Every year, Universal Studios theme parks around the world hold their annual Halloween Horror Nights events. From its humble beginnings as Fright Nights in 1991, HHN has grown to a massive and popular event featuring numerous intense haunted houses, scare zones, and shows.
I’ve been attending Halloween Horror Nights in Universal Orlando every year since 2004, and I’m a die-hard fan… 2008 being my favorite year overall. So this past weekend, I took a drive up to Orlando to attend this year’s event.
This year was billed as “Evil Takes Root”, and admittedly, I was bit apprehensive due to the focus on intellectual properties this year. You see, HHN has a rich history of original themes… there’s been plenty of houses based on films in the past, but for the most part fans love HHN for its unique and unforgettable houses such as S.S. Frightanic, Castle Vampyre, and Scary Tales.
However, this year, of the three non-IP houses, one was a sequel and one was borrowed from Hollywood’s event, leaving only one completely new house. In addition, not only were there no unique scarezones this year, the entirety of the street experience was dedicated to The Walking Dead, of all things.
Now, I have no issues with the Walking Dead. It’s a fine series. However, there’s no denying that its only here due to its huge mainstream popularity. The Walking Dead was never really about the zombies… they’re simply the background event that provides the setting. The series is really about human drama and character development. Of course, all of that is stripped away here, leaving us with… zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.
Let’s face it: zombies are overdone, overhyped, and just not scary anymore. There’s zombie movies, zombie games, zombie walks, zombie runs, zombie dances, zombie pub crawls, etc. Stores are flooded with zombie costumes, props, and decorations. On top of that, zombies are slow-moving, shambling, and unintelligent. This leaves little room for scareactors to do anything interesting with their character, and gives us streets full of the same thing over and over again.
However, the focus on the Walking Dead allowed them to recreate multiple locations from the show, such as Hershel’s Barn and the Campsite. Some worked better than others. Atlanta, Woodbury, and the Freeway in particular had way too much open space and not enough actors to fill in that space, leaving them feeling empty.
One good thing that can be said about the zombies is that they’re surprisingly good at blending in… plenty of times what I thought was an ordinary park guest turned out to be a zombie. And overall, most of the actors did a great job and were really into their roles. If only the characters they were playing weren’t so boring and repetitive.
Overall, the streets were better than expected, but still need some work. Hopefully, changes will be made as the event goes on. Now, on to the houses!
The Cabin in the Woods was probably my most anticipated house, and it didn’t disappoint. The film is arguably one of the best horror-comedies of the past decade, and it was brought to thrilling life here. Many of the key scenes from the movie were recreated in gory detail, and the house featured many of the minor monsters from the film, such as the Sugarplum Fairy and Fornicus. Overall I give the house an A.
Resident Evil: Escape from Raccoon City was another house I was really excited for. The house was based on the second and third games, thankfully ignoring the movies completely, and recreated locations from the game in stunning detail. That said, the house needs some work. There’s way too much open space, and the scares just aren’t there yet. Also, the Nemesis in small… instead of being a stiltwalker like Pyramid Head from last year’s Silent Hill house, he’s just a guy in an awkwardly bulky costume. A good house that just needs some changes to be made, I give it a B-.
An American Werewolf in London is the last truly great werewolf film, and has been turned into the best house at this year’s event so far. All of the iconic scenes from the movie have been recreated beautifully, complete with fantastic werewolf puppets. From the Slaughtered Lamb to the dream sequence, it’s all here. I give this house an A+.
Evil Dead is, sadly, based on the 2013 remake instead of the classic Sam Raimi original. That said, it’s a solid house. The way the house begins is unique and different from what one would expect, and the scenes are gory and intense. Some of the actors need some time to get the hang of things, but overall I give Evil Dead a B.
Havoc: Derailed seems to be this year’s least popular house, but I didn’t really think it was all that bad. A sequel to 2010’s Havoc: Dogs of War, Derailed is mainly set aboard a military train transporting the vicious super-soldiers known as the “dogs of war”. The train cars have an interesting lighting effect to give the illusion of motion. That said, the “crash” about midway through the haunt is flaccid, to say the least. Also, the dogs of war just weren’t active enough. While not a terrible house by any means, it was certainly the weakest one this year. C-.
The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven borrows from season 3 of the TV series, being set within Woodbury and the prison. The house is a huge step up from last year’s Walking Dead: Dead Inside, and features quite a few good scares. While there’s really nothing amazing about it, everything’s done well and the cast seemed really into it. It’s a solid, basic house, and I give it a B-.
Urban Legends: La Llorona was a highly successful haunt at Hollywood’s event, and this year made its debut in Orlando. Based on the Mexican legend of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, this haunt is absolutely beautiful. Set within a haunted Mexican village, La Llorona is amazingly detailed, and each time through you’ll notice something new. The house is quite terrifying as well, with an aggressive cast and several intense scares. La Llorona gets an A.
Afterlife: Death’s Vengeance is this year’s only completely original haunt. Afterlife is a 3D haunt revolving around Robert “the Blade” Galletta, a serial killer executed by electric chair. The spirits of those he killed come back to torment him, dragging him into his own personal Hell. Afterlife has some pretty effective scenes, but unfortunately much of the cast didn’t seem to know what to do when I went through. What I did see impressed me though, and I’m sure it will get better as the event goes on. B+.
So that’s it for the houses. Overall, they’re pretty great this year, but there’s still room for improvement. And of course, there’s two shows this year: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Rocky Horror is great as always, and Bill & Ted, while not amazing, is probably the best its been since 2009.
All in all I had a great time. Hopefully I’ll be able to return later in the event, but this year’s HHN is already off to a pretty great start.
Based on opening weekend, I give Halloween Horror Nights 23 four optic blasts out of five.
Also, if you like haunted houses, check out Enigma Haunt in Boca Raton.