Halloween Horror Nights 28’s 10 haunted houses are split clean down the middle – 5 based on movies and TV shows and 5 original concepts. I covered the IP houses in the first part of my review, so that leaves an absolute grab bag of houses to prove what Universal’s designers can do when left to their own devices. Read on to see what else we found at this year’s experience.
I consider the drive-in a holy place, so this house had my attention long before the piped-in popcorn smell hit me.
Fake trailers for fake movies, all thinly veiled send-ups of the horror schlock that made drive-ins an institution, play on the paint-peeled screen out front. It’s a fast and funny way to get the point across, that this is the year’s comedy house, and it is an obvious labor of love. Maybe just a little too much love.
The snack bar is all we get of the drive-in proper. They nail the Let’s-All-Go-To-The-Lobby aesthetic so well you wish it’d last a little longer. But it’s off to the races with not one, not two, but with, like, eight different movies. I’m guessing eight because some get a lot of attention and others strobe past so fast you can barely remember what the poster said it was supposed to be.
Earlier scenes like Sorority Sacrifice! and Pumpkin Guts have room to breathe/scream. The swamp finale leaves an impression by virtue of providing the biggest scares. But some of the middle movies fight for real estate. The store-brand Chuck E. Cheese set of Schittie’s Kidz, complete with a claw machine that holds a severed head in its metallic clutches, begs for expansion. Even the Critters riff only gets a corner, though that corner includes one of the house’s best effects.
Slaughter Sinema feels more like a trip than a tribute, which isn’t a bad thing, but it might just be too much of a good one.
Joe Bob Briggs would still be proud.
Dead Exposure: Patient Zero
I didn’t realize my mistake until I saw the trucks and tents outside in the humid light of day.
I knew Dead Exposure: Patient Zero was a special kind of dark, and I knew my eyes take a long time to adjust to even the regular flavor. Yet it didn’t occur to me that walking into this house before sundown was like running a 5K with my shoes untied and volunteering to sprain my ankles before the starting gun. But this is how we learn, and that day, I found out that I sweat uncontrollably when under intense duress.
The plot is laid out in a worrying voiceover to the queue. Bad news is, the zombie apocalypse has begun. Good news is, you’re in line for a last-ditch cure. Worse news is, the side effect is temporary blindness.
The original Dead Exposure maze from 2008 explained away its strobe-and-inky-blackness gimmick with an occasional camera flash. Patient Zero takes this opportunity to weaponize the Halloween Horror Nights conga line… as your “vision” goes, you better stick close to the survivor ahead, lest you get lost in the dark and torn to shreds and/or thoroughly spooked. So what this amounts to is a four-minute death march in often complete darkness, momentarily shocked to life by strobe lights and filled with UV-painted zombies that, as a result, seem to materialize out of thin air. For instance, in a single flash, one particularly ambitious corpse managed to get his/her/its head between my face and the shoulders of the guy ahead of me. There was a roar. There was eye(hole) contact. There was a reflexively shouted, “Whoa, nelly!” But by the next flash, it was gone.
Dead Exposure: Patient Zero is the most viscerally aggressive experience at Halloween Horror Nights 28. Make your arrangements accordingly.
Seeds Of Extinction
First things first – take your break and buy your drinks before getting in line for Seeds of Extinction. It’s the first house in a new location and, halfway through your walk back to it, you’re going to wonder if that location is the parking garage. And that’s without the wait in line. But your reward for buying hiking shoes is a house unlike any other at Halloween Horror Nights.
The story here, told in a slideshow on the side of the building, is that plants have taken over the world, wiping out humanity and mutating for good measure. Seeds sees you walking through a long-abandoned, overgrown shopping mall in the floral post-apocalypse. What sets this house apart, though, is that all that vegetation hides the actors because the actors are all that vegetation. You won’t know you’re staring directly at a flowery abomination until it jumps, lunges or, as the impressive case may be, drops. I turned one corner and stepped around a viney obstruction only to realize when it petrified the person behind me that it wasn’t a viney obstruction at all.
When it works, Seeds of Extinction is tense and treacherous. But the house was so well lit, which gives welcome attention to the beautifully ruined sets, but gives away half the hiding spots. This may also be the hardest house to walk in the most practical sense. The path is surprisingly tight, with plenty of foliage on the ground to step over, and a tilted 45-degree hallway – a Horror Nights staple – toward the end. All in the seemingly constant drizzle of a simulated rainstorm.
