REVIEW: Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights 2014

Horror_Nights_2014_2269Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights 2014 opened to the masses on Friday, September 19th this year, making it the first large-scale Halloween event of the season here in Southern California. With temperatures all week above 90 degrees, it was hard to believe that Halloween had arrived; clearly, Mother Nature hadn’t received the memo. Strangely enough, opening day of Halloween Horror Nights was overcast and much cooler than the rest of the week; it appears that the event’s Creative Director/Executive Producer, John Murdy, called in a favor with the powers that be! Or perhaps he made an even more sinister offering of sorts – come to think of it, we haven’t seen his design counterpart, Chris Williams, for weeks

As the gates of Halloween Horror Nights creaked open and thousands of adoring fans flooded into the park, media had gathered along a red carpet and inside the Special Effects Stage for the annual Eyegore Awards show that kicks off the event with celebrities and horror icons in attendance, usually those with direct ties to the event itself. This was the first time the Eyegores have been held in the new location after years of taking place in The Globe Theatre. This year’s Eyegore Awards were very well-produced and the hour-long show, hosted by McKenzie Westmore (host of Face/Off) flew by as such individuals as John Landis, Rick Baker, Greg Nicotero, and Danny Trejo addressed the audience and one another. Another first – a limited number of tickets were released to the public this year, so the most hard core Halloween Horror Nights fans could witness the show in person, which seemed to work nicely for everyone; we saw many TPAers in attendance!

Horror_Nights_2014_2013Rick Baker and John Landis were on hand largely because of this year’s American Werewolf in London maze, which we had a sneak preview of the week before. By far, American Werewolf was one of the most-anticipated mazes of Halloween Horror Nights 2014, and the cheers of fans as both men took to the stage confirmed that; there was lots of love for the film and creators in the room! David Naughton, who played the lead in An American Werewolf in London, was also in attendance at the Eyegore Awards, although he did not take to the stage with Baker and Landis, unfortunately; fans would have gone nuts for that! The trio could be seen together walking around Horror Nights throughout the evening however, as they explored the event and checked out the various mazes.

Danny Trejo, who gave voice to 2013’s El Cucuy maze at HHN was quite possibly the crowd favorite, as he spoke in his trademark gravelly voice, likening the Eyegores to a “badass version of the Oscars”. Danny was also featured in the 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn, which is the basis of the television series now featured on the El Rey Network. Trejo presented writer/director Robert Rodriguez with an Eyegore Award.

Horror_Nights_2014_2043The show concluded with a live performance by Slash and vocalist Miles Kennedy of their song “Nothing Left to Fear”. Slash was included in this year’s Eyegore Awards in connection to Horror Nights’ Clownz 3D Music by Slash maze. Fans and members of the media alike screamed for the famous rocker as he did his thing on stage before disappearing into the fog with John Murdy for the evening to tour the event for himself.

All in all, we felt this was by far, the best Eyegore Awards we have been to, and definitely think that Universal took the production up a big notch from where it’s been previously. Anxious to get into the park ourselves, we gathered our things after the building had mostly cleared and stepped out into the darkness…

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following in-depth review of Halloween Horror Nights 2014 contains spoilers in writing, imagery, and during our video, which is at the end of the feature. Some of the images portray Halloween-related violence, sexual overtones, and there is a small amount of language in each video that may not be appropriate for all viewers.

SCARE ZONES:

Halloween Horror Nights is home to 5 scare zones this year, and they range from spectacular to barely noticeable. A quick “haunt 101” lesson: A “scare zone” is an area where roaming street monsters dwell, employing numerous methods of frightening guests including sliding on their hands and knees, jump scares, menacing guests in their personal space, and using props to entertain, torture, and torment passersby. These zones compliment mazes, sometimes even as direct thematic tie-ins. Often, the makeup and costumes found in scare zones are the best anywhere at an event, as the talent is free-roaming and is constantly interacting with guests, as opposed to popping out of a darkened corner within a maze. Halloween fans tend to linger and watch other people getting frightened in scare zones, so the monsters are always on – either they are eyeballing victims, or they themselves are being watched by enthusiastic fans.

This year’s Halloween Horror Nights scare zones were:

The Purge: Anarchy – A returning theme based on the Blumhouse Productions franchise, The Purge: Anarchy greets guests as they are enterting Halloween Horror Nights and hits them in the face with sinister figures wearing masks or makeup from the Horror_Nights_2014_2072film series, wielding a wide assortment of weapons, from baseball bats to chainsaws. Explosive fire pots erupt into the night sky as the event’s master of ceremonies – a woman that is both cruel and humorous in her interaction with HHN guests. The scare zone extends from the park’s main entrance gate to the facades just before Universal Plaza. As the “gateway” to the rest of Horror Nights, the space adjacent to The Blues Brothers stage is where you find most of the zone’s props, signage and talent. It’s not changed much over the years, making it seem a tad dated. However, guests love pyro; fire is good. And we do love the “barker” character heckling and calling people out as they pass into the event. All in all, The Purge: Anarchy works very well this year as Horror Nights’ entry zone, getting guests fired up for the terror that is in store for the night.

