you’ve missed out on anything this year.

What is neat, is that Elvira is available to meet and greet fans after the first show each night (there are only two performances per evening). I believe you have to spend at least $40.00 on merchandise to have the opportunity. If you’re a big enough fan, you’d probably drop that anyway on Elvira T-shirts, etc. which by the way, are very well done this year at Halloween Haunt for her. The added perk (perk.. perky…) of meeting Elvira, chatting with her for a second and getting a picture with her is actually pretty cool, and people do line up for this each night. Kudos to Elvira and Knott’s for making that happen; she is apparently tremendously considerate and good with her fans, and seems to be a genuinely lovely person on and off-stage. I personally kind of wish I’d had the opportunity to say hello and take a photo with her myself.

If you’re a hard core Elvira fan, this is totally a must for you when you visit Halloween Haunt. However, if you have no idea who she is or why you should feel like you have to see her show “just because” – I assure you, there are other things worthy of your time and attention at Knott’s as well. I could personally take it or leave it, and saw it only because it was Elvira’s return to Haunt. I wouldn’t recommend the show to anyone, but I wouldn’t dissuade anyone, either. I don’t know if Elvira will or will not return next year; that hasn’t been made public yet. Even the Mistress of the Dark joked about it in her monologue when we saw the show, saying maybe she’ll be back in another 12 years or so to see everyone. Time will tell.

Another major show that debuted this season at Knott’s Scary Farm is Possessed. Housed in the Mystery Lodge attraction, Possessed is a haunting romp of clever acting and spooky special effects that actually utilizes the Mystery Lodge technology, which is really smart of Knott’s to do, considering it’s a unique, available platform that no other theme park haunt event has to offer.

IMG_3108Written and directed by Knott’s Berry Farm Show Supervisor Jeff Tucker, Possessed is a twisted tale of – you guessed it – demonic possession that has taken over a small child. Featuring Tucker’s own daughter Josie in the lead role as “Maggie”, Possessed features a small cast of talented actors that keep audiences literally engrossed and silent as one by one, they succumb to the evil that has become embedded in poor little Maggie’s soul. It’s a spooky, violent show that features a surpise ending that has Scary Farm guests freaking out! Kudos to Jeff Tucker and his team, including Rob Perez, who handled the show’s visual and audio magic superbly.

We hope to see Mystery Lodge used for future Haunt shows like Possessed, but don’t want to see this location feature the same thing over and over; there were some definite parallels to last year’s Unearthed show, and so now the trick is to change things up, which in itself is a challenge due to the nature of Mystery Lodge. The attraction itself is kind of a one trick pony, so once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen the big surprise tech behind it. Perhaps Jeff Tucker can have a show elsewhere at the Scary Farm, such as the Bird Cage Theatre in 2014. Jeff is a long-time friend of Theme Park Adventure’s and is a very talented writer, now with two books published under his belt – The Sixth Key: From the Secret Files of The Magic Castle and its brand new sequel, The Lost Station: From the Secret Files of Engine 17. Here’s hoping for another Jeff Tucker original production at Halloween Haunt 2014!

The third and final show that we took in at Knott’s Scary Farm this season was The Hanging: It Stinks!, written and directed by the always funny Ken Parks, and brought to life audibly by Adam Hankinson, who has been one of the folks behind Haunt’s soundscapes for years and years. The Hanging is an annual lampoon of pop culture icons – if someone’s or something has been a headline-grabber, chances are, they’re going to end up at some point on stage in Calico Square for this violent, super-irreverent production featuring zany props, vicious one-liners and choreographed stunts.

photoOne of the more interesting aspects of this year’s show has been the introduction of scratch and sniff cards, which guests may buy for $1 or free, if they post about Halloween Haunt to their social media platforms and show the card vendors in Calico Square. These cards are silly, stupid fun and remind me of the multitude of scratch and sniff books I had as a kid – where inevitably, all of the scents ended up smelling like acrid gunpowder smoke. Throughout the show, the audience is prompted to scratch and sniff a corresponding number on the card. It’s nothing more than a funny gimmick, and it adds another level of silliness to an already-nutty production. Clever, funny stuff.

Fans either like or really don’t like The Hanging. It began in the late 1970s as a simple “witch hanging” in Calico Square at midnight. Over time, it grew into the pyro and blood packet-infused spectacle that it is today, thrilling the masses while others long for the simple, spookier version of years past. We personally like the show each year, although certainly, some versions are definitely stronger than others. TPA likes the brazen, unabashed show very much this season, and without giving too much away (there are loads of videos already on YouTube of this season’s show), there is a Disney rip/medley parody segment that is completely jaw-dropping-awesome; hilarious stuff! The Hanging sends everyone to the gallows with completely offensive stereotypes, shocking dark humor and utter lack of sensitivity toward anyone and everything. It’s a parody; it’s a comedy roast; it’s a harsh black humor show – and everyone has fair warning before it begins that if you’re easily offended, get the hell out of Calico. HUGE props to Ken and his crew for not only embracing this, but for sticking with it and not shying away from being infamously crude and unflinching! WE LOVE IT, and Haunt fans everywhere feel the same way. Never stop, and never walk on egg shells!

There are other shows going on throughout the Scary Farm this season as well, including the high-energy Blood Drums production in Necropolis, Carny Trash in the Bird Cage Theatre, and the mysterious Red Moon Dance Company’s “Cursed” show nightly in Ghost Town, which has been a fan favorite for several years now. We didn’t get a chance to see these shows; we simply ran out of time. At this point, it’s easy to say that if you want to experience everything that Knott’s Scary Farm has to offer these days, you can easily spend three nights at the event and not get bored. You definitely cannot see Haunt anymore in just one night.

To summarize, the shows at Halloween Haunt 2013 are varied, strong and nostalgic, not necessarily in that order depending on your tastes. We enjoyed ourselves, and really appreciate the opportunity we had to simply sit, relax and laugh (or scream) along with the rest of the audience for a night of Scary Farm entertainment goodness!

What is your favorite show this year at Knott’s Scary Farm? Share your choices and thoughts below with other Halloween Haunt fans!

– Rick West

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