Universal Studios Hollywood's annual Halloween Horror Nights returns, with the biggest horror icons in pop culture taking over the world famous movie studio-slash-theme park hybrid for fright-filled nights of fun. The Walking Dead, Ash vs Evil Dead, SAW, American Horror Story, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Insidious, the horrors of Blumhouse and three infamous titans of terror — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface, A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger and Chucky's titular maniacal doll — come together for the best Halloween event on the west coast.
Not only does Universal Studios Hollywood transform into a spooky, ghoul-fueled fright at nightfall, your favorite attractions — including The Walking Dead (a year-round walkthrough attraction), Jurassic Park: The Ride, Transformers: The Ride, Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride and The Simpsons Ride — stay open for business, with Jurassic Park proving even more fun in the dark. (In the ride's climactic final scene where helpless tourists are ambushed by vicious raptors, you're now confronted with the merciless beasts, strobe lights and Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," and it's as fun and as insane as it sounds.)
In addition to haunted mazes and scare zones — out in the open free-for-alls that you'll make your way through as you traverse the park — the popular Universal Studios Hollywood tram tour gets a terror-ble makeover, inviting you to actually step off the tram and explore the set of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, among others, as you contend with the relentless killers from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, Chucky and Friday the 13th franchises.
You'll want to spring for the Front of the Line pass: with Front of the Line, you're entitled to skip the line for every ride and maze your first time through. It'll cost you extra, but the additional cost is worth it. With the popularity of Halloween Horror Nights, crowds are high — but with a Front of Line badge, you'll have a little-to-no wait on everything. It's the best way to ensure you hit all the park has to offer, especially the mazes, whose lines can stretch for hours.
Among the highlights of this year's offerings is the Titans of Terror tram, terrifyingly transformed into a seasonal special that lets you literally step into the horror. With your tram hijacked by Cult of Chucky star Chucky, the evil doll stops the tram and allows you to disembark just outside the placid Bates Motel. But all isn't as it seems: you're confronted with an army of human-sized Chuckys — all wielding chainsaws! If you survive, you move closer into the property, where you'll have to contend with hockey mask-wearing maniac Jason Voorhees in his various iterations before making your way towards Norman Bates' house from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
You're free to pose for a photo with a grinning Norman Bates on the steps of the house — a treat in itself — before moving onto the Sawyer Meats maze, inspired by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. Hold onto your stomach as you narrowly avoid armed-and-dangerous hillbilly Leatherface, lest you fall victim to the malicious meat mill. The plane crash wreckage from Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is now host to an apocalyptic nightmare, with multiple nightmarish, razor-fingered Freddy Krueger's roaming about. The Terror Tram is an abbreviated version of the tram as it normally operates, where your sight seeing is replaced with the rare opportunity of getting to step off the tram and onto pieces of movie history. For fans of the movies, it's a bonus — for everyone else, it's squeezing in even more thrills with some of horror's biggest icons. (Sorry, Halloween fans, no Michael Myers this year — the only bummer.)
Jigsaw's twisted traps come to life in SAW: The Games of Jigsaw, inspired by the hit horror franchise. Gory, brutal, unforgiving and not for the faint of heart, the SAW maze makes the rest of the haunted houses look like kid's stuff. The bloody gore fest combines human actors with props to depict the grisly torture scenes the long running horror franchise is known for. One tormented soul has his head hopelessly submerged in water; another is being slowly, agonizingly sawed in half by a swinging pendulum blade; another still is mutilated by way of evisceration as he begs for help that will never come — you get an up close look, but you're powerless to do anything but watch. And of course, Billy the Puppet and Jigsaw are on hand to personally see to it that you suffer...
Between the set design, the atmosphere and the blending of live actors with gruesome props, SAW sets the standard for Halloween horror mazes.
The Shining maze recreates visionary director Stanley Kubrick's classic horror film perfectly. The set design is impressive: as you make your way through the shuttered Overlook Hotel, eagle-eyed fans will be quick to spot references and callbacks to the movie, least of which is the obvious and ominous "REDRUM" scattered throughout the halls. There's a consistent unnerving chanting in the background, and an unhinged, axe-wielding Jack Torrance is a constant, unrelenting menace throughout. At its core, the maze is a recreation of the film's most iconic moments, including Danny's vision of the creepy ass twin girls, "Here's Johnny!", and even the bloody elevator scene. There's plenty of surprises we won't ruin for you here, but if you've ever wanted to step into a twisted, faithfully recreated Kubrickian world inspired by a seminal Stephen King work, now's your chance.