Would we like to see this gateway changed up more next year? Sure, as long as Universal keeps the fire pots and hangs on to the idea of a central figure interacting with guests as they flood into the park. New props and perhaps a more elaborate presentation set-wise to overlay the space with would be a welcome change.

Dark Christmas – Wow, wow, wowThis is by far, one of the best – if not the best – scare zones we’ve ever seen at any haunt event! Dark Christmas is just that; a creepy, disturbing twist on both the traditions of American Christmas, as well as the European mythology of the Krampus, which is recently taking the horror/haunt scene by storm. The Krampus is a “holiday devil” that comes in the night to take naughty children away from their homes to his lair, where he tortures and then devours them. It’s a nasty tale, but one that lends itself incredibly well to this scare zone filled with horrifying elves and a huge stilt-walking Krampus, complete with naughty kids in a pack on his back!

Horror_Nights_2014_2362The zone takes up Baker Street on the Upper Lot, from roughly Universal Plaza to Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. Warped Christmas music fills the air as thunder rolls and lightning flashes, giving glimpses of sinister holiday creatures lurking in the swirling fog. Decorations along the street feature horrific displays – people literally strung up by Christmas light strands, a skeletal reindeer pulling a sleigh with a definitely deceased Father Christmas aboard, and a large cage filled with mummified children, with a crouched Krampus beast on top!

This was by far, my favorite zone, and as I said at the beginning, likely the best scare zone I’ve ever seen at any haunted attraction. We spent a lot of time shooting monsters here interacting with guests, and then at the end of our night, Dark Christmas is where we cooled our heels, watching wave after wave of guests get terrified by the awesome scareactors that inhabit this zone. Kudos to everyone – and I gotta say… I could watch the little people dressed as evil elves pouncing from the fog at people all night long; nothing short of amazing good fun!

Dark Christmas could follow in the footsteps of La Llorona, which debuted at Horror Nights in 2010 as a scare zone. Unfortunately, it was pretty weak, and John Murdy was unsatisfied with it. However, that turned into a good thing, because La Llorona returned in 2011 as a maze, and was so well-received and fantastic, that it returned for a second time as a maze in 2012! Dark Christmas not only is a badass scare zone – both the theme and Krampus mythology beg for a maze to compliment the theme; perhaps Murdy and Williams will feel the same way and bring it all back in 2015 bigger and better! We’d be so into that!

Mask-a-Raid – Who doesn’t love some old school French masquerade madness in their life? Mask-a-Raid delivers a one-two punch on French Street, feeding on its surroundings – and unsuspecting guests, of course! Though not as unique as Dark Christmas around the corner, Mask-a-Raid was selected by Halloween Horror Nights fans this year via social media this year, and Universal delivered.

Horror_Nights_2014_2282Gruesome medieval-style props line the street, and scareactors dressed in very elaborate costumes dodge and dance through the fog as guests pass through the area. The bombardment of scares comes from all directions, giving the Upper Lot of Universal Studios Hollywood another very solid zone experience. The combination of both Baker and French Streets being utilized by HHN as scare zones is a winner – easily two of the park’s best atmospheres for the event.

John Murdy is very good at engaging fans via social media, especially Twitter. We love the fact that Universal put the vote to its fans for this particular scare zone. It takes social marketing to an entirely new level, and places Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood at the head of the theme park pack when it comes to engagement and follow-through for a Halloween event. The result this year was a fantastic assortment of elaborate monsters, both thrilling and satisfying for the fans; they asked for it, and they got it!

Skullz – This is the one example from Halloween Horror Nights this year that sounds and looks good on paper, but just didn’t make the cut as far as a scare zone goes. Not that there was any problem with the theme, which was based on the Native American lore of the Wendigo – giant half human/half beast creatures with large animal skulls for heads. The Wendigo lurks in the darkness, waiting for victims to satify its lust for flesh and blood. In concept, this is a tremendous theme and by all accounts, could work – if given the right atmosphere in which to execute it.

Located in the Lower Lot, from the base of the Starway escalators to Transformers: The Ride, Skullz finds itself in direct competition with large ride buildings, themed facades, and oodles of guests coming and going from attraction to attraction and on to the Backlot, where three of this year’s mazes are located. Quite simply, there is too much distraction and show lighting in play in the Lower Lot for it to be a successful scare zone, in my opinion.

The talent in the area is good – not only do they work it, they do it on stilts, dodging and following guests through an unending sea of people. It boggles the mind that there aren’t disastrous moments each night with the monsters being tripped, misstepping, or simply sidelined by the amount of foot traffic through this relatively condensed space. For that alone, we give the scareactors in this scare zone huge props. We didn’t shoot photos of the talent in this area, because we didn’t want to blind them with the flash of our camera or the LED bar of our camcorder. They looked just as you’d suspect – and they navigated the crowds with grace that was bewildering.

Unfortunately, there’s just too much in the Lower Lot vying for guests’ attention for a scare zone there to be effective. I’d rather see resources (talent, budget, effort) poured into other aspects of Halloween Horror Nights than have four really good scare zones and one really weak one, which is a glaring weak link for them this year, considering how polished and good the other four scare zones are. It’s an uphill battle for the talent trying to work the area, and it’s perceived by guests as a throw-away zone; neither one of those things is a plus for Universal. And one more observation – Skullz with a “z” – or anything with a “z” instead of “s” is instantly not taken seriously; at least not in our book, or according to the many groans we saw across social media when the area was announced this year. Drop the Lower Lot as a scare zone, and banish adding “z” to the end of any name that should end in “s” and Universal will already be on the upswing in this situation!

