Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights has kicked off its 2019 run. Early you say? Not soon enough we horror fans counter. Running select nights now through November 3rd, Halloween Horror Nights, or HHN for short, features a record 10 mazes (including the year-round The Walking Dead Attraction), and a total of 5 themed scare zones to terrify guests thirsty for screams. The event also features the return of the dance performance show JABBAWOKEEZ, offering a non-horror respite between scares. Suffice it to say that this is a  solid year for Hollywood HHN despite a few missteps, and is easily worth a visit.

In addition to the blood-curdling experiences, Universal Studios Hollywood also keeps several of their signature attractions open including the all-new Jurassic World, along with Transformers: The Ride, The Simpsons Ride,  and Revenge of the Mummy The Ride. Sorry, muggles, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter goes dark during the event.

We will review Mazes, aka houses for our Floridian friends, in the order that guests encounter them entering the park. We will separate scare zones, but review them in the same order.

 

SCARE ZONES

Fallen Angelz

Entering the park guests are funneled through the main corridor and into a one, two punch of scare zones. We are first hit with chainsaw-wielding monsters skulking in the fog. Adorned with masks inspired by Dia Del Los Muertos and a photo op to the left, this is acceptable ease into the scares. While I prefer this of the dubstep go-go dancers and flame towers we are so used to here, the area is pretty small. This is the case with most of the scare zones in the compact Hollywood park. In fact, unless you were aware, you would not realize that you were about to bleed right into the next section of scares…

Spirits & Demons of the East

Just as small in size and poorly defined, this Asian-inspired scare zones hosts wonderfully creepy creations. From a Lo Pan look-alike to a Momo Japanese schoolgirl, this area is rife with thrills thanks to the talented street cast. They work it and they work it hard.

Christmas in Hell

Billed as a scare zone, but really a sort of exit corridor for the Holidayz in Hell maze, Christmas in Hell is morbidly merry. With talent dressed as evil counterparts of Christmas cheer including Mrs. Claus, Elfs, and even Krampus, this area does the job in easing us back into the fray after surviving the relatively intimate scares of a walkthrough. Sadly, with the memory of the brilliant Dark Christmas scare zone from years ago, that was kept alive by the Holidayz in Hell scare zone from last year, this pales in comparison.

 

TOXXXIC Tunnel

Toxxxic Tunnel, this year with a total of three x’s, serves as the concrete passageway through which visitors must pass to get to mazes on the back lot. With the familiar dub-step music and the dizzying display of flashing lights, this area keeps you on your toes despite the long walk. No, there is no other themeing. The actors, dressed in jumpsuits and masked with mutated faces do their fair share of work to entertain. Lunging and thrashing inches away from passerby these folks are to be praised for their seemingly endless movement and pursuit to entertain.

 

All Hallow’s Evil

Entering into the back lot, the theory is that guests would be funneled into the All Hallow’s Eve scare zone. When we visited, though, lines were actually forming to enter this area. We queued up and went in. A pastiche of creepy Halloween vignettes ranging from earthy celtic infused monsters to fiendishly demonic tableaus this area felt like a testing ground for a possible new maze for next year. The talent, again, was great, and the aesthetic wandering, yet with a clear search in direction. In particular, there is great use of silent film imagery from the film Haxxan at the end of this area that was the perfect way to ease back into the crowds.  Nicely done.

 

 

JABBAWOCKEEZ

The Jabbawockeez dance troupe returns to Halloween Horror Nights to offer a counterpoint of razor-sharp choreography and music to the mayhem outside the Special FX theatre. This year they seem to have abandoned the high-concept metaphors of shows passed and focused soley on the power of the DJ over music and the crowd. This is a good move as the audience for this type of show is far more into the pulse-pounding music and the expert dance moves on display.

From a technological standpoint, the new Jabbawockeez show outshines all previous years with eye-popping lazers, lighting effects, and staging. You will struggle to find a more aggressively groundbreaking use of lighting and music. It’s pretty amazing.

That being said, the structure of the show is identical to years passed too. We have the big opening number, the set up of the conceit, the guest interaction by pulling a pretty girl from the audience, then the big finish. It’s a formula that, apparently works, but we have seen this every year since their arrival.