Seeds of Extinction has some of the wildest scenic work at the event, but the actual experience tends to run more frustrating than frightening.
Carnival Graveyard: Rust In Pieces
As the only house in Halloween Horror Nights history to prey upon the innate human fear of tetanus, Carnival Graveyard: Rust In Pieces is a staggering achievement. No, you don’t need any shots to get in, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an impeccably simulated death trap of mangled steel and rusty blade. The tilted, towering gates of “Sal’s Amusement Storage” tell you everything you need to know – this house is mean, tall and pretty as all hell. Corrugated steel and chainlink have never looked so good. The stripped out cars and broken down games of chance make for a delightfully grimy environment. Whether you want to or not, you will feel like you’re walking through a junkyard. They even included the dogs.
Most houses are too dark to see much beyond what you’re supposed to, but Carnival Graveyard is bright enough to read in and there’s just so much stuff to look at… old signs from Universal Studios Florida attractions long-deceased… references to Halloween Horror Nights favorites… Several scenes play out fifteen-feet above your head. It’s enough to make you forget that you’re supposed to be enjoying the contact-high of death.
The chilling charm of Carnival Graveyard is that, because there’s so much to see, you can never tell the junk from the jumpscares. I almost walked straight into a reaching hand that came out of an otherwise conventional picture frame. One of my favorite details of the whole event was a mirror in the Spooky Forest that they faked with only paint. As I was looking at it, wondering if they did what they did, a deranged carnie sprang out and did what she did.
This is a knockout of haunted house design, from tip to almost tail, but it ends without a punctuation mark. You eventually just wander out of the junkyard. One last overhead jolt, possibly a return of the house’s scene-stealing and malfunctioning animatronic clown, could’ve sealed the deal with a scream.
Scary Tales: Deadly Ever After
Scary Tales is one of Halloween Horror Night’s hallowed franchises, with its own dedicated fans and a recurring in-joke involving a bear. Besides a brief tribute in 2015’s anniversary mash-up, it hasn’t had a dedicated house in a decade. I’ve never done a Scary Tales house, and there are worse first impressions than walking into a full-scale castle as The Wicked Witch of the West flies overhead.
If Carnival Graveyard is all about scale, then the magic word here is scope. Beyond the façade, the sets may not get too big, but they feel as real as fairy tales get… a crumbling stone tower held together in a tangle of runaway hair and would-be rescuers… a quaint German cottage, hazy and bright with whoever’s burning in the oven… a derelict hovel made of straw, sticks and brick that smells suspiciously of roasted wolf. The costumes and effects hit the same heights – especially a look-the-wrong-way-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by an animatronic beast – making this house the most transportive experience of the bunch.
The only crack in the illusion is the noticeable dearth of actors. This criticism might be moot on the grounds of bad luck. The cast might’ve been changing or I may well have missed most of the scares. But the reason I got to appreciate the scenic work as much as I did was because, for several scenes, nothing was coming to get me. A dummy decoy and a triggered voice-over set the stage for absolutely nothing in the mirror maze finale.
Halloween Horror Nights is always in a constant state of flux and could have filled all the empty hiding spots by now, so take this with a boulder of salt, but this was the least intense house of the event. It had astounding set design, though… and awful, awful smells.
Haunted houses are only half the battle at Halloween Horror Nights. Ghosts, goblins and other Bad Things roam the streets of Universal Studios Florida in five(ish) conveniently contained scarezones. For these, I’ll work clockwise from the park entrance.
Every year, there’s a ghoulish gauntlet/bottleneck in the Plaza of Stars. This year, it’s The Harvest, a cursed old barn crowded with the kind of rustic scarecrow creatures that usually occupy cursed old barns. The description in the park map claims it “holds horrors from each of our houses,” but far as I could tell, that only extended to the prop-stack vignettes from each of the IP houses. The wooden walls that double as stroller parking provide some decent jumps, and you can’t have too many pumpkin-headed stilt-walkers, but otherwise this is a pretty sparse scarezone.
Vamp 85: New Year’s Eve
Halloween Horror Nights lost its longest-running show this year and, possibly to help fill that gap, some of the scarezones feel markedly theatrical.