The Walking Dead: Welcome to Terminus

Yes, yes and more yes! This is a scare zone, kids! Part of the ongoing love affair that Universal has with The Walking Dead, this ridiculously cool scare zone hits the nail right on the head, combining perfect atmosphere with special show lighting and amazing monsters. Located on the Backlot in the Metropolitan sets, The Walking Dead: Welcome to Terminus is akin to walking right into one of the show’s episodes – walkers coming at you from all sides, an immersive 360-degree environment, and perfect show lighting and effects being utilized to carry the theme throughout the zone.

Horror_Nights_2014_2117Obviously, fans of The Walking Dead are going to get a lot more out of this story-wise than those unfamiliar with the show. However, at its very base, everyone gets it – zombies in a city setting that want to eat you. That makes for a great scare zone theme at any event; adding the specific IP to this zone is simply the icing on the cake for Universal, that is definitely enjoying a tremendous marketing opportunity with AMC these days. Granted, there was a decent amount of fan backlash at first when Universal announced that The Walking Dead would return once again to its Halloween events on both coasts; in the end however, it’s a strong property, it’s definitely a hit with people, and Universal is going to ride that wave as long as it can.

The Walking Dead: Welcome to Terminus is not a directly-connected entryway to the maze featuring the same IP. It’s the gateway to the Back Lot’s mazes this year, which guests have to trek to on foot (last year, Universal shuttled people via trams). By the time you reach the mazes on the Backlot, you feel like you’ve made the journey to Terminus! We’re not sure whether the decision to make guests walk all that way was financial or a means to spread the massive crowds out a bit – but it’s a hike, and while it didn’t seem terrible to us, we’ve heard a lot of guests griping about it.

The talent is fantastic in this scare zone, using scenery, props and darkness against guests as they arrive. Universal has employed shadow play in the windows of the building facades, which looks outstanding, and the makeup on the zone’s monsters is great! This is a classic scare zone, strong and truly exciting. Guests don’t tend to hang around in this space as much as the do the Upper Lot zones, simply because this is the crossroads between the three mazes and the rest of the event. Most visitors passing through Terminus are either coming or going.

In all, I’d say that The Walking Dead: Welcome to Terminus is almost as strong as Dark Christmas this year; the latter gets the win however, because it’s a fresh new theme and idea, whereas The Walking Dead for all its strengths, is starting to get a little… stale. If the IP returns for yet another round in 2015, Universal is going to really have to do something drastic and different with it; for now though, it remains a very strong scare zone and theme for the event, and will be a hit all season long.

ATTRACTIONS & SHOWS

We were really surprised to learn earlier this summer that Halloween Horror Nights 2014 would include no shows or live entertainment (scantily-clad dancers in cages don’t count). When you have an event the scale of HHN, shows in your programming matrix are an essential part of the production for several key reasons. First and foremost, shows are a people suck; they pull guests off of your walkways and out of your maze queues, alleviating some of the congestion – which Universal’s event has in abundance, due to its popularity each year. Shows are also a critical part of an event such as Horror Nights simply because not everyone just wants to go from maze to maze to maze; having entertainment rounds-out the event experience for everyone, offering something for all different interests and tastes. Personally, I am not a fan of most theme park shows or live entertainment productions; that’s just me. However, I’m the first person that will say you must have shows as part of your matrix; there are no two ways about it. If it was a budgetary issue this year in Hollywood – then Universal needs a bigger budget next year to include entertainment. It’s as simple as that. We can speculate until the cows come home as to why there was no Bill and Ted’s show this year in Hollywood – I have my own suspicions, and I am sure all of the fans do, too. Regardless of the reasoning, the fact is, Horror Nights should have had at least one show this year, and they chose not to. It should be pointed out that neither John Murdy or Chris Williams deal directly with that aspect of HHN (at least, I don’t believe they do); they aren’t the ones making decisions when it comes to entertainment in the park, and so, they shouldn’t be questioned or held accountable for the lack of shows during the event. Here’s hoping that someone approaches Halloween Horror Nights differently in 2015.

Terror Tram: Invaded by The Walking Dead – One of the largest facets of Halloween Horror Nights here in Los Angeles is the Terror Tram. Each season, guests board Studio Tour trams and are shuttled to the Backlot area, where they are dropped off by the hundreds near the How the Grinch Stole Christmas sets. From there, they trek past the Bates Motel set, up a steep (and dusty) incline into the “wilderness” of the property, and then loop back around past the Psycho House, and then through the War of the Worlds set before being picked up by trams and returned to the Upper Lot.

Horror_Nights_2014_2221This is a perfect location for The Walking Dead IP. The problem is, the theme hasn’t changed now for several years – and it’s pretty much worn out its welcome. Besides being completely predictable if you’ve been in the past few years to HHN, it is extremely redundant this season, even featuring props that are in the maze, considering it’s all the same story line. Do most guests pick up on those details? Probably not. Do focused fans pick up on those types of details? You bet. Another issue with Terror Tram this year is a very noticeable reduction in bodies strewn about the War of the Worlds airplane wreckage, or new and innovative sets for the event. When it first debuted, the War of the Worlds set even had explosive pyro (fire pots); this year, it is very subdued and it felt like much of the same we’ve experienced in past years, just with less in the way of visuals.