Let’s be clear. These guys and gals are exceedingly talented. What’s more, they are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Yet while the technology for the show has evolved and grown with each year, we pretty much have the same idea since they arrived.

 

MAZES

Now we get to the impressive collection of mazes offered at Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. Gone is the Terror Tram attraction and in its place, are two phenomenal mazes.  A fair trade I say. Unfortunately, not everything is great. To be clear this is a very consistent year for HHN, but there are a few steps, with one very clear bomb.

House of 1,000 Corpses

At the front of the park is House of 1,000 corpses. Being the fourth time that this property has been used for a maze at Hollywood’s HHN, is without question, the weakest of the incarnations, and the worst maze in the line-up. The strong talent in the maze stands in stark contrast to the inconsistent adherence to the source material and the spotty design. This is a shame because House of 1,000 corpses is a rich source to pull from in regards to settings and unhinged insanity.

We approach the roadside attraction that houses the Serial Killer ride run by Captain Spaulding. The flat, painted façade is but an echo of the detailed versions that this maze has enjoyed in the past. Of course, we wander further and Spaulding and his goons are immediately lunging at is. We make our way past murder scenes through the “ride” and then we head off to the home of the Firefly’s and into their subterranean maze. We have seen this all before, so why is it so bland? Inconsistent set designs going from heavily themed one minute to sparsely decorated the next, repetitive scares, and the half-hearted execution.

 

 

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead walkthrough attraction is open during HHN. A good thing, for sure as it bolsters the maze count and is, a solid albeit short experience. As the setup goes we begin the maze in the abandoned Atlanta hospital that the series starts in. Our goal is to make it to the prison for safety. The only way there is through hordes of walkers. Easy, Right? Eh, well…

We toured this maze at the beginning of the night and, while there were no significant changes or plusses made to amp up the scares for Horror Nights, the attraction looked great. A new screen in the holding room just before the attraction starts has been added to explain the scenario further. This helps a lot with the storytelling.  Going through, the actors were all on their marks and ready to scare. Great work here.

 

Holidayz in Hell

One of the two original mazes, Holidayz in Hell is a bonkers, sick-minded tour through twisted versions of American holidays. Beginning with literally walking into a twisted postcard celebrating the New Year, we enter macabre celebration. A skeleton bathes in a champagne glass and revelers cavort. This gives us a taste of what is in store for such holidays as Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and so much more. Throughout the talent seemed to have a great time terrorizing with the dark side of merriment.

The only real downside was the peculiar Halloween section that seemed like a missed opportunity and the lack of a big finish with the Christmas scene at the end. As this maze is situated, it empties out into the Christmas in Hell scare zone. The transition is fine but with the utterly brilliant exploitation of the dark side of yuletide in the past at this event, this comes off as a denouement rather than a finale.

Regardless of the minor notesHolidayz in Hell is a breath of fresh air to the safe intellectual properties that we usually see at Hollywood’s HHN. It proves that Creative Director John Murdy and art director Chris Williams have a delightfully twisted sense of humor and the talent to execute fiendishly fun ideas when given the chance to do so. More, please.

 

Jordan Peele’s US

WOW. Jordan Peele’s US is a great maze. Beginning the journey years before we enter the Santa Cruz funhouse, following the footsteps of young Adelaide as she comes face to face with her doppelganger. Jumping to the present we are in the midst of a home invasion as Adelaide, now with her family are being attacked by mysterious people in red gowns that look exactly like them. Of course, we see mayhem erupting elsewhere and we follow the film beat for beat.

What is remarkable about this maze is the way that they captured the feel of the movie. From the precise use of sound and score to the impeccably cast actors, there is a feeling of immersion that puts you in the film. I have to give this maze high marks for a great balance of scares, storytelling, and production. Do not miss this one.

 

The Curse of Pandora’s Box

The new original maze, The Curse of Pandora’s Box, was easily the best maze at the event this year. We approach a strange curio shop as a voice whispers, “Come inside, come inside.” We ignore the fluttering lights in the window and other significant and unexplainable warnings and enter a warmly lit curio shop. To the left, a glass cabinet of relics, to the right, a tray of sand and bones.  An attendant pulls a heavy door open on a large box and we are ushered inside Pandora’s Box.  We are in a world of nightmares and Greek mythology.  Hades, Medusa, they are all here waiting to attack.

