The reinvigorated 41-year-old beast known as Knott's Scary Farm has shaken off the shackles of entitlement and cobwebs of advancing age to reassert itself as a contender in the heavyweight battle for Halloween supremacy in Southern California.
The granddaddy of all Halloween theme park events had gotten soft and lazy in recent years as cross-town rival Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood rose to prominence and threatened to steal its bloodied crown.
This year's emphatic rebuttal finds Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm improving by leaps and bounds with a conscious effort to reduce the emphasis on quantity in favor of a focus on quality.
Gone are the woeful paint-on-plywood mazes with monsters wearing store-bought rubber masks, replaced by new and returning mazes featuring improved set dressings, props and lighting with more monsters in full makeup.
What the Buena Park theme park needs to focus on next is talent. Far too many of the maze monsters during my opening weekend visit were passive, distant and lifeless. They need an injection of the type of energy demonstrated by the Haunt's scare zone monsters, who consistently stalked after their prey with relentless zeal.
Also lacking inside the mazes were repeatable scenes with living victims and choreographed scare sequences. Far too many of the rooms were filled with lifeless dummies and monsters aimlessly milling around. Now that the rooms look like movie sets, the "scareactors" need a script.
Here's my review of the Halloween Haunt 2013 mazes from best to worst:
1) Trapped: The New Experiment
The completely revamped reservation-only up-charge maze sold out every night last year and significantly raised the bar for quality at Knott's. This year, Haunt's maze makers have introduced a whole new set of doorless rooms you have to puzzle your way out of.
While I won't give anything away, I will say that this year's Trapped maze does appear to have multiple alternate routes.
Unfortunately the 2013 version of Trapped is only half as good as the 2012 original. That said, Trapped is still the head-and-shoulders best maze in the park. It's just that the new rooms aren't as creative, intense or difficult to escape from as last year.
2) Black Magic
The experience begins outside the maze with a spectacular digital paint job on the facade that intermittently builds brick by brick, catches on fire and flows with blood. It was the most impressive special effect of night and the exact level of detail Knott's should bring to all its mazes.
New this year are the Skeleton Key rooms, intimate explanations of the back stories for select mazes that are offered to visitors who opt to pay extra for the Fright Lane front-of-line upgrade.
Black Magic offered the best Skeleton Room of the night with a handful of visitors sitting around a séance table as the spirit of Harry Houdini is summoned. Without spoiling the surprise, the maze recounts a number of the famed magician's escapes that quite naturally go awry.
With straitjacketed magicians hanging upside down and madmen trapped in prison cells, the first few rooms of Black Magic should serve as a blueprint for the attention to detail that Knott's needs to bring to every maze going forward.
From the water tank escape to the knife-throwing gag to the manic room full of rabbits, Black Magic was a disturbing delight throughout.
My biggest jolt of the night: A sliding mirror that revealed a monster who leaped right at me. Knott's needs more of these effective types of repeatable scares.
This telling of a modern-day serial killer who re-creates murders from Edgar Allan Poe's tales offers endless storytelling possibilities for years to come.
Among my favorite scenes: A winged woman wallowing outside "The Raven" room, the pulsing red lights and thumping heartbeat under the floorboards in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and the swooshing ax swinging a few inches above my head in "The Pit and the Pendulum."
"The Fall of the House of Usher" featured the best practical effect of the night: Corrugated steel walls that squeezed in on both sides of the shrinking room.
What didn't work as well were the bird beaks worn by many of the monsters, who too often were just aimlessly milling around.
4) Mirror Mirror
What could have been a throwaway maze turned out to be a fun and confusing experience suitable for repeated visits.
Rather than going for scares, the monsters focused on disorientation, misdirection and misinformation while surreptitiously opening and closing passageways in the perfectly lighted labyrinth of mirrored halls.
My favorite part: The monster who said, "Come this way, I can get you out" and then proceeded to lead us in circles and separate us from our party. The message: Don't trust anyone in Mirror Mirror.
My only wish: The maze with one of the biggest lines of the night could have been larger.
5) The Gunslinger's Grave
This Wild West-themed maze offered a well conceived back story and impressive sets, but the gunslinger's tale of revenge just didn't translate to many scares -- probably because the cowboys were after somebody else other than me. It didn't help that the talent was mostly just milling around once again.
The Skeleton Key room in Gunslinger's Grave was very well done but ultimately unsatisfying. Too many of these pre-story rooms involved visitors watching a story unfold on a cleverly disguised video screen (this time made to look like a cabin window). This type of video technology is a great addition to Knott's toolbox of tricks, but it would be better employed in an atmospheric way throughout the maze rather than as mandatory viewing.
6) Endgames: Warriors of the Apocalypse
One of my favorite mazes from a few years ago, it says volumes about the uptick in quality at Halloween Haunt that so many other mazes have surpassed this chaotic opus.
While I could do without the excruciatingly loud speed metal soundtrack, the apocalyptic story and dystopian sets of Endgames still hold up over time.
I love the two enormous animatronic beasts that each take up entire rooms.
7) Trick or Treat
This beautiful haunted house maze could be an annual workhorse if only Knott's could come up with a compelling back story.
My suggestion: Take Haunt's iconic Green Witch, who theoretically lives in the house, and have her stalk you from room to room, popping out of every door, window and picture frame.
The Green Witches I ran into were fantastic -- from the one who nearly karate-kicked me in the face to the other who flew down on broomstick in the finale. I only wish there were Green Witches hiding in every room. What we got instead were a bunch of random tricksters milling around rather than focusing on scares.
8) Pinocchio Unstrung
In a recurring theme of the evening, this was another returning maze that improved from last season with more three-dimensional sets and energetic in-your-face scares.
My favorite scene: Stepping into the gaping maw of the whale and walking through his stomach.
9) Uncle Willy's BBQ Slaughterhouse
Another entry in the "much improved" category, this deranged butcher maze featured a new layout allowing for better scares and the highest energy monsters of night.
Once again the Skeleton Key room didn't work too well thanks to another video presentation that was about as interactive as sitting on your couch and watching TV.
10) Dominion of the Damned
Billed as a new maze, this returning entry added more three-dimensional sets and better monster makeup but still retained an old convoluted storyline involving art-loving vampires. More slow and plodding aimless monsters didn't help matters any.
My favorite scene: A room full of rocking caskets with an animatronic creature that bursts from one of the coffins.
My recommendation: Put a stake through the heart of this maze next year.
I've never understood the concept behind this fever dream that literally travels through the folds and recesses of the brain. This one needs to be permanently put to sleep.
12) The Witch's Keep
Beyond a few wispy ghosts and static skeletons, this haunted attraction wasn't much different than the regular Calico Mine Ride during the rest of the year -- which is a good thing.
In years past, Knott's has added live monsters and heavy thematic overlays to the mine ride and Timber Mountain Log Ride during Halloween and counted them as "mazes."
After a multimillion-dollar renovation that added about 60 animatronic figures to the log ride, Knott's announced that Timber Mountain would no longer undergo any seasonal Halloween makeovers that hastened the gradual decline of the 1969 attraction.
Hopefully this year's light touch with Witch's Keep signals that Knott's is preparing to give the 1960 Calico Mine Ride a similar rehab.
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