The talent was on point, and very good, approaching guests in zombie packs or pretending to be static figures and then springing to life as people approached. On par with the other scareactors park-wide, the men and women of Terror Tram did a fantastic job; my heart and huge respect goes out to the folks that are stationed in the “wilderness” – it’s got to be a tough gig, considering the amount of dust in the air kicked up by walking and running guests.

Perhaps it was because we walked such a long way from the Lower Lot to the Backlot area for the mazes placed there, but the Terror Tram hike seemed extra long this year. More than one person has commented to us already that the walking was way too much this season at Horror Nights. It seems that maybe the guests this year are “the walking dead” when it comes to the Terror Tram!

For 2015, we’d really love to see a complete overhaul and new theme for Terror Tram. That means a big expenditure for Universal, sure. However, Universal rakes in the cash with Halloween Horror Nights; they can afford it if they choose to. Next year, the Studio Tour is getting a nighttime show overlay to it; perhaps new lighting and effects will be in place to cater to the Terror Tram attraction. Better yet, maybe the whole experience could be different and take a break from the same route/hike for a few seasons. There’s a lot of room on the Falls Lake property to do something huge and impressive. Of course, Universal needs to contend with its neighbors as far as sound goes; but there are always solutions to these challenges.

MAZES

The biggest single draw to Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are its elaborate mazes. Generally, most of the event’s themes are IP-based, cultivated by professional and personal relationships that John Murdy has with the Hollywood horror and film community. Interestingly, it’s often heard that fans feel there are too many mazes at HHN based on franchises. Usually, I am not a fan of IP-based haunt attractions. However, Universal Studios Hollywood is a major exception. It’s the one place I do expect to see mazes taken from existing movie IPs, and I know that Universal Studios Hollywood will do it better than anyone else in the world. That said, whenever Universal does stray from the franchise trail and takes on something unique such as La Llorona or El Cucuy, the results are often fantastic, proving that Universal can take on both known properties and create their own nightmares just as well; and they rarely disappoint.

The Walking Dead: End of the Line – Returning yet again to Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, this maze picks up the story of The Walking Dead where the series’ last season took us – back to the West Georgia Correctional Facility, just after The Governor’s group launched a massive offensive to drive Rick and the survivors out, prompting their individual treks to Terminus.

Horror_Nights_2014_2174Considering the story begins back at the prison, HHN fans find themselves back inside once again; deja vu from last year’s Walking Dead maze, for sure. However, that didn’t bother me too much, considering the 2013 maze was the most elaborate I’d ever seen at Halloween Horror Nights. It was a treat to get to see the inside of the two-story prison once again, and it is just as stunning this year design-wise.

There are new locations thrown into the mix along the way, including a Big Spot store complete with zombies (clean up on aisle 9!), the mortuary and yes – the railroad tunnel that contains piles of debris and lots of lurking creatures. It’s a fairly linear adaptation of the show’s fourth season, so if you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you already know what to expect in the maze. Murdy and the team definitely did the show proud, and End of the Line is definitely a strong link in the Halloween Horror maze programming this year. The monsters look fantastic, and Universal’s attention to detail – from locale reproduction to fake merchandise brand labels on everything stocked on the shelves of the Big Spot store – is at its strongest here.

Bit bit redundant following last year’s Walking Dead maze? Perhaps. However, the fans are eating it up, and everyone seemed genuinely thrilled by it as we passed through. There’s no denying how popular the television series is, and folks are asking already if there will be another year of The Walking Dead at Universal’s Horror Nights in 2015. We don’t know the answer to that yet – but if it does happen, we assume the maze will be very different, and that Murdy and his team will keep things fresh and exciting for guests. Well… as fresh as you can keep zombies!

Clowns 3D Music by Slash – I’ve said it before, and I will say it one more time here in our review: Worst name for a haunted attraction I believe I have ever come across in the 20 years that we’ve had Theme Park Adventure. Given the creative brilliance of both John Murdy and Chris Williams, I simply refuse to believe that these guys had anything to do with naming it, because there is nothing creative about the title whatsoever. When this maze was announced, there was a lot of backlash from people about its name; rightfully so. We get that a big part of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights is corporate branding and IP-driven, with big money and agreements in play. However, in a time when clown-themed anything has pretty much run its course (admit it – you’re ready to move on from clowns, aren’t you?) at haunts, this theme combined with a name that couldn’t appear to be more corporate marketing-driven if it tried, seemed to really set fans off, who suggested that Universal Hollywood really phoned this one in.

Horror_Nights_2014_2104Let’s be fair, and give Universal the benefit of the doubt here; at least the HHN team. Slash is a known fan of Halloween Horror Nights, and is without challenge, a legendary rock icon that is known and loved around the world. The fact that Slash and John worked out a deal to have his music featured in a Horror Nights maze is also legit; I personally am not a fan of Slash, but I have nothing against the guy, either. I don’t know that I would have chosen him to score a haunted attraction; my speed is more Trent Reznor, or Glenn Danzig if you ask me what rock or big-name musician could be a cool haunt facet music-wise. However, undeniably, Slash is loved and fans were undoubtedly thrilled to learn of his involvement in this year’s Horror Nights here in Los Angeles. At face value, it’s cool that an iconic fan of the event and the team behind it came together and made something happen.

