What Is Halloween Horror Nights?
"Universal Studios® Halloween Horror Nights® brings together the sickest minds in horror to immerse you in a living breathing three-dimensional world of terror. From the movie studio that invented the horror film genre, prepare for the scariest, most intense Halloween event in Southern California."
The company's description does better than I ever could at describing this event in so few words. It is a live-entertainment horror experience that has yet to be reckoned with, in my opinion. Some smaller groups have made horror experiences/mazes/hayrides etc., but none have truly been able to compete with their intellectual properties, their spectacle and showmanship, and their professionalism.
They work with the biggest names and movies in the horror business, and they deserve all the praise they receive, but they also deserve an occasional, constructive form of criticism to help hold them accountable for their shortcomings.
8. Terror Tram: Titans of Terror
My Rating: 1/10
Ranking last on my list, and probably my longest critique, is the Terror Tram - Titans of Terror. It is simple... The layout of the terror tram has simply been exhausted and drawn out for far too long. That doesn't mean that they need to relocate, however. I understand that the Psycho set and the War of the Worlds set are both iconic and perfect for a horror atmosphere. The main problem is the lack of creativity coming from the creative department. Although I recognize that this may be due to budgetary reasons, something about the layout has to change. It is always: drop off at the Bates Motel, walk up the hill, walk through the War of the Worlds set, and get picked up. It is such a dull and uniform set-up, that the whole thing grows dull easily after all of these years. The terror tram, in my opinion, has been, and always will be, a way to put a lot of bodies in one place to minimize the lines of the true attractions: the mazes. That is fine, as the mazes already get ridiculously long lines. However, we can at least switch it up a little bit.
I remember people complaining about the Walking Dead being milked too much as the terror tram, but I think that that was the last strong year for the terror tram. The layout worked for the theme and felt more like an extended scare zone than a maze, which is how it should feel. One of the biggest things of horror, especially in horror films, is the sound design. The sound design for the terror tram was non-existent. If there was any music or anything, I can't remember. All I remember was being annoyed by the reused costumes from last year's mazes, the reused set pieces from last year, and, the most terrifying aspect of the terror tram of all... the obvious lack of scareactors. There were about 2 or 3 Jasons, 5 or 6 regular people with lazily applied blood on their faces wearing regular clothing, a couple Leatherfaces (only one actually had a chainsaw), a couple more TCM characters, then 5 or 6 Freddy actors, one dressed in a fireman suit? And camo?... The lack of creativity and the heavy use of last years' costumes, set pieces, and props make for a dull and cheap experience. I understand they reuse items for budget reasons, but this event makes millions upon millions of dollars every year, there is no excuse that they couldn't invest at least $250,000 more a year on updating sets, costumes, and props.
The most infuriating thing of all was when we got back on the tram and had to listen to Chucky shamelessly plug "(his) new movie" which was both obnoxious and insulting as a guest who came for a horror experience. I get that many of the intellectual properties are allowed/agreed upon only if they get to market their new film, but Chucky literally had a 30 second bit of dialogue where he talked about advertising his new film. This was, in a word, insulting. If I had to give a rating to the terror tram out of a possible 10-points, I'd give it 1/10. There's no excuse for this kind of lack of creativity and cheapness from a successful horror studio like Universal.
7. Saw: The Games of Jigsaw
My Rating: 4/10
Saw wasn't technically lacking in any way. It had some great sets and the way they presented "the games of Jigsaw" was creative and interesting. However, this was the most boring and least scary of all the mazes. I can see that they were trying to make it a story based one, which is fine and can be fun. However, the problem is that it was just a collection deaths that added up to nothing and with only a handful of scares from Jigsaw in a mask. I felt like they attempted to be similar to the An American Werewolf in London maze from 2014 (my favorite maze of all time) in the way that it tried to be scenic and tell a story, but the difference is that the Werewolf maze had a progression and then a big pay off in the end, Saw kept the same energy all the way through and had no build-up. Additionally, the performers were not very entertaining in this maze. The interesting thing about An American Werewolf in London was that the physicality of the actors made us feel the torment of transforming into a monster, the survivors in the Saw maze did a little shaking and movement of the limbs, but nothing exciting that made us feel like they were running out of life, or that showed much effort at all. Unfortunately, I'll have to give this maze a 4/10. It was ambitious and tried to succeed where past mazes have, but ultimately fell flat.
6. The Horrors of Blumhouse
My Rating: 5/10
The Horrors of Blumhouse maze was actually not that bad. It had some interesting scenic design and a few great scares. However, the two things that hurt the maze, that ultimately took me out of the experience, were the reuse of sets and layout from last year, and the inconsistent tone/atmosphere. The maze takes you first through the streets of The Purge, then through a game of cat and mouse from the upcoming Blumhouse film Happy Death Day, and, lastly, the house from Sinister. The main problem with The Purge section was that they used the same sets, costumes, and props from last year's The Purge: Gauntlet, but the performers' lively energy made up for this lack of a new environment. The main problem with reusing these pieces is that it allows barely any room for surprise, which is the best part of horror. It was probably the least scary part of the maze, considering that I knew exactly what to expect.
