Last week saw the media preview of Thorpe Park's Fright Nights, perhaps the most anticipated Halloween event in the UK theme park calendar. While not on the scale of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights – which pretty much operates in its own league these days – it offers a full evening's entertainment with custom houses and coasters in the dark.
As well as the returning (albeit tweaked) four mazes based on Lionsgate films, this year sees the addition of original concept The Big Top and an escape-the-room upcharge attraction, Containment. (The latter was closed last night due to technical difficulties – I'll be returning to give it a run through at a later date.) Having missed the last couple years of Fright Nights, these were all fresh to me, and it's interesting to see the energy (and budget) focused solely on the mazes rather than scare zones and incidental entertainment.
The headline addition for this year, circus-themed The Big Top is admirably ambitious in its attempt to craft something more of a story-based environment. But sadly, it's also the most obvious example of the park struggling with a limited budget. Some areas left me wondering if I'd stumbled into a backstage corridor comprised of nothing but black fabric, with no theming or actors in sight.
It's a real shame because it also contains some of the event's most inventive moments. The 'demonic circus' is a scare maze standard, but Thorpe deliver some decent innovations, including a surprisingly effective mirror set piece and an outdoor encounter with a fortune teller. Hopefully the park will set some budget aside next year to plus this one and create a more immersive experience – it has the potential to be a highlight.
While ultimately devoid of much 'scare', Cabin in the Woods is a lot more fun, making use of the film's varied environments and characters. Sadly, some of the effects along the way are so cheap-looking as to prompt a genuine double-take – the attempt to recreate the monster cages from the film is frankly embarrassing – but the maze is populated enough to keep the energy high. It's also probably the most playful of the houses, with a 'secret room' (that'll make little sense to those who've not seen the film but is a treat for those who have), a neat choose-your-route moment and entertaining actor interactions in the queue.
Personally, I found there were a few too many moments of actors blocking my path – and not using the opportunity to do much other than stare at me – at which point, the conceit of the thing unravels. The feeling of being terrified to move ahead through the maze, yet simultaneously compelled to do so, is the central duality that drives a properly terrifying maze experience. A straight-up block, either narratively or physically, runs the risk of reminding you that the threat is really just an illusion.
As a permanent build in the park, we'll be seeing SAW Alive for a while yet. But rather than growing old badly, its years have translated into a more polished experience – the actors know how to get the most out of the sets, and the journey has been tweaked over time. (Even if it does rely a little too much on screaming in our faces rather than generating genuine shocks.)
I'm still not convinced by the pre-show, setting up the 'game' conceit from the films, because the maze itself has little to do with Saw's central conceit. But if you can forget about that and engage with the maze on its own merits, this is still one of Fright Night's stronger houses. There's a genuine sense of getting lost in here, and a dread of pushing ahead into the next room.
The Blair Witch Project proves a nice change of pace, set in an undeveloped woodland strip behind the park. A relief from the un-themed blank walls that still populate too many of the mazes, the darkness and shadows of the trees do much of the work, and I appreciated the subtlety of the performances and make-up. It suffers from being a straight line, where there's little opportunity to surprise, but gets the most out of the environment to generate an atmospheric few minutes.
There's very little here to actually scare you though, and Thorpe are very upfront about this – giving it a 'Scare Factor' of 2 out of 5. It adds a decent shot of variety to the line-up, and one of the more effective exercises in immersive storytelling. It'd serve as a good introduction to mazes for kids or Fright Nights newcomers too, so this is the one to start with if you're not sure how you feel about mazes.
Don't push the buttons you'll find along the path though. Tempting though they might seem, they'll trigger an emergency stop for the whole maze – as our group found out first-hand, and were promptly evacuated back to the station by an actor who instantly switched from hissing at us to being rather polite. (Which we were hoping was all a brilliant surprise as part of the experience, if anyone in the industry is looking for ideas...)
The last house on the line-up, My Bloody Valentine is advertised by Thorpe as their scariest maze – and I cannot fathom why. It's little more than a very simple sequence of corridors with next-to-no décor, providing few opportunities for the actors to successfully hide or interact with the set – so they're left largely running up and down yelling and waving pickaxes in your face, through no fault of their own. I found it just to show a fundamental misunderstanding of fear. Maybe others will disagree.
There's a clever move to split the group up near the start, and a tunnel-crawl is a great touch – my friend was followed in and grabbed a couple of times – but there's little else here that shows much in the way of imagination. A pre-maze spiel was well-delivered, but of little relevance to the maze itself – such confusions actively reduce the ability of an audience to engage with the narrative world. If we're too busy trying to work out what's going on, we're probably not imaginatively-engaged enough to start screaming.
Ultimately, there's a lot of fun to be had across the park – and the stellar line-up of coasters in the dark is always a sweet deal – but I found Fright Nights this year light on actual scares. Mazes generally need a few nights for actors to work out how best to interact with the audience, and how to get the most out of the spaces they're working with – so it'll no doubt settle in with time.
Despite the uneven designs, the experience is carried well by the performers – the energy was great right across the board, and the interactions were already being tailored to the response from individual audience members. Just as with I'm A Celebrity... earlier this year and Shrek's Adventure up the road in London, they prove to be the trump card.
It's also worth noting that Fright Nights represents pretty decent value, in comparison with both other theme park Halloween offerings and Thorpe Park's usual entry fee (£24.99 online in advance, compared to £29.99 for a FN ticket).
While not the most extreme or immersive of theme park Halloween events, it's an entertaining line-up – big on fun, but just a little light on the frights. I'm looking forward to returning to give the mazes a second pass, and seeing if Containment can deliver the bigger scares.
Fright Nights at Thorpe Park runs selected dates until November 1st 2015.Tweet
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