In my last article I said that the HHN review would be up soon.
That was in October.
It is now February.
…Oops. Well, as they say, better late then never.
So 2015 marked the 25th year of Universal Studios Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights event. I’ve written about HHN twice before, so I won’t waste any time gushing about how huge of a fan I am. Let’s get right to the important stuff: JACK IS BACK.
HHN has had numerous icons before; characters that essentially serve as the “face” of the event. Jack the clown is easily the most well-known and recognized of the bunch. Prior to 2000, other characters such as Beetlejuice, Crypt Keeper, and the classic monsters themselves had served as mascots of a sort. But Jack was the first ‘true’ icon, and to many he has come to define Halloween Horror Nights as a whole.
However, the increasing focus on licensed properties changed things. Gone were the icons of old… after all, you wouldn’t want them to overshadow such classic characters as “zombie from the Walking Dead”, “other zombie from the Walking Dead” and “tree”. So when news broke that Jack was finally returning for 2015, fans were unsurprisingly excited.
And it’s not just Jack. 2015’s event was in many ways a reminder of ‘classic’ Halloween Horror Nights. There was a greater focus on original content than there had been in recent years, with four out of the nine houses and ALL of the scarezones being original. In addition, most of these were sequels of a sort, in some cases even serving as crossovers between two classic themes. We saw the return of many popular characters, and overall the event felt like a celebration of Horror Nights past.
So let’s get down to it. Starting with the Houses:
The Walking Dead: The Living and the Dead
Might as well begin with the shit: The Walking Dead returned for its fourth year in a row. I’ve been vocal in the past about my distaste for the Walking Dead houses, and this year is no exception. What is there to say, really? It was zombies. Same as ever. Like last year, there were two ‘selling points’ to this one: for the first time scareactors would be standing in water, and the sets themselves would be taller and more vertical, giving a greater sense of immersion. The former essentially amounted to two zombies standing in kiddie pools, which you likely would not notice unless you were aware of it. As for the vertical sets… sure. Unfortunately, there was nothing to look at up there, so there was really no point to it. Overall, just another dull zombie-themed house. D+.
Freddy vs. Jason
This one was an odd choice, considering that the movie came out in 2003. Nonetheless, HHN had successfully tackled both franchises in the past, so there was a lot to look forward to here. And while the house was by no means perfect, I was not disappointed. The house begins in Camp Crystal Lake before transitioning to Elm Street, and you soon find yourself caught in the midst of a battle between Freddy and Jason. Ironically, these were the weakest parts of the house; the ‘fights’ consisted of either projections that were too close and low-quality to be convincing, or actors beating up on obvious dummies. But the cast was into it and there were plenty of scares to be had, and the quality of the sets were fantastic. Overall a very fun house, if flawed in its execution. B.
This one was actually the biggest surprise for me. You see, this was never MEANT to be a Purge house… it was supposed to be themed around SCREAM. Namely, the MTV show. However, issues arose and the deal was cancelled after construction had already started. This meant that something needed to be slapped together fast, and it needed to be something that would fit with what had already been built. Thankfully, Universal already had a bunch of Purge gear on hand from the previous year. Now, this isn’t the first time plans for a house fell through on short notice, and often the resulting rush-job feels, well… like a rush-job. And on the surface, so did this; you could clearly identify elements from SCREAM if you were familiar with it. But what saved this house was the cast. The actors were nothing short of intense, and worked their asses off to do the best job they could with the limitations given to them. Overall I actually liked this one a lot. B-.
Insidious may be one of the scariest houses in Horror Nights history. I have a passing familiarity with the series, though I’ve yet to watch it; and even with my limited knowledge this house was downright chilling. There’s a sense of wrongness to it, that sense of dread that can only spring from the unknown. There’s very little else I can say to do it justice. See for yourself. A+.
Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem
This was the headlining house of this year’s event. Essentially a sequel/successor to 2010’s Horror Nights: Hallow’d Past, Jack Presents is a tribute to the HHN Legacy, recreating some of the most memorable scenes from Horror Nights past. However, I must acknowledge the houses’ biggest flaw, one it shared with its predecessor: the scenes in question are almost exclusively from 2008-onwards, the one exception being a scene from 2004’s Castle Vampyr. For a house that’s meant to celebrate the history of HHN, I’d have hoped for more scenes from the classic era… the ones I never got to experience myself. However, it’s understandable why this may be impossible: many of the props and setpieces from the past simply no longer exist, and it’s a waste to recreate such things when there’s plenty of more recent stuff to work with.
That all aside, this house was incredible. Whereas Hallow’d Past mostly tried to recreate scenes as they were, Jack Presents wasn’t afraid to put a new spin on things. Many of the scenes served as tributes to certain themes, combining elements from two or more houses into one. For example: a cave of Jack-O’-Lanterns reminiscent of 2008’s The Hallow opens into a rustic forest environment, serving as a seamless transition into a medieval hut for a Scary Tales scene. There are also numerous encounters with Jack the Clown between scenes, and the house is MASSIVE, beating out last year’s Walking Dead as the biggest house in HHN history. The actors were on point, the scares were frequent and intense, and overall Jack Presents was the best house of the year. A+.
An American Werewolf in London
Well, this one’s returning nearly unchanged from 2013, so honestly you can pretty much go read that review as my high opinion of it hasn’t changed. The only things worth pointing out are the werewolf puppets. They were amazing before, but this year they were completely rebuilt from the actual molds used in the film. They’re even more fluid and terrifying than before, and there was one more wolf added to the maze as well. While some were disappointed that one of the previous houses was simply returning instead of getting something new, I was more than happy to experience it one more time. A+.
