Be sure to check out the first part of my review of Halloween Horror Nights 29, and then continue on right here!
The ten haunted houses of Halloween Horror Nights 28 were split clean down the middle – five based on movies and TV shows, five based on original concepts. If you squint, Halloween Horror Nights 29 maintains the same balance. Really, there are only four original houses this year, with six IP houses, one of which is so synonymous with Universal Studios that it’s easy to forget it’s a brand at all.
It’s right there in the name. Universal is the house that horror built. You can’t discuss the history of the genre without talking about the history of the studio. They own the bolt-necked, zipper-headed version of Frankenstein’s monster, for goodness sake.
The haunted house, to the credit of everyone involved, is a fair, four-minute tribute to that nearly 100-year-old legacy. They had Frank, Dracula, the Bride, the Wolfman, the Mummy and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Even the twin Lon Chaney performances that started it all (read our tribute to him here), the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera, get their turns in the spotlight here.
The trouble is, with a cast of characters this stacked, nobody gets time to shine. The setup is perfect… a rain-swept cemetery lined with statues of each monster, lit only by the blinding flash of lightning. But blink and you’ll miss some of the Greatest Hits. The Mummy earns two corners. Dracula puts in a single appearance before the curtain call. Quasimodo’s scene is the most impressive of the bunch, with mirrors fooling your phobias into believing you’re at the top of a hundred-foot bell tower. However, it is strange that the primordial Universal Monster makes a showier entrance than one of the bloodsucking superstars.
The scenic design is gorgeous, which each shade of Gothic ruin having been lovingly rendered. Halloween Horror Night vets will recognize fan-favorite gags and whole scenes pulled from the event’s deep bag of tricks. But, despite some of the most committed actors of the night, the house starts strong and tapers to a frustratingly anonymous finale. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the individual parts might be impressive, but they never quite add up the way you want them to.
Favorite Moment: The Wolfman attack that deserves stunt pay, if it’s not already mandated by law.
Yeti: Terror of the Yukon
In a welcome bit of invisible focus testing, the most popular vignette of last year’s Slaughter Sinema haunted house gets a shot at the majors. Only the stars have traded climates. So long, Swamp Yeti. Hello, uh… Regular Yeti.
There’s falling snow and everything. Every house at Halloween Horror Nights 29 transports you somewhere, but you just can’t beat the meteorological whiplash of walking out of a 90-degree wet rag and into the teeth-chattering Great White North.
That shiver up your spine puts you in the same shaky shoes as the few surviving prospectors. They hide. They run. One almost blows your ear off on accident. Their life expectancy isn’t much to write home about, especially when you’re up against a veritable fleet of eight-foot-tall behemoths. Between the Frankensteins across the lagoon and the Yetis here, Universal must’ve caused a run on local pro wrestlers.
These Yetis are mean. They get in your face (or above it, usually) and they get loud. There’s an innate fight-or-flight response to something so much bigger than you threatening the illusion of murder, and this house is nothing but that feeling. By the end, in the beasts’ subterranean ice caves, the couple ahead of me was getting ping-ponged between them. Turn. Roar. Turn. Roar. Scream. Repeat.
Terror of the Yukon hides unassumingly in the IP-packed New York corner of the park, but overdelivers in just about every way: scares, sets, style. The frosty, craggy terrain would be impressive for a permanent attraction, let alone this, and it has more verticality than you’d expect walking in. Just don’t pay too much attention to that Yeti overhead.
Favorite Moment: When a Yeti shoves its arm through a victim. Considering how fast it happens and that both parties are very clearly live actors, your brain buys it for a second.
If you’re jonesing for a little of that old timey Halloween magic, with the underfoot crunch of fallen leaves and otherworldly winds whistling through dead trees, Graveyard Games should hit the spot.
I mentioned in Part 1 that the event, as a whole, doesn’t feel especially festive this year. However, Graveyard Games is the exception. A faux social media feed projected onto the show building sets the stage – a bunch of teenage punks are looking to get rowdy in Ascension Parish Cemetery after dark. Sure, there’s that legend of The Purple Lady, a glowing guardian angel who might not appreciate their graffiti, but legends are for losers.
The teenagers lose pretty badly, and we don’t fare much better.
Graveyard Games will get you good. From the crumbling sprawl of the cemetery gates, rotten with the stink of dirt, you disappear into a seemingly endless maze of crypts and increasingly peeved corpses. The benefit of not having to connect disparate locations lends a hopeless dread to the house. There is no escape, only another turn and another ghost.