I’m not personally a fan of 3D mazes, as the glasses make me feel as though I am missing details and have blinders on. A lot of haunts use 3D as a crutch too, painting all of their scenic in bright colors that pop as opposed to creating some really cool detail and letting their talent be the focus. This is not the case with Clowns 3D, nor has it been the case ever at HHN here; I’m just rambling about why I personally am not a huge fan of 3D mazes to get that out of the way. Clowns 3D definitely did use a lot of bright paint and intense black light to make every scene pop. And in fairness, Universal does do some pretty stunning 3D work in its mazes; they are always looking for new techniques to employ and the results are often very impressive for that medium. All of that said, Clowns 3D isn’t half bad as a whole.

The first half of the maze is a bit redundant, and got old for me pretty quickly; funhouse mirror, scary monster pops out. Rinse and repeat over and over. I feel like the beginning portion of the maze goes on way too long and is fairly plain, perhaps to give Slash’s soundtrack the spotlight for a moment. By the middle of the maze however, things get good and we actually have sets in different rooms and monsters lurking around corners. What unfolds is a fun, fairly-generic haunted house with some neat visual gags and lots and lots of clowns. If you’re deathly afraid of clowns (I think most people who say they are really just want to “fit in” with the I Hate Clowns crowd), then this is your worst nightmare. If you’re meh about clowns as a frightening theme, this maze may not be your cup of tea. That said, Clowns 3D isn’t a bad maze, and should definitely be seen if you’re hitting American Werewolf in London, which is also located nearby on the Lower Lot and the wait isn’t horrendous. If you have a Front of Line type of pass, by all means, you should see Clowns 3D. The soundtrack? Ultimately, it’s forgettable and lost in the screams and sound effects of the maze itself. Marketing-wise, it’s fine for Universal to tout the fact that Slash has done the soundtrack for this maze. In execution, I don’t think 95% or more of the guests experiencing the maze will stop and say, “Oh wow! That’s Slash playing!” I really don’t.

What I was surprised about, was that there was no looming caricature-style representation of Slash in the maze. The Alice Cooper-inspired mazes in years past at Halloween Horror Nights incorporated many visual nods to the legendary rocker. In a maze with such a basic theme as killer clowns, I honestly thought for sure we’d get a towering, twisted version of Slash – likely with guitar in hand – at some point in the maze to make it his, you know?

It’s ironic how the mazes that give me the most trouble at haunts get the longest reviews. Rather than just saying, “It sucked” or “I am not a fan”, Theme Park Adventure at least strives to explain what our issues are with an attraction and we point out what we do like as well when we can, to offer the most fair and meaningful break-down possible for our readers so they know where we’re coming from.

Clowns 3D Music by Slash is definitely worth a look if you have the time and means. If you’re a die-hard fan of everything Slash does, then that adds extra weight to seeing this particular maze at Horror Nights. It’s an interesting partnership project, and we think it’s great that individuals such as Slash can be a big fan of the event and then have the opportunity to become part of it – that is the neatest aspect of this maze, in my opinion, and in itself, is a really cool story.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator – I grew up with the Alien franchise, and kinda sorta liked the Predator films as well. Surprisingly, I have never seen any of the AVP films, so I am probably in the small group of Halloween Horror Nights fans that haven’t a clue as to the story of the IP, except that both creatures are big, badass, and we humans are stuck in the middle of their battle for supremacy. Am I close? Close enough, probably (and I do solemnly swear that I will watch the AVP films once Halloween season is over – my interest has been renewed in this franchise). When announced, I thought this was a really strange IP choice, and wondered if there was a new film or perhaps console game coming out that would support it being in the spotlight again. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case; it was just something that John and his team landed on.

Horror_Nights_2014_2135In the weeks leading up to Horror Nights 2014 I heard a lot of rumbling about how impressive the aliens were going to be. From large, puppet figures to mechanical props, the word on the street was that AVP was going to be badass and visually, very impressive. A week before HHN opened, John Murdy spoke about the maze during our preview visit. He said that he’d specifically implored the cast and crew of Alien vs. Predator not to talk about the maze or its creatures at all to anyone, so that it would all be a big surprise come opening night. He stressed that there is a point in the maze where he’d just stand there “looking up” and saying, “I can’t believe we did this, and it’s part of the maze!” I figured right away it was a huge Queen Alien of some kind, probably at the end of the maze. It turns out my instincts were right, and the end of the maze does in fact, feature a really freakin’ big alien; it’s impressive as hell, making for the perfect climax to the experience.

As stated, I have never seen one of the AVP films, so I don’t know whether or not Universal’s story line is based on one of the films or their own for Horror Nights. The gist is that a space ship belonging to some of the Predator creatures has crashed on Earth, releasing samples of the Alien race in an area of rural woods. As we pass though the area (and a ranch-style house), we’re caught in the middle of the alien battle. Good; it works, and makes for a spooky environment with close quarters for plenty of scares!

