Event Report: Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 18
When I heard that Universal Orlando wasn't sticking with last year's theme of Jason, Freddy and Leatherface, the first thing that ran through my mind was “Uh oh…” Bringing the New Line horror icons to Halloween Horror Nights was a big plus for fans as we'd always wanted to run through Camp Crystal Lake or Freddy's house, so we weren't expecting the theme park to use original characters for at least another year. That left us with the question: How could Halloween Horror Nights 18 top the previous incarnation?
Honestly? Pretty damn well!
With a focus on urban legends, twisted fairy tales and creepy children, Universal Orlando came out swinging with broken pieces of glass in each hand. The lack of licenses characters actually turned out to be a godsend as the creative team behind creating this year’s event didn’t have to bow down to any reconstructed templates, and that even applies to the legendary Bloody Mary.
Being one of the most popular myths, Bloody Mary’s exact origins are hard to place. She could be Countess Elizabeth Bathory, my ex-girlfriend or just some crazy chick obsessed with mirrors and blood. The only constant that runs through all the stories is her name and an association with reflective surfaces. So, with that in mind, Universal created an entire back story for Mary and an entire timeline for her life can be found here.
Mary Agana (Hey! That‘s Latin for “blood“!) was a psycho-therapist who harbored the belief that any patient could be cured of his or her fears by being exposed to them on a regular basis. Not a cruel woman, Mary would view her patients behind two-way glass and rush them out of the experiment if they called her name three times. A fine idea, but it came at a price. You see, Mary had a phobia of her own: death. Taking her own medicine, if you will, Mary started to off her patients in order to expose herself to enough death and overcome her fear. The legend is born!
Bloody Mary, however, is just one part of HHN 18. Crammed into the park are also twisted fairy tale characters, an alternate spin on the Oz universe, rednecks vs. aliens, zombies, a busload of possessed children and interstellar terror! But first, I’d like to share something that was completely unexpected. Last year HHN blew me away with an amazing haunted house that acted as a sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing. The maze featured MacReady and Childs in statis, the Blair monster and the kennel and was just all-around badass.
Though it was missing this year, Universal did right by another movie that is perfect fodder for a haunted house: Neil Marshall’s Doomsday. Tucked away by the Rocky Horror Tribute, the Doomsday maze turned out to be one of the most detailed of all the haunted houses. Chainsaws were buzzing, and the scare-actors really got into their characters here. During my visit there was, sadly, no one dressed up like Viper (Lee-Anne Liebenberg), but there was a very convincing Sol on stage singing about how this is his city. I think Neil would be proud.
Three other houses/mazes made it to the top of our list after our initial awe of Doomsday wore off. The first is Mary’s own attraction, Reflections of Fear. Built into the Jaws waiting area, Bloody Mary’s maze takes guests through her dilapidated mental institution where some of the patients seem to have never left. The nutters cry out Mary’s name as the sound of shatter glass shrieks through the halls.
Reflections, unlike other mazes in the park, gives those walking through a better chance to take in the atmosphere thanks to two “break up” areas inside. Several people simply push you along, afraid of everything and anything, which makes you feel rushed. That annoyance is stunted thanks to two long hallways that, for lack of a better word, suffocate the line. Instead of walls, the hallway consists of two spandex-like sides that are pressed tightly together. This causes patrons to have to slowly push through, leaving those in the back of the line longer time to enjoy the scenery and those in front to not get pushed forward so much. This idea would get tiresome if used in every attraction so I am glad they saved it for Mary.
Scary Tales is one of the most visually pleasing haunted houses I have ever been in, and I’ve seen many here and abroad. This creation takes classic fairy tales, folklore and even L. Frank Baum’s Oz into a very dark mirror dimension. The Scarecrow has gone nuts; the Tin Man will take anyone’s heart; Alice is really insane; Hansel and Gretel were eaten; a certain dark-haired albino did die of food poisoning and Rapunzel’s hair was her undoing!