And what grim, grinning ghosts they are. Some, The Purple Lady especially, prefer the ethereal look. Most go for the exposed-jawbone, empty-eyehole thing, which is much more effective when it’s an inch from your face. One of the highest jumps I got this year was when a tomb turned out to be a theatrical scrim. The lighting flipped, turning the stone transparent and revealing the desperate ghoul clawing behind it. The light flipped back, hiding him from our eyes.
Don’t even get me started on the children’s section of the cemetery.
Graveyard Games is an eye-popping, blood-curdling dose of Halloween spirit and Halloween Horror Nights 29 ingenuity.
Favorite Moment: A mausoleum hall lit only by candles that start snuffing out, one by one. I’d recommend you walk faster before they all go.
Nightingales: Blood Pit
In its 29 years of fear, Halloween Horror Nights has turned out some original stars of its own. The Nightingales, a scavenging race of shapeshifters, first showed up at Halloween Horror Nights 21, feeding in the trenches of World War I. Ever since, they’ve been a fan favorite. Now they’ve returned in a significantly less-evolved state for seconds in the gladiatorial pits of Ancient Rome.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I have to admit something about their new look. The original Nightingales had massive teeth, no nose, and eyes like those magnetic “rattlesnake eggs” that snap together. Scary, no doubt. When the first new (or old, I guess) Nightingale came running this year, I may or may not have shouted, “Oh my God, they’re turkeys!” Were they still alarming? Oh, sure. But do they look like big turkeys? I stand by my first impression.
The sets that I could see were impressive, especially for a tent house. Early on, you walk around the brutal end of a gladiatorial battle, with cheerful onlookers above. A few scenes seem several stories tall, and the extra height is put to good and distracting use. But this was also, far and away, the darkest house of the year, at least to my eyes. The finale of my walkthrough was pitch-black, save the occasional flash of turkey.
It’s a shame, because this could be a solid onslaught house. The Nightingales themselves were certainly into it. The beloved lion gag was primed for full effect, even if it didn’t spring when I passed. By sheer goop volume, this might be the goriest house of the year. It certainly smells like it.
Whether it’s the darkness, the turkeys, or the Halloween Horror Nights 29 fatigue of its Greco-Roman setting, Nightingales: Blood Pit is an underwhelming house. Decent by most standards, but against its competition, forgettable.
Favorite Moment: The Game of Thrones-quality façade you’ll have plenty of time to stare at in line.
Depths of Fear
Depths of Fear is the only original that feels like it’s missing a Be Kind Rewind sticker. If you love Leviathan, DeepStar Six, or any other late ’80s Bad Fish movies, then you’re in luck.
This is the only house that opens with a prologue. In the airlock down to Fathomcorp’s undersea research facility, you’re surrounded by monitors playing the commander’s last distress call. Bad Fish got inside and started making Bad Humans. He’s initiated the implosion sequence, so don’t send help.
Shame… you’re the rescue team. As if the Bad Fish – named the delightfully unsettling “mouthbrooders” – weren’t bad enough, there’s a literal time bomb ticking away at your every nerve. It lends Depths of Fear a tension that no other house has this year.
Depths of Fear has a different texture, too. It’s gnarly. In the skateboarder sense, and also in the violent and body count sense. You can find plenty of disregard for human life at Halloween Horror Nights 29, but by officially deputizing you into the story, it feels a lot more threatening. By the time you reach the last escape pod and find that it’s been destroyed, it’s almost personal. There’s a mean edge to Depths of Fear that harkens back to the renegade days when Halloween Horror Nights just stole IPs and hoped nobody would notice.
But it’s a throwback in other ways, too. The mouthbrooder costumes are massive. So massive, you can sometimes see them hiding, and so unwieldy, Universal recently replaced most of them with infected crew members. I haven’t seen that version of Depths of Fear, but it’s a case-in-point of Halloween Horror Nights as living theater. The added mobility, especially considering the existing angles of attack, probably make it even more intense.
Favorite Moment: The environment itself. I’m an absolute sucker for remote research facilities with too many grates and too much steam.
