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Reenergized Knott's Halloween Haunt lures us back into the fog

Reenergized Knott's Halloween Haunt lures us back into the fog
The Paranormal Inc. maze debuts at Knott's Halloween Haunt 2015. (Knott's)
Halloween Haunt returns with a vengeance to Knott’s Berry Farm with the best maze lineup in a decade and a new commitment to quality set design and immersive storytelling.

From start to finish, I found the nine mazes at Haunt 2015 to be solid and well-executed, the shows at their raunchy best and the scare zone monsters in terrifying form.

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It's taken awhile to clear the Buena Park theme park of some past Haunt flotsam and jetsam, but by and large this year's returning mazes have held up well while continuing to improve. And the newest offerings compare favorably to what's being offered up the freeway at Universal Studios Hollywood.

While Haunt still has a way to go to catch up to and keep up with Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, the level of detail and commitment to storytelling in the newest attractions bodes well for the future of Knott’s Scary Farm.

I toured Halloween Haunt on opening night, and as you might expect a number of the attractions were still working out some of the kinks. I suspect by the end of the first weekend Knott's will make the necessary adjustments to turn this year's Haunt into a humming horror factory.

The best new maze of 2015 is also the best I’ve ever seen at Haunt. Paranormal Inc. features a team of ghost hunters from a cable television show who investigate a haunted mental hospital where patients have been tortured for decades by deranged doctors.

From the beautifully rendered facade that perfectly set the tone for the abandoned insane asylum to the team of ghost hunters we follow throughout the maze, Paranormal Inc. should be a model for all future Haunt mazes.

Paranormal Inc. starts with a crowd of 50 people crammed into the day room of the asylum. Following some storytelling setup, things go horribly wrong as props in the room start moving on their own and an aerial stuntwoman flies overhead. A clever device divides the crowd in half before maze visitors travel along two separate paths.

A well-executed gag in an early scene involving an empty wheelchair was paid off when we turned the corner and saw what was really happening on a video screen: A doctor torturing a mental patient in the wheelchair. Now we know why the place is haunted.

The Paranormal maze was filled with top-notch talent and first-class effects -- from an incredibly flexible demon bending over backward to a ghost hunter plucked from a room by an invisible force.

The subsequent descent into hell is hauntingly beautiful, with glowing blue veins pulsating amid the craggy depths of the demon world. The most memorable scene of the night: Crossing a rickety bridge shaken by a massive animatronic beast looking me straight in the eye. The video-mapped lava pit down below was not working yet, but should amp up an already surreal scene once the effect is dialed in.

Last year's best new maze, Voodoo, has gotten even better with a level of detail unparalleled by any other maze in the park. I particularly loved the lair of the voodoo priestess and the drying room filled with life-sized alligator skins. The animatronic skeletons popping out of the smoke-covered swamp were simply fantastic. A fun collapsing bridge effect caught me off guard and sent me scrambling for safety. The maze also included the best upcharge Skeleton Key room of the night: A suddenly appearing and disappearing voodoo goddess.

I loved the experience of exploring Voodoo's bayou village. The twisting and branching paths meant no two visits to the maze would ever be the same. There were so many layers in Voodoo that I wanted to explore the maze all night. I particularly liked the unrushed pace that avoided the typical conga line mentality of most mazes.

It's always difficult to create a plausible outdoors feel in an indoor environment. Somehow the passage through the banyan tree-filled bayou looked even better than last year, with an atmosphere so realistic that I forgot for a brief moment that we were in a warehouse building. Unfortunately the swampy forest was denuded of any monsters.

By far the most popular attraction of the night was the Special Ops: Infected zombie-killing laser tag zone. Knott's doubled the fun this year by increasing the length of the experience and the number of zombies.

It's still a bit bizarre to be toting a futuristic-looking military assault weapon through a theme park kiddie land while taking orders from a barking squadron commander. But I quickly forgot where I was when our squadron got its orders: Find patient zero and kill any zombies that get in the way. I did my job and finished the night with a zombie headcount hovering around 25.

