Nothing gets under my skin like the syrupy perfume of fog juice. It’s a conditioned response that tells the pit in my stomach that an unholy night is falling, where the shadows stretch into sinister shapes, chainsaws beckon like gas-fed cicadas and lines creep on for all eternity.
That smell tells me it’s time again for Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, and this year has smell to spare. A gauntlet of fog the color of bad dreams chokes the Plaza of Stars, with only glowing grins from pumpkin-headed stilt-walkers to show the way. Bubbles of the stuff drift enticingly along the edges and alleys of New York, impressively distracting you from the bat-wielding clowns behind you. I spent the last room of one house looking at the ground because everything below my knees was gray.
Boy, I love that smell. The rest of Halloween Horror Nights 28 was also pretty good.
You can hear the aesthetic before you see it. Echoing from beyond the studio arches, the sounds of ‘80s horror that never was were heard… Carpenter Brut, Perturbator, Power Glove, and the themes from Halloween and Poltergeist with those damn singing kids. Halloween Horror Nights 28 is all about the rewind, down to the tracking error in its font. Not all the houses and scarezones abide, but you won’t be able to hide from the siren synthesizer call of the event headliner – Stranger Things. Keychains. Arcade cabinets in the gift shops. Eggos at every quick service counter. The Netflix juggernaut is the hottest property Horror Nights has hosted since The Walking Dead bowed out in 2016, and if you’d like to argue the show’s pop cultural footprint, you’ll have about three hours in line to prepare your argument.
In almost every measurable way, Halloween Horror Nights is bigger than ever. And that’s as much a commendation as it is a caution.
Imagine the piteous souls merging onto I-4 at 6:30 on a Friday, when every night the event kicks off, unaware that parking starts well before you pay for it, a few intersections away from Universal property, and inches toward the garages at a speed outpaced by tectonic shift. That poor man, woman and/or children will get to the gate and wait in the sweatbox moshpit of black t-shirts for the privilege of paying $114.99 a ticket to not see everything.
I attended two nights, a Friday and a Sunday, in late September. I hit all 10 haunted houses and lightly loitered in the scarezones, but still didn’t catch this year’s new show, Academy of Villains: Cyberpunk. That’s not an indictment of Halloween Horror Nights or Universal, just a fair warning that the game is changing.
Buy your tickets online. Look into multi-night passes. Stay away from the worst weekend nights. Consider springing for the Express pass. Strongly consider springing for the Express pass.
Try this math – 10 houses with an average 45 minute wait each works out to seven-and-a-half hours of standing around. On its longest nights, Halloween Horror Nights is open from 6:30 PM to 2 AM, which also happens to be seven-and-a-half hours. That does not include time for pizza fries, adult beverages, pictures with the Killer Klowns or, y’know, sitting down.
This shouldn’t scare you – that happens on the other side of the turnstiles – but it should serve as a friendly reminder to do your homework, have a plan and spook smart.
Now here’s some homework.
Ten – count ‘em – TEN haunted houses. The most Halloween Horror Nights has ever had. For the sake of your patience and eyes, I’ll only be talking about the IP houses in this half, in the order that I braved them. I won’t be ranking them because they’re closer cousins to live theater than theme park attractions. My experience could be entirely different from the guy three bodies behind me in the same house, and we’d both be right. Here we go:
Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers
At its best, Halloween is a franchise built on primal simplicity. A madman in a Bill Shatner mask is coming to get you with a Ginsu. Why? Because he’s the physical embodiment of meaningless death. He is the Boogeyman and, sometimes, that’s enough.
As such, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is a down-and-dirty crash course in Haunted House 101. Narrow corridors with conspicuously blind corners… Eye-catching set pieces to make you forget the open door over your shoulder… Loud noises… Strobe lights… Kitchen utensils flailing in the dark…
It’s nothing too flashy, but it doesn’t need to be. This cast has something to prove and bless ‘em – they do. The Michaels are unrelenting. I couldn’t count, what with my body locked in survival mode and Alan Howarth’s version of the famous theme stabbing at my brain, but there must be at least twenty Shapes waiting in the wings. That’s not counting the many appearances of Dr. Loomis, who sneaks in and out of scenes almost oblivious to your presence, but not so oblivious that he doesn’t get his gun right next to your ear before pulling the trigger.
Besides the impressive finale, the scenic work is function over form. But considering the limitations of the franchise and the location – fitting a whole house into a Shrek 4D theater is a minor miracle – Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is a good time, especially for anyone curious about the stock-in-trade thrills of Halloween Horror Nights.
Stranger Things is the first house you hit if you walk straight down Production Central. You can’t miss it. Just look for the sold-out concert with no band, as the shambling masses of Hawkins AV faithful clog the switchbacks in front of the Universal Music Plaza Stage.
Is it worth the 180-minute penance? It is if you’re into the show, because it’s a surprisingly direct adaptation.
The house opens without a façade, at the same moment as the first episode – an unfortunate scientist runs away from something unseen in Hawkins lab. Then we hear that familiar synth and step into darkness beneath a massive projection of the show’s iconic intro.
