Like a lumbering and laborious monster intent on capturing his prey, Six Flags Magic Mountain continues to make slow but steady progress toward improving its annual Fright Fest event.
In hopes of keeping up with the twin beasts of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood and Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm, Magic Mountain's Fright Fest has added a spectacular new haunted maze each of the past two seasons that significantly raised the bar for quality at the Valencia amusement park.
This year sees Fright Fest doubling the number of monsters in the mazes and scare zones while upping the amplitude of the scares. Next year promises the introduction of several new mazes equal to the quality standard of the recent additions.
But that sluggish yet persistent progress means many of the onerous and erroneous missteps of the past remain painfully on display at Fright Fest.
The highlight of Fright Fest 2013 wasn't in any of the mazes but rather the scare zones scattered throughout the park. In fact, several of the scare zones were far better than half of this year's haunted mazes.
The new Demon's Door scare zone near the entrance to the park set the stage for Fright Fest's greater attention to detail and increased monster count. The Gates of Hell-themed scare zone featured some fantastic new stilt-walking creatures in a towering trend that was repeated throughout the park.
A trio of glow-in-the-dark stilt-walking demons emerging from the forested darkness of the Nightmares scare zone near the top of the park created the most indelible moment of the evening.
And the City Under Siege area in the DC Universe section of the park remains the best scare zone at any Halloween event in Southern California. The impeccable makeup on the Cyrano de Bergerac-like escaped lunatics along with the amazing laser-lighted and fog-enshrouded setting simply can't be beat.
Here's my review of the Fright Fest 2013 mazes, from best to worst:
Willoughby's Resurrected — After more than a decade of service, Six Flags gave the venerable haunted mansion a complete overhaul in 2012 with a slew of technological and scenic upgrades that made Willoughby's the new standard for haunted mazes at the park.
The hefty investment was deemed worthwhile because Willoughby's is located in a permanent space otherwise unused throughout the year — a practice Magic Mountain plans to repeat with forthcoming Fright Fest mazes.
This season saw the lighting reduced by half inside Willoughby's manor, which improved the scares but literally took the spotlight off the much-improved set dressing. Six Flags needs to find a way to maintain the show lighting for these theatrical scenes, which in turn will help set up the misdirection tag-team scares.
Largely unchanged from last year, Willoughby's could use a few tweaks from season to season to keep the maze fresh.
Aftermath — This amazing apocalyptic maze in the former Batman stunt show theater marked the turning point for Fright Fest when it was introduced two years ago.
I wouldn't change a thing about this fantastic use of space with its near perfect blend of sights, sounds and scares. This year's zombie overlay in an unspoken homage to the current craze over "The Walking Dead" was just the tweak the maze needed.
The atmospheric fog-filled entry tunnel could use a bunch more monsters in Aftermath's only missed opportunity of the evening.
Total Darkness — The most improved maze of Fright Fest 2013 has a new name and location along with more monsters and in-your-face scares.
As the name implies, this walk through a pitch-black maze delivers on the promise of a simple yet intriguing premise that fell flat in 2012.
While much improved, Total Darkness could still get better. I would drop the idea of having eight to 10 people hang onto a rope as they navigate the blacked-out maze behind a leader with a tiny, dim flashlight. I don't know about you, but I never walk through the dark holding onto a rope.
I would arm everybody entering the maze with one of the little flashlights and let them make their way through the dark alone. Spotting someone or something in your fading flashlight beam seems far scarier to me. Who cares if they get a little lost? That's part of the fun.
The biggest missed opportunity of Total Darkness was the exit through the darkened Magic Moments Theater, which was devoid of any monsters or even a phantom.
Weepy Hills Insanetorium — This year's award for greatest potential goes to a good idea poorly executed.
The Insanetorium was filled with talented monsters, intense scares and effective scenery. The problem was I didn't feel like I'd stepped inside an insane asylum, in part because of the seemingly endless black hallways where absolutely nothing was happening. When we did stumble upon one of the simple yet effective minimalistic scenes, it was nearly impossible to see anything. The whole maze cried out for some atmospheric show lighting.
Despite the wasted promise of this year's effort, I would love to see an insane asylum take up residency in one of the new perennial haunted mazes Magic Mountain has planned for next year.
Toyz of Terror — This journey through the workshop of a demented toy maker had to be the biggest disappointment of the night.
I had expected much more of an emphatic statement from this "new" maze after Magic Mountain mercifully replaced the woeful Jokester's Hideout that occupied this space for more than a decade.
But the eviction of the tired old symbol of Fright Fest's past resulted in little more than a fresh coat of paint to a maze that followed the same layout and recycled many of the same gags from years past — only with toys instead of clowns.
While there were a few good scares — a maniacal puppet and a cymbal-playing monkey come to mind — the Toyz of Terror maze was otherwise underwhelming.
My only hope is that Toyz is a temporary placeholder for what would be an excellent location for a permanent maze that lives up to Fright Fest's new higher standards — say, like, Insanetorium.
Chupacabra — This unimpressive paint-and-plywood maze is another painful reminder of the old Fright Fest way of doing things.
This year's version of Chupacabra masked the utter lack of detail in the maze by pumping in fog and adding spooky lighting, much the way mood lighting and stiff cocktails make everybody in a bar look better just before closing time.
After some misfires in years past, Chupacabra seems to have found the right mix of characters this season with a host of terrified Mexican villagers direct from central casting running scared from a werewolf-like beast.
The Latin American folk legend could be a perennial standby for Fright Fest if Magic Mountain was willing to invest more in three-dimensional sets that gave the maze the feel of a rural village menaced by a blood-sucking beast. I would also add chupacabras throughout the maze rather than saving them just for the final scene.
Black Widow — More energetic scares helped improve one of the worst returning mazes from last year, but who seriously wants that indignity etched on their tombstone?
Unfortunately, death would be the best possible outcome for this spider web-filled excuse for a maze. I can only hope Six Flags gives the Black Widow location the Willoughby's treatment in the off-season.
In a practice that popped up in far too many mazes this year, the monsters in Black Widow resorted to rattling cans filled with nuts and bolts, a sure sign the scare tactics aren't working.
Cursed — I don't know how many different ways I can say Magic Mountain needs to get rid of these ride queues covered in camouflage that they pass off as haunted mazes. Until they do, Fright Fest's improvement will be slower than a plodding zombie.
Fright Fest 2013 at Six Flags Magic Mountain continues on select Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights through Oct. 27. Up-charge tickets for the haunted mazes are $13 to $30 in addition to regular admission.
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