Special Ops: Infected is tremendous fun and an amazing experience -- once you get to the front of the line. Some visitors on opening night reported waiting more than two hours to get into the killing zone. Knott's had a similar problem last year with long wait times for Special Ops. From the looks of things, the situation has gotten worse.

While I appreciate the egalitarian approach of letting everyone experience the wildly popular attraction, it's probably time for Knott's to charge a separate fee for Special Ops in an effort to thin the crowds. You shouldn't have to spend half your night waiting in line for one attraction.

The newer guns employed in Special Ops created even more problems, at least on opening night. In theory, the laser guns reward zombie hunters with more ammo for successful kills. In reality, there were a lot of recruits in our group complaining that their guns didn't work or that they were out of bullets.

The cumbersome process of commanders reloading each recruit's weapon slowed down the journey and presumably added to the wait for those standing in line. The new guns may be exciting for experienced laser tag enthusiasts, but for everyday Haunt-goers they proved way too complicated. Knott's should set the guns to unlimited ammo and let their fans have fun.

The beautiful new Dead of Winter was dreamy and peaceful -- not exactly what I'm looking for in a haunted maze, but a nice diversion nonetheless. The story focused on the fairy tale snow queen made popular by Disney's "Frozen." The Dead of Winter tale takes a much darker tack than the Disney version, with the evil queen's victims trapped under ice and encased in crystallized coffins.

Playing with a color palette of blues and whites not typically found in a Haunt maze, the laid-back jaunt through the snow was low on energy and light on scares. One exception: the giant animatronic ice monster guarding the queen’s ice castle who growled with menacing ferocity. The queen herself was the highlight of the Dead of Winter maze, posing and preening on her throne just before the exit.

Across the board, Haunt's returning mazes got even better this year with new details and better scares -- which should always be the case. All too often though in the past, Haunt's older mazes have been forgotten and grown more tired with each passing season. But not this year. Five returning mazes -- Black Magic, Tooth Fairy, Trick or Treat, Forevermore and Pinocchio Unstrung -- were all well-dressed with impressive set designs and filled with lots of good scares and energetic monsters. The quintet looked great and should serve as a benchmark for maze quality going forward.

Less successful was Gunslinger's Grave, which inexplicably added a werewolf overlay to the returning Wild West maze that made no sense from a storytelling standpoint and delivered few scares.

Knott's haunted only one ride this season: Calico Mine Ride. The "My Bloody Clementine" overlay gave the classic mine train spooky lighting and projection effects with a sprinkling of live monsters to keep riders on the edge of their seats.

Haunt's two shows -- "The Hanging" and "Elvira's Asylum" -- traded in the same crass and crude humor Scary Farm fans have come to expect over the years. Both shows were already in peak form on opening night and spared no subjects -- from Donald Trump and Bill Cosby to Tom Brady and Caitlyn Jenner.

"The Hanging" overdid a running gag with a wicked parody of the GOP-donor Koch brothers. Fortunately, the stunt work in the choreographed fights was the best I've seen in years and helped add an energetic jolt to the show. My favorite moment of the satirical pop culture revue: A Disneyland dig that conflated the rival park's new nighttime parade with this summer's measles outbreak.

While Elvira's jokes and singing remain intentionally stale, her dancers were top-notch and the highlight of the show. I particularly liked the opening number with a band of silhouetted ghouls dancing behind a series of rolling hospital curtain walls.

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The fog-ladened Ghosttown scare zone that gave birth to Halloween Haunt 43 years ago remains my favorite part of the annual event. The best scare of the night came from a "slider" monster who slid on his knees in front of a gaggle of girlfriends. The terrified group leaped from their skins and took off running through the fog.

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The biggest disappointment of the night had to be the Deadly Seven -- living, breathing representations of the seven deadly sins. The monsters were supposed to be wandering the park, but I never saw them. And if I did, they didn't stand out from the 1,000 other monsters working Haunt. The clever concept would probably have worked better as a haunted maze.

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