Success has finally caught up with Universal's Horror Nights as the gold standard of Halloween theme park events has grown too predictable, complacent and popular for its own good.
After years of defining and redefining the bleeding edge of theme park terror, a combination of overwhelming crowds, shrinking space due to construction and a weak collection of haunted mazes delivered a triple whammy to Halloween Horror Nights this year at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Crowds have become an increasing problem as Horror Nights has grown in popularity, but this year was unbearable. During my opening weekend visit, queues outside some mazes stretched to 2 1/2 hours at their peak. Inside the mazes that translated to a conga line of people that frequently ground to a halt, virtually killing every opportunity for any scares.
Construction on Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem (opening in spring 2014) and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (2015 or later) has shrunk the footprint of the already compact upper lot and caused much of the overcrowding. On the upside, all that construction forced Horror Nights to expand for the first time onto the studio backlot and a soundstage, opening up expansion opportunities for future seasons.
What hurt Horror Nights more than construction walls and overwhelming crowds were mediocre mazes and recycled themes. HHN 2013 lacked an iconic figure like Freddy Krueger from "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Jason Voorhees from "Friday the 13th" or heavy metal madman Alice Cooper to serve as the face of the event. For the first time ever, the scare zones were more interesting than the haunted mazes -- which is saying something considering the amount of effort put into the mazes.
Nothing beats the smell of chain saws in the evening and the Purge: Survive the Night scare zone based on the 2013 thriller about masked vigilantes could have easily been a great maze. Likewise for the Curse of Chucky scare zone if only they filled the maze with a few dozen of the pint-sized "scareactors" playing the diminutive dolls. Even the stilt-walking Scarecrowz on the lower lot were extremely effective, teaming up to terrorize the weak and vulnerable among the teeming masses.
So what can Universal Studios Hollywood do to tame the crowds? Since the Halloween season has already been stretched to mid-September and the powers that be certainly don't want to turn people away at the gate, the most obvious solution is to add more mazes. Whether that's with brand-name horror movies, classic monsters from the Universal vault or more generic themes remains to be seen.
Here's a rundown of the Halloween Horror Nights 2013 mazes at Universal Studios Hollywood, from best to worst:
The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead maze managed to represent everything I've come to expect from Halloween Horror Nights -- well-conceived scenes, impeccably rendered sets, ghostly lighting and stellar special effects. I loved the bloody animatronic girl emerging from a basement trap door and the chain-saw-through-the-mouth gag was one of the most delightfully disgusting scenes of the evening.
Returning from last year, the revamped Walking Dead: No Safe Haven was probably the best maze of the night and easily the most crowded. Endless lines of people standing still in marquee spaces like Cell Block C completely ruined the experience. There's not much a "scareactor" can do to frighten you when you're watching him pull out and stuff back in his intestines over and over again because you're stuck standing in front of his prison cell.
Among the highlights: A sextet of animatronic zombies rushing toward visitors, an aquarium filled with floating zombie heads and soldier cut in half next to a military helicopter.
Surprisingly, the Walking Dead scare zone was more effective than the maze simply because the "walkers" had room to work and interact with visitors. Same goes for the "walkers" infesting the Bates Motel on the other side of the backlot, where I encountered some of the best in-your-face scares.
Black Sabbath: 13 3D, my most anticipated maze of the night, turned out to be a disappointing wasted opportunity. Rather than bring the band's biggest songs to life with themes of the occult, addiction and war, the black light maze proved to be little more than a bunch of neon painted rooms with random monsters and a vague soundtrack.
While the wildly disorienting 3-D effects were impressive at times, they had little connection to the band or its four decades of music. Last year's Alice Cooper maze worked because the singer was ingeniously turned into a recognizable monster that tracked you throughout the labyrinth.
The highlight of the night was watching Ozzy Osbourne and his Sabbath band mates walk through the maze on a private tour just before we entered. That made for a relatively uncrowded experience when we ultimately followed after the Prince of Darkness, but the plodding snail’s pace had resumed by the time we exited as a two-hour line of people waited to enter.
El Cucuy: The Boogeyman maze turned out to be better than expected, even though it essentially reused last year's La Llorona maze. The simple story presented the boogeyman in his many freaky forms -- including a well-executed monster under the bed and a creepy pumpkinhead creature crying for help.
The Insidious: Into the Further maze, based on a supernatural horror film about a haunted family, lacked all the elements I've come to expect from a Horror Nights maze - distinctive scenes, a repeatable and readily identifiable villain and compelling back story.
Insidious offered little more than the occasional monster popping out of a door, emerging from behind a picture frame or mingling among stuffed dummies. Universal should be able to do better than that.
By now everybody knows Universal doesn't even bother trying with the year-round House of Horrors attraction during Horror Nights, as evidenced by the 10-minute line on an otherwise jam-packed evening.
Thanks to extremely low expectations, this year's Universal Monster Remix: Resurrection maze proved better than expected. A bit of a hold-up before entering created enough buffer space throughout the maze to give the "scareactors" room to operate.
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