If the allegations suggest that the HHN houses have changed in style, the naked eye proves that scare zones have switched it up in structure as well. Gone are the roaming hordes of ruthless theater students. They’re still ruthless, as is their nature, but they don’t do much roaming. With one exception, every zone has at least one small stage to put on shows and keep actors away from the expectedly surging crowds. With no exception, every zone is tailor-made for social media street cred. Some have even dedicated photo-ops with a Universal photographer at the ready. It’s easier than ever to navigate Halloween Horror Nights 29 without getting a single startle. Depending on who you are, that’s either a great relief or worse tragedy.
Zombieland: Double Tap
Of all the Universal Studio Florida’s production “neighborhoods,” New York has the widest open spaces. The result is usually a localized apocalypse, with the city in disarray, a few crashed cars thrown around, and dozens of the roaming monsters du jour.
Zombieland should be right at home… and it almost is.
There’s a (conspicuously generic) Twinkie truck. Fake Woody Harrelson plays the fake banjo. Fake Zombie Bill Murray limps along. They even built a (non-functional) drop tower. But despite the general enthusiasm of the undead, there’s not much life to it. The zone’s mini-show – Zombie Kill Of The Week – swaps out survivors, but never changes the actual kill. A setpiece of the original’s rule about bathrooms makes clever use of three port-o-potties and a hose, but it still isn’t worth the mosh pit traffic jam it inspires among people with itchy camera fingers.
Let zombies die…. at least, until they get back up again on their own.
Mix the grout-and-grotesquerie dystopia of Bioshock with the shameless pride of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and you get something like Vanity Ball, adding class warfare to taste.
The fall’s hottest fashion is other people. Dodge the lavish dilettantes with dissected smiles, then dodge the body donors mutilated for parts. It’s a good, grisly shtick, and the cast knows it. They don’t seem committed so much as inspired. At one point, I heard a growl behind me and looked back only to see a patient swinging around a lamppost like a stripper pole. The elevated sets here are rusty, retro operating theaters presided over by surgeons dressed like lost members of Daft Punk. A full runway stretches down Hollywood, awash in chasing spotlights. The costumes themselves are works of art, though they tend to get lost in the shadows.
Stick around for a ghoulish fashion show, though, and you’ll see why it’s the most stylish scare zone of the year, if not quite the scariest.
I had to look up the name of this zone, which should tell you something.
They’re Vikings, alright, but they’re pretty vanilla Vikings with a few horned orc-like beasts thrown in the mix. It’s fantasy stew, heavy on the meat chunks. About as simple as it gets, but you won’t mind when a linebacker in fur comes charging out of the fog.
Vikings Undead is fine on its own merits, but follows a historically tough act. The forested Central Park corridor is the tightest byway in Universal Studios Florida. That means ambush. That means intensity. The last few years, this quaint walk under the jack-o’-lanterns has been home to the scariest scare zones around. I guess, by default, Vikings Undead is still the scariest one. I saw several cowering teenagers jump out of their Reeboks. But there’s a little too much breathing room now, and the pumpkins are nowhere to be seen. Vignettes are staged behind the path-long fence, most involving bodily sacrifices, but they’re not even used as distractions.
If you’re going to get caught off-guard, it’ll probably be here. It also probably won’t happen as often as it should.
Rob Zombie Hellbilly Deluxe
You’ve survived a Rob Zombie movie, now survive a Rob Zombie concert.
Zombie scholars could do a better job pointing out all the references and characters, but as someone who just really enjoys “Dragula,” it certainly made enough sense to me.
All the hits from the artist’s first solo album, Hellbilly Deluxe: 13 Tales of Cadaverous Cavorting Inside the Spookshow International, pound out of the speakers so hard your feet hear them before your ears do. And, if you miss that cue, the flamethrowers and fascist go-go dancers are an equally effective welcome. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway… the faithful will get the most out of this. I wouldn’t mind a little context on the Nazi lady in the leather catsuit dancing in front of a lit-up 666 sign, but, like the Corpses house, the zone nails his texture to a rusty tee. The chrome-domed Phantom Creep boogeying down is just fun for all ages.
If it’s scary, that’s mostly down to the claustrophobia of San Francisco. Halloween Horror Nights hasn’t used this real estate in awhile, because the Fast & Furious ride exits directly into it. While you can still sneak through, expect some body-to-body stretches, especially if you plan on getting a picture of Dragula itself.
The only scare zone to channel the ’80s damn nearly drowns in it. Massive arcade cabinets are traced with hot and cold running neon. Maniacs in Purge masks glow in the dark, but only the scratched out smiles on their faces and the roaring blades of their chainsaws can be sensed. Fog hangs high and thin, like the edge of another world, across the laser ceiling above. If there’s a hell in Tron, it’d look something like this, which also explains the absolute glut of photos, professional and amateur, all over the hashtags. It’s an eyeful and then some.
