The aging elegance of the Long Beach-moored Queen Mary ocean liner and hotel provides a perfect backdrop for the fog-shrouded nautical nightmare theme that unifies the Dark Harbor haunted event.
I caught Dark Harbor over the weekend after a bit of buzz touting the rebooted Halloween event as much improved over languishing past offerings. Dark Harbor will continue from 7 p.m. until midnight Thursday to Sunday (Oct. 21 to 24) and 27 to 31.
Dark Harbor compares well to Halloween theme-park events at Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios Hollywood, albeit on a smaller scale. Like any fright fest, there were spots where I was impressed and others where I was underwhelmed. In several instances, the theme parks could take a few cues from Dark Harbor, and in other cases the upstart still needs to learn some horror basics from the haunt elders.
From the start, Dark Harbor takes advantage of the Queen Mary’s shipping port surroundings, ferrying visitors into the event through a series of interconnected cargo containers. During my visit, the misty night air kept the cargo containers so thick with low-lying fog that I could barely find my way. The eerie effect perfectly set the overall “sea evil” maritime madness tone for the entire evening.
The flame-spewing Hell’s Bell Tower serves as the centerpiece of Dark Harbor, with wooden shipping pallets and more cargo containers forming an amorphous scare zone below called the Barricades. The scare zone was sadly underused, with monsters waiting to scare visitors who largely avoided the amazingly atmospheric space. The central hub would have been far more effective if each of the five Dark Harbor mazes entered from and exited into the scare zone. Instead, the shipwreck-themed cocktail lounge featuring a rotating slate of local bands served as the central gathering place.
Overall, I was impressed by the dedication of the Dark Harbor monsters, whom I saw on more than one occasion chase frightened visitors into restroom stalls. That’s what I call fully committing to a scare.
What follows are my reviews of the five Dark Harbor haunted mazes, ordered from best to worst:
The Cage – A confounding yet simple series of black curtains sets the non-linear ball of confusion tone for this caught-in-a-cage maze. You never know where to go or what to expect next. The amazing lighting effects take full advantage of the cavernous space. It’s one of the best mazes I’ve seen this Halloween season. (Inside the former Spruce Goose dome)
Village of the Damned – Mutated monsters scared me 10 times in a row in this well-themed maze set in a haunted seaside town. The highlight: tarp-covered air walls that press against visitors as they pinch through a narrow, pitch-black passageway. (Inside the Queen Mary Seawalk shops)
Submerged – A multi-level sinking ship maze filled with fantastic water effects, many of them activated by hidden triggers on the floor. Unfortunately, the living monsters (and scares) weren’t as plentiful. For me, the Queen Mary swimming pool filled with fog remains the most memorable moment of the night. This was by far the best of the on-board mazes. (Bow of the Queen Mary)
Hellfire – Lots of long and boring black hallways through the ship’s hull with hardly any scares. The lamest maze of the night was saved only by the coolest effect of the evening: the elevated walkway five stories above the “engine room.” I won’t give away the surprise. (Midship of the Queen Mary)
Containment – The scare actors and scares were few and far between in this medical-ward-gone-mad maze. Highlights: The crazy woman in the wheelchair and the old man with the walker left lasting impressions. (Stern of the Queen Mary)