The reinvigorated 41-year-old beast known as Knott's Scary Farm has shaken off the shackles of entitlement and cobwebs of advancing age to reassert itself as a contender in the heavyweight battle for Halloween supremacy in Southern California.
The granddaddy of all Halloween theme park events had gotten soft and lazy in recent years as cross-town rival Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood rose to prominence and threatened to steal its bloodied crown.
This year's emphatic rebuttal finds Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm improving by leaps and bounds with a conscious effort to reduce the emphasis on quantity in favor of a focus on quality.
Gone are the woeful paint-on-plywood mazes with monsters wearing store-bought rubber masks, replaced by new and returning mazes featuring improved set dressings, props and lighting with more monsters in full makeup.
What the Buena Park theme park needs to focus on next is talent. Far too many of the maze monsters during my opening weekend visit were passive, distant and lifeless. They need an injection of the type of energy demonstrated by the Haunt's scare zone monsters, who consistently stalked after their prey with relentless zeal.
Also lacking inside the mazes were repeatable scenes with living victims and choreographed scare sequences. Far too many of the rooms were filled with lifeless dummies and monsters aimlessly milling around. Now that the rooms look like movie sets, the "scareactors" need a script.
Here's my review of the Halloween Haunt 2013 mazes from best to worst:
1) Trapped: The New Experiment
The completely revamped reservation-only up-charge maze sold out every night last year and significantly raised the bar for quality at Knott's. This year, Haunt's maze makers have introduced a whole new set of doorless rooms you have to puzzle your way out of.
While I won't give anything away, I will say that this year's Trapped maze does appear to have multiple alternate routes.
Unfortunately the 2013 version of Trapped is only half as good as the 2012 original. That said, Trapped is still the head-and-shoulders best maze in the park. It's just that the new rooms aren't as creative, intense or difficult to escape from as last year.
2) Black Magic
The experience begins outside the maze with a spectacular digital paint job on the facade that intermittently builds brick by brick, catches on fire and flows with blood. It was the most impressive special effect of night and the exact level of detail Knott's should bring to all its mazes.
New this year are the Skeleton Key rooms, intimate explanations of the back stories for select mazes that are offered to visitors who opt to pay extra for the Fright Lane front-of-line upgrade.
Black Magic offered the best Skeleton Room of the night with a handful of visitors sitting around a séance table as the spirit of Harry Houdini is summoned. Without spoiling the surprise, the maze recounts a number of the famed magician's escapes that quite naturally go awry.
With straitjacketed magicians hanging upside down and madmen trapped in prison cells, the first few rooms of Black Magic should serve as a blueprint for the attention to detail that Knott's needs to bring to every maze going forward.
From the water tank escape to the knife-throwing gag to the manic room full of rabbits, Black Magic was a disturbing delight throughout.
My biggest jolt of the night: A sliding mirror that revealed a monster who leaped right at me. Knott's needs more of these effective types of repeatable scares.