Sure, I've been to the west coast version at Universal Studios Hollywood before, since that's far more conveniently located to my Southern California home. And I enjoy the privilege of walking through Horror Nights mazes under construction with @HorrorNights himself, John Murdy, each year. But Universal Orlando's event beats the Hollywood version in both size and attendance.
What about quality? That's up for debate, but at least now I will be able to participate in that as an informed observer... not that the lack of first-hand knowledge ever has kept anyone from joining an online debate before. [Imagine my eye roll here.] Anyway, when I found a sub-$200, round-trip, non-stop flight to Orlando for this year's opening night, I figured now was the year alleviate my guilt and to go to the Big One — Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights.
There's no character icon for this year's event, but Universal has bestowed it with the slogan "The Festival of the Deadliest." And the event lives up to that hype, with nine houses featuring countless ways to die. (At least, I lost count.) By the way, does anyone have a reason why Hollywood uses the term "mazes" while Orlando uses "houses?" But let's not get lost in that debate. Let's argue about which of the nine are the best of this year's houses, instead.
I'll kick it off.
The Horror of Blumhouse features three of the studio's franchises: Sinister, The Purge, and Insidious. With three different stories crammed into the limited space of a single house, this experience felt more like walking through trailers previewing three other houses than a stand-alone experience. That said, I absolutely was sold on going through those three houses and would love to see Universal devote a full house to each of these stories. (Insidious as had a full house in Florida in the past, and has one in Hollywood this year, and The Purge also got a scare zone in this year's event.)
American Horror Story also crams three stories into one house, featuring three of the anthology series' seasons: Asylum, Coven, and Roanoke. Again, switching from one setting to something completely different within the same house disrupts the experience for me. Still, I love the detail employed here, including the smells of baby powder and smoked ham, which are perfectly placed, though I won't spoil it by telling you where. (If you watch the show, you'll probably figure it out now, anyway.)
I also loved the old-school, Nosferatu vibe of The Hive, one of the four original houses in this year's event. There's a nest of hungry vampires in this small Ohio town, and they're jumping out for you at every turn in the house. But if Blumhouse and AHS tried to pack too much into one house, I felt The Hive had the opposite problem. There just wasn't enough story or variety in the scares here to justify the house's length. A cut would have served it better.
Universal's using a neat trick in The Fallen, another original house, one that depicts an eternal war between light and darkness. Scareactors are harnessed on aerial bungees that allow them to attack you from above. It's a fresh effect, but one that I and several others around me missed on the first go. Team members inside the house had to keep telling people to look up, as the convention of such events has trained us to keep our head on a two-dimensional swivel, instead of three-dimensional gimbal we need to appreciate this house fully.
Saw: The Games of Jigsaw delivers its scares with industrial efficiency, recreating many of the classic tortures from the films, including the upcoming Jigsaw. This house relies more on those visual set pieces to create its frights, instead of simple jump scares.
Even though this was my first year at Orlando's event, I've walked through enough of these mazes in Hollywood that I've learned by now how to spot the places where the jump scares are coming in any house or maze. Not one got me all night here. Part of that failure also might be due to Orlando's practice of admitting a continuous line or guests into its houses, instead of grouping guests in "pulses," as Hollywood does. I think the pulse approach allows scareactors to time their scares better for everyone. In a few houses tonight, I felt a lot of scares coming directly behind me, leaving me feeling like I was riding in the trough of a sine wave, always coming into scenes during the reset. So I guess that's what made me appreciate the different, more visual approach in Saw.
That franchise can get a little monotonous with the sadism, though, so I better enjoyed Ash vs. Evil Dead, which leavens the horror with the corny humor that has made The Evil Dead a beloved franchise. This house offered a nice mix of set pieces, with more motion and character acting that we saw in Saw, with enough jump scares to keep things moving.
But, for me, three houses stood far above the rest in this year's Halloween Horror Nights. Dead Waters calls back to the character of the Voodoo Queen from a previous Halloween Horror Nights. This house features the most amazing single visual in this year's event, a wrecked Mississippi riverboat, into which we will venture on our way into the Voodoo Queen's lair. The production design and set decoration in this house amazes with every turn.
The best of the original houses this year, in my humble opinion, was Scarecrow: The Reaping, an absolute masterpiece of pacing and tactile scares that builds to a disorienting cornfield maze in the final scene. Set on an abandoned midwestern farm, Scarecrow called back to the hayrides and corn mazes that I remember as a kid in Indiana, but none of them left me as amazed as I felt after walking through this house.
It's a slow burn, unlike any other house in the event, with twine-like corn stalks hanging from the ceiling, brushing against your face with every step, creating a physical unease that the house will exploit. A scene with perching birds doing their business upon you amplifies the physical threats. (And given how hot it was tonight, I didn't care what birds pooped on me, so long as it was cold.) But it is the confusion you feel trying to find your way out of the final scene that makes this a must-see experience.
And I would have ranked it number one, had I not been so obsessed with experiencing The Shining. My family has spent many summers in Estes Park, Colorado — the setting for Stephen King's classic novel. And we've even visited the Stanley Hotel there, the inspiration for The Shining's creepy setting. But it ain't The Overlook Hotel from the book and the movie. To walk through that, you must come to Halloween Horror Nights this year.
Universal hits every big beat from Stanley Kubrick's film: the Redrum door, Jack's typewriter, the creepy lady in the bathtub in Room 237, the Gold Room, and the iconic "Here's Johnny" scene where Jack bashes through the bathroom door with an axe. It's thrilling just to be able to walk through these iconic moments from one of horror's most popular and enduring films. But Universal gets the pacing right, too, with the right mix of set pieces and jump scares. It's haunting, disorienting and disturbing — just as The Shining should be.
(And yet... I think I like the Hollywood version of this house/maze even better. But I know I will, uh, need to collect more data to be sure.)
This year also marks the final season for Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure, the long-running musical parody show that Hollywood dropped several years back. The "farewell tour" for Wyld Stallyns kicked off with a spoof of a spoof — a take-off on Melissa McCarthy's impression of Sean Spicer from Saturday Night Live. Spicey's used throughout the show, which challenges Bill and Ted to come up with something redeeming about our popular culture to keep Death from putting us all out of the misery of living in 2017... by killing us.
Of course they do, but not before making fun of everything from Justin Bieber, Stranger Things, and United Airlines beating up people, to the show's most enthusiastic target — Walt Disney World's new Avatar land. In the end, Universal finds an appropriate excuse to send off Bill and Ted for the final time, allowing this production to close on a relatively high note.
Not that I'm one to judge. I never saw a full show of Bill and Ted before tonight. The first year I planned to go to Star Wars Weekends and see Hyperspace Hoopla turned out to be the last year that Disney ran that show. And now, the first year I come to Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights and see Bill and Ted, Universal kills this production, too.
Does anyone else have a musical parody show that they would like me to rid of? I guess after going through all these house tonight, I've learned a little something about killing.Tweet
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