At least the time we went through the maze, it seemed that the emphasis was on Aliens, rather than Predators – and that’s cool with me, as I’ve always preferred Aliens as a franchise. Due to the physical design of the two species, Universal was able to have actors in the Predator costumes, while puppetry was the main method used to bring the Alien forms to life quite effectively!

The soundtrack in AVP: Alien vs. Predator was mostly ambient; if there was music, it was completely lost on me, as I was too busy looking for menacing creatures at every turn or darkened doorway. The sets were mostly pretty simple, with the crashed space ship and ranch house facades being nicely-detailed exceptions. It should be noted however, that it was strange walking into a Horror Nights maze that has absolutely no entry facade; you walk past a giant AVP poster attached to the outside of the building, and pass through a black curtain right into a forest scene. It’s abrupt, and uncharacteristic of what the team usually does design-wise. Even last year, when the stage held the Black Sabbath maze, there was a fantastic entry facade inside the building itself. That doesn’t seem to bother most people, and you do enter the crashed Predator ship very quickly once you’re in the maze.

All in all, AVP: Alien vs. Predator is a solid experience. Very close quarters scares are combined with some truly fantastic creature designs, making for a fun, scary maze. Fans are raving about it via social media, so it’s obvious that it’s worked. Again, the Alien Queen at the end of the maze is huge and really beautifully done – worth the wait alone to see!

From Dusk Till Dawn – From Dusk Till Dawn was a film that I really loved when it hit the screen in 1996. The story, the practical effects and amazing creatures, and of course, a kick-ass soundtrack. I haven’t seen the new El Rey Network adaptation series; I suppose that needs to be added to my bucket list of shows/movies to catch up on once the Halloween season is over. Luckily, it appears that if you’re like me and haven’t seen the new television series, you’re not going to have a very large learning curve; from what I can tell, the story of the TV show follows the film’s arc pretty closely: Biker bar in the middle of nowhere filled with exotic dancers that lure victims in, and then reveal their true identity as culebras – ancient vampires with snake-like attributes.

Horror_Nights_2014_2187In the movie as well as the television show, the name of the club with a dark secret is the “Titty Twister”. Because the facade of the maze can be seen by Universal Studios Hollywood guests during the day, the decision was made to alter the name to simply be “The Twister”. It’s a shame, considering Universal does everything in its power to be spot-on with accuracy when it comes to creating its IP-based mazes. However, as was stated by John Murdy, with the facade being visible to theme park guests on the Studio Tour, it just wasn’t something the company could do. We totally get that and appreciate the reason behind the change. Name change aside, the facade looks great and you instantly get it when you’re in line.

The interior of The Twister is a dimly-lit, and looks just like I hoped it would (and I assume, as it is on the television version of the story on El Rey); a dive bar that gives way to a dark, Mesoamerican-Aztec-Mayan-kinda temple, with dark chambers and lurking, deadly horrors. Of course, there are sexy females luring visitors to their doom, led by the character of Santanico Pandemonium, with her near-nakedness and big white snake draped around her shoulders!

The only negative aspect I noticed in From Dusk Till Dawn was that there seems to be an over-abundance of monster curtain scares – everywhere there are drapes or a black curtain, there is a monster waiting to pop out; that was really redundant and crossed over into low-hanging fruit territory; some more imaginative and visually disturbing scares would have been great additions to the more simple “boo scares” from behind every curtain. All in all, that’s just me being nit-picky about a maze that is really, very well done.

Even being completely unfamiliar with the new television series, I was able to step into the world of From Dusk Till Dawn and totally get it right away. In fact, a surprise I didn’t see coming – it became one of my favorite mazes of Horror Nights this year! I didn’t expect that, and would say that I enjoyed it more than just about every other maze at HHN this time around! I’d definitely recommend From Dusk Till Dawn; the talent is great (kudos to the scareactors outside the maze working the queue), the flow is strong, and the overall experience is just what it should be at The Twister!

Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood – I’ll start by saying the maze itself as its own entity is really well-designed and is a great addition to Horror Nights. I’ll follow that by saying I have less than zero interest in seeing the movie, and would bet all of my chips that it’s going to be beyond horrible. If Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood was a marketing commercial to get HHN visitors excited about the movie, I would guess that I’m not alone in enjoying the maze, but not being swayed in the least to see the IP-attached film when it hits theaters.

Horror_Nights_2014_2275The interior of Dracula Untold is incredibly dim, making it hard to see what’s going on around you or what the monsters are that are popping out at you along the way. So, I took everything at face value – vampires and vampire-like creatures. I think there are villagers along the way, too, although I honestly don’t recall very much of the maze, to be honest. The problem with basing a maze experience on a movie that hasn’t come out yet is that your guests are clueless going in as to what the hell anything is or what the characters are supposed to be. This happens with IPs from time to time, and not just at Universal. In 2007, Knott’s Scary Farm presented a Beowulf maze in partnership with Paramount. The maze looked great – but the film didn’t come out until after Halloween Haunt was over that year. In turn, no one knew what they were looking at or encountering in the maze and it was considered a bust by most fans. I have a feeling that Dracula Untold is going to suffer in the same way this year, because it’s based on locales, scenes, and monsters that audiences aren’t yet familiar with. Now, Dracula Untold does hit theaters across the country on October 10th; there will be thousands of HHN fans that experience the maze after seeing it. However, for the thousands of us hard core fans (and media) that wanted to check out Horror Nights as soon as it opened, we’re left in the dark when it comes to this IP, sadly.