The Happy Death Day section was actually rather fun and had a few good scares, but the fact that only one character was scaring throughout made it quickly feel monotonous, but the performers in this section were actually the best in the maze. The last Sinister section had amazing set design and creatively crafted scares that were great, however, this section lacked the energy of the prior two. This is less to do with the performers' fault and more to do with the fact that the first two were pumping with energy and fun and bright, colorful lights, and this section is rather dull. Unfortunately, this hurts the end of the maze as it is inconsistent with the atmosphere and tone that had already been set-up. It just doesn't give us enough time to adjust to the quieter, slower, and creepier vibe that Sinister projects. It also doesn't help that half of the performers were seriously lacking in this section. Though a few gave a good effort, too many times were there missed opportunities for a good scare because some of the performers felt a bit withdrawn and like they were holding back.
Overall, I'd have to give The Horrors of Blumhouse a 5/10. Great potential and a good amount of creativity, but inconsistent tone/atmosphere, the blatant reuse of materials from last year resulting in familiarity, and lack of diverse characters in the last two sections stop me from praising this maze further.
5. American Horror Story: Roanoke
My Rating: 6/10
So, let's start with the good stuff. The sets are great, the sound design is pretty damn good, and the atmosphere is pretty great, as well. The pig-man masks are pretty cool, and the maze has a couple of good scares. However, the biggest downfall is the lack of diversity of scary characters, the lack of energy and creativity from the performers, and the lack of creative/surprising scares. Pretty much all of the scares come from the Butcher and the pig-man, with the exception of one or two characters that are thrown in there.
The idea of the blood moon is a brilliant one, why they didn't use it as an opening scare zone idea is beyond me, it fits perfectly. It's not like Roanoke was exactly lacking in characters. When the blood moon comes out, there are literally dozens of ghosts that walk the streets and interact with the living, ultimately to kill them. There were plenty of creepy characters in last year's season. It just doesn't make sense to me why they would pass up on this amazing opportunity.
In regards to the performers, the energy and creativity simply weren't there. The Butcher didn't feel like the Butcher, she mostly just stood there with cemented feet. There was some movement in the arms and use of the prop knife, but, other than that, it just felt like the character had something better to do and was just annoyed by our being there. This could easily be fixed. The Butcher knows right away who she wants to kill when she eyes her next victim. She stalks her prey, and then she terrorizes her victims with a violent stare until she has completely butchered them. As for the pig-man, he should be crazy with energy and have sharp, sporadic movements flowing through his body. The most effort I saw from this character when I went into the maze was the pig-man press the lighting/sound trigger, walking out, putting his knife up, and then walking away. He didn't even engage or try to give the sense of "I'm trying to kill you." It was flat and stale and became boring after the third or fourth scare.
Speaking of scares, the set-ups were not very creative in this maze. The scares were extremely predictable and far too frequent, the performers did not give enough downtime between scares and simply having a white blanket to hide behind is not a good set-up. This maze easily could have been one of the best mazes of the event, but, it ultimately just fell flat and the delivery did not match the quality of the set pieces and technical design. For this, I have to give it a 6/10. This was the most frustrating maze for me because I desperately wanted it to be my favorite, but it just didn't offer what I wanted out of the experience.
My Rating: 6.5/10
The Insidious maze was, overall, a fun experience, but also another depraved one. The lighting and sound design were probably the best in this maze, the set design was good, though it had many re-used sets from prior years. The costume design of the new demonic creature from the upcoming Insidious movie is the best marketing/publicity for the new film as it is creepy and terrifyingly disfigured. The sequences from the former Insidious films felt a little flat. Though they were still visually interesting, the familiarity (which I keep mentioning) which comes from the reuse of sets and costumes of the maze makes it unexciting at points. However, the sequences that involved ambiguous scenes from the new movie made me rather excited. Not to mention that they gave me a damn good scare. Other than that, however, this maze wasn't too a-maze-ing.
Honestly, even though not as obviously boring and lacking in creativity, it is still inconsistent and the most of it is forgettable, but at least the great moments that it does have are worth your time.
3. Titans of Terror: Maze
My Rating: 8.5/10
First of all, I need to praise the conceptual story that lies within the maze. I completely understood the idea that we are entering a child's nightmares of his favorite horror movie villains, that was clear from the beginning, and I love that they were able to do that from the very first room. All of these small and hidden details, from the television set video to the Freddy sweatshirt curtains, did a masterful job of pulling us into this original story with familiar characters. Though this maze uses set pieces and costumes from earlier years, this maze does a good job of making something new out of them. The problem with the other mazes is that they construct everything almost exactly as they were designed the year before, they did nothing new with them. At least this maze took those same sets and costumes, and turned them into new sequences and breathed new life into these classic horror monsters.