These first two scenes lay out the good and the less-good immediately. Everything the maze adapts directly is a double-take success; the Upside Down feels like the Upside Down, the Winona Ryders look like Winona Ryders and the snozzberries taste like snozzberries. But the creative license needed to squeeze eight episodes of unfolding horror into a four-minute gauntlet sometimes creaks. For instance, in the show, we only find out later that the unseen something in the prologue is the Demogorgon. In the house, a full-body Demogorgon lunges at you within three paces.
It’s a challenge inherent in the source material – there is no other jump-scary threat in Stranger Things. So the house compensates with a bumper crop of Demogorgi, scenes that aim more for re-enactment than reaction and some event-best set design.
This is as close as you’ll ever get to starring in Stranger Things, and that should be all you need to know.
“If I’m gonna wait an hour for something, it’s gonna be something GREAT.” This quote was overheard outside Poltergeist and has been edited for language and sobriety. It does not need to be edited for accuracy.
There’s an entrance and then there’s an entrance – we start at the bottom of the mud pit where the Freeling family swimming pool would never go, stinking of dirt and battered by a thunderstorm, with a forced perspective miniature of the house above you and a Craig T. Nelson soundalike screaming about headstones.
If anyone’s worried about how a PG-rated horror movie translates, the first third – an underground onslaught of displaced coffins and displeased corpses – should scare you straight.
This is an intense walk that earns every jump and only gets trickier as it goes. One of the year’s biggest innovations is puppetry of a certain scale. This house also fills in the movie’s biggest blank – The Other Side. Now think about the parts of Poltergeist that kept your night light plugged in, and put it all together.
I could talk about this thing until next year – Universal’s execution of The Other Side is impressive, terrifying and plain ol’ pretty – but the last thing I’ll mention is a particular stretch that got me.
It comes when your knuckles are at their whitest and everyone’s least favorite toy finally shows up. You’re in a corridor of complete darkness, with dangling obstacles to brush aside… and nothing happens. There’s music, and the giggle that ruined childhoods… and nothing happens. It goes against every conditioned instinct you’ll pick up at Halloween Horror Nights, and it’s absolutely agonizing. That is, until it ends with a scare that leaves people on the floor and scrambling for the exit.
Poltergeist: How It’s Done.
Trick ‘r Treat
The best scarezone of Halloween Horror Nights 27 returns as a full-fledged house for 28, and boy, is it loud.
I walk into every haunted house with two strikes against me – my eyes take a long time to adjust in the dark and my hearing isn’t great. The former wouldn’t bite me in the butt until a later house, but the latter should tell you something, considering Trick ‘r Treat damn near deafened me.
Scenically, it’s a beautiful house. If you even remotely dig Mike Dougherty’s seasonal standard, this is about as good a tribute as it gets. Even some of the scarezone set pieces from last year have been cleverly reconstituted here. The trouble for me came from the cramped quarters, especially in old man Kreeg’s house.
One of the first jolts in the house is a sudden shotgun blast, and it was loud enough to activate my fight-or-flight response. That’s before you get to the somehow-louder screams.
Mileage may vary, but it was enough of a problem that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the house as much as I wanted to. I was too distracted in my attempts to squint the migraine away, unhunch my shoulders and not fall over werewolves.
But it’s just about what you’d want from a Trick ‘r Treat house. All the anthology stories are represented and told out of sequence to provide for the grandest possible finale, in which I could not see my feet through the fog.
If Halloween 4 was Haunted House 101, consider this Halloween Horror Nights 101. The same level of intensity, but with a few more tricks up its sleeves and the movie-grade sets you’d expect from Universal Studios.
The Horrors Of Blumhouse
The Horrors of Blumhouse 2: The Blumhousening takes refuge in the same building as its HHN 27 predecessor and focuses on two of the production company’s newest releases – Happy Death Day and The First Purge. I’m fully onboard with the notion of an ongoing series of anthology houses, but this year’s mix felt more like two half-houses stitched together than a singular experience in two acts. It has more than a little to do with the tonal canyon between Happy Death Day and The Purge franchise.
The first half of the maze takes the premise of Happy Death Day – Groundhog Day with murder – and translates it in ways obvious and ingenious. How do you simulate the Game-Over-Try-Again structure of the movie for a walkthrough? By making the guests walk through copies of the same room, over and over, with different scares each time. It’s a clever design move that sells the movie’s sense of fun. Without it, Happy Death Day might’ve fallen prey to its pastiche and felt like any number of slasher-based houses, just with a killer that looks like a young Elmer Fudd.
But that bouncy momentum whiplashes into the angry brutality of The First Purge. Gone are the house party strobes and baby-faced killers. Instead bleak, we get nondescript back alleys and maniacs with masks made from mutilated baby toys. I’ve never been big on The Purge period, and this pairing underlined exactly what I’ve never liked about it; the violence is ugly, real and built on a crushingly nihilistic premise. If any Halloween Horror Nights vets have seen a Purge house or zone in years past, they already know exactly what’s in store.
At the end of the day, it’s all people in costumes jumping out and saying, “Boo!” but this felt like chasing a murder mystery comedy with a documentary about prison riots.
It’s worth a walk-on to see how they handled Happy Death Day, and The First Purge has its moments – there’s a quick and dirty distraction involving mannequins that got me – but it’s better in halves than it is as a whole.
Thanks for sticking it out and check out Part 2 of my review, where I’ll take on the scarezones and remaining houses.