The jump scares in Scary Tales are a little lackluster because the lighting is so bright, but if it wasn’t, you’d never be able to see how much hard work was put into the sets. The size of some of the scenes are jaw dropping. Rapunzel’s tower is ominous with her long golden hair streaming down to act as a curtain into the next area; it's a memorable and truly creepy sight!
Darkness was, however, put to good use in the zombie themed maze titled Dead Exposure. The story behind this attraction is that a photo journalist was taking pictures during the initial zombie outbreak. 95% of this maze is in black and white. A strobe (simulating a camera's flash) brightens each room and adds a significant amount of atmosphere as you travel through what could be George A. Romero’s mind come to life!
That concludes the top four haunted houses in Halloween Horror Nights 18 so let us continue on to the ones that didn’t quite turn out.
The Hallow is aimed at those seeking the traditional Halloween fare. There are pumpkins, devils, goat-men (?), headless horsemen and nothing really scary at all. In all honesty, this is the kind of typical stuff that indie spook attractions have been able to master on much lower budgets. Visually I only remember a lot of black; nothing about The Hallow stood out until the end when the goat-men showed up and I thought Guillermo del Toro hit me with a bat and handed me a copy of Pan’s Labyrinth.
An attraction that sounded like it was going to kick ass on major levels was Body Collectors: Collections of the Past. I was informed that this was going to take me into the most fog-filled alleys of old London town where Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd and bully extraordinaire Bill Sikes would be lurking around every corner. Indeed, the set is probably the most elaborate out of all those in the park, but most of the wonder is soon lost after the second scene depicting Todd (wearing a mask way too similar to The Gentlemen from “Buffy“), the Italian luggage and his barbering victim. Every villain wears the exact same mask, making it near impossible to decipher which character you’re looking at. Those unfamiliar with Oliver or the tales behind Jack the Ripper would be hard pressed to find context in the settings to help ID the characters.
Interstellar Terror was something I had been looking forward to. It was a sci-fi haunted house with Universal’s budget! How could it go wrong? Well, it didn’t go wrong; it just wasn’t all that interesting. Basically, the Columbus 1492 spacecraft went on a deep, deep space voyage and disappeared. Years later it reappeared in our orbit, but the crew was driven insane by some artifact they found, a bit like EA's upcoming Dead Space.
Interstellar is set up in one of the large soundstages on the Universal backlot and makes good use of this by letting attendees see the Columbus 1492 before entering it. The interior sounds and design are very reminiscing of Alien, but an actual alien presence is missing. Scare-actors basically walk around in a dazed or angry state, giving little or no back story to what happened unless you do your research. "Hey, welcome to the ship of crazy people!" Thanks! Can I get some outer space creatures next time?
Actually you really don’t have to wait another year for that because Creatures tries to give you a fill of both rednecks and space monsters. Creatures is a tribute to the old EC comics, but with an added emphasis on hillbillies. We start outside, in front of the Butchered Buck Roadhouse. Aliens have come to the little town, and the locals are all eager to get violent. So, where were the aliens?
Our line stalled for a minute, and I got into a heated stare-down with one of the “good old boys” inside the roadhouse. Sure, the encounter was entertaining, but I was hoping to see some alien-on-backwoods hick action. Once in a while you could see a woman with some kind of alien squid on her cheek, but that was about it. A big payoff like the Blair monster in the Thing attraction never showed up. I’ll be the first to admit I'm not easily scared by a lot of things, thanks to growing up on a strict diet of horror movies, but don’t think for a minute the last four houses on the list weren’t getting scares. I saw quite a few grown men jump, one nearly running me over to get away from something ahead. The screams from the crowds came loud and often.
No doubt Halloween Horror Nights 18 is an improvement over last year and should not be missed. One word of advice I would give, though, is to pay the extra for an Express Pass. Lines for HHN get insanely long just one hour into the event, and if you’re going to pay money to get in, you may as well make sure you get to see everything Universal has to offer.
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