Vamp 85, for instance, is an outright party with a ball drop and everything. Vampiric doubles of your favorite ’80s pop stars pose for pictures, assemble on-stage for the seasonally mandated “Thriller” performance, and occasionally get the jump on unwitting passerbys. It’s a good time. The soundtrack is phenomenal, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not saying it’s not scary, but I did watch a knee-high Disney princess dance with three MTV vampires. It’s more about fun than fear here, and I didn’t mind that at all.
On your visit, be sure to give an exclusive to the roving news crew caught in the bloodsucking crossfire.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space
Now we’re talking.
I’m something of a Killer Klown konnoisseur, and this short stretch of New York checks all the boxes. Just about every Klown is present and accounted for. The Terenzi Brothers have kindly parked their ice cream truck at the perfect angle for pictures. They even got the hand puppets in there.
I’d describe more, but this is already one of the most photographed scarezones in Halloween Horror Nights history, and for good reason. The costumes and masks are as close as it gets to the real thing without killing the actors inside by bulk and heat. Everybody loves a good cotton candy cocoon. The fog even comes in regular and bubble form.
It’s a loving tribute to a cult classic that deserves a little more room to stretch its legs.
If you’re sly about it, you could make your way around Universal Studios Florida and avoid most of the scarezones entirely. But not this one. It’s always a free-for-all beneath the jack-o’-lanterns in the trees, and this year, it’s as ruthless as ever.
Twisted Tradition sees Halloween Horror Nights’ hometown of Carey, Ohio, besieged by ghouls with rotting pumpkins where their heads should be and crummy little kids rattling at you for candy. The natural setting, with the trees reaching overhead like broken fingers, is always a winner. Few sights at Halloween Horror Nights instill more festive dread than seeing those black branches in the fog, holding unholy constellations of carved, glowing grins.
Tight quarters… too much fog to check your watch… hiding spots aplenty and enterprising beasts that know how to use them… an entire one-room schoolhouse just there to look unsettling and neat. Twisted Tradition is the scariest zone of the event, and unless you feel like stretching your legs, there’s no way to avoid it.
Revenge Of Chucky
The other show zone doubles as a hypothetical Child’s Play sequel – what if Chucky took over an entire toy fair?
The results are as grisly and entertaining as you’d expect. Small stages line Hollywood and offer interactive shows for anyone brave/foolish enough to stand too close. Enjoy the savory smells of the poor bastard in the Safe-T-Bake oven. Learn what organs can be removed without killing the patient with Bizarre O.R. Look out for the monkeys.
The doll of the hour occasionally takes the spotlight, through some crafty improv and puppeteering, to berate anyone dim enough to ask for it. It’s worth the crowd congestion to catch a Chucky appearance, even if you’re not his biggest fan.
This scarezone has the best mix of goof and gore. The wandering Good Guys employees pay special attention to anyone distracted by the demonstrations, and there’s a small army of demented toys to keep you on your toes.
The Cabbage Patch cast-offs, broken ballerinas and large infants are the ones to watch, but just like in real life, it’s the murderous executives that get you in the end.
You’re also going to run into roving bands of chainsaw maniacs around Springfield and, depending on the night, San Francisco. You will hear these zones long before you see them. I don’t have much to say, and that’s a credit to the primal power of a chainsaw revving up. But extra credit to the chainsaw clown in a wheelchair because that guy goes for it.
This past weekend of Halloween Horror Nights, both Friday and Sunday, sold out completely. The lines for rides, which give guests something else to do between houses and rarely rack up waits past 20 minutes, cleared the hour mark. Now’s about the time Universal announces a few extra nights at the end of the event due to demand. They haven’t yet for this year, but it’s easier than ever to see the necessity.
Halloween Horror Nights 28 may well be a high water mark, and it’s certainly a major turning point. It’s bigger than ever, and I can’t see it ever getting much smaller, especially not with names like Stranger Things, Poltergeist and Halloween on the marquee. But even in this year, when Universal had to stretch its resources across increasingly elaborate scarezones and more houses than ever, it’s an astounding feat from top to bottom. It’s damn near impossible to single out a weak link in the chain. With or without the growing pains of casts and crowds, I can’t wait to see what they pull off next year.
So is it worth it?
If you do it smart, there’s no question. There’s nothing else out there quite like Halloween Horror Nights.
And in the end, you just can’t put a price on the joy of watching a man walk into the world’s only Jimmy Fallon-based theme park attraction wearing a t-shirt with the event’s bloody slogan: “We Know What Scares You.”