For the past twenty-two years, Universal Orlando has been home to the always fun and sometimes genuinely frightening Halloween Horror Nights. For their 2012 edition, Universal has gone all out, creating all-new houses with the help of a famous illusion/comedy duo and musician, as well as taking inspiration from one of my favorite horror game series of all time, the biggest horror show currently on television, and the company’s own history.
(Assumedly) Due to the all the construction going on in the park, there are only seven houses this year instead of the traditional eight – which is a bummer – but between everything the event has to offer, there’s enough to keep you occupied for a night.
Welcome To Silent Hill – Say what you will about the last few Silent Hill games, but those first three are a solid mix of puzzle-solving, action, and atmosphere, even by today’s standards. The house, which carries the look of the film but takes most of its inspiration from the games, definitely nails the aesthetic and feel of the fictitious town and its different planes of existence/dimensions. The falling ash and Pyramid Head appearance are both a huge plus, but the lack of variety among the scare-actors is really noticeable – they’re almost exclusively nurses, with a few exceptions – and the bunny is sadly just standing in the corner. It’s great fan service, but there are eye holes cut out into its face which leads me to believe that at one point someone was supposed to be in there. It has some minor flaws but, overall, it’s a great house with memorable set pieces that should please fans of the series.
Gothic – In terms of set design, Gothic is one of the more impressive houses that Universal has created in recent years. Although some of the tricks and decorations have been noticeably used in past house (that’s kind of expected, though), they’re put to really good use in the cathedral overrun by stone gargoyles comes to life and, on top of that, there’s a really great mirror illusion that made me wonder – even if it was only for a second – if I had walked up stairs at any point. Gothic was also the only house that had effective jump scares thanks to an impressive use of space; there’s stuff coming at you from every direction. If you end up going on a slow night, definitely take your time in Gothic and really look at everything it has to offer.
Dead End – The other non-franchise house for this year’s event centers around a town that creates urban legends around an abandoned home which causes spirits to eventually inhabit it. The house itself it fine – it’s designed well, and the scare-actor effects and costumes are neat – but the “whatever goes” back story seems like an excuse to throw a bunch of random things together and call it a day. It’s supposed to be haunted, so you would assume it would be ghosts roaming the hallways, but it’s mostly disfigured people, tree monsters, and various other demons. Dead End has good atmosphere, but it makes no sense!
AMC’s The Walking Dead: Dead Inside – Based on the television series more than the comic, the zombie house almost exclusively sticks to recreating memorable scenes and locations than being creative. The fan service is nice, even for someone who isn’t exactly in love with the show but is familiar enough with it (like me!), and there are a lot of Easter eggs scattered around (Bunny slippers! Handcuffs! Merle’s hand!). Oh, and I hope that if you’re waiting in the queue, you’re completely caught up with the show because if not, the clips and trailers projected on a nearby building exterior will spoil a few things.
Penn & Teller: Newkd Las Vegas 3D – The “funny house” of this year’s event is also the best thanks to the element of interactivity, ingenious room design, and a memorable exit gag – if you’re fortunate enough to have good timing. The hazmat worker vomiting into a barrel at the house’s entrance is a pretty good indicator of whether or not you’ll dig the house, which features a mutant Elvis, a tiger attack, and a gross buffet line, amongst other strange things that you’d expect from the always humorous duo. There are some fun surprises that I don’t want to spoil, so the only other thing I’ll mention is that you should definitely push every button and pull every cord you find. The fact that you can alter the environment around you and make the walkthrough somewhat unique enhances the experience greatly.
Alice Cooper: Welcome To My Nightmare – I’ll admit that I’m not extremely familiar with the original shock rocker (I’ve heard a few of his albums over the years, but it’s not really my thing) and that might be the reason why I didn’t appreciate the house on a level that fans might, but I think it’s kind of a mess regardless. The house is based on Steven’s psyche, a character Cooper references in his music, and mixes an asylum setting with suburban nightmares. The coolest thing about the house is that some of the rooms are based around songs, but a lot of the references are a little too expected; the “School’s Out” area features masked students jumping out from bleachers. The absolutely horrible Alice Cooper masks don’t make things any better.
Universal’s House of Horror – I had a chance to walk through this throwback house twice and while one walkthrough was significantly more enjoyable than the other, House of Horror is easily the most disappointing this year. Like Dead Exposure, a maze from HHN XVIII, the name of the game is darkness, with occasional flashes of light stopping you from crashing into the person in front of you or a wall. With the exception of The Invisible Man, all of the classic Universal Monsters are represented; they’re just done poorly. Considering how important all of these properties were in establishing the studio, it’s soul-crushing that this seems like a house that was thrown together at the last minute. The masks are so cheap and terrible looking that I had to do a double-take before I realized that Frankenstein’s monster was Frankenstein’s monster – I thought it was Quasimodo at first glance! Keep a close eye out for The Mummy and The Creature because they’re practically blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.
Alongside some really good houses, Universal also has a few shows to take in. Their annual Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure continues to be a crime against humanity; it’s the only live event I know of – besides for a Kesha concert – that has the ability to lower the IQ of an entire audience in one fell swoop. The crowd seemed to eat it up less than usual this year, but that still didn’t stop me from being ashamed of pop culture. The 20 Penny Circus: Fully Exposed magic show wasn’t much better but, to be fair, I was not tempted to get up and leave two minutes in. Even though the tricks aren’t anything you haven’t seen before and – not that I’m offended – it’s crass for the sake of being crass, it’s watchable.
The biggest downfall of the entire event has nothing to do with the shows or houses but, rather, the scare zones. Normally, each area in the park (New York, Amity, Hollywood, etc.) has a different unique theme and creatures walking around in it but this year, there is no distinction between the areas. Instead, there are five troops of scare-actors – including vampires and undead warriors – that wander the entire park, moving from area to area. The idea is that you could, for example, stay in New York the entire night and see each group come through. The new approach is great in theory, but it doesn’t really work. Because I was constantly moving from house to house and the scare-actors are doing the same, it felt like the vampires were following me the whole time. Sure, I could see other creatures off in the distance, but I never came into direct contact with any of them. And because of this new tactic, there’s nothing really distinct about any of the areas except for the Expo Center, which has a pumpkin patch, so there’s no context for any of the scare-actors you encounter – it just all seems very random.
Universal picked some interesting franchises to base their houses on and they changed things up a bit in a few respects, and while I don’t think everything worked, I do admire the fact that they attempted to try some new things. I really love the interactivity in the Penn & Teller house; I think that’s a step in the right direction. A majority of the houses are solid, ranging from good to great, making a trip out to Halloween Horror Nights XXII worth your time. My biggest wish for next year is that they change the scare zones back; it just doesn’t work the way it currently is.