Universal's Halloween Horror Nights kicked off its 2018 season tonight at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood in California. The most anticipated part? Universal's first maze based on the Netflix's breakout hit, Stranger Things.
We are in Hollywood this year for Horror Nights, following our coverage of the Orlando event last year. Both coasts are offering mazes/houses this year based on Stranger Things, Poltergeist, Halloween 4, Trick 'r Treat, and Blumhouse properties, with Hollywood also splitting out The First Purge into its own maze and devoting another to the classic Universal Monsters, while Orlando does its usual run of several original houses.
After once through each maze on their opening night, here is my initial ranking of the Hollywood mazes. Keep in mind, as always, that YMMV, especially as the cast of this most amazing theater production gets more run-throughs over the next month and a half. The videos are highlights from selected houses rather than full walk-throughs, which Universal requested us not to post. But we got ya the good stuff.
1. Stranger Things
As someone who grew up in Indiana in the 1980s and adores Stranger Things in large part for its pitch-perfect depiction of that time and place, I was thrilled that John Murdy and his team at Universal so faithfully recreated the stunning production design of the Netflix series. Based on Season 1 of the show, this maze hits the big story beats, with the Demogorgon taking a more active role as the bogeyman scaring us from scene to scene. The studio granted Halloween Horror Nights the use of a soundstage for this installation, and the creative team made full use of it, employing not just effective stage decoration in their depiction of the Hawkins Lab gateway and the Upside Down, but in the use of immersive and richly detailed sound design that makes the largely unseen children feel ever-present.
Poltergeist also calls back to 1980s white, middle-class suburbia, and Universal's maze also excels with its production design, bringing us into the haunted tract house from Tobe Hooper's 1982 thriller. The iconic "they're here" scene opens the maze, which concludes with Mr. Incredible's almost-as-over-the-top declaration that "you never moved the graves - you only moved the headstones!"
3. Trick 'r Treat
An anthology film, such as Michael Dougherty's 2007 production, lends itself well to a maze treatment, which demands a series of great set pieces. Sam pushes us from scene to scene, which is all fun, but a little disappointing in that I wish I could hit the pause button to linger with some of the detail in each scene, like a horror fan spending the evening with this film on DVD.
4. Universal Monsters
Hollywood's one "original" maze allows it us to enjoy the foundational villains who never ought to go missing at a Universal Studios theme park, regardless of season. The operation here is a bit off, with an early break between maze structures that left me wondering if I'd just walked through the park's shortest and lamest maze. We actually took a wrong turn later, too. But the scenes in between made up for those miscues, with amazing set design framing the characters than made Universal Studios. The top four mazes here each impressed me enough that I considered them for the top spot. On a different night, with different timing, I imagine that I might shift them on future viewings.
5. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
Okay, this is the trance house of 2018 — just one beat, repeated again and again and again. But that one beat is Michael Myers with the jump scare, which is the horror equivalent of Kobe driving to the hoop. It's old school. It's played out. But it's perfect, and LA fans could watch that stuff all night.
6. The Horrors of Blumhouse: Chapter Two
This year's installation features two films, Truth or Dare and Unfriended. I'm rarely a fan of houses that mash together unrelated stories, and Blumhouse 2 suffers the same problems with inconsistency. That these scenes also have to compete with so many iconic set pieces from HHN's other houses doesn't help make this maze any more memorable, either.
7. The First Purge
Okay, these last two were a toss-up for me. The Purge worked so well as a scare zone in Orlando last year. But the maze version left me, well, meh. I appreciate some of the scenery here, but the experience never came alive like the scare zone did. But as a result, I am tapping this as the maze most likely to improve over the course of the event. Check back in a couple weeks.
Halloween Horror Nights also includes the year-round The Walking Dead maze, the Terror Tram featuring Hollywood Harry’s Dreadtime Storiez, and the dance troupe Jabbawockeez. Wait-times on a sold-out opening night varied between 60-100 minutes for most mazes between 7 and 10pm, except for Stranger Things, which rocketed to 120 minutes and stayed there.
We also helped ourselves to Eleven's EGGO Extravaganza, which cost — wait for it, no, guess — $11.
Heaped with whipped cream and the remnants of a psychokinetically blasted candy aisle, this monstrosity could appeal only to someone who had spent her life in an sensory deprivation chamber and now wanted to make up for lost time by tasting all the things at once.
That Stranger Things' Eleven adored Eggo waffles was supposed to suggest an innocent youngster so deprived that she would actually find frozen waffles tasty. But these are Season 2 waffles, when Eleven has moved on to stress-eating like a girl caught between the virtual and literal hellmouths of puberty and the Upside Down. So bring out the whipped cream, the chocolate chips, the lime and cinnamon jelly beans, and the Reese's Pieces, and let's chow down.
This isn't gliding the lily. It's electroplating a dandelion, encrusting it with rhinestones, and bringing in Joy Mangano to hawk it on QVC. I ate it like people watch accident scenes at the end of the traffic jam. You know you should quit and move on, but you can't help yourself.
For the sake of my taste buds and my self-esteem, here's hoping the Stranger Things kids discover Noble Roman's breadsticks and cheese at the Hawkins Mall in Season 3, in time for next year's Halloween Horror Nights. (It's an Indiana thing.)Tweet
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