Review: Universal hones Horror Nights into a well-oiled killing machine

After years of simulated neck-slicing and chest-stabbing mayhem, Universal Studios Hollywood has fine-tuned its Halloween Horror Nights into a well-oiled killing machine with a stellar lineup of haunted mazes.

Amid an unprecedented level of construction, the annual event has found a way to carve out space for six exceptional mazes while spreading out the teeming hordes that have clogged the theme park in years past.

Mixing in a few new offerings with a host of fan favorites, Universal, with an intimate understanding of its blood-thirsty audience, has figured out what works with the movie-quality mazes. Horror Nights is now on cruise control and shows no signs of slowing down or veering off path.

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The challenge for Universal has always been space constraints -- with the relatively tight confines of the theme park combined with the ongoing construction of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But during my visit on opening night, the maze queues never reached two hours and the crowds seemed evenly distributed throughout the evening.


The surprise standout of the night was the Halloween: Michael Myers Comes Home maze, which returns to Horror Nights for the second time. With a backstory that returns to Michael Myers’ bloody childhood, the maze was filled with what seemed like 50 incarnations of the killer who stalked us at every turn.

I jumped out of my skin more than a dozen times and was joined in my enthusiasm by groups of satisfied visitors whooping and high-fiving at the exit. The genius of this Halloween maze is the simple premise of having Myers stalk us relentlessly just like he does his victims in the movies.

Crimson Peak was by far the most beautiful new maze of the evening. The simply stunning level of detail made us feel like we were walking onto the set of the still-unreleased movie of the same name, and served the intended purpose of making us want to see a film we know very little about.

Set in a gothic mountaintop mansion haunted by dark secrets, we’re chased throughout the ornately rendered house by a bride in black. The epic arch of the home’s entryway and the spike-laden architecture of the hallway were expertly re-created in a jaw-dropping maze that had the best set-dressing I’ve ever seen at Horror Nights. The woman with an ax in her forehead in a bathtub full of blood was probably the most indelible image of the evening.

This is the End was easily my most anticipated new maze of the night, and it didn’t disappoint. Rendered in eye-popping 3-D, the fun romp through James Franco’s party house on the night of the apocalypse was filled with graffiti-covered hallways, stilt-walking demons and truckloads of skeletons.

Satan scared me half a dozen times throughout the maze, usually as soon as I walked into a room. My favorite moment of the night was when an ax-swinging girl got me turned the wrong way and stuck in a corner. She never let up and I finally escaped embarrassed and thrilled at the same time. The monsters in the This is the End maze took advantage of every scare opportunity, and I walked away laughing and smiling.

Returning for the second consecutive year, the Alien vs. Predator maze still smelled a bit like mothballs but never-the-less remained a stunning achievement of puppet figures and set design. Horror Nights needs to bring back more mazes for two-year stints so it can focus on improving the quality and detail of the entire lineup as it did this year.

It is still amazing to turn the corner and see the crashed alien spaceship as you enter the AVP maze. Even the fake aliens are so lifelike that you find yourself creeping away from them, only to bump into a living alien lurking behind you. The narrow hallways with clearly defined scares on both walls remain highly effective even if you know you’re about to get hit with a stunningly rendered puppet on one side and a menacing alien on the other.

You know it’s a good night when the marquee Walking Dead: Wolves Not Far maze is near the bottom of your list. Back for an unprecedented fourth straight year, the maze based on the zombie apocalypse television series showed no signs of letting up, with what seemed like dozens of walkers emerging from every doorway, corner and conceivable crevice.

The longest maze in Horror Nights history was filled with frights from the Terminus entrance to the end when we finally escape the global zombie infestation. Expect to see the Walking Dead every year at Horror Nights until the hit TV show fades in popularity.

My favorite scene of the evening was a revolving door crammed with walkers that combined mannequin dummies, animatronic zombies and live actors. It looked so realistic that people in the maze stopped in their tracks to gaze in horror and wonder.

Insidious: Return to the Further was my least favorite maze of the night, largely because of the relative lack of scares -- likely caused by the conga line of visitors. By and large, Horror Nights did a better job this year of spacing out the maze crowds and giving the monsters more room to work.

Another returning maze, Insidious was filled with beautiful sets and multiple scares in each room coming out of holes cut in the walls and ceilings. The only problem was that the slow creep of the crowd meant you made eye contact with each monster before the scare and often saw them resetting after the previous one. The highlight of the maze was a hallway with see-through walls that revealed rows of candelabra lights.

Mercifully, Horror Nights dispatched with “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure” and replaced the woeful pop culture satire show with the Jabbawockeez hip-hop dance crew. Winners of the first season of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” the masked dancers posed, popped and break-danced to a pounding techno beat of rap songs that had the under-30 crowd cheering and singing along. The loose and laid-back Jabbawockeez seemed like the ideal respite from the terrors unfolding outside and a perfect example of Horror Nights exemplary understanding of its audience.


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