It saddens and pains me to say it, but the granddaddy of all Halloween theme park events has gotten tired, old and complacent.
After 39 years, Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm looks like a creaky, middle-aged zombie that's lost its will to rise from the grave every night.
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I'm not sure whether to blame the malaise on contemptuous familiarity, increased competition or just a slow night on an opening weekend, but the Buena Park theme park that set the bar for haunted attraction excellence has become overrun with interchangeable mazes full of indistinguishable monsters.
With 13 mazes, Knott's tends to add about three new mazes annually which usually stick around for four years or so. Haunt has built several well-themed new mazes over the past couple years, including the Jack the Ripper-inspired Terror of London and the zombie-filled Virus Z.
The problem with this year's batch of new mazes (and many of the aging ones) is they lack a compelling back story, set amid a distinct environment with a recurring villain. Too much of Halloween Haunt features recycled themes set in repurposed mazes with reused costumes.
Don't get me wrong. I love Haunt and only want the legacy to continue. Unfortunately during my visit, Haunt 2011 failed more often than it succeeded, with each successive maze more disappointing than the last.
Throughout the evening, I repeatedly headed back to the park's moody and pitch-perfect Ghost Town area in hopes of redeeming an otherwise lifeless and lethargic fright night. But like the rest of Knott's Scary Farm, I found indifferent monsters kicking back, chatting with coworkers and watching the clock.
The only thing that saved my dismal experience was the absolute best installment of "The Hanging" I've ever seen. The irreverent and self-deprecating show can be hit or miss, but the 2011 edition was laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish.
Employing a "Cowboys & Aliens" theme filled with blood, flames and gunfire, the pop culture revue skewered all the year's most infamous celebrities, including Amy Winehouse, Anthony Weiner and Charlie Sheen.
I especially liked the fierce battle between the pitchfork-wielding town folks and the mop-wielding army of Arnold Schwarzenegger's impregnated housekeepers. And somehow "The Hanging" even made me feel bad for Justin Bieber, who had to be killed three times because, like in real life, he just wouldn't die.
Here's a rundown of the mazes, from best to worst:
> Endgames: Warriors of the Apocalypse - A post-apocalyptic arena where gladiators battle to the death for the entertainment of the rich and powerful. The best new maze of 2011 was also the top maze of the night with a great theme and plenty of good scares. (In CampSnoopy at the former Peanuts Playhouse location).
> Terror of London - Featuring Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll. Great scenery, a solid back story and plenty of atmospheric talent keeps this outstanding maze near the top for the third year in a row. The perfect prototype for future Haunt mazes. (Mystery Lodge)
> Slaughterhouse - A deranged butcher runs a barbecue restaurant. Returning to form after a dip last season, this 2008 maze could be easily elevated and refreshed with a stronger back story and a central villain. (Near main gate)
> Corn Stalkers - Scarecrows and demented farmers amid rows of rotting corn. This year's most-improved maze managed a higher scare-per-scarecrow ratio than in any previous season. (Along Butterfield Stagecoach trail)
> Virus Z - Replicates a small town overrun by infected cannibals, zombies and bloodthirsty corpses. Haunt's best themed maze missed out on a lot of potential scares. Maybe the monsters were on a break. Strong characters and a concise back story make Virus Z the perfect blueprint for future Haunt mazes. (Fiesta Plaza)
> Fallout Shelter - Where the insane residents haven't seen the sun since the Atomic Age. Several good jolts from a high-energy crew of toxic mutants. An excellent example of Haunt's indistinguishable and interchangeable themes. (Near Reflection Lake)
> Sleepy Hollow Mountain - Featuring the headless horseman legend with ghosts, ghouls, witches and goblins. Diminishing scares throughout with a pair of highlights: the mesmerizing jack-o'-lantern cave and the disorienting strobe-lit tunnel. (Timber Mountain log ride)
> Delirium - A wasteland along the blurry line between nightmare and insanity. The ambiguous and hazy drug trip dreamscape theme lacked a coherent storyline. More in-your-face stares than scares in this disappointing new maze. (Ghostrider warehouse).
> Invasion Beneath - The military battles against creatures emerging from a fissure in the Earth's core. The confusing new overlay for the classic mine train ride features a lot of machine guns and lasers but little in the way of explanation. I would have stuck with last year's perfectly themed Black Widow's Cavern. (Calico Mine Ride).
> Lockdown: The Asylum (2009) - A high-security penitentiary for the insane. Long stretches of inactivity had me looking for the inmates rather than trying to avoid them. An excellent candidate for the early release program - or summary execution. (Backstage near Ghostrider)
> Dia de los Muertos in 3-D - Featuring a Day of the Dead theme. The sleepy maze remains light on scares and near the bottom for another year. No mas, por favor. (At the bumper cars)
> Doll Factory - A psychotic killer's museum of death and disfigurement. Fell from the top to the bottom in large part because it felt like three disparate mazes randomly strung together. Hopefully Knott's retires the disjointed 2007 maze after this season. (Wilderness Dance Hall)
> Uncle Bobo's Big Top of the Bizarre in 3-D - Clowns run amok in a vaudevillian setting. Another precipitous year-over-year drop can be blamed on the relentless scatological humor: Clowns vomiting in toilets and hiding in port-a-potties. It's time to flush this maze. (Under Xcelerator)
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