Editor’s note: As Halloween Horror Nights 2014 continues, Inside Universal will be offering a comprehensive overview of the entire event categorized into three sections: the Upper Lot, the Lower Lot and the backlot experiences. Of course, given the nature of reviews, this article will contain spoilers.
Occupying the space between French Street and Baker Street is Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood, a maze based on the upcoming reboot of the Universal Monsters movies that made the studio famous over a century ago.
Given that the movie hasn’t been released yet, there’s not much to go on upon entering the maze aside from a passable knowledge of existing vampire lore.
Since this maze takes place in an area with a fixed footprint, sandwiched between two sets of buildings, creative sacrifices have to be made. The maze starts with you walking into a cave filled with hanging bodies and piles of skeletons. Inside you get bombarded by bald albino vampires on either side, lurking in the dark crevices of the maze. At the end of the cave, Dracula greets you as only he can, trying to go for your neck.
Following that, you find a man being tortured by a swarm of bats that only serves to remind some people of the origin of Batman. Beyond that corridor is a long dark unthemed hallway. Ironically, this is only here because of space constraints, but it serves as one of the scariest parts of the maze simply because you have learned over the course of Halloween Horror Nights to not trust anything. Ultimately there isn’t anything to encounter in this hallway, but that doesn’t stop your brain from second guessing yourself every step of the way.
Past that, you come across a cabin set on fire. The windows are vertical LCD TVs playing a video of a flame on a loop. Given that mazes depend on lighting so heavily, having big bright glowing rectangles really ruins the moment. They couldn’t be more out of place.
Inside the cabin and village, the sets are decorated remarkably well, but the area seems to lack consistent scares, relying more on thin strings hanging from the ceiling to scare you as they brush against your forehead.
Through the cabin, you enter what appears to be a butcher’s den, stacked with bodies, followed by another unthemed black corner. The area then transitions to what seems to be a barely themed treasure room.
The penultimate scare comes in the form of the familiar “battering ram made of creatures” that’s used in other mazes. The twist this time is that you are flanked on both sides. As you leave, you exit through Dracula’s castle, walking toward a famous portrait of Vlad the Implaer. As you approach, a vampire pulls the painting away and lunges toward you.
Once you turn that corner, you are depostied out into Super Silly Fun Land, with the Dark Christmas scare zone to your left and Mask-a-Raid to the right.
“All told, the maze has some good scares, and some memorable scenes, but feels like it was about fulfilling an obligation rather than being a labor of love.”
Because of the lukewarm anticipation for the movie, the expectations for the maze have been lower for many, especially given the tight spot it has to be squeezed into. On top of that, for a good amount of people, it will be impossible to have seen the movie before this maze, so throughout the maze, audio clips of Dracula himself explaining the story are played on loop to help educate people on the story.
All told, the maze has some good scares, and some memorable scenes, but feels like it was about fulfilling an obligation rather than being a labor of love.
It also should be said that the queue for this maze takes up a good portion of Universal Plaza. To help pass the time, a DJ is setup on the north side of the stage playing current dance tunes mixed with Halloween classics like The Ghostbusters Theme and Rockwell’s Somebody’s Watching Me.
In a bit of a bittersweet ending, Universal’s House of Horrors hosts a maze for the final time month. Officially closed last month, the maze returns as Face Off: In the Flesh, making use of winning character designs from Syfy’s show of the same name. In the queue, where the Blues Brothers Stage sits, a projector plays clips from the show, filling in guests as to what happens on the show, and what to expect once inside.
In the past, during Halloween Horror Nights, this maze has been titled Monsters Remix, sporting more scareactors with the addition of a loud dance scene in the Frankenstein laboratory. While the name this year tries to indicate it’s an all new maze, very little is changed from previous versions of this attraction during Halloween Horror Nights and it could easily have been titled Monsters Remix 3.0 and no one would have noticed.
Each room features a character or two and special focus is put on their facewear. As such, the lighting in this maze is brighter than others, aside from the 3D neon-colored mazes. On top of that, the loud dubstep music playing serves to distract guests, making them lose focus on the monsters themselves. Sharp eyes will spot a lot of nods to previous attractions and movies from Universal’s past. We’ve covered the House of Horrors extensively in the past which you can see here.
The Frankenstein Laboratory this year is themed to Alice in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter is featured on the marquee for this maze, donning his iconic hat along with his cup of tea. Inside, he is the DJ, responsible for the tunes guests hear throughout the attraction. Alongside him in the lab are a disturbing Alice, a knife-wielding March Hare and a stilt-walking White Rabbit. A house of cards sits on the table along with other nods to the Lewis Carroll classic.
With the polarizing opinion of dubstep put to the side, this is the probably the best send off Universal’s House of Horrors could receive. It’s always nice seeing this attraction filled with life, as compared to the rest of the year. It will be sad to see it shutter after the conclusion of Halloween Horror Nights, but at least it goes out with an okay scare.
Typically, when Christmas announces its presence in theme parks before Thanksgiving, it’s perceived in an unwelcome fashion, but that isn’t the case for this scare zone. For Halloween Horror Nights, Baker Street is completely decked out in full Christmas regalia, but with a horrifying twist.
