Let’s cut to the bloody chase: Halloween Horror Nights is back for its 24th outing at Universal Studios Florida, and this year’s lineup is among the strongest since 2010. Here’s my haunted house hit-list based on an opening night VIP media tour, ranked from best to worst:
No. 1: Dollhouse of the Damned
Creative, colorful and crazy creepy, with bulimic ballerinas, big-headed babies, perverse piñatas and – most terrifying – Teddy Ruxpin? This year’s only maze to make me jump; beware the poop smell!
No. 2: Halloween
A pitch-perfect re-creation of Carpenter’s 1978 classic, complete with Shatner masks, vintage kitchen appliances, the 5/4 piano theme – even Michael Myers’ head tilt. Tons of Easter eggs for fans, like The Thing on TV and trick-or-treaters from Season of the Witch.
No. 3: AvP: Alien vs. Predator
Based on the original films more than the miserable mashup movies (thank Bishop!), this maze has fantastic sets but too few scares. Xenomorph puppets look cool but are predictably positioned, and iconic elements like the Queen and the power-loader are absent. Visually impressive, but ultimately underwhelming after 2013’s epic American Werewolf effort.
No. 4: Giggles & Gore, Inc.
This evil clown factory packs a ton of mirthful mayhem into an unusually short maze, thanks to a manically motivated cast, but falters with an underdeveloped ending. Look out for guest-activated special effects, disregarding any “don’t touch” signage.
No. 5: Roanoke: Cannibal Colony
As a former Virginian, I relished the concept of a gut-munching history lesson, with pyromaniac colonists and plenty of viscera. But rustic environments grow repetitive, and the ending’s stilt-walking Wendigos are too easily missed.
No. 6: The Walking Dead: End of the Line
HHN’s third and best effort involving AMC’s zombies is Universal’s largest maze ever, but stinks of “quantity over quality.” Great sense of scale in the prison facade and crashed ’copter scene, but the chain-link fence finale is padding. Someone shoot these walkers in the head before they return again.
No. 7: Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood
Initially amazing Gothic architecture gives way to generic stone walls; I was never sure what the story was or which snarling scareactor was supposed to be Dracula. The cast gives their all, but I exited with no urge to see the upcoming film.
No. 8: From Dusk Till Dawn
Loved the film, liked the TV series, let down by the house. The barker beginning and barroom bloodbath ending are both great, but between those it’s mostly bland. My biggest HHN disappointment in a decade.
Over the years, Universal has fine-tuned their formula for an effectively entertaining party, but it’s come at the expense of innovation and intensity. While HHN’s scenic designs are still stellar, lower-budget haunts like Busch Gardens and Shallow Grave have surpassed the former champ in introducing original ways to scare the crap out of guests. For next year’s 25th anniversary, I wish director Mike Aiello and his talented team would retake the reins from the marketing minions and reboot the event according to these principles:
Limit licensing: A few famous intellectual properties are fine for attracting casual fans, but Universal’s original content is consistently stronger, so cap the licensed themes at 50 percent of the house count.
Double-track mazes: Years ago, many HHN houses had two parallel paths, providing twice the capacity (with slightly different experiences) inside the same footprint. Resurrect this layout concept, and alternate pulsing groups between paths to eliminate tension-killing conga lines.
Expand entertainment: Writer-director Jason Horne has crafted the funniest Bill & Ted show in 5 years, with scathing satires of Disney’s Frozen and MagicBands. But why are the Animal Actors, Horror Make-up and Music Plaza stages sitting dormant? HHN needs magicians, musicians and much more live entertainment.
Exterminate express: Universal’s E-Ticket rides have enough capacity to handle Express passes, but extra-cost line-cutting cripples the haunted houses for ordinary guests. Eliminate them (especially for Frequent Fear season passholders) and watch the ridiculously long waits drop.
Spread the scarezones: The new Purge scarezone is appropriately insane, and the Face Off area features makeup from Season Five winner Laura Tyler. But the park’s entire back half is barren; bring “Treehouse of Horror” to Springfield, Dementors to London, and anything at all to San Francisco and World Expo.
Ban the babies: The Rocky Horror tribute and From Dusk Till Dawn’s Titty Twister strip bar were both bowdlerized to be PG-13, but nobody under 16 should even attend HHN. Instead of neutering the adult entertainment, enforce a sensible minimum age and establish a “not so scary” party in IOA for the kids.
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