Again, the production here is amazing. The use of lighting is phenomenal with the subtle transition from warm lighting in the real world to black lights and fluorescent colors in the spirit world. Of course, the sound is great here too but it takes a backseat to the effects that induce double-takes that allow time for the talent to sneak up on you.

DO NOT MISS THIS MAZE.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

If you have been waiting since 1988 for an immersive walkthrough of this campy sci-fi horror comedy, your wait is over and well worth it. As another one of the best mazes of the evening, Killer Klowns from Outer Space perfectly captures the tone of the original movie by the Chiodo brothers, while translating nicely as a walkthrough.

We begin the experience with an ill-fated stroll through the circus tent that has suddenly appeared in the forest. Sharp-eyed guests will notice some shadowplay off to the right of the tent, seeing signs of nefarious klowns up to no good. We suddenly realize that we are, in fact, inside a candy-colored spaceship operated by the titular Killer Klowns. Next, we see the havoc they have wrought on the small town and we get taste of their special brand of mayhem.

Fresh, comical, and featuring impeccable art direction, Killer Klowns From Outer Space is another highpoint for the night that will easily provoke younger audiences to look up this nugget of 80’s camp.

 

Stranger Things

Oh, Stranger Things. What happened? Situated next to Transformers: The Ride is the mammoth-scale Stranger Things 2 maze. Depicting the increasingly terrifying adventures of a group of kids in the 80’s that faces off against government agencies and the Upside Down, this maze fails to scare. Situated in an actual soundstage, the maze has the freedom to use scale to its advantage, yet somehow, things are amiss.

We begin the adventure in a subdued fashion as we queue past a screen indicating we are in Stranger Things Season 2, then pass through a curtain into the first scene. Into the Byers home, we go as things have become even more insane. Lights flashing and artwork plastered on the walls of the 80’s domicile depicting vines stretching to every corner. The line between the real world and the Upside Down gets thinner and the see monsters tearing into reality as we slip into their surreal netherworld. Only fans of the show would truly understand the story beats, and to be honest. The problem is the lack of scares and the ceremonial handling of specific moments pulled directly from the show.

As far as the overall production it is hit and miss with a dependence on large scale digital projections and puppetry that don’t exactly provoke the AWE they should. I will say that they have greatly improved the look of the Upside Down with more detailed surroundings and judicious use of special effects that add to the atmosphere.

There is also the unfortunate timing of the maze that depicts season 2 of the show, with the 3rd season having just been released on Netflix.  The solution used here is to tag a small scene from season 3 at the end of the experience and, well, it just feels tacked on.  Oh well. The fans of the show will love it and that is all that matters. Judging from the 120 minute wait time on opening night, Netflix and Universal have done the job.

Creepshow

When Creepshow was announced at Midsummer Scream in August, we were simply dying to see what Murdy and Williams would come up with. We are happy to report that the maze, based on three stories from the original film and two stories from the new series, is great. One of the best mazes of the night in fact.

Stepping into the pages of a pulp horror comic we are bombarded with ads for monkey’s paws and x-ray glasses. Then off to the first story, Father’s Day. Being a fan of the original film, my comprehension of what was happening, even the little touches, was heightened. But there was enough gore and creepiness that I think it could stand on its own.

After Father’s Day we come face to face with Fluffy, the monster from The Crate, thousands of roaches from the story, Their Creeping Up on You, and then we are off to two new stories from the series. One depicting a strange shut in that absorbs people, the other a jailbreak with werewolves. All of this was consistently entertaining there was a lovely nod to the film at the end. Totally creepy, totally fun, Creepshow is another do not miss.

Universal Monsters: Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman

With the runaway success of last year’s Universal Monsters maze, it was a no-brainer that we get another one. Thankfully, while based on a Universal property, we got a maze unique to Hollywood with the wonderful Universal Monsters: Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Entering a gypsy encampment, we wander into a tent and see a tarot card reading gone horribly wrong. The reader, slain, and her subject has turned into the Wolfman. Of course, the music from the camp has also attracted Frankenstein’s Monster.

