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Halloween has become big business for Universal Studios.
Seems fitting. After all, Universal is one of the only studios that has traditionally not only embraced horror films, but that continues to emphasize their long history of monsters as a major part of their legacy. It is a natural fit for them. Even so, when I was part of the Halloween Horror Nights back in 1992, it was still a fairly new idea, and it was charmingly hand-made. It felt like the sort of show you would put together in your own neighborhood with a bunch of friends. It was low-tech and fun, and it was small enough that at the end of the run, everyone who had appeared in it could gather in one of the CityWalk restaurants for a small awards ceremony and some great free food and drink.
Today, Halloween Horror Nights runs in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and it is a carefully orchestrated and beautifully designed take-over of the entire park, one which features new attractions every year, and it's gotten not only more technically impressive, but just plain gigantic. The ambition of what they try to pull off live every single night of the event is staggering, and what really impresses me is how well they pull it off considering all the moving parts, all the people required to make it work, and all the members of the public who walk through who are scared out of their damn fool minds.
Friday night in LA, Universal kicked off the 2013 season, and I attended the event, as well as the Eyegore Awards ahead of time. These are given each year before the opening night, and they tend to be small, charming events that allow LA's horror community to eat, drink, make merry, and pay tribute to a few legends at a time. This year, they gave out awards to the cast of the Walking Dead, to Bruce Campbell, and to the members of Black Sabbath, including Ozzy, who seemed, as always, not entirely sure where he was or what was happening. It's an event that managed to cover the full spectrum of what we write about here at HitFix, honoring names from TV, movies, and music equally. Danny Trejo was given an award, along with producer Jason Blum. Melissa McBride accepted the "Walking Dead" award on behalf of the ensemble.
By far, the most entertaining speech came from Campbell, who was in rare form as he explained that he wasn't entirely sure what an award is. It was self-deprecation of the highest order, and a great example of why people love to invite Bruce to any event that gives them an excuse to put him in front of a microphone. After the awards were handed out, a speedy process that was urged along by the evening's host, Mackenzie Westmore, there was time for guests to chat and eat and drink before heading out into the park. I ended up running into Mike Mendez, director of "Big-Ass Spider," and the lovely and only slightly terrifying Axelle Carolyn, who happens to be married to Neil Marshall. We talked about the news about "Troll Hunter" that broke earlier in the day, and she seemed excited by his plans for the film. We also talked about her own work as a director and her feature which should start screening soon. I have always found the horror community to be incredibly inviting, and walking around the party, everyone was more than happy to chat about what they've enjoyed lately, what they're looking forward to, and which of the evening's mazes were the most anticipated.
I ran into Kirk Trutner, an old friend from my time at Universal as a tour guide, now one of the main guys who makes things like this happen for the park. He told me that by far, the maze he felt should be first priority was "Black Sabbath 13 in 3D," so when we left the awards show, we headed straight down to the park's lower section. That's where the tram ride is based, and in order to get to either the "Walking Dead" experience or "Black Sabbath," you have to take the tram. Universal is good enough to provide a badge that allows you to go through each event in a special line, which is really the only way it's possible for press to sample everything in the same evening. I saw wait times of around 90 minutes to 2 hours for each of the big attractions. You are able to buy a special front of the line badge if you'd like, but it's an additional charge on top of the regular admission rate. If you want to enjoy the entire evening stress free, I'd say it's worth spending that extra money. You'll benefit enormously by the end of the night, and when you see how much care has been put into crafting each of the themed mazes in the park, you'll want to see everything.
Fans of "The Walking Dead" will enjoy the walk-through that's been built this year to look like the prison from the show's new season. What Universal's become very good at is playing both to and against expectation in the way the mazes work. You know you're going to have people dressed like zombies jumping out at you, but it's more than that. They do a great job of making you feel dread about each new room you walk into, and they go for obvious scares as well as genuinely surprising ones. Anyone can build a haunted house full of things that jump out at you, but figuring out a way to keep you off-balance and freaked out and startled with each room you walk into. The rational part of your brain tells you that you're fine, and the irrational part of your brain screams "OH MY GOD THAT ZOMBIE IS GOING TO KILL ME!" and the result is one of those particular experiences that I look forward to as a horror fan.
The "Black Sabbath 13" maze was, as stated, in 3D. I wasn't sure what that would mean for a live event like this. Turns out, the 3D glasses are an important part of the way they totally screw with you as you walk through. The paint and the lighting inside the maze all take advantage of your altered perception, and it made things surreal. Figures lurch out of the walls at times, invisible thanks to the way they're disguised, and there were times where I wasn't sure if what was reaching out to grab us was actually there or not. The imagery is all Heavy Metal Album Cover 101, so lots of demon Nazis and pig monsters and oh so much blood, and I think the random and insane nature of the maze actually made it more effective. They work hard to create a sense of narrative as you walk through something like the "Insidious: Into The Furthur" maze, but "Black Sabbath 13" is just an assault of "What the hell is happening to me?!"
There's an "Evil Dead: Book Of The Dead" event this year that is directly based on the new film, the "Insidious" maze, and a "Remix: Resurrection" maze that is built around the classic Universal Monsters. One of the things that the Hollywood park has been very smart about in the last few years is reaching out to southern California's huge Hispanic population. This year, it's "El Cucuy: The Boogeyman," with Danny Trejo narrating. It's clever because it both taps into a specific cultural background, but also introduces it to a wider audience.
The rest of the park is also working and somewhat repurposed, with "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure," the "Revenge Of The Mummy" ride, the "Jurassic Park - In The Dark" ride, and a number of scare zones, which are basically just corners of the park that have been redressed. There's "The Curse of Chucky," an entire "The Purge: Survive The Night" section, "Cirque Du Klownz," which I avoided completely so as to avoid a complete PTSD meltdown, and even more "Walking Dead" areas.
I wish they'd had the "American Werewolf In London" house that is part of the Orlando park here this year, but that's the way it goes. Both parks do their own attractions, and they tend to be very different. It's one of the most important times of the year for the Hollywood park, and the attendance is unreal every single night it's open. You can find ticket details on the official site, and if you're in the area, I highly recommend grabbing a big group of friends and whatever artificial courage you might need. It's a blast, and it seems like it gets bigger every year.
Halloween Horror Nights runs select nights from September 20th to November 2nd.