The only complaint I have is that some of the scares felt unearned and forced. I know HHN is all about the scares, but I can tell when they're just lazily putting a performer in there because they felt that they hadn't had a jump-scare in a while. It's okay to not have a scare for 2 or 3 rooms/sequences, it builds atmosphere and suspense, I think that the maze could have benefitted from just allowing the story and suspense to build together until we have that great, well-earned surprise.
Though this wasn't a big problem, some of the performers could have done a better job of embodying their characters, but most of the performers picked up the physicality of these characters really well. Aside from the story concept behind the maze, the greatest strength that this maze was the scares. Though, as I mentioned before, a few scares felt unearned and lacked creativity, the designers/minds behind this maze obviously know these characters/movies very well as they implemented character into the scares. Freddy's scares were unique and playful, Jason had movements that were brute strength and terrifyingly aggressive, and Leatherface was insane and surreal and disturbing in every way. The Freddy carriage and the boiler room scares were my favorites, especially the performer who punched his Freddy hand through a victim and mocked/taunted us with just his hand, as Freddy would.
The overall design and concept of this maze was fantastic and worked extremely well. For that, I have to give it an 8.5/10. A very creative and unique horror experience involving classic horror villains. Brilliant.
2. Ash vs. Evil Dead
My Rating: 8.5/10
ASHY SLASHY! ASHY SLASHY! I understand that my bias might be showing here, as a massive Evil Dead fanatic, but I also think that makes me the most qualified to tell you that this maze is fucking-awesome. It's got pretty much everything you could want out of a maze: the scares, awesome character design and performance, great sets, and the best lighting and sound design of all of the mazes this year.
I'm usually skeptical of mazes that are Horror-Comedy, furthermore, I'm also extremely skeptical of any maze that has been adapted from one of my favorite movies/TV shows. However, despite my skepticism, this maze proudly surprised me in that it was both a blast and absolutely scary. It was actually the scariest maze of them all, for me. This maze has so many little details from the television show, Ash vs. Evil Dead, which I highly recommend.
I love that we start in Ash's mobile-home, it has so many fun elements to its design and even a creepy deadite and Ash Williams himself. One of the most notable aspects of the maze was the sound design, particularly the dialogue bits that did a great job of summing up both the essence of the scene and Ash as a character. The voices of the deadites were creepy and maniacal, Ash was sarcastic and vulgar, and the sound effects were atmospheric and creepy. And, the scares are amazing! There's a part with bedsheets hung across a narrow hallway and it just relentlessly builds suspense until the next deadite attacks, and it is great, it works. Also, I loved the use of the long-necked deadite in the cellar from Evil Dead II, it was a great character and amazingly well puppeteered.
My only complaint is that it is far too short and that they should fill the black painted walls/hallways with more elements of the TV show to make it interesting and entertaining. The first time I went through the maze it was jammed and slow, which was nice cuz it allowed me to check everything out. However, while the details in Ash's mobile-home were amazing, the very next hallway was rather bland. Usually, the biggest downfall to a maze with a lot of jammed traffic is that you see the scares coming from a mile away, but the performers did a good job of waiting and feeling out the audience's speed for the best scare.
For all this, I'm rather impressed and gladly give this maze a 8.5/10 rating. It was a blast: it hands down had the best scares and was the most fun of all the mazes for me. However, in the name of objectivity, I won't give it the #1 spot.
1. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
My Rating: 9.5/10
"All work and no play make Jack a dull boy."
This maze was masterful in pretty much every sense. Out of all of the classic Horror films adapted into a maze, this one was the most accurate to the original's intent and function. Because HHN is all about the scares, it would have been easy for a slow-boiling, Psychological Horror film like The Shining to have contrived and forced scares, but it never stoops to that level. The maze does exactly what the movie does, it forces us to take the main characters' perspectives and slowly fall into complete madness with them.
The sequence with "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" written all over the walls did a great job of making us feel confused and on-edge, like we are spiraling into madness. The design alone was enough to make this maze a classic, but what the performers added to it made it an unforgettable experience. They did an amazing job of getting as close as they possibly could without actually hitting you. Also, while I usually don't like blank hallways, the lighting in the pitch-black hallways was so dim and dark that it made you feel like you were actually in a maze, it made you lose sense of direction and it is both scary and anxiety-inducing, in the best way possible. I can't praise this maze enough, it was exactly what horror fans deserve from these types of horror events.
Please, go check it out for yourself. I don't want to spoil any more. For all of this, I award this maze a 9.5/10, and it will also go down in history as, in my opinion, the second best HHN maze of all time, right behind An American Werewolf in London.
© 2017 Jacob Holmquist-Franco