Review: Universal’s Horror Nights 2017 delivers a greatest hits line-up of movie and TV terror
The line-up of villains, killers and maniacs at Halloween Horror Nights 2017 reads like a greatest hits of movie and television terror: “The Shining,” “American Horror Story,” “The Walking Dead,” “Friday the 13th,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Saw” and “The Purge.”
I’ve thought past Horror Nights have lacked enough for the masses to do at the annual seasonal event at Universal Studios Hollywood.
But this year is different. There are more mazes with backstories based on a dozen horror movies and TV shows. A longer schedule stretches from mid-September to early November.
That made for more to do and more space to do it during my opening-night visit to Horror Nights 2017.
Let’s take a best-to-worst look at this year’s haunted mazes:
The Shining maze based on the Stephen King book and Stanley Kubrick movie got off to slow start with no scares in the first few scenes.
An ax-wielding Jack Torrance jumped out at us a dozen times throughout the maze, with each of the matching masks on the “scareactors” bearing a wicked grin.
The elevator scene was the biggest disappointment of the night. The rear-projected video should have just focused on the bloody torrent rather than jumping between flashbacks from the film.
The rear-projection video scene in the bathroom with the silhouette of a beautiful woman in the shower worked much better, setting up the scare by the transformed ugly, old hag in the next room.
By the end of the maze, Jack’s mania visage was covered in frost, portending his eventual demise. The hedge maze finale ended with a solid boom-boom-boom scare.
The Shining was my most anticipated maze of the evening, and it nearly measured up to my high expectations. The first-time maze offered a good mix of the expected and the unexpected.
The Horrors of Blumhouse
The Blumhouse maze combined three movies from the low-budget horror film studio: “The Purge,” “Sinister” and the upcoming “Happy Death Day.”
The Purge has worked well as a scare zone in past seasons and essentially serves the same purpose this year as an outdoor prelude to the Blumhouse maze. The sound of chainsaws and the smell of their exhaust have come to define Horror Nights for me. The “scareactors” worked well with and off each other in the intimate space. My favorite scene in The Purge portion of the maze involved a trio of white-faced angels singing a lullaby that turned grim at the end.
The Happy Death Day mini-maze, based on a new slasher film opening in mid-October, was a bombardment of scares. I jumped out of my skin several times when a smiling moon-faced kid leaped out of a darkened hiding place.
Sinister was the least-effective of the three mini-mazes. One promising scare failed to work because the monster mannequin mounted on the rolling push cart was too tall. That gag works best when the hideous creature attacks visitors below the waist.
The combination worked well for three movie properties that otherwise couldn’t have stood alone as individual mazes. There wasn’t any real connection between the three mini-mazes beyond their production company, but transitional black hallways helped divide the stories and set up the audience for the next story. Expect to see more maze mash-ups at future Horror Nights.
The three-for-one Horrors of Blumhouse maze had the shortest line of the night and packed the most bang for your buck.
Saw: The Games of Jigsaw
The gory Saw maze focused on detailed re-creations of a half-dozen torture scenes from the movie franchise rather than going for the typical startle scares in every scene.
A drowning man whose head was trapped in a water tank was the most effective scene in the maze.
Saw’s set-dressing looked impressive, partly because Universal’s creative team could draw on lessons learned from the 2009 and 2010 iterations of the maze.
Titans of Terror
Another mash-up maze unites film villains Freddy Krueger (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), Jason Voorhees (“Friday the 13th”) and Leatherface (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) in a combined setting that we’re likely to see more of in future Horror Nights events.
We’ve seen this trio at Horror Nights in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2016. This year’s greatest hits package was the least effective from a storytelling standpoint, yet still delivered plenty of scares.
I had low expectations for Titans of Terror, but I walked away a big fan of the mini-maze mash-up concept. It makes sense for Universal to trot out the classic horror villains on a regular basis, especially since all the old sets and scenes are just sitting in storage.
American Horror Story: Roanoke
With great attention paid to storytelling, this year’s iteration of the American Horror Story maze relied heavily on visitors’ familiarity with the 2016 season of the FX television show, visiting key locations in the forest, house and barn.
The knife-wielding butcher and a pig-headed beast provided the main scares throughout the maze.
The maze started slowly with visitors walking through a series of black hallways that Universal didn’t bother to decorate with any set-dressing.
Admittedly, I had a bad experience in the American Horror Story maze because I found myself behind a dividing curtain a dozen times while a monster jumped out at the person ahead of me. Universal uses too many of the “fabric of fear” dividers that ultimately take visitors out of the storytelling experience as much as they break up the scares.
I missed half the maze because too often the action was taking place behind the curtain in front of me.
The highlight of the American Horror Story maze was a 9-foot-tall wicker man. I knew the stilt-walking monster was coming for me and it was still a fun scare.
The Walking Dead
After featuring “The Walking Dead” as the marquee attraction for back-to-back-to-back seasons, Universal built a permanent year-round maze for the AMC television show in 2016. That means there’s no need to wait in line during Horror Nights to see The Walking Dead. There’s plenty else to see.
Nothing has changed about The Walking Dead maze during Horror Nights. The spectacular-looking maze had the same amount of “scareactors” in the same familiar locations. And they scared me several times, especially during the chain-link fence finale.
But there’s really no reason to see The Walking Dead maze during Horror Nights. Yet people still do. And thank goodness for that, because they keep the lines shorter for the seasonal mazes that are only available during Horror Nights.
There wasn’t much of a line for The Walking Dead on opening night. If you’ve done absolutely everything at Horror Nights and you’re looking for one last scare as you head out of the park, tThe Walking Dead maze might be worthwhile.
Otherwise, spend your time on the other stuff at Horror Nights. Save The Walking Dead for when you come back to the park any day of the year.
Ash vs. Evil Dead
I love the sound of chainsaws in the evening and the roaring rattle of those killing machines echoed throughout the Ash vs. Evil Dead maze. But ultimately the maze proved one of the most disappointing of the night.
Ash vs. Evil Dead started off in a trailer park filled with plenty of detail and promise but soon veered off course into a long series of foggy black hallways filled with a lot of nothing.
It felt as if Universal simply left out the middle of the maze.
As always, there were too many of the typical startle scares we’ve come to expect from Universal’s Horror Nights: a flash of light, a blast of sound and a monster jumping out from a door. It gets repetitive quickly.
The showpiece of the maze was a puppeted zombie creature with a 10-foot-long snake-like neck. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Unfortunately there wasn’t much else worth seeing in this under-realized maze.
Insidious: Beyond the Further
The third iteration of the Insidious maze should be the last. It set a new low for Universal’s Horror Nights.
Insidious: Beyond the Further was the longest black maze I’ve ever been through. I got lost three times because it was too dark to see.
The maze suffered from far too few scares and far too many dividing curtains. There was not one moment that saved this one.
Remarkably, Insidious had the longest wait of the evening by far, stretching to three hours at one point on opening night.
There’s better stuff to see this year at Halloween Horror Nights.
Halloween Horror Nights runs on select nights through Nov. 4 at Universal Studios Hollywood. Due to R-rated gore and violence, parental discretion is advised and visitors under the age of 13 must be accompanied by an adult.
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