We visited Universal last night for the finale of Halloween Horror Nights. We'd avoided it all season and had read reports that the days following Halloween were usually more quiet. Perhaps it was because it was a Saturday night, but the place was still packed with average waits for mazes clocking in between 90 and 120 minutes. Fortunately, with some strategy and a bit of luck, we were able to go through all the mazes, ride Harry Potter, the little Harry Potter coaster, and Transformers in just under 6 hours. The longest line we waited in was for The Exorcist (80 mins), but when we arrived at the entrance, we were handed a front-of-line pass (at random, it seems?) that we then used for American Horror Story that was also clocking in at around 100+ mins for much of the night. They were pulsing the mazes rather than letting a steady stream of people go through — which made for better maze experiences, but made the lines super sluggish. Also, front of line passes were everywhere, and managing the congestion of those lines (some of which were quite long) with regular lines was a bit messy. As always, the park looked great and the scream actors were uniformly excellent. They're really top notch at getting right in your face while never touching you and many seem positively acrobatic in their movement. Anyhow, the mazes, from best to worst:
The Exorcist: Our expectations for this were low, and we weren't sure how Universal would be able to develop a maze from a film with such limited scenery and monsters. It was excellent. One of very few mazes I've ever walked through where I was aware of my increased heart rate. I actually found myself hoping it would end sooner than later, and that's never happened to me before before in a maze like this — the scares were almost too much. The conceit of the maze was simple but remarkably effective: much of it was pitch black (aside from three or four creative takes on the bedroom scenes and a few others), punctuated by a surprising amount of highly intense jump scares. Even though we knew they were coming, the jump scares got us every time. The lighting effects throughout were simple (lots of the subliminal face from the film) but all looked fantastic. It struck the perfect balance between really creepy and straight-up terrifying. One of the most effective haunt mazes I've experienced at any park. 10/10
Halloween: Last year's Halloween didn't do much for us, and we waited a dreary 60 minutes to get in it. This year was much improved with almost every scene from the previous maze completely transformed. The sets were extremely immersive with lots of trick scares throughout (such as the scene where Michael Myers is slightly visible behind a shower curtain so you'll know he'll jump out as you approach, but a different Myers springs out at you from another part of the room instead). The maze incorporated key scenes from all three Halloween movies, ending with the bizarre series-busting Halloween III and a great final scare right at the exit that was very in-your-face. One of the best mazes of the night, and leagues better than the previous version. 9/10
Texas Chainsaw: We feared that this would be little more than chainsaws and carcasses, but it was far more immersive. While there were plenty of great jump scares throughout, it was the scenery and characters that made this one work. While not nearly as scary as The Exorcist, it was a great balance between elaborate set design, humor, and overall creepiness. 9/10
Freddy Vs. Jason: I'm not sure who watches these kind of films, and the film's conceit suggests that Hollywood has been out of ideas for some time now. The maze, despite the illogicality of Freddy Krueger chumming it up with Jason Voorhees, itself was a lot of fun. What made it work was that it was quite compact with small hallways giving you little room to escape the various blades and weapons flying toward your face. Plenty of cool tricks inside such as vanishing walls, blinding light tunnels, and tons of great jumps throughout. 9/10
Krampus: Low expectations for this one too, but it was also much better than expected. Lots of sets look like they were on loan from past mazes (Crimson Peak and Aliens), but overall, it was a good balance of cute-ish satire and terror. Some fantastic scares throughout, and excellent set immersion with strong environmental effects. 8/10
American Horror Story: While the above mazes were all exceptional, a couple saw a pretty severe drop off. This maze is huge, and as the result, much of it feels too open. There was a lot of dead space in this one with entire rooms devoid of props or characters, and not enough action to carry it off throughout. The gimmicky-but-effective light trigger / sound effect used by scare actors in the other mazes was largely absent here, and so AHS was little more than relatively human-looking people just opening doors as you walked by. There was also a mini scare zone inside which took up a huge amount of room (a circus-type space) and all the scare actors were clearly visible before entering. Aside from some creative designs (the art deco hotel was kind of cool), American Horror story was all bark and no bite. It looked good, but it was let down by the shoddy design and general incoherency. We were fortunate to use a front-of-line pass for this one as we would have been disappointed if we'd waited two hours for it. 4/10
Terror Tram: This wasn't very good last year, but this year was utter garbage (consistent with Eli Roth's meagre contributions to horror I guess). The only redeeming factor was that some of the static props in the second part looked good. Hackneyed concept (creepy clowns, yawn) with almost no maze design to speak of and completely uninspired scare actors. To be honest, this felt about on par with a cheap, makeshift neighborhood haunted house. A pox on the terror tram. 2/10
Scare Zones, compared to other parks, are smaller and less intense, but the scare actors are exceptional at what they do. It’s amazing how close they get to whacking you in the face, and many of their moves border on choreography. More than one attacker approached with an elaborate series of spins and turns before stopping inches from your face.
Although many of the narratives are a bit lost on me (I do like the horror genre very much, but tend not to watch the kind that Universal seems to produce), there’s no question that Universal is the reigning champ of haunts in the LA area. It’s a shame the place gets so insanely crowded, and there’s really not much they can do to help people experience more of the park (I assume many leave frustrated), but its understandable given the overall quality of the haunt. A great way to wrap up the season, and having visited SFMM, Knott's, and now Universal, I can safely say that Universal came out on top once more. Knott's was solid this year, and SFMM was as atrocious as always, but Universal continues to raise the bar.