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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Halloween Horror Nights bottles lightning in their 25th year

Posted By on Sat, Sep 19, 2015 at 5:23 PM

click to enlarge jack_the_clown_1.jpg

Halloween Horror Nights
opened last night at Universal Studios Orlando, and the buzz around it has been anything but silent. The return of Jack the Clown, the event's long-missing poster boy, sparked a fresh revival of the brand that even the most snarky Internet trolls couldn't quibble with. So what's the deal? Is it any good? The answer is yes.

And hell yes.

Rather than break this baby down house by house, I'm going to lay down my top mentionables from this year's scare-tacular romp into the gory and twisted. So strap in, creeps — here we go:

9 houses. 9 unmissable houses.
In an attempt to break up the overcrowded streets of past years' events, there are now officially nine houses for guests to traverse, and they are all top-notch quality. From a balls-to-the-wall battle between Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees (Freddy vs. Jason), to a manic mishmash of fan favorite houses all in one (25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem), the diversity of each fright path is the star player this year — second only to Jack himself, of course.

click to enlarge Body Collectors: Recollections
  • Body Collectors: Recollections
The Walking Dead house this year was a bit of a slog (time to change it up), but my personal favorite of the lot was Insidious, based on the popular horror franchise. The dedication to replicating the grim, dreamy tone of the films, and a small army of brilliant scare actors sets the bar for all Horror Nights houses to come. An American Werewolf in London made another appearance, complete with additional puppetry, and it's just as good as it was last time. If there were fewer houses at the event, I might have been a little bitter about the repeat offender, but you can't scoff at nine houses. A special shout-out goes out to the original Body Collectors: Recollections for the immaculate architecture alone.

The biggest surprise this year would have to go to The Purge. While last year's chaotic scare zone was the highlight of last year's Horror Nights, many have been fearing that they would just take all of the assets from the Scare Zone, cram them into a small house and call it a day. Rest easy: The tone of the movies is established brilliantly, and the house itself holds some of the most in-your-face scares and shocking sound cues of the lot. It's exactly the quality one should expect from Halloween Horror Nights, and it delivers in spades … and guns … and other things.

I'll mention briefly the Scare Zones (the scares in the streets) because, while they were all relatively interesting in their own way, it was a little bit tough for me to grasp that I was transitioning from one to the other. It's not that they all looked or felt similar, just that there were very few hard indicators that I was leaving one zone and descending upon another. The standout was easily Scary Tales: Screampunk for a wacky and creative take on classic tales.

click to enlarge Freddy vs. Jason
  • Freddy vs. Jason

Their stage show game is on point
With all due respect to the creative minds and talent behind the Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure throughout the years, there had been a feeling of "phoning it in" over the last few iterations. Well, rest easy, dudes: Everybody ate their Wheaties this year and 2015 is easily the best edition of Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure in a long (long) time. With no-holds-barred jabs at Disney and a spot-on Kanye West impersonation, the audience was cackling and cringing the entire time. The sex-fueled choreography and mounds of comedic talent add sauce to an already delicious stage sundae. Arrive early, and leave your shame at the door — the Wild Stallions are back and in peak form.

As for the main stage, Jack takes front and center with a myriad of psychotic cronies for his own twisted game show in The Carnage Returns. Cirque-like acrobatics, pyrotechnics and blood by the gallons are sure to please the most dedicated horror-lovers. The psychotic clown cackles in glee as he mocks the crowd and makes us cheer for each torturous activity — human nature at its most primal. The bloodlust is both silly and infectious as the actors eat up every crimson-laced moment of the production. You don't want to miss this one, if only for the fact that it sets the tone for the entire evening's festivities, and is the most telling representation of Universal Orlando's revived brand. Speaking of which …

click to enlarge The Carnage Returns
  • The Carnage Returns

The entire park reeks of renewal
For an event celebrating the dead and dying, I can't imagine I've seen the Halloween Horror Nights brand so full of life in years. From the dedication of the scare actors to the love put into every single house, there is a pulse and energy permeating the entirety of Universal Studios that I haven't seen brought to the table in quite some time. It's still the Halloween Horror Nights that you've grown to love (and fear), it's just been injected with a new sense of purpose and personality. Besides the obvious issues with overcrowding in both the park and the houses, event veterans seeking that one missing ingredient will find it loud and clear during this 25th anniversary celebration.

Will there be drunk tourists flopping restlessly down the streets? Yep. Will you attend at least one house following somebody obnoxiously calling out every scare, or disrespecting a scare actor or two? Of course. Will you wait in a line a little longer than you deem comfortable? Probably. The difference this year is, maybe you won't mind these things so much while you're being presented with passionately delivered content and opportunities for total immersion. Because maybe this year is our year to start really giving a shit about Halloween Horror Nights again. If there's one thing made gruesomely clear in 2015, it's that the folks at Universal really give a shit about us: the victims. And that's what sets this evening apart from the rest.

See you in Hell's carnival.

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