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Live Active Cultures 

Writing this column has its perks, but none better than the treatment afforded the media at the annual opening of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. Big props to Kristen Clark and all of Tom Schroder's PR team for throwing a first-rate party. Thanks to them, I got to fulfill my dream of eating sushi and sliders with actor Doug Jones (Pan's Labyrinth, Buffy's "Hush" episode); I later saw him join Brian O'Halloran (Clerks) and goth musician Voltaire for a Barry Manilow singalong over satellite radio (I shit you not).

So is my opinion influenced by the open bar and VIP escorts back-dooring us past the lines? You betcha! But as an old Halloween Horror Nights hand (10 years as a paying customer, plus four backstage), I honestly think this "Ripped From the Silver Screen" edition is the strongest outing since 2006. There are no obvious losers among the eight haunted mazes, which are reviewed here in the order I experienced them.

Dracula: Instead of Lugosi's campy count, this Dracula is inspired by Vlad the Impaler's legend, with a big nod to Coppola. The castle has impressive architectural integrity and bursts with a bevy of Eiko Ishioka—esque brides, but I barely glimpsed Drac himself.

Frankenstein: Scent, texture and light fuse to fine atmospheric effect in a steampunk sequel to Mary Shelley's shocker. I dug the Metropolis-meets-Re-Animator bride, though the Monster is a tad Van Helsing-y. Look up at the "Fly pods" to see the Doctor's final fate.

The Wolfman: My favorite of the "classic trio," this maze makes me anticipate the as-yet-unreleased Benicio Del Toro remake. Makeup re-creating Rick Baker's designs, evocative "outdoor" environments (indoor trees and starscapes) and enthusiastic "scare-actors" build to a howling good finale.

Leave It to Cleaver: One of two "Fangoria Presents" houses, Cleaver is a faux-tribute to a fake '50s cult classic featuring the cheerfully cannibalistic Meetz meatpacking plant. A clever combo of kitsch and carnage, the grinning old-timey masks wigged me out more than any modern monster. Sick and silly, this is my pick for a sleeper hit.

Saw: Gorehounds rejoice: The profitable torture-porn franchise comes to life through a "greatest hits" selection of Jigsaw's sadistic traps, featuring film-faithful re-creations of fan faves like "key in eye socket" and "fat guy in razor wire." The assault of an ending is definitely not kosher. Beware of the longest line to be found.

The Spawning: Wander the Wyandot County sewer in search of snakelike "Sculders" in a Fangoria mock-movie modeled on the classic X-Files episode "The Host" (featuring "Flukeman"). Low ceilings + hanging strings = disorienting slog (I got lost), so expect slow-moving lines.

Chucky: A puke-inducing spinning tunnel shrinks you down to doll-size for a carnival-colored tour of the "Good Guy" factory where evil toys reign. Etch A Sketches, toy soldiers and clown bop-bags become objects of menace in this creatively creepy (though not especially frightening) Child's Play tribute.

Silver Screams: Here's the home of event icon Julian Browning, the spectral usher who haunts the circa-1922 Universal Palace Theater. A simple yet spectacular lighting effect transforms the facade from splendor to decay; within are well-crafted compact vignettes from a half-dozen horror classics, from the Phantom of the Opera lair to Shaun of the Dead's Winchester Pub.

The annual Bill and Ted pop-culture satire show, as integral to HHN's DNA as plywood and latex, hits a high note. Author Mike Aiello acknowledges the upgrade over the last few editions, explaining that the "legal `department` left me alone this year." From the first Chris Brown joke, it's apparent libel lawyers were left out of the loop, all for the better. Highlights include the return of Dan Johnson as a Priceline-era William Shatner smacking down the Ebonics-spouting new Star Trek crew and their "Apple store of an Enterprise." ("I'm on a ship, bitches!") Bonus: slave-girl Leia, Supergirl and Battlestar Galactica's Six in a lightsaber dance-off.

As enamored as I was with this year's Halloween Horror Nights, there is one big disappointment: The new Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit roller coaster is absent from the lineup. The ride is open during the day, but running without passengers at night, even weeks after its "grand opening." The opportunity to ride the LED-laden coaster in the dark would have been a big draw.

With only four rides open and no audience-eating show on the "Animal Actors on Location" stage, I predict proportionally more patrons waiting in haunted house queues.

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