Friday was a memorable night for Hollywood’s horror fans, as Universal Studios kicked off this year’s Halloween season with the annual Eyegore Award ceremonies, followed by the launch of 2014’s Halloween Horror Nights attractions. I got a chance to check out this year’s honorees and presenters on the red carpet before the festivities began, and as always, this year’s turnout featured both familiar and new faces from the worlds of big- and small-screen horror.
Rick Baker, David Naughton & John Landis
An American Werewolf in London director John Landis, accepting his career-spanning award tonight, was accompanied by Oscar-winning makeup FX guru Rick Baker (a previous Eyegore recipient, now presenting) and the American Werewolf himself, actor David Naughton. Needless to say, it was a historic moment to see this legendary trio reunited… and the crowd was encouraged to hear Landis describe walking through the park’s American Werewolf maze for the first time: “It scared the shit out of me!” he admitted. I made a mental note of that, as I remember watching that film in the theater as a kid, scrunched down in my seat and frozen in wide-eyed terror… naturally, I had to come full-circle and see what Landis was so afraid of himself.
Greg Nicotero & Robert Kirkman
Another effects legend, the great Greg Nicotero, arrived to accept his award for his landmark work on The Walking Dead, as presented by series creator Robert Kirkman and Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Nicotero said of his lauded FX career, “but when I come to the set of The Walking Dead, it’s like my first day on the job. I love that; I love that I still learn, and that I can get better, thanks to the support of all you guys.”
Robert Rodriguez & McKenzie Westmore
One of the superstars of the night arrived to massive cheers from a huge throng of fans: Robert Rodriguez, here to accept a career achievement award for his contributions to horror entertainment, was accompanied by the series cast of From Dusk Till Dawn on Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, as well as beloved genre icon Danny Trejo, who flashed his signature Machete moves.
Danny Trejo, Sid Haig
“I love that they named this the Eyegore,” Rodriguez said, citing the eyeball violence inflicted on the actors in his movies (e.g. Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Michelle Rodriguez in Machete). He also regaled the audience with his rendition of his mother’s blood-curdling scream, to help prepare himself for a walk-through of his own From Dusk Till Dawn maze: “That’s what I’ll sound like tonight,” he said. “And you too!”
Face Off team members Lois Burwell, Glenn Hetrick & Ve Neill
Other horror heavyweights included Devil’s Rejects star Sid Haig, who always has a kind word for the fans, and the judges from SyFy’s Face Off; the show’s host, McKenzie Westmore, returned to the podium as emcee for the evening.
Myles Kennedy & Slash
The ceremonies concluded with a live performance by Grammy-winning guitar god Slash and singer Myles Kennedy of “Nothing Left to Fear,” the moody title track from the film of the same name (and the first feature to be released by Slash’s own horror-centric production company, Slasher Films).
Following the awards came the part I’ve been looking forward to all year – when they sent us all out into the night to sample this year’s crop of horror attractions. Having missed last year’s event, I was eager to catch up… and I’d forgotten just how massive Universal City’s facilities actually were. Halloween Horror Nights attractions tend to take over the majority of the park’s real estate from late September to early November, and this year was no exception.
With only so much time available – and knowing there are some pretty long lines for each maze – I’d planned out my evening as carefully as possible, and managed to hit nearly all of the new offerings. In between, Universal managed to keep the massive waiting crowds occupied with a rave/party atmosphere, including rounds of horror trivia and scantily-clad dancers twerking and grinding to tracks by Rammstein, Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson.
The most elaborate entry this year is the “Walking Dead: End of the Line” walk-through attraction, which begins with a “Terror Tram” ride into the hills that deposits you at the entrance to an outdoor survival maze. From there, you set out on a smoke-shrouded trail that weaves through some of the most elaborate park sets I’ve ever seen, including the entire fuselage of a downed airliner and a huge military compound patrolled by chainsaw-wielding survivors (who are just as likely to come after you as the nearby walkers). The near-darkness and dense smoke on the trail allows for zombie actors to blend in, ninja-like, with the crowd before suddenly turning on unsuspecting victims, leading to some of the night’s best screams, panicked freakouts, and bursts of nervous laughter.
Also worth checking out is the new Alien Vs. Predator maze, which wins my vote for most impressive set design of the evening: the indoor structure is made to resemble a blasted-out rural town, whose residents have been seized to incubate xenomorph invaders. All the alien life-cycles are represented, with facehuggers launching themselves at passers-by, chestbursters ripping out of cocooned actors amid sprays of blood (you’ll get wet, but not stained) and of course full-size alien warriors fighting with some impressively large, laser-wielding Predators over who gets to dissect the helpless human visitors. I won’t spoil the most impressive set-piece here, but let’s just say it’s the best possible conclusion to an Alien-themed attraction.
Other cool installments include the creepy “Clowns 3D,” which not only features just about every kind of psychotic clown you could imagine – in well-done 3D and a brain-frying assault of black-light colors – but most notably an excellent original score by Slash himself. Coulrophobic (i.e. clown-fearing) visitors will have therapy material for years to come… and that’s not including the stilt-walking killer clowns that wander outside the maze to nab unsuspecting park-goers, along with heavily armed masked marauders from The Purge: Anarchy maze – many of whom were able to blend into small crowds before turning to attack, sending patrons scattering in all directions.
The Dracula Untold maze followed a more traditional spook-house route, but the blend of old-school gothic and modern vampire trappings kept things fresh and freaky, and if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be attacked by all the competitors’ monstrous creations from Face Off… well, you won’t soon forget that experience, which captured the best Halloween flavor of the night. The From Dusk Till Dawn maze recreates the “Titty Twister” set from the movie and the series, and the actors here are among the most aggressive you’ll ever encounter (at least among attractions where they don’t actually assault the guests), be they vampires or well-armed human survivors.
Hands down, my personal favorite this year would have to be that American Werewolf maze, which lovingly recreates all the memorable moments from the 1981 classsic, from the Slaughtered Lamb pub to the London Underground, even the many nightmare sequences, and unleashes some seriously scary full-size animatronic werewolves… one of which snapped its jaws so close to me I felt its hair brush my neck. (I now totally understand why even John Landis himself was terrified of this one.) It’s a little too short for my liking, but every second you’re in there is loaded with maximum shock potential, with beautifully designed sets and props.
Exhausted but exhilarated, I survived the ordeal with only minor injuries… and once I’ve rested up, I’ll be ready to go back again. If you’re going to be in the L.A. area between now and November 2nd, try spending a night convincing your friends you’re not pissing your pants in terror – especially when that guy in the group next to you turns out to be less than human… and hungry.
Visit HalloweenHorrorNights.com for tickets, event schedule and more info.