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Review: Universal’s Horror Nights 2016 fails to live up to stellar lineup

The lineup reads like a who’s who of horror: “The Exorcist,” “American Horror Story,” “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Halloween,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Walking Dead.”

With such high expectations, it’s not surprising that Halloween Horror Nights 2016 at Universal Studios Hollywood didn’t quite live up to the hype.

I visited Universal on Friday during the sold-out opening-night festivities and found the best lineup in Horror Nights history lacking the spark that made the annual Halloween event crackle with energy in years past.

What brought Horror Nights down? Believe or not, it was the Titans of Terror. After years of serial killing service, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Leatherface have become predictable and boring -- so much so that they’ve become one faceless monster that’s no longer scary or surprising. Universal has done the Titans and their fans a disservice by relegating the Big Four to the same scares over and over again.

Missing from this year’s stellar lineup were the variety and unexpectedness of Horror Nights past when Universal brought “Aliens vs. Predators,” La Llorona and Alice Cooper to life in terrifying and surprising ways.

Universal still has a massive crowd problem. Waiting in lines on opening night took up to 2 1/2 hours for the most popular mazes, which this year were, in order of demand, American Horror Story, The Exorcist and Freddy vs. Jason. Universal needs more mazes and shows to handle the masses that turn out each year for Horror Nights. Nobody should have to wait seven hours to get through three mazes.

Not surprisingly, the two best mazes of Horror Nights 2016 were the two least anticipated: Krampus and The Walking Dead.

Let’s take a look at this year’s Horror Nights mazes from best to worst:

I expected Krampus to be my least favorite maze by the end of the evening, thanks to the long list of slayers in this year’s lineup. “Krampus,” based on the 2015 holiday horror-comedy film, recounts the folk tales of the mythical demonic creature that drags disobedient children to hell.

The Krampus maze takes us inside a typical suburban home filled with snow -- on the walls, floors and ceiling. The unique look of the maze and interesting backstory combined with the detailed interiors and variety of scares made for the best experience of the night.

I loved the murderous gingerbread men running amok in the kitchen, and the terrified child stuck in the fireplace chimney. The best scene of the night put a horrified girl in the jaws of a giant jack in the box bent on devouring the helpless child in her bed.

Now that we can see The Walking Dead all year round at Universal, I didn’t feel any need to rush over to the permanent maze on the theme park’s upper lot. The relatively modest line suggested that most Horror Nights visitors agreed.

After staging Walking Dead mazes for four consecutive years at Horror Nights, Universal decided to build a permanent year-round maze dedicated to the popular AMC zombie apocalypse TV show.

The benefits of a year-round maze are better theming, lighting, audio, sets, props and animatronics. Combine that with triple the normal amount of zombie walkers in the maze and you have an unqualified hit. My only suggestion: The walkers need to slow their pursuit to a more lumbering pace.

The addition of American Horror Story to this year’s lineup gives Horror Nights another popular TV series from which to cull new storylines from season to season.

Based on the FX anthology horror series, this year’s maze draws on three previous seasons, dubbed Murder House, Freak Show and Hotel. A two-faced sideshow barker as well as a monster emerging from the middle of a mattress were among the highlights.

Expect American Horror Story to return next year with a maze dedicated to the upcoming Season 6, dubbed Roanoke.

The Exorcist maze was probably the biggest disappointment. The 1973 supernatural thriller tells the story of the demonic possession and exorcism of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil.

The Horror Nights version of the famous spider walk scene, during which Regan walks upside down on a staircase on her hands and feet, was too slow and anticlimactic to be effective. Likewise, the head-spinning, vomit-spewing Regan animatronic was also a bit of a letdown, with the action once again too slow to develop. Let’s hope Universal can adjust the speed on both scenes.

The scene in which Regan levitates above the bed worked well but could have used a live actor as the priest, rather than a mannequin, to help bring the vignette to life. The scariest scenes involved a live actor playing Regan in the throes of demonic possession. The scares in the blackout transitions from room to room were some of the most effective.

The Freddy vs. Jason maze suffered from the worst crowd management of the evening. The 2003 horror film pits Freddy Krueger from the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie franchise against Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” film series.

The conga line of visitors came to a dead stop four times in the first half of the Freddy vs. Jason maze. Fortunately, the maze grew increasingly more intense the farther we traveled.