The talent throughout the maze seems really into it, and as I said, there is nothing at all wrong with the look or design of the maze. The facade is the entrance is a large cave mouth, which I’m guessing will be featured prominently in the film. Everything looks great – I just wish I had some kind of attachment to it, is all. Inside the maze, we are treated to village building exteriors and surroundings that kind of reminded me of the La Llorona mazes a couple years ago; very dark, dingy and spooky. As far as an attraction is concerned, John Murdy and Chris Williams did their jobs with this one. The film release timing is what’s really hurt this particular maze, in my opinion.

Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood isn’t necessarily a must if you are short on time at Horror Nights Hollywood. However, if you do have the time or the interest, it’s by no means a bad experience; it’s just one that was lost on me story-wise and something I have little interest catching up on once the movie is out.

Face/Off: In the Flesh – According to John and HHN exit polls, this is the event’s highest-rated maze for the past couple years. I can assure you, I was not part of that voting process, because the House of Horrors mazes have consistently been the least impressive to me design-wise and content-wise at Halloween Horror Nights. Because House of Horrors is an existing facility with a year-round haunted attraction already living inside of it (it’s closed to the public and will be removed immediately following this year’s Horror Nights event), there’s not much that Murdy and his creative team can do to the maze except enhance it with new monsters, and some light overlays of sets. We go to Universal all the time, so seeing House of Horrors is something we’ve done almost every visit; that pretty much takes the punch out of it when it comes to HHN.

Horror_Nights_2014_2388Then, there’s the matter of Face/Off this year. I get tired really quickly of “reality TV” drama, and most everyone on that show seems to whine and complain and bicker incessantly; it’s almost an instant turn-off for me, regardless of their individual makeup skills. Fortunately, the few cast members we have met with either as Theme Park Adventure or for ScareLA tend to be the cool and “normal” ones. And of course, personalities aside, some of the makeup jobs on Face/Off are very impressive. If it’s on during dinner or as I work into the night, I’ll watch with one eye.

Face/Off: In the Flesh is in partnership with SyFy’s show, set to the dubstep stylings of the musical artist Figure. Electro house isn’t my favorite type of music, but it’s not horrible. It is an odd, left-field choice for a haunt maze’s soundtrack in general, and really threw us for a loop when Universal announced it for 2012’s Universal Monsters Remix maze. Music is usually such a critical component to any haunted attraction, that something as jarring as dubstep or heavy metal typically is an unwelcome choice of audio. However, given that Face/Off: In the Flesh is meant to celebrate fantastical monsters and present them in a high-energy manner, I’d say that the audio choice does work this time around and didn’t take away from the overall experience at all. If anything, it added to it, given the fact that there was minimal overlay added at all to House of Horrors for Face/Off.

We recognized many of the maze’s featured characters from the television show, and the talent was absolutely enjoying themselves and having a blast scaring, and sometimes dancing with Horror Nights visitors. Personally, I enjoy my haunted attractions to be on the spooky and intense side of things; Face/Off: In the Flesh takes it all to the opposite extreme and offers guests a very loud, very bright (great for those of us shooting the event) experience that is far from frightening. Guests definitely feel this one, as everyone around us was whooping, dancing and screaming at the monsters. In that case, John and his team accomplished what they set out to do, and the maze is solid.

Again, we note that this is the final curtain call for Universal’s House of Horrors; the attraction closes forever following the last night of HHN. We recommend checking out Face/Off: In the Flesh to pay respects one final time to the park’s long-lived walk-through haunted attraction, even if you’re not a fan of the concept or music choice. The talent is on fire, and it’s nice to see House of Horrors one more time before it fades into the history books. That alone makes this a must-see maze at Horror Nights on our list.

An American Werewolf in London – Yes, yes, and more yes! By far, the strongest of the Halloween Horror Nights 2014 mazes in my opinion, is An American Werewolf in London! This maze is the quintessential HHN attraction, perfectly marrying a strong IP to stunningly accurate environments bursting with terrifying visuals and a crew that knows how to work it, and bring it all home really hard!

Horror_Nights_2014_2208I grew up with An American Werewolf in London. When it hit the screen in 1981, I was 11 years-old and totally into Fangoria and everything horror. The groundbreaking (and Academy Award-winning) visuals and horrifying menace of a werewolf lurking in the misty darkness of the English moors made for a story/film that has stayed with me my whole life. That all came to a head this summer when Universal Studios Hollywood brought the film’s writer/director John Landis to ScareLA for the maze’s public reveal on our main stage during the convention. Ironically, spending about 35 minutes in the green room with Mr. Landis, I didn’t bring up An American Werewolf in London at all. Lame? Probably. I just didn’t want to be that guy, considering our green room is supposed to be a haven for celebrity/special guests that attend the show where they don’t have to worry about being surrounded by fanboys or fangirls. I assure you, I was exploding inside the whole time, however! Watching John and Chris announce the maze and show the teaser video for it gave me goosebumps of the biggest kind.

