After a growth spurt over the past few years, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood has hit its stride as the leader in blood, guts and gore in Southern California.
Following a reboot in 2006, Horror Nights has settled on a mix of terrifying haunted mazes tied to major horror movies, introducing a few new attractions every year while refreshing older offerings. The formula has proved wildly successful, with the movie theme park teeming with hordes of horror fans on weekends in late September and October.
But as with any stage of maturity, the obvious question is, "What's next?" The quality-over-quantity mantra has served Horror Nights well. But with the popularity of the annual event, the time has come for Universal Studios to expand the number of mazes offered each year while still maintaining the movie-quality sets and scares that have become its trademark.
When I visited the park on opening weekend, the wait times for all the mazes rarely dropped below an hour. The new Transformers ride peaked at a two-hour wait during the busiest part of the evening. That's crazy crowded.
The swarming masses want more, more, more. More monsters. More mazes. More murder, mayhem and madness. And it's time to quench their thirst for blood.
Here's my review of each the haunted mazes at Halloween Horror Nights 2012, ranked from best to worst:
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Saw is the Law -- The oldie but goodie returns to Horror Nights for the third time and shows no sign of growing old or repetitive. There's something about a guy with a chainsaw that scares you every time, even when you see Leatherface coming. The set dressing was top-notch -- from the bone-trimmed chairs to the human skin lamps to the bloody pelts hanging from the ceiling.
Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3-D -- Alice characters stab a guy in the crotch, rip a girl's face off and walk on stilts. What more could you ask for? While the 3-D effects were better than usually found in most haunted mazes, the forced trickery still got in the way more than it enhanced the experience.
Walking Dead: Dead Inside -- Based on the popular zombie television show, the new maze featured a ton of great set dressing but too many lifeless static scenes. One example: A quartet of zombies feasting on a dead horse that appeared frozen in mid-bite. The highlights: A girl buried up to her waist in a park and a zombie trapped near a water well, both frantically trying to escape their irrevocable fate.
La Llorona: The Child Hunter -- Based on the Mexican legend of a distraught mother who drowned her children and then herself, the returning maze made great use of a number of grotesque sight gags. Among my favorite scenes: walking through the sticky pig carcasses hanging in the carniceria amid the smell of rotting meat, the child being eaten alive by La Llorona entering through a bedroom window and the horrifying moonlit lake full of drowned children floating face down in the water. The stilt-walking guys with horse skull heads were fantastic.
Terror Tram Invaded by Walking Dead -- Universal also unleashed the Walking Dead on the tram tour, resulting in the most effective and evocative use yet of the studio back lot during Horror Nights. I loved the zombie-infested Bates Motel with the undead popping out of doorways and banging on windows. And the "War of the Worlds" was the perfect setting for zombies to hobble upstream through visitors navigating the plane wreck movie set. My favorite moment of the night: A photo op with Norman Bates in front of the "Psycho" house.
Welcome to Silent Hill -- Maybe it's just an unfamiliarity with the video game on my part, but I don’t find muscle-bound stilt-walking guys with pyramid heads and sexy, faceless nurses very scary. Lots of unrealized potential in many rooms as the scare-actors seemed to go into hiding as the crowds of visitors overwhelmed the maze. The coolest effect: A schoolgirl who kept materializing behind walls.
Adelaide Clemens, who plays Heather Mason in "Silent Hill," walked through the maze as part of a promotion for the upcoming film based on the game. The shaken and breathless Australian actress emerged from the maze clutching her chest, yelling at a knife-wielding faceless nurse to leave her alone. "It was like the movie jam-packed into one experience," Clemens said. "It was so scary it was ridiculous."
Universal Monster Remix-- It's pretty clear the park's House of Horrors is always an after-thought when it comes to Horror Nights, and this season is no exception. A pounding soundtrack of electronica, industrial and dub-step music did little to improve the year-round walk-through attraction. A modern makeover of the Frankenstein story livened up the mad scientist's lab a bit with a stilt-walking Frank, a go-go dancing Bride and a DJ spinning records.