RUN: Blood, Sweat, and Fears
Fuck. This was actually the one I was anticipating the most, and as such was the biggest letdown of the year. The original RUN was the headliner maze of 2001… a LITERAL maze, with movable chain-link fences that could be used to separate groups and block off paths. It was inspired by The Running Man, one of the most 80’s films that has ever 80’d, and as such was very… unique. In a good way, I mean. However, as HHN’s popularity and crowds grew, the idea of a true maze became impossible. When RUN received a sequel in 2006, it had been reduced to a dull Hostel-inspired torture porn house, losing its unique identity and charm. So when I heard RUN was coming back with a heavy 80’s-inspired theme, I was beyond hyped. Unfortunately, the house failed to live up to what I had hoped for.
There were a few things wrong with RUN, but I may as well start with the most glaring problem: it wasn’t scary. The actors just didn’t seem into it, especially when compared to the incredible intensity of the Purge house. Another big problem was the theming. For something meant to invoke the 80’s, it really failed to accomplish that. With a few exceptions, there wasn’t really much to it that gave an 80’s vibe. This is also one of the aforementioned ‘crossover’ houses, being set within 2004’s Hellgate Prison. However, it didn’t really feel much like you were in a prison either, so it failed in both regards. Lastly, it was just way too short for its own good. Still, by no means did I hate the house… it still had its charms. It just fell far short of what I had hoped for. C-.
Body Collectors: Recollections of the Past
This was the other ‘crossover’ house, serving as a prequel to both the Body Collectors and Psychoscareapy series of mazes. The Body Collectors, to the uninitiated, are basically the Gentlemen from the Buffy episode titled “Hush”. And by basically, I mean exactly. However, while the Gentlemen simply gathered human hearts, the Body Collectors harvest everything in a typically brutal fashion. These houses are usually gory and violent, and this one was no exception. It was also damn gorgeous, set within a Victorian insane asylum in the midst of a blizzard… the building was absolutely freezing, as well. Another great house, though much like RUN it felt very short. A-.
Asylum in Wonderland 3-D
I like 3-D houses, generally. 2011 brought us the fantastic In-Between, followed the next year by the also-fantastic Penn & Teller’s Nuke’d Las Vegas. 2013’s After Life was… good. So I was looking forward to this one, especially as it’s a sequel to Asylum in Wonderland, one of my favorite scarezones of all time. But in the end, this one was nothing special. The scares just weren’t there, and the plotline of Alice hallucinating these events was unclear. Overall, it wasn’t a bad house, just nothing special. C.
Now, on to the scarezones..
This one was a lot of fun. Basically a “photo op” zone featuring the HHN icons (sans Jack) and other memorable characters from years past. The four icons – Caretaker, Director, Storyteller, and the Usher – each had their own little stage, where they would periodically kill a hapless victim. They were all into their roles, especially my personal favorite the Usher; and they all served as damn good distractions, allowing the actors on the ground to go in for a scare. Maybe a bit bare-bones in terms of theming, but the cast made this zone great. A.
Scary Tales: Screampunk
The Avenue of the Stars has always been a tricky location for scarezones due to its small size. Some have succeeded, some have failed. Unfortunately, this one falls into the latter category. There just wasn’t much going on here, and it wasn’t particularly steampunk either; several of the costumes seemed to just be the same Scary Tales costumes from previous years, but with goggles added. Just nothing much to say about this one. C-.
Easily the best scarezone in years. This is the first time they’ve moved Psychoscareapy to the streets, and it works like a charm. Themed around a Fall Festival in the quaint town of Shadybrook, during the daytime hours everything actually seems quite charming. But by night, it becomes downright disturbing: the asylum inmates have gotten loose and are running wild, massacring and destroying everything in sight. The cast in this zone were amazing. Working the streets is a bit harder than the houses, as you’re forced to interact with the guests a lot more. However, the actors here did an amazing job and were perfectly in character, being equal parts hilarious and terrifying. And it was downright massive, making use of most of the New York Streets area. A+.
Thought this one was pretty good. Evil’s Roots has something of a Halloween/dark fantasy theme, with evil fairies, ogres, and even Samhain himself. It’s nothing new per se, but the Central Park area always gives a very claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere. Not a whole lot to say about this one, except that I liked it. B-.
All Nite Die-In: Double Feature
This one was a lot of fun. Another ‘photo-op’ scarezone, this time themed around a drive-in-theater. This isn’t the first time this theme has been used… back in 2009 we had the very similar Horrorwood Die-In. However, this one had a gimmick: one cast was the classic black & white Universal Monsters, and the other cast consisted of more modern horror icons. However, the modern monsters were kind of uninteresting when I went, with a sizable chunk of them consisting of random Purgers and vampires. I know this was rectified later on, though. On the other hand, the classic monsters were fantastic, and actually seemed to be the ones getting the most scares. Perhaps it’s because modern audiences aren’t as familiar with them, but it was damn satisfying to see. There was, however, one other issue: the projector. Horrorwood’s projector worked great; this one, however, barely functioned. You couldn’t make out anything, even by night. This may have been an issue with the screen itself, I dunno. I’m not sure if this was ever fixed, but it’s a relatively minor point anyway. A-.
The Carnage Returns
Jack’s show was essentially a sequel to 2007’s Carnival of Carnage. 2007 was, in fact, the last time they had done a show like this at all, and damn did they pull out all the stops. It was loud, crude, and bloody as hell, serving as a triumphant return to form for our favorite killer clown. A.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure
Bill and Ted’s show has had good years and bad years, mostly the latter as of late. Still, I’d heard from other reviewers that it was pretty good, so I was looking forward to it.
So that about wraps it up. Overall, Halloween Horror Nights 25 was great. After three years of executive meddling, one can only hope that this marks a return to form for the event. Only time will tell. But suffice to say that Jack’s return did not disappoint. Down below you’ll find my video playlist and photos from the event, enjoy!