Unless you have an irrational fear of tall women or stilts, Anarch-cade won’t keep you up at night. It’s hard to judge this one, considering it’s the first scare zone you see from the front gates. On one hand, what an entrance. On the other hand, it doesn’t do half of what scare zones promise by their very name.
That said, you can’t walk through it and miss what Halloween Horror Nights 29 is going for. It has a great atmosphere, even if it’s not especially Halloweeny or horror-ish. And, as a serial theme park phone photographer, it does look mighty purty.
Like the last several years, the Halloween Horror Nights 29 crew of freelance chainsaw fiends roam Springfield and keep that end of the park interesting. They look slick, right out of the Anarch-ade crowd, but the added electronics must’ve been messing with their motors. Every time I walked through, I caught at least one poor actor revving their saw to no avail, only to improvise and shout, “CHAINSAW NOISES!” at unsuspecting passerby. To their credit, it worked.
For the first time since the tragic farewell of Bill and Ted, Halloween Horror Nights 29 has two shows again – the returning Academy of Villains Dance Troupe and the brand-spanking new Halloween Marathon of Mayhem Lagoon Spectacular.
Academy of Villains – Altered States
Several times nightly, the Academy of Villains brings a high octane, high energy show to the Fear Factor stage. The theme is Universal Monstrous in all but name – a mad doctor and his trusty assistant seek to unlock the inner madness of man with increasingly elaborate dancing.
It’s silly, surreal, and always surprising. Music comes courtesy of various creepy performers like Marilyn Manson and Billie Eilish. If dancing isn’t your thing, the spirit will still win you over long before the contortionists start breaking themselves before your very eyes.
Halloween Marathon of Mayhem
If ever you notice a twenty-foot-high leak in the middle of the park, it probably means this show is going. Using the same projection mapping and water screen technologies built for Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular, the Marathon of Mayhem celebrates the year’s heaviest hitters – Ghostbusters, Stranger Things, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and the Universal Monsters – in wet, wowing style.
Without launching a single firework, the Marathon managed to knock me out and nearly over the fence I was illegally standing on. Once the projected VHS fuzz clears out and the Gillman rises from the lagoon, you know you’re in for something special. Then comes the synth, turning the monochrome monsters of yesteryear into a modern timelessness. They do look good in neon.
Despite the wildly different pedigrees of the source materials involved, it works like a charm. Hearing The Dickies’s immortal “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” as the circus tent stretches across the jets feels right at home next to the Stranger Things theme creeping in as the buildings across the water disappear in the familiar red lines of its intro. Don’t even get me started on Stay-Puft. And that’s all before they started mixing all of them together with a techno cover of the Universal Monsters mainstay, “Swan Lake.”
Despite never having been done before, the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem will be a crowd-pleaser for years to come. I don’t know what better review I could give it.
Also, bonus points to Halloween Horror Nights 29 for licensing some obscure, franchise-related songs for the pre-show warm-up. The Thompson Twins’s “In The Name Of Love” plays for about ten seconds in Ghostbusters, but you best believe they have it here.
When I wrote the first half of this review, what I said about crowd was still holding up. It was not as bad as last year. You won’t need Express. Folks just aren’t showing up like they used to. It’s a weird time for Halloween Horror Nights. Entire walls of the gift shop are dedicated Instagram backdrops. IP houses are living tributes to their respective source material now, scratch-built more for replication than reinterpretation. Whether it was a fluke or a trend, Halloween Horror Nights 29 just wasn’t as scary as 28.
But, it’s more popular – and more visible – than ever. What started as a one-night party to line company pockets in the slow season is now the hottest holiday ticket in Central Florida. Once in a while, I’ll see an event shirt roaming the wilds of Northeast Ohio. That didn’t happen two years ago.
It was a good year, no doubt, but looking back at it, I’m as excited for Halloween Horror Nights 30 so much as I am curious. This year had nostalgia. It had the ’80s. It had Stranger Things, Frankenstein, Dracula, a Jordan Peele movie, the various cults of Rob Zombie and Killer Klowns. It had Ghostbusters, for Pete’s sake, and there’s not a man, woman, or child within flying distance of Orlando that doesn’t know what that logo means. How do you beat that hand for the 30th anniversary?
I don’t know, but I can’t wait to see how they try.