So begins this classicly executed walkthrough that pays homage to the classic monsters while again, remaining scary and fun for modern audiences. As the experience continues we wander the tombs of the Frankenstein family and run into discarded experiments that still cling to life. We see the Wolfman terrorizing the castle Frankenstein and pursuing our green anti-hero to the far reaches of the arctic. All of this is executed with a far more consistent standard of production and theme that enhances the overall experience.

Back again is rock legend and composer Slash to create original music for each scene throughout. From gypsy music to Gregorian Chants, Slash shows a tremendous range and inventive use of melody. I would say this is easily the maze with the best score, no questi0n.

Mr. Murdy, THANK YOU for keeping the classics alive and terrifying for today’s audience. This maze does the job.

 

Ghostbusters

Upon reflection, the Ghostbusters maze has grown on this reviewer. No, it’s still far from perfect, but I can understand what Murdy and Williams were going for here. With what will most likely be their one shot at this beloved franchise, they have packed the zany paranormal comedy into one 5 minute experience. Instead of telling the story of the first film, we enter the firehouse with the sharp-tongued secretary Janine getting their first call to bust a ghost. “WE GOT ONE!!!!” she screams and we are off. We get a look at the containment system on the way out and it is bursting with ghosts dying to live again.

What follows is a highlights reel of the ghosts that the team has busted. We see the librarian, slimmer, and even Dana’s first encounter with Gozer in her apartment. There is the inclusion of ghosts from the second film as well, along with a few that this reviewer couldn’t quite place.

Easily the most technologically advanced of the mazes, there is a savvy use of projection mapping, live actors, blacklight effects, and puppetry that is unequaled in anything we have seen from any haunt thus far. There is a surprising lack of face actors, I counted four with Janine, Peter, and Winston being the three depicted.

I would officially like to retract my 7-second review comment of saying that I hated this maze and upgrade that to a “like”. It wasn’t overly scary, it was a lot of fun, and captured the essence of the property. This one will easily be a crowd favorite. Be forewarned though, on opening night, this maze had a wait time longer than the actual run time of the original film. Get there early.

 

 


 

Overall Universal Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights 2019 is a solid event. Much better and far more consistent than years past, the line up of intellectual properties and original mazes is a welcome change. I would say that the choice to ditch the problematic Terror Tram in favor of two mazes was the right decision and one that yielded two remarkable additions to the lineup.

Yes, we still have the problem of the black hallways. The inevitable comparison between Hollywood and Orlando’s versions of HHN will bring us to the fact that Orlando gets the budget to theme every inch of a maze, whereas Hollywood has to make do with the clip show format of a scene, black hallway, another scene, another black hallway, wash rinse repeat. It explains the use of boo-boxes at the end of nearly every maze to hit people with a riot of scares before the exit too. Universal Hollywood has proven itself as a power player in the most competitive haunt market in the world. They deserve the budget to equal their sister park in Florida.

The Verdict? Go. This is one night that is worth the time and money. But as usual, either get there early and hit the mazes on the lower lot, or buy the VIP package. The only thing scarier that what’s inside the mazes are the lines to get into them.


 

Tickets are available at Hollywood.HalloweenHorrorNights.com and advance purchase is recommended as event nights will sell out.  Following are the various tickets options:

  • Universal Express
    One-time priority access to all mazes, Jabbawockeez performance and theme park rides.
    • Multi-Night Passes   Ultimate Fear Pass:  scare all 32 nights

Frequent Fear Pass:  scare 25 select nights

September Pass:  11 select nights throughout the month of September

    • R.I.P. Tour
      Groups of up to 12 can scare in style with the new

R.I.P. Tour featuring a VIP guide, unlimited Universal Express access to all mazes, attractions and Jabbawockeez show, private VIP trolley transportation to backlot mazes, interactive themed photo ops and special tour of the Universal backlot, gourmet buffet dinner at the VIP Dining Room & Lounge, access to lounges for drinks and desserts, and complimentary valet parking.

    • After 2 p.m. Day/Night Combo
      Experience the park’s popular daytime attractions, and remain for the terror that awaits at “Halloween Horror Nights.”