The best scenes featured the killers teaming up on us -- either one after the other or at the same time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help feeling I’d seen all this before in 2007, 2008 and 2010.

The Halloween maze suffered from a repetitive string of scares that soon became boring and predictable, which should never happen at Horror Nights. The familiar scare goes something like this: Door opens, recorded scream, flash of light, Michael Myers jumps out with a knife, repeat in every other room.

The Halloween maze, based on the 1981 sequel to the original slasher film, marks the return of Michael Myers for a third time to Horror Nights.

What was missing from the Halloween maze were more storytelling scenes, as when Michael dunks a victim in a boiling vat of water. The best scene in the Halloween maze was a walk through the inside of a giant pumpkin, complete with pumpkin scent.

The worst Horror Nights maze was Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which suffered from a tired human barbecue restaurant theme that you’d expect to see at Knott’s Berry Farm or Six Flags Magic Mountain

This new twist on the familiar horror franchise takes visitors inside the Last Chance gas station and barbecue joint, where Leatherface and his deranged brother Chop Top Sawyer run wild. Chop Top shows up in the middle of the maze to give us a break from his chainsaw-wielding brother, but Leatherface returns for more of the pop-out scares Horror Nights has come to rely on.

My favorite scene in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze involved Chop Top holding a helpless victim while his wheelchair-bound father beat the man over the head with hammer. These sick storytelling tableaus brought Horror Nights to life in seasons past but were sorely lacking this year. However, the maze included the most effective scare of the night, which involved a room full of glowing skulls with one coming frighteningly to life.

I’ve saved my worst scorn for the Terror Tram, this year presented by “Hostel” filmmaker Eli Roth. The tram’s backstory traces the sordid history of Koodles the Clown, a onetime children’s TV show host turned serial killer.

If you’re pressed for time and looking for one thing to skip this year, make it the Terror Tram. It was a waste of time. It was too many people in too little space, which seems like an impossible problem to have on the massive studio back lot. But somehow Universal managed to pull it off.

The Terror Tram experience started out well but quickly devolved into tedium. The Bates Motel, overrun by manic clowns, was a delightful bit of bloody chaos and mayhem. But after turning the corner, we encountered a massive line leading up the hill to the “Psycho” house. The problem? Hundreds of people trying to squeeze through a string of cargo containers stuffed with more clowns and leftover props from old mazes.

The wide-open back lot quickly turned into a traffic jam that would put rush hour on the 101 to shame. Things loosened up a bit in the “War of the Worlds” plane crash site (inexplicably filled with more clowns) before Universal funneled the masses again through a meat grinder of more cargo containers — all so we could wait in another never-ending line to get back on the tram for a return ride to the theme park.

Universal tried something new this year with the scare zones scattered throughout the park: a single, unifying theme based on The Purge. As in “The Purge” movies, in which crime is legal for 12 hours during a government-sanctioned killing rampage and sadistic vigilantes wander throughout Universal’s upper and lower lots sowing chaos and anarchy.

The single scare zone storyline worked well and was more effective than the random themes Universal usually scatters throughout the park. The message was clear and frightening: The Purge is everywhere, and there’s nowhere to hide.

The Purge: Gauntlet of Fear, a cordoned-off pathway of death and dismemberment on the upper lot, didn’t work as well as the free-form scare zones. Halfway between a maze and a scare zone, the gauntlet offered few places for the killers to hide and too many opportunities for the victims to flee. The result: Few scares and lots of meandering murderers with little to do. The Purge Gauntlet featured two of my favorite scare-actors of the evening: a stilt-walking fiend in a glow-in-the-dark costume and a chainsaw-wielding murderer in a mask made out of a teddy bear.

And though I love the smell of chainsaws in the evening, Universal overdid the killing machines this year to the point that I became inured to the sound and unafraid of the terror it foretold.

Back for a second year, the Jabbawockeez dance crew put on a fun stage show full of style and attitude. The masked dancers, winners of the first season of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” posed, popped and break-danced to a pounding techno beat of rap songs.

The hip-hop dance crew is the ideal fit for the under-30 crowd that fills Horror Nights. Let’s hope the return of the Jabbawockeez marks the ultimate demise of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, a woefully bad show that reigned for years at Horror Nights.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was closed during Horror Nights. Maybe Universal Studios Hollywood will follow the lead of its Japanese counterpart and bring the Deatheaters to Wizarding World for Horror Nights 2017.

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