Universal Studios Hollywood: Halloween Horror Nights 2011

Friday, September 23, in conjunction with the opening of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Studios held it’s annual celebration of all things terrifying with The Eyegore Awards. As much a party as an award show, this was a unique opportunity to hobnob with the masters of the genre. Horror might not be at it’s most popular right now, but you’d never know it being in that room. Surrounded by legends such as Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, etc., everybody was in the mood to be scared.

The mood was set the moment we walked into the venue. Designed as a corn field, the set decoration immediately brought to mind any number of classic horror films. After mingling with the likes of Rainn Wilson (The Office, House of 1000 Corpses) and Bailee Madison (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), the awards began. As usual, Corey Feldman hosted, and did an intentionally horrible job. Bantering back and forth with a scarecrow performer, he brought his typical pun-filled self-deprecating humor to the proceedings. Looking absolutely ridiculous in a feathered cloak, it was obvious he was having a great time, no matter how bad his material was It’s sort-of a backhanded compliment, but I truly enjoy just how awful he is every year.

As for the awards themselves, I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure who determines the winners every year. I can’t help but feel a little cynical that most of the recipients are either promoting an upcoming film, have just had a recent film in the theaters, or are involved in some capacity with one of Universal’s horror mazes. Having said that, it doesn’t really matter. To be in a horror film, and more importantely, to be good in a horror film, you have to have some appreciation of the genre. I genuinely believe that every recipient is a fan, and loves what they do. Whether or not the awards are legit, the gratitude of the recipients felt completely sincere, and some of the speeches were genuinely touching.

A particular standout was Bailee Madison, the youngest winner of an Eyegore ever. She was receiving an award for her work in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and she seemed legitimately excited and honored to be there. Her speech was articulate and heartfelt, and I really hope that we see a lot more from her over the years. Other winners included a very funny Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rainn Wilson, Emma Bell, and Alice Cooper (his daughter Calico accepted his award on his behalf).

The awards were capped off with the winner of the annual Halloween Horror Nights short film contest. This year’s winner was called “Monster In My Swimming Pool,” and while it wasn’t my favorite short to ever win, it was moderately creative and had some neat shots. For being so short, I felt the story could have been streamlined a little bit, and the narrative could have had a little more focus. Still, it’s neat to see up and coming filmmakers get opportunities such as this, and I wish winner Brent Bokovoy the best of luck.

With this, the party was over and it was time to venture into the park itself. Featuring several new mazes, this is one of most creatively exhilirating Halloween events you can find. While I was a little concerned when I discovered that every maze was inspired by a pre-existing property, story, etc., I was thrilled as I went from maze to maze, discovering that the creators used the original material to inspire twisted and highly original new visions. Unlike other Halloween attractions that exist simply to startle, Universal immerses the participant in the world of the story. Beyond simply jumping from random “boo” effects, you will be legitimately scared.

Whether it’s the hideous extra-terrestrial transformations in The Thing maze, or the drowned bodies of La Llorona, you will see things that will cling with you, images that will not let you go. The storytelling is what makes these mazes so effective, and every maze is designed to move a narrative forward. I have to hand it to Universal. I think this could be one of their best years yet.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t a perfect event. I’ve always enjoyed the pop-culture skewering of the Bill and Ted show, but this year’s felt a little lackluster and the jokes more obvious than usual. The story was a little more inconsequential than previous years as well. However, the performers were all great, with some terrific impersonations, dancing, fighting, etc. There was a lot of energy from everyone involved.

I was also slightly disappointed in this years Terror Tram. This year, they based it on Scream 4, and the whole thing felt a little obvious and forced to me. That’s not to say that it wasn’t still fun. It’s always a thrill to get to walk around the backlot, especially to see the War of the Worlds set up close. It’s just that this is the only part of the night where the source material didn’t seem to inspire anything. They simply placed people in costume around the sets and had them jump at you. There’s only so many times you can see Ghostface before it gets old.

Eli Roth’s Hostel, Alice Cooper’s Nightmare, the Wolfman, La Llorona, The Thing, and House of 1000 Corpses. Six mazes, six opportunities to be terrified. If that wasn’t enough, there are also several “scare zones” to be experienced. These are sections of the park set to different themes, overrun with different terrifying creatures. It’s a highly interactive and immersive world they have created. While there are several similar events out there, Universal’s reigns supreme.

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