I visited Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights for the very first time last year (recap here), and while entertained and awed, the sheer force of bodies and bratty behavior made me carefully consider returning for 2009. It’s one thing to have a haunted house attraction that welcomes giddy hordes of eager horror enthusiasts, it’s another to encourage said fanbase to booze up to a point of sickness, treating the Universal layout like an elaborate frat party. Granted, it doesn’t always reach a point of distaste at HHN, but I’ve made a few visits to the event this year, and again, while exceptionally themed and executed, the experience can be awfully trying at times. This year registers as extraordinarily irritating.
The theme for 2009’s HHN is “Ripped From the Silver Screen,” using horror icons Chucky (“Child’s Play”), Billy (“Saw”), and The Wolfman to create a cinematic sense of anxiety, helped along by the creepy master of ceremonies, The Usher (a.k.a Julian Browning). What drew me back into the HHN fold this year is the movie connection, which plays close to my interests and knowledge base, permitting me a chance to participate more enthusiastically than the previous year, which involved the exploits of Bloody Mary and her more imaginative houses of terror. From the outside, 2009 sure had the makings for a geeky dream ride of scary movie immersion.
Again, I must stress that I’m an easily startled guy with a general distaste for uncontrolled arenas of scares. Most strut into HHN wearing a slightly soiled metal t-shirt and a smile, ready for the “scareactors” to leap out from all sides, providing a one-of-a-kind jolt. I creep into HHN with my eyes peeled for danger, puffed up and ready to sprint away from anything that appears inclined to jump in front of me, itching to cause some trouble.
Last year’s event being my first visit to HHN, I had some expectation to work with for 2009, or at least something of a scareactor barometer to gauge my chances of dry-underwear survival. However, this year the staff seemed more…aggressive. The scareactors seemed to be looking for a fight, not just a scream. The difference is jolting, and I found myself ready to start shoving the hired help rather than playfully avoid them. A big change I noticed were scareactors screaming in guest faces, or more specifically, my ear. Trying to shake me, a few zombies in the “Containment” Scare Zone decided it would be a groovy idea to jump up behind me and shriek, causing me to jump (of course) and wince (booooo!), praying there wouldn’t be any permanent damage to my hearing.
To add more layers of mortification to the situation, there’s an obnoxious drama-school dropout perched on a military truck in the same “Containment” area who openly mocks those zinged by the scareactors, typically by challenging sexuality or gender designation. It’s all fun when executed with some sense of fair play and, gasp, suspense. But let’s get real here: the scareactors are cheating. Another Scare Zone, “Lights, Camera, Hacktion,” also encourages strange forms of shock value, including a few employees who clap right in the face of unsuspecting guests to provide immediate fright response. We’re talking centimeters from noses. To loosely quote Matthew McConaughey, “That’s not cool, bra.” Perhaps after seven glasses of “Hair of the Wolf,” I’d be in a more peaceful state of mind to enjoy the insta-intensity. Stone-cold sober, and I have to contain the instinct to fight back. That’s not entertainment to me. Surely these scareactors could try a little harder to creep out the room.
Spreading my visit over a few nights, I was able to see more of HHN than ever before, even stepping into all of the Houses to find out if I was truly man or mouse. Turns out, mouse. But the fear factor was more interesting in the Houses than it was in the Scare Zones. Perhaps being nestled in the bosom of an enclosed space allows the average scareactor a chance to play around rather than lunge directly for the fright.Scare Zones
“Lights, Camera, Hacktion!”
Universal description: A new Universal Pictures' release, “The Chainsaw Drill Team Massacre in 3-D,” is being shot in Hollywood by Mass Imair for an October, 2010 release. However, the cast is taking the film too literally and are hacking their chainsaws into the crew, extras, and park guests.
Out of all the Scare Zones, this is perhaps the most direct in terms of terror. Big, bearded men wielding chainsaws, running after guests. Not much room for mystery there. It’s a meat-and-potatoes frightmare, and one that’s more fun to observe than experience.
“Cirque Du Freak”
Inspired by upcoming Universal Pictures film “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant.” Guests enter the Cirque du Freak, a carnival full of bizarre oddities and vampires.
This being a Universal production, the studio has popped the film into HHN as a Scare Zone, forgoing a more traditional Haunted House route. Situated at a major crossroad in the park, it’s nearly impossible to avoid this Scare Zone, crammed into a tiny space with limited movement to generate a creepy atmosphere. Also, since the film hasn’t even seen release yet, it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of this collection of sideshow freaks. A lukewarm (mandatory) detour of the night, I found “Freak” to be lacking surprise or even a coherent storyline to follow. Perhaps the Scare Zone will find a warmer reception once the film hits theaters.
Here’s an impossibly dark video of the Zone. I don’t have much in the way of night vision in my arsenal, but perhaps this murky peek can act as a tiny sneak preview of the area.
The abandoned Hollywood Drive-In turns into the Horrorwood Die-In at night, as classic horror movie characters come to life amid the famous horror clips being shown on the drive-in screen.
Wonderfully designed by the HHN crew, this was my favorite of the Scare Zones. Embracing Universal’s cinema history, the area parades a wide array of monsters, killers, and psychos. This is also the home of the infamous “Undead Tony Montana,” perhaps the most photographed of all the scareactors. For movie fans, this Scare Zone is a treat.
“Apocalypse: City of Cannibals”
A horde of flesh-eating monsters have emerged from the underground. Half-human, half-monster - preying on unsuspecting guests who enter.
Only running after dark, the Zone requires excellent eyesight. Lit only by a faux helicopter beam and the occasional burst of flame, the area is more about beastly figures jumping in and out of the darkness. It’s chaotic but effective, providing a full night’s worth of cheap scares for those brave enough to waltz through the middle of this Zone with eyes wide open.
