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Halloween Horror Nights 2012: a preview

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I moved to Orlando in the summer of 1996, and spent my first Floridian fall working at Universal Studios Florida during Journey Into Fear, the sixth annual edition of the park's popular Halloween Horror Nights. In the 15 spooky seasons since then, I don't think I've skipped more than a single opening weekend at the annual event, and I've attended every opening-night media party since I started covering the haunted holiday for Orlando Weekly in 2006.

But this year I'll be missing out on the free cocktails and canapés shaped like severed fingers, not to mention the VIP – make that RIP – shortcuts past the epic haunted house queues. As you read this issue, I'll be out of town attending a family function. I'll have to get a ticket to attend the second weekend like any ordinary schmuck.

Luckily, Universal organized its first-ever media preview of this year's Halloween Horror Nights, granting a glimpse of the gory gags awaiting at the Sept. 21 grand opening. A gaggle of journalists were packed into the park's Café La Bamba, which was decked out with costumed mannequins and concept art representing each element of HHN22. The event's creative team was paraded out and posed for photos as reporters posed questions, after which we were all led through a pair of this year's seven haunted mazes.

It turns out that, in addition to this author, a number of other event staples will also be absent this year. The most noticeable is the lack of any iconic central character or unifying theme tying the disparate experiences into a cohesive whole. You won't see any of the fan-favorite characters (like Jack the Clown or the Caretaker) that Universal effectively retired in 2010. Nor is there a new creation, such as last year's Lady Luck, headlining the proceedings.

Instead, as show writer-director Mike Aiello explained to me, they are "establishing Halloween Horror Nights itself as the brand," and highlighting the stand-alone intellectual properties that Universal has partnered with for four of this year's houses. Metal pioneer Alice Cooper, irreverent magicians Penn and Teller, AMC's hit zombie series The Walking Dead and Konami's supernatural video-game series Silent Hill each have unique aesthetics and active fan bases. But they don't make an obvious team the way Freddy, Jason and Leatherface did in 2007's Carnival of Carnage. Even so, Aiello was obviously excited ("This is not just a PR line") to work with these properties, especially Penn and Teller. The Vegas-based performers began with a three-hour in-person brainstorming session about a nuclear-powered trick gone terribly wrong and continued with repeated visits during breaks in their show schedule to review an irradiated interpretation of the Sin City strip.

The "unprecedented access" to these intellectual properties that Aiello and his team were afforded was evident in the Silent Hill-inspired house, which media were granted the rare opportunity to photograph with the work lights on. Even with overhead illumination, the mixture of fog and ash-like fake snow filling the soundstage (and my lungs) looked eerily identical to video games I played a decade ago, and also presumably reflect the 3-D film sequel scheduled for release next month. By day, the blood-smeared walls and rusty barbed wire (punctuated by the occasional toy bunny) were creepy enough; I can imagine how disturbing it will be once darkened and populated by Pyramid Heads and mutant nurses.

This year's three remaining mazes may not have recognizable licenses, but art director T.J. Mannarino raised my expectations for the gargoyle-filled Gothic maze (look for the "terror dogs" from the long-gone Ghostbusters attraction among the elaborate cathedral architecture), and for the House of Horrors, which will present classic characters like Frankenstein and the Mummy in a way "completely different than they've ever been done before." (Hint: remember the black & white photo-flash effect from 2008's Dead Exposure maze?) Hopefully both will turn out as well as Dead End, which Mannarino describes as the "typical abandoned house at the end of the dead-end road that everyone has a story about, wherever they grew up." We explored it with full actors and atmosphere engaged, and I especially appreciated the imposing, decrepit facade and phantasmagorical effects like floating books and Pepper's ghosts.

Finally, while you will find the long-running Bill & Ted spoof (now written and directed by PB&J Theatre Factory vet Jason Horne) and the 20 Penny Circus performing "magic for people with questionable taste," you won't find any demarcated "scarezones" in the streets. Instead, director Lora Wallace is sending gangs of vampires, beasts and other "dark legions" rampaging around the property, with no area off limits from the scares. When I asked if that meant ghouls could infiltrate rides, restaurants and restrooms, she replied in the affirmative. Now that's an innovation I want to witness.

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