The only disappointment I have, is that at the end of the American Werewolf in London teaser video, someone came up with the brilliant tag, “Every Night Is A Full Moon”; I wanted that so badly to be on the back of the Horror Nights shirt featuring the IP’s logo. Alas, that didn’t happen. I still bought the shirt – it’s the only one I did buy – but damn, I wanted it to have that slogan as a part of the design!

I was so bummed when Halloween Horror Nights got it in Orlando for their 2013 season, figuring it would never come to Los Angeles since the company had done it already. Luckily, Chris and John have been wanting to have a crack at American Werewolf since they started working together on the event years ago. By far, this was the one maze at Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood that I was most looking forward to this year, and it doesn’t disappoint.

The maze itself follows the story of An American Werewolf in London in a very linear fashion, using original audio tracks from the film along the way to help tell the tale as guests walk through each scene. The facade is a faithful recreation of The Slaughtered Lamb from the film, and the interior is near-perfect, with the infamous red pentangle scrawled on one of the pub’s interior walls.

Our first werewolf sighting – and there are plenty throughout the maze – comes next, with the attack on Jack on the moors. This is where guests get their first look at one of the incredible puppets that was made for this attraction. The famous werewolf looks great in the maze, and there are times when guests are less than a foot away from the creature; hopefully, people don’t abuse that and damage the figures. The werewolf is definitely the Rick Baker design, but with a very slight modern look that is hard to explain. Each figure looks huge and muscular, with glistening teeth and thick manes of black/gray hair. I’d even go so far as to say they actually look better than the ones used in the movie, which is nothing but a compliment to the team that created them and of course the master, Rick Baker himself, who created the beast.

At one point, the maze does deviate from the known story line, featuring a gag with a commuter train in the Tube. To keep in sync with the story, John Murdy asked John Landis what he thought and ultimately, for his approval; Landis thought it was great, and so, visitors have an extra surprise waiting as they pass through the maze’s recreation of the London Tube.

Music plays a big role in the film, and John Murdy carried that element over into the American Werewolf maze, utilizing all three versions of “Blue Moon” – Bobby Vinton, Sam Cooke, and The Marcels – are featured in the maze, as are many of the other tracks from the film, including the nightmare sequences music, making it an audible treat for hard core fans. The unmistakable howl of the creature (God, I want that as a text tone – if you have it, send it my way!) can be heard throughout the experience, including outside the facade as you approach the entrance; of all movie-related sounds, the echoing cry of the beast in An American Werewolf in London is just about at the top of the list for me. Hearing it as we walked up to the front of the maze made me absolutely giddy!

The two scenes that feature the iconic transformation are really well done. Unfortunately, the one chance we had to go through, the talent in the first room was still trying to find his groove, and so it wasn’t very effective, nor would we see him in agony as the transformation begins – which is the whole point of the scene. The main transformation scene that features the elongated body of David turning into the werewolf in Nurse Price’s living room is picture-perfect, with the gag being done the same as it was shot for the movie; it looks fantastic.

Huge kudos to John, Chris and the rest of the HHN team for bringing An American Werewolf in London to life beautifully for the fans here in Southern California! It was a treat and thrill! This maze takes the cake for me this year, and in my opinion, is the must-see attraction that needs to be at the top of your Horror Nights bucket list. If you haven’t seen An American Werewolf in London, try to do so before you visit. Otherwise, you’ll still be able to appreciate some truly amazing scenes and creatures. If you are a fan of the film, then you’re in for a huge treat – Universal Studios Hollywood knocked it out of the park with this one! This is the reason we love Halloween Horror Nights!

THAT’S A WRAP!

A huge thank-you to the entire cast and crew of Halloween Horror Nights 2014! Whether working on the design end, makeup side, or as a monster onstage, deep and sincere kudos to all of you for doing what you do so very well. John Murdy and Chris Williams continue to lead the charge of one of the world’s greatest haunt events and should be thanked a million times over for their year-long hard work and tireless efforts in bringing HHN to life each season; they are both an asset to Universal.

We’d like to send a big TPA shout-out to Larry Bones and the entire crew at Bone Yard Effects, Inc. for bringing the creatures out of the darkness each season for Halloween Horror Nights. You’re the bridge between the living and undead, and your makeup mastery isn’t lost on your friends and fans. Thank you for the many hours and sleepless nights in your shop prepping for this event, and then executing it so well on-site. Kudos and much love to you guys!

Horror_Nights_2014_2366Thank you to the Publicity team at Universal Studios Hollywood for continuing to work so closely with Theme Park Adventure each year, as we bring HHN to fans around the world that may not ever get to see it for themselves otherwise. This event is one of the cornerstones of Halloween here on the West Coast; it is our pleasure to cover it in such detail and present it to our TPAers. Thank you for your continued partnership – one that has lasted 20 years!

Finally, but not literally last, we give huge love and respect for the men and women busting their butts every night at HHN to provide guests with a fantastic experience regardless of your role. If you’re clocked in, you’re part of the Horror Nights team that we’re praising now – from maintenance to retail, to attractions, to monsters. Thank you all so very, very much for leading the way into Halloween 2014 here in Southern California!

And that, as they say in Hollywood – is a wrap!

– Rick West

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