An infectious gas was accidentally released into the air, causing everyone in contact with the toxic gas to have their flesh melt.
Perhaps the most controversial Scare Zone of the event. For some, the idea of a misted tunnel with the “infected” sprinting around is a wonderful thing -- a pure fright night for the whole family. As previously mentioned, I didn’t find much to celebrate here.
“War of the Living Dead”
During World War II, the military attempted to create reanimated soldiers out of those who had fallen. Now, in the present time, guests discover that the corpses of the opposing sides are still caught in a never-ending war with each other.
This is a war zone loaded with the undead, with many of the grunts looking a little bored. The addition of semi-realistic gunfire and balls of flame helps to sell the mood, but located inside “Shrek 4-D” property lines, it’s a little hard to suspend disbelief with Donkey smiling in the background. Atmospheric, yes, but not as intense as it hoped.
Universal’s description: Julian Browning has been the usher in the Universal Palace since it opened in 1922, of course, he’s been dead since 1940, but he still commands respect for his most beloved films from every patron. Buy a ticket to the Universal Palace, and let Julian usher you into a realm where the horror on the screen is ripped away to reveal a world that is truly terrifying.
My favorite of the Houses, playing up the atmosphere of a haunted movie theater as guests walk “through” many of Universal’s greatest genre achievements. Perhaps not the most frightening building of the night, but one of chills and goosebumps as a few iconic characters are brought to life.
For years you have come to celebrate Halloween and to witness the weakness of others. The only way to gain redemption for this voyeuristic obsession is to truly know what it means to bleed, to feel weak; to experience pain. Jigsaw will give you this experience. Happy Halloween. Let the games begin.
Perhaps the only thing worse than a “Saw” film is being inside a “Saw” film. A full-on sensory assault, the “Saw” house is more a deafening blur than and serious evocation of torturous misery. The tight spaces help the claustrophobia, but also make the House feel a little light on the gothic nightmare scale.
Pure. Animalistic. Rage. Take a journey through England’s countryside and come face to fangs with one of the most terrifying creatures to ever explode from the silver screen. Forget everything you thought you knew, and prepare yourself for the sights and sounds of the newest addition to Universal Pictures’ legacy of horror.
The who? A House intended to promote a 2009 Universal Pictures release is now trying to drum up interest in a 2010 Universal Pictures release. I doubt audience unfamiliarity is an issue here, but there’s an unintentional humor in the air as the park tries to drum up terror for a film nobody has seen. Still, the House is impressively constructed with plenty of jolts and dread, doing a fine job making the guests feel as though they’ve stepped onto an actual filming location.
“Dracula: Legacy in Blood”
Welcome to Castle Dracula on the night of “The Calling.” Vlad Dracul bids you welcome – be you one of the chosen women who has been called or merely a mortal man. Those who have been chosen must decide whether to join the Dark Prince in everlasting life as his brides, or reject his offer and suffer for all eternity. The blood must be renewed. The fate of the legacy hangs in the balance – Dracula’s legacy of blood.
Impressively staged, the “Dracula” House won me over with its ornate design and constant threat. While built indoors, the House feels authentic, with incredible detail on Dracula’s castle and his minion of brides and boogeymen. If one had to start somewhere, this would be it.
“Chucky: Friends Til the End”
Ever wonder what happens when good toys go bad? Chucky has been hard at work, tinkering with your favorite childhood playthings. Nothing is what it seems as you step inside and experience what it’s like to live in Chucky’s world. This is no Child’s Play.
Well, in a way it actually is child’s play in this House, which takes on a more carnival fun house ambiance as Chucky arranges his own demented toy factory. The jumps are minimal, but the surreal energy is there, along with amusing nods to the franchise.
“Frankenstein: Creation of the Damned”
It has been a fortnight since his creation caused the castle to be engulfed in flames. Doctor Frankenstein now continues his work to perfect the art of resurrection and regeneration, surrounded by his creations. The Creature has also returned, to make the Doctor pay for the pain and suffering he has had to endure. The Creature will destroy everything in his path to gain redemption, and you are now caught in the middle of this epic battle.
More narrative focused than any other House, “Frankenstein” plays much like “Dracula,” only with just a little bit less in the tension department. There’s not much time to catch all the nuances, but it’s always fascinating to see what the HHN design team will do to drum up some atmosphere.
Something “different” has moved in among the sewers of Wyandot County, Ohio. The locals claim that these creatures, these “Sculders,” are two feet tall, with the body of a snake. As a volunteer member of the local water district, it is your civic duty to venture into these pipes and restore the flow. But beware, the locals are wrong about the “Sculders” and the only thing that will be flowing is your blood as it leaves your lifeless body.
Allegedly taking place inside a sewer system, I never quite felt the claustrophobia needed to attain true terror. The wetness, sure, but never the increasing suffocation. While losing points for execution, the House retains an interesting concept and some great shocks.
“Leave it to Cleaver”
Samuel Meetz works for the people of Carey, Ohio as a butcher, bringing them the freshest meat possible. With a steady livestock of transients and town lawbreakers with which to serve, and a staff of volunteers who will preserve their towns deadly secret by any means necessary, there is truly no end in sight for Samuel or his family business. As Sam always says: Meet Me at Meetz…The Z stands for cannibal.
Perhaps the most tongue-in-cheek of the Houses, “Cleaver” leads with humor and then hits visitors with blood. An unnervingly upbeat House, it served as a refreshing antidote to the harder-edged horrors of the evening.
Half of the event uses John Carpenter-style music to increase the tension between the Houses and the Scare Zones. I love it. Instant mood. Here's a sample.