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Fright Fest improves as Six Flags Magic Mountain closes in on rivals

New Fright Fest mazes at Six Flags Magic Mountain: Red's Revenge, Vault 666, Willoughby's Garden of Darkness

After years as a perennial also-ran, Six Flags Magic Mountain's Fright Fest has emerged as a worthy contender for Southern California Halloween supremacy.

The annual Halloween event at the Valencia amusement park has invested heavily the last few seasons to catch up to the undisputed leaders -- Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights and Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt.

Now Magic Mountain needs to figure out how to differentiate Fright Fest from Knott's decades of experience and Universal's expertise with brand-name horror franchises.

Over the last few years, Magic Mountain has built permanent homes for most of its haunted mazes, allowing the park to invest in technology and infrastructure that does not need to be torn down and removed after each Halloween season.

Magic Mountain's newest mazes show a commitment to three-dimensional sets designed to compete with Universal Studios Hollywood while Fright Fest's outdoor scare zones rival the best Knott's Berry Farm has to offer.

That’s a vast improvement over the rubber-masked monsters and paint-on-plywood mazes that came to define Fright Fest. The next step is to remove the final vestiges of the regrettable past and bring the weakest of the old mazes up to the new higher standards.

Let's take a look from best to worst at the Fright Fest 2014 mazes:

Red's Revenge

Turning the classic fairy tale on its head, a risen from the dead Red Robin Hood hunts the Big Bad Wolf and anybody else who wanders into the forest in this new maze.

By far the most popular maze of the night and deservedly so, Red's Revenge illustrated Fright Fest’s new attention to detail and quality with an array of impressive theatrical sets, thematic props and special effects.

To match Universal's character-driven mazes, Magic Mountain needs to fully utilize its main villains -- in this case, the vengeful Red. Why not have Red hunt her victims (and us) in every scene rather than just the finale? A repeatable character that pops up in nearly every scene is a signature trademark of Universal's most popular mazes.

The highlight of Red's Revenge: Towering tree-like creatures that threatened at every turn in the forest.

Vault 666

Unauthorized genetic experiments crossing humans with animals unleashes a phalanx of hybrid creatures that roam the corridors of an abandoned secret government research facility in another of Fright Fest’s new mazes.

With beautiful sets and a solid back story, Vault 666 could use some storytelling tweaks to make it even stronger. Far too many of the impressive rooms featured random scares with generic monsters.

To compete with the likes of Universal and Knott's, every scene needs a simple, short and repeatable script that can be repeated by the "scareactors" with minor variations throughout the night. The hospital ward scene in Vault 666 was a perfect example of every monster having a defined role to play and hitting their marks with each group that passed through the maze.

The scariest moment in Vault 666: A convulsing woman electrocuted by a loose wire amid arcing electrical sound and lighting effects.

The Aftermath

The post-apocalyptic maze of overturned vehicles, hovering helicopters and fireball explosions in the former Batman stunt-show arena was the turning point for Fright Fest in 2011 and remains one of the event's best attractions.

With the biggest cast of any Fright Fest maze, Aftermath continues to amaze year after year with its near-perfect depiction of a zombie outbreak in an urban environment. Around every corner, the undead crawl on the ground and hop on all fours in a feeding frenzy of doomsday proportions.

To keep the maze fresh, Magic Mountain will need to tweak the Aftermath back story from year to year.

One option: Add a Call to Duty overlay to the amazing arena space. A Six Flags partner with a booth at the Fright Fest event, the infantry and warfare video game would be a perfect fit for the Aftermath maze with soldiers fighting the undead and evacuating the survivors (that would be you and me). Call of Duty even has a zombie mode that turns enemy warriors into the walking dead.

Willoughby's Resurrected

Fright Fest’s long-running workhorse haunted house got a complete refurbishment in 2012 with detailed set dressing, imaginative practical effects and inventive video projections.

High-energy monsters have kept this fantastic maze among the best at Fright Fest. Magic Mountain’s work will be done when every maze is as good or better than Willoughby’s haunted mansion.

Among the highlights of Willoughby's Resurrected: A coat rack and a potted plant that sprang to life in front of unsuspecting visitors.

Toyz of Terror 3D

By far the most improved maze of Fright Fest 2014 was Toyz of Terror, an underwhelming replacement for the woeful Jokester’s Hideout that occupied the location for more than a decade.

Last year’s "new" Toyz maze did little more than recycle many of the same gags from seasons past — only with toys instead of clowns.

This year's 3-D version offered a new look and layout that improved the maze by leaps and bounds.

The renovation saw a team of scenic artists descend on the maze with Chromadepth 3-D paint and cover every surface with artwork that literally leaped off the walls.

The "new new" Toyz of Terror maze looks like a terrifying art gallery filled with graffiti-like satanic tattoos connected by stringy cartilage. The playfully wicked effect is at once mesmerizing and horrifying. My only request: Magic Mountain should ramp up the twisted fun-house atmosphere even more.

The highlight of the Toyz of Terror maze: A monster with a mammoth mouth that stretched down to its waist.

Total Darkness

This great idea for a maze somehow keeps getting worse every year rather than better.

The intriguing premise is straightforward enough: Send small groups of visitors holding on to a length of rope into a pitch-black maze.

The only problem: It seems Magic Mountain is afraid of the dark.

The solution is simple: Drop the ridiculous rope idea, give everybody a tiny pen light and let them find their way out. Who cares if people get scared, confused or even lost? That's the whole point: You never know where the in-your-face scares are coming from next. If anybody gets too terrified, an usher can help them out of the maze.

Instead, what we’re left with is a safe and boring walk in the dark guided by string lights along the floor and dimly illuminated exit signs.

The perfect model for the Total Darkness maze is this year's entrance to Aftermath: A smoke-filled black tunnel with a faint light off in the distance. You have to paw your way along the walls, uncertain who or what you’ll find next.

Without offering any spoilers, let's just say the finale of Total Darkness is by far the best part of the maze.

Chupacabra

This unimpressive paint-and-plywood maze is what remains of Fright Fest's woeful past, with a host of terrified Mexican villagers direct from central casting running scared from a werewolf-like beast.

A good idea poorly executed, Chupacabra could be much more compelling and frightening if the mythical creature showed up in nearly every scene rather than just at the beginning. Why not have the beast stalk us rather than merely reveal the aftermath of his attacks?

Willoughby's Garden of Darkness

The third new maze of Fright Fest 2014 was the biggest flop of the night.

For some reason, Magic Mountain decided to swap last year's miserable spider web-filled Black Widow maze with a horrible ivy-covered Garden of Darkness maze that proved a tremendous waste of time and effort.

In theory, there's some back story about a daughter from the nearby Willoughby's estate who dwells in a haunted garden inhabited by man-eating plants.

In practice, what we got was a maze filled with nothing more than camouflage netting and swamp monsters in ghillie suits, the camo tents worn by soldiers trying to blend into the terrain.

Your average backyard haunt can do better than that.

The Garden of Darkness was not scary, interesting or imaginative. In fact, it was downright lazy and embarrassing.

It looked like Magic Mountain simply reused the leftover camouflage materials from last year's aptly named Cursed ride queue maze.

Fright Fest 2014 at Six Flags Magic Mountain runs on select Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights through Nov. 1.

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