American Horror Story: Roanoke, based on FX's anthology horror series, is the basis for the biggest "WTF" maze in this year's offerings. Set in an isolated farmhouse in the North Carolina backwoods, the burlap-scented maze tells the tale of an English settlement that vanished under mysterious circumstances in the 1500s: the Lost Colony of Roanoke. A rustic colonial terror with roaming religious fanatics, cannibals, and madmen with bloody pig heads, the cursed farmhouse is the final resting place for bodies scorched in blood sacrifice and torture. The biggest draw here is how damn bizarre it is — how many colonial haunted houses have you visited? The story is unclear, especially if you're unfamiliar with the show — you can piece together the cannibalism and sacrificial aspects yourself, that much is clear — but if you head to haunted houses for more than just the scares, you might leave Roanoke having no idea what the hell you just walked into. The puritan theme goes a long way in helping Roanoke standout; the biggest draw here is atmosphere, even if the actual walkthrough is light on living spooks.
Horror factory Blumhouse — the production company behind such hits as the Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises, and the mega-successful Get Out — bring to Halloween Horror Nights a three-for-one special, blending Sinister, The Purge and Happy Death Day (the newest Blumhouse production, now playing) into one hellish maze.
You start by making your way through city streets during the Purge, the annual "cleansing" night where all crime is legal for 12 hours. Fans of the movies will spot some familiar sights — the glowing, nine-foot-tall "Statue of Liberty" walker among them — but the maze never reaches the heights its capable of reaching: with a concept like the Purge, where sick and twisted psychopaths prey on in the innocent in a barbarous free-for-all, this portion of the maze should have been a thrill-a-minute adrenaline rush. Instead, various masked thugs do their best to "boo" you, but it feels uncharacteristically restrained.
You'll next move into the Happy Death Day area, officially described as "a living trailer" for the newest Jason Blum-produced horror. You're likely familiar with the trailers and the concept by now — a college girl is trapped in an endless deja vu scenario, forced to relive the night of her murder by a baby-faced killer until she must somehow break the chain — but the biggest problem here is that a college dorm isn't a scary setting for a horror maze, not even with a masked murderer on the loose. All the scares come by way of the killer with the big baby head, and the deja vu angle is applied to the walkthrough, too: you'll revisit the same rooms and encounter the same villain multiple times — whether you find the concept clever or repetitive is up to you.
Saving the best for last, the Sinister portion had the most potential for scares, the basis being an ancient pagan deity who enlists children to savagely murder their families, with the murders captured on Super 8 footage and living on as horrific snuff films. The maze incorporates the concept of ghastly "home movies," and the big haunt of this last area is Bughuul, the Slipknot-inspired boogieman who is nicely realized in real life.
Based on the Insidious franchise launched by horror master James Wan and inspired by the newest installment, Insidious: The Last Key, Insidious: Beyond the Further is a lot like the movies it brings to life. There's that ever-present feeling of something, some kind of presence lying in wait, but with a lot of teasing and little to no payoff. The all-new maze explores the past of parapsychologist Dr. Elise Rainer, telling a story that makes sense only in the context of the movies. It relies heavily on mostly unconvincing props and a lot of mannequins to shepherd visitors through rooms of an all-American house, as Elise explains the Further, "a dark realm filled with the tortured souls of the dead." Like the movies, those tortured souls are spilling out into the real world, and you're confronted with skeleton faced ghouls, murderous matrons with butcher knives, ghastly little girls, little men with duck masks and the dancing, taunting Lipstick-Face Demon.
Insidious: Beyond the Further is largely disappointing not only for how barren and uninspired it is, but for its restraint. If the maze had neglected the uninteresting domestic angle and the exploration of Elise's past and focused more instead on the Further — that dark, shadowy realm from the movies filled with creepy spirits, some of which stand frozen — it could have been one of the better mazes in the park.
The charm of Starz' Ash vs Evil Dead isn't translated to its live-action experience.
The maze takes you through sets from the series, beginning with Ash's trailer. The set design is fine, but barren; everything feels sparse, from the open walkways to the lack of scares. There are easter eggs for fans — you can spot the Necronomicon inside — but there isn't enough here for fans or non-fans to make the maze feel worthy of a lineup spot. Its biggest strengths come in its unique creature design and the personality interjected by the chainsaw-wielding Ash (live-actors wearing Bruce Campbell-inspired masks), who goes all "Ashy Slashy" in frequent appearances. You'd expect more humor and zaniness, and especially that oddball Sam Raimi-ness, but none of it comes. Ash vs Evil Dead makes for an unsatisfying experience, worsened by how good everything else is in the park.
Perfect for horror fans and anyone who likes a good scream, Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights is the most frightful fun you'll have all season. Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood runs select nights through October 31. Get your tickets here.