Like a slow but determined zombie, Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain continues to lumber in the right direction after years of generic Halloween fare.
Following the addition of more mazes and monsters last season, Fright Fest 2012 introduces a new standard of excellence by which all future haunted attractions will be judged at the Valencia amusement park.
A state-of-the-art makeover of the Willoughby's Haunted Mansion, a venerable but aging Fright Fest mainstay for more than a decade, raises the bar for all Magic Mountain mazes and serves as a warning shot that the Six Flags park is prepared to go head-to-head with its Southern California rivals.
With Universal Studios Hollywood and Knott's Berry Farm locked in a bruising bloodfest for local Halloween supremacy, Magic Mountain has quietly but steadily continued to increase the quantity and improve the quality of its Fright Fest mazes and scare zones in hopes of joining the battle.
The passionate and energetic Magic Mountain monsters are already better looking, harder working and more relentless than their counterparts at Knott's Halloween Haunt.
The new Willoughby's maze is equal to the movie-quality haunted attractions at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.
The comic book-inspired villains in Magic Mountain's DC Universe constitute the best scare zone in Southern California.
And Fright Fest remains a relative bargain, with the mazes costing just $13 over the price of an all-day admission as compared with the $50-plus evening-only, separate-admission ticket prices demanded by Knott's and Universal.
But you get what you pay for and Magic Mountain still has a long way to go before it can climb out of a distant third place. Removing the older, unimaginative mazes still remaining in Fright Fest's off-the-shelf lineup would be an important first step.
Here's a look at each of the haunted mazes at Fright Fest 2012, ranked from best to worst:
Willoughby's Resurrected (new in 2012) - This completely refurbished attraction combines detailed set dressing, imaginative practical effects, inventive video projections and high-energy monsters into a fantastic maze that is head and shoulders above virtually everything else at Fright Fest. Projected onto walls and built into the sets, the 20 video animations throughout the maze are triggered by the talent, resulting in an ever-changing experience.
The best scene in the Willoughby's maze was in the library study where a video projection spelled out "murder" in blood on the wall. A headless man drew our attention as another monster popped out from a hidden door and a third jumped up from behind a desk. Repeatable triangulation scares like that are what will elevate Fright Fest to the next level.
This buzz-worthy maze is so good I'd recommend going through it again and again.
The Aftermath (new in 2011) -- The breakout best maze from last year still remains impressive with its post-apocalyptic scenes of overturned vehicles, hovering helicopters and fireball explosions in the former Batman stunt show arena.
The tireless monsters, the biggest cast of any Fright Fest maze, kept us on edge throughout the dystopian world of nomadic creatures. And I still love the fog-filled entry tunnel that left me unable to see my hand in front of my face, uncertain which way to turn and unsure what to fear.
The highlight of the night: A stilt-walking cyborg robot just outside the Aftermath entrance that looked like some kind of insect-android mutation.
Chupacabra (new in 2011) - With more monsters and an increased fear factor, this year's most-improved maze still remains light on the thematic side with painted plywood walls rather than props and three-dimensional sets. The rabid werewolf-like monsters were certainly an improvement over last year's curiously spandex-clad beasts.
The highlight: A blood-splattered woman just inside the entrance cradling an animated baby chupacabra in her arms. A great final scare from a caged chupacabra with a triggered audio roar sent visitors running out of the maze screaming in fear.
With a little more attention to detail, Magic Mountain could turn this compelling story about the legendary Latin American creature into a unique signature maze not found at any other Halloween event. Universal's La Llorona maze is a perfect example of how to make a Mexican village look spooky without becoming clichéd.
Lecter's Slaughterhouse - The deranged butcher maze, one of my least favorite from last season, was greatly improved this year with the addition of more monsters and room dividers that helped break up the scares. The manic monsters even continued their scares beyond the exit. The highlight: A ghoul hiding amid the ceiling-suspended body bags who scared me three times.
Unfortunately, the cookie-cutter Slaughterhouse maze found at almost every Six Flags Fright Fest event nationwide is made up of little more than white walls splattered with red paint. That won't work any more when compared to the Willoughby's and Aftermath mazes.
Blackout (new in 2012) - High expectations spoiled this one for me. I should have known this maze couldn't possibly compare to the renowned Blackout attractions in Los Angeles and New York City that send visitors in alone armed only with a flashlight.
Sadly, the Blackout maze at Magic Mountain just didn't work. In fact, it was a boring and pointless waste of time.
The premise was simple enough: Small groups of up to eight people holding onto a length of rope walk through a pitch black maze with the leader wielding a tiny flashlight. Aside from the occasional screams heard elsewhere in the maze, our long and winding walk in the dark was interrupted by only five whispering and muttering monsters.
The cynic in me might say Blackout was a way for Magic Mountain to cut costs on maze decoration and monster staffing. But I'm going to take the opposite approach and focus instead on the unrealized promise of this basic but potentially terrifying maze.
First I would ditch the rope and send visitors in one or two at a time, each with their own small flashlight. Then I'd bring up the lights ever so slightly so you can just make out the shadows of the monsters. And finally I'd make the maze have multiple potential paths and challenge visitors to find their way out.
Cursed (new in 2011) - Nothing can save this pathetic gypsies and werewolves maze covered in camouflage netting. Magic Mountain needs to get rid of these ride queue mazes if the park hopes to continue improving the quality level of Fright Fest.
Black Widow (new in 2012) - You know a maze is bad when the best part is the entry spiel explaining the back story. Something about a woman seeking vengeance against her no-good husband by murdering any man she meets.
This unmemorable dud consisted of little more than spiderwebs and low-wattage scares. I can think of any number of ways a spurned woman might dispatch with a good-for-nothing guy (claw hammer, power saw, golf club), but apparently Magic Mountain couldn't think of any.
What's even worse is Magic Mountain simply swapped out last year's vampire theme with a spider-lady motif without bothering to change much else in this maze.
I could actually see that strategy working if Magic Mountain wanted to turn the otherwise unused building at the top of the park into a Gothic manor twin of Willoughby's haunted mansion - with rotating mazes featuring historic period themes.
Jokester's Hideout 3D - Another candidate for the Willoughby's makeover treatment, this tired and tattered 11-year-old clowns run amok maze never changes even though it certainly needs to.
I'd love to see Magic Mountain turn this otherwise unused building into a lunatic asylum or prison of the quality of Willoughby's that could house a new madhouse maze each season.
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