Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights Surprises and Delights

Well, it was bound to happen.  I’ve attended Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights for years now, and have always been astounded at the way they continually push themselves, evolving year in and year out into the biggest, scariest, and simply put, best Halloween event there is.  Yet this year, something was off.  It wasn’t that the event was bad.  Far from it.  It just wasn’t blow-your-mind amazing.

Watch highlights from the mazes:

There were a lot of factors that played a part in the underwhelming feeling of the whole thing.  The most glaringly obvious change was the absence of the Bill and Ted show. A long-time staple of Halloween Horror Nights, Bill and Ted have such a direct correlation with the event, it just felt wrong to not have them there. I’m sure there’s a great reason for their absence, but whatever it was, I definitely hope it’s resolved by next year.

As for the mazes, there’s good news and bad news.  As always, most of the mazes directly tie into a pre-existing intellectual property. This usually isn’t an issue, as the mazes use these shows/films as a springboard to place the participants into the middle of the stories, enabling us to become active participants and feel the terror of what it would be like to experience the movie or show firsthand.  The mazes were as technically proficient as ever, but the majority of the new mazes failed at bringing the participants into the story.

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For example, the new maze Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood, based on the upcoming film, did nothing to introduce us to the world of the movie. The vampires almost all looked the same, the set designs were redundant, and it was impossible to follow any narrative as to what was happening.  The maze inspired by the El Rey Network tv series From Dusk Till Dawn had the same problem.  Once you find yourself in the infamous strip club of the franchise, “The Twister,” nothing much happens beyond variations of the same dancing girl jumping out again and again.  It’s hard to be scared when the same thing is happening from one room to the next.

The flip side of all this is the new maze inspired by AVP: Alien vs. Predator.  A definite highlight of the event, this maze is the only new location to truly capture the excitement and terror of the movies on which it’s based.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but as you go through this maze, you find yourself trapped in the middle of an epic battle between these two horror franchise titans.  There are a variety of locations, clever scare effects, some amazing set and creature design, and probably the best finale of any maze I’ve seen in years.  Mazes like this are the reason I come back to these events year after year.  Whatever reservations I have about the other mazes is more than made up for by the genius on display in this one.

Every year, Universal introduces at least one fantastic new maze, and usually more.  Unfortunately, a maze that started out amazing can start to feel old when not updated.  For example, “Terror Tram: Invaded by the Walking Dead,” could really use an upgrade.  I absolutely love the Walking Dead, but it’s time for them to find a new twist on the Terror Tram.  If you’ve never been before, it’s a fantastic experience where you get to walk through the back lot, including the infamous War of the Worlds set, all while being attacked by zombies.  However, with slight variations, it’s been the same exact event for a while now, and is in definite need of an upgrade.  It especially feels redundant considering there is an actual Walking Dead maze, independent of this, that is only a slight variation on the Walking Dead maze from last year.

Other mazes include a walk through inspired by the classic film “An American Werewolf in London.”  I really enjoyed this maze, and while nowhere near the level of AvP, it was obvious that a great deal of work went into capturing the atmosphere and dread of the original film.  The problem with this maze is, again, repetition.  There is fantastic creature design, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any evolution of the creatures.  Once you see the first werewolf, there’s nowhere really left to go.  I have to hand it to the performers in this maze as well.  They really sell the individual moments, and enhanced the overall experience.

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Speaking of repetition, “Clowns 3D” with original music by Slash, contained one of the longest stretches of repetition from any of the mazes.  I have to give credit for the design of the 3D in this maze, as it is incredibly disorienting to walk through a physical environment with 3D elements poping out at you.  However, long stretches of the maze are essentially going from identical room to identical room with little to no variation.  The clowns are creative, and as the maze progresses, there are different set pieces, but it really takes a while to get going.  However, Slash’s music is amazing, and if you are a fan of his, this is a must-do experience.

Finally, the last maze is “Face Off: In the Flesh.”  Based on SyFy’s hit TV show, this maze incorporates various designs from the contestants and places them strategically throughout different themed areas of the maze.  There’s really no cohesion to this maze at all, going from insect creatures, to scarecrows, to an Alice In Wonderland themed rave, and on and on.  I actually enjoyed the disjointed experience of the whole thing, and found the designs to be as spectacular as you’d expect.  It’s not scary, by any means, but this maze was entertaining in a way other mazes aren’t able to be, and for that reason, it’s a maze worth checking out.

One aspect of this event that doesn’t get enough credit is the design of the “Scare Zones.”  These are small little stretches of the park with different themes, filled with fog, and roamed by terrifying creatures with the entire purpose of scaring you on an individual level.  This year, there are zones based on The Purge: Anarchy, which is worth experience for the fire effects alone, The Walking Dead, which is exactly what you would expect, Mask-a-Raid, which is a very clever area filled with cannibalistic aristocrats, Dark Christmas, my favorite scare zone of them all featuring a hellish Christmas nightmare, and Skullz, based on the Native American legend of Wendigo.

Of course, if you find yourself in need of a break from all the terror, the rides are all open as well.  This includes the new Minion ride, Jurassic Park (in the dark), The Mummy, and Transformers: The Ride-3D, and more.

I’ve always held this event to incredibly high standards, and while there were moments of greatness, this year just didn’t stand out as strong as most.  That’s not to say that I didn’t have a great time.   There’s still an incredible atmosphere that Universal creates, and the artistry that goes into creating an event such as this is overwhelming.  It’s an incredible experience, and well worth checking out.

Beginning nightly at 7:00, remaining dates include September 26, 27, October 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, and November 1, and 2.  Tickets can be purchased at www.halloweenhorrornights.com/hollywood/2014/tickets.php.  Be advised that this event will sell out, so advance tickets are recommended.

Check-out Our Photo Gallery from Opening Night! (Photos taken by Andrew Lockerbie)

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