Walking down the street, you are greeted with a wagon depicting two evil elves and a warning that bad children are punished by the Krampus, an evil popular Christmas character in Germany. Not far away from this wagon are two metal crates full of live and dead children, being watched by the Krampus.
Elsewhere are people strangled by Christmas lights alongside life-size nutcracker soldiers wrapped in chains and barbed wire. Additionally, there’s a healthy dose of decomposing elves, and devil babies wearing Santa hats.
All in all, the decorations are a step above anything I could have imagined. They’re all detailed and work well to put you in a creepy Christmas mood. If you can manage to see through the thick fog, you can even see the Christmas lights all lit up, even the ones strangling unfortunate victims.
Accompanying the decorations is an equally haunting soundtrack. It’s a simple arrangment, consisting of just a piano playing traditional Christmas music. Of course, playing them in the normal fashion wouldn’t be off putting, so instead each piece of music is played off-key and slower. It works brilliantly.
Of course, any scare zone lives or dies by the creatures that make it up and this zone knows that. Santa Claus wielding an axe patrols the street, alongside a stilt-walking Krampus, a handful of evil elves and Jack Frost. While Santa and the Krampus simply intimidate by walking slowly, the elves enjoy themselves, causing havoc, even trapping guests in the phone booth and reaching inside. Seeing the grim silhouette of Santa walking through the fog is truly a sight to behold.
With all the attention to detail in Dark Christmas, there are two issues that needed to be brought up. The first issue is with the vinyl signs. They are not well integrated into the environments due to the typeface used. Instead of being hand-lettered, the words are all perfectly printed, standing out. It looks amateur and comes off like a last minute task that wasn’t given much attention.
The second issue is the presence of Jack Frost. While the character is highly appropriate for the area, none of the set pieces correlate to his presence, whereas the rest of the characters are represented in some fashion. If the scare zone were to make an appearance next year, some props to complement him would be a boon.
Ignoring those two minor issues, everything else in the scare zone is perfectly executed. The characters are varied, know their roles and fit perfectly into the environment. It would be a welcome sight to see it return next year.
In July, the creative director of Halloween Horror Nights, John Murdy, let the fans choose the characters that would haunt the French Street scare zone. By a wide margin, Mask-a-Raid, the cannibal masquerade aristocrats, beat out Corps, World War I-era zombie soldiers, and Ghoulz, 19th century grave robbers.
As such, during Halloween Horror Nights, French Street becomes a macabre soirée, playing off-key period music as bloodied nobility dances up and down the street.
The decorations themselves mostly consist of masked zombies wearing upscale white clothing with a smattering of blood. The largest set piece of the scare zone is a dinner party, where a regular human is the main fest, and band made up of skeletons plays the music.
Sadly, a majority of the props in this scare zone are repurposed from previous years. Many of them are just mannequins from previous years in a different outfit with a mask covering half of their face. Some don’t even seem to match the theme at all, and feel like filler to just cover an empty spot on the street.
During Halloween Horror Nights, the area felt sparsely populated, both in terms of guests and scareactors. The cannibals that did wander the streets seemed to struggle to find a way to scare people.
For something that was a fan-choice, it seems the effort put into this wasn’t fully fleshed out. It’s possible this is due to the theme not being chosen until mid-summer, delayed because of the fan vote. Whatever the reason, the scare zone is definitely underwhelming, when it could have been so much more.
Making a return this year is The Purge scare zone. This year it aligns to the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, which only means slight changes. Based on a movie franchise about an annual 12-hour murder free-for-all in a contemporary world, it works well for the opening scare zone of the park.
Because it doesn’t involve anything supernatural, the fear for this scare zone comes from the weapons the scareactors wield. Carrying around chainsaws, axes, daggers and blunt objects, the citizens of The Purge barely stand out amongst normal guests, only distinguished by their masks. And eschewing fear altogether, are mask-wearing go-go dancers at the park entrance that just barely make sense for the event.
The centerpiece of the scarezone is a gate made of shipping crates that periodically shoots out giant fireballs. Underneath, a boardwalk barker riles up the crowd, standing atop a barricade made of chained-together fences with a body laying across it. She did a good job antagonizing guests through insults and passionate pleas for support.
The differences between this incarnation of The Purge scare zone and the previous year’s version are minimal at best. Unlike Mask-a-raid where the recycled props ruin the experience, this scare zone doesn’t try to pretend it’s something it’s not. This scare zone simply serves to set the tone for the rest of Halloween Horror Nights and does it well. Given that a third Purge film is due out next summer, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to expect it back again.
Something that has become a tradition for the Hollywood-version of the Halloween Horror Nights are the Opening Scareamonies at the beginning and the Chainsaw Chase-out at the end. Both take place in this scare zone and fit the theme well. So while the theme may be minimal for this scare zone, it’s tradition by this point, and incorporating a tie-in to an existing Universal Pictures franchise is a no-brainer.
Special thanks to Bernard Mesa for the use of his images.
Chris Glass is an editor for Inside Universal.
Chris is a Los Angeles native who grew up around some of the best theme parks in the world. His day job as a game programmer keeps him busy enough, but he still tries to find time on the weekends to get out to Universal Studios. He lives with a lingering guilt for not riding Back to the Future: The Ride enough times before it closed down, but there will always be Universal Studios Japan on his bucket list.