Review: Halloween Horror Nights 2017

Review: Halloween Horror Nights 2017

Review: Halloween Horror Nights 2017

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This year’s Halloween Horror Nights may have gotten off to an incredibly slow start in terms of its announcements – we’ve never gone so close to the event’s kickoff without knowing its full slate of attractions, which may or may not point to some problems behind the scenes – but the payoff turns out to be more than worth it. During the opening-night media event, Universal’s various designers liked to say that HHN 2017’s lineup was the strongest across the Halloween celebration’s past 27 years, and after having gone through all of it, it’s hard to disagree with them. This year is easily one of the best yet – no small feat.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that all of the nine houses, five scare zones, and two shows were flawless; indeed, there are a few misfires hidden amongst the gems, even if they are weak only when compared to all their horror brethren. That’s why we have this review, to help you get a good grasp on which houses are must-dos and which scare zones are passes.

Buckle in – it’s going to be a thrilling, visceral, bloody ride.

The haunted houses

2017 is a rather strong year for Halloween Horror Nights’s haunted houses, particularly for the original ones – even though it’s still the very earliest days of the event, they’re already delivering, and delivering strongly, in both the scare and design departments.

And, actually, that’s a rather important point to stress here: being so early in Horror Nights’s run, there is still lots of potential for some of the mazes to be tightened up and otherwise improved upon. Don’t be surprised if we have to revisit these rankings in the near future, rearranging them a bit to reflect the reality on the ever-changing (and fear-soaked) ground.

9. Saw: The Games of Jigsaw

It’s way too harsh to call the Saw franchise’s second foray into Halloween Horror Nights a dud, but it’s certainly the weakest of this year’s houses.

Here’s the skinny: this is, perhaps, the most timing-intensive haunt of the entire lineup (just like its HHN 2009 predecessor was), with scenes from the various movies playing out over and over again in sets that may be very authentic to the source material but that still have little in the way of actual scares. This means, of course, that if you enter the maze at the wrong time, you’re going to miss the victims being tortured to death by Jigsaw’s various “games” – and with precious few scareactors providing jump scares, that means you’ll have to mostly go by loud noises and a few other tried-and-true secondary haunt gimmicks.

Here’s to hoping that Universal attempts to fix this by inserting more scares into the proceedings, which would complement Saw: The Games of Jigsaw’s beautiful sets (a couple of which are probably the biggest and most open at this year’s Horror Nights). We can’t help but be optismistic about its future as the event continues to plow on.

Read the announcement

8. The Horrors of Blumhouse

The Horrors of Blumhouse at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 2017
The Horrors of Blumhouse at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017

The Horrors of Blumhouse is the first of two mash-up houses this year, taking several different components and stringing them together into one giant experience (in this instance, the film series Sinister, Purge, and Insidious). The concept may be an intriguing one in theory, but, in practice, it provides a rather uneven experience in Blumhouse’s case; the Purge section, for instance, is short and not particularly scary, while Insidious is a deeper and more robust mini-maze, and is made all the more exciting by injecting a heaping dose of yet-to-be-released Chapter 4 content.

This isn’t a bad maze by any means – it has, for instance, one of the strongest finales you’ll see at a Horror Nights house this year, hands down – but it doesn’t quite gel together like a lot of the others in the 2017 lineup do.

Read the announcement

7. Ash vs Evil Dead

Ash vs Evil Dead manages to do a lot of things right, starting with its fidelity to its originating television series and ending with its mix of horror and comedy (and chainsaws!); being the de facto humorous house of this year’s HHN (a near-obligatory requirement this far into the event’s history), it’ll manage to entertain scores of guests and already provides a welcome breath of fresh air before one plunges back into the terror fray, particularly with the darker-than-usual original haunts. (And – hey – we’re always big proponents of puppets in our Halloween Horror Nights experiences.)

For our money, however, Ash isn’t quite as funny as previous mazes in this category, and its overall design and level of scares are just a tad below what was on display in the 2013 Evil Dead house, which explains its placement in our ranking.

Read the announcement

6. The Shining

For all those who are fans of the classic 1980 horror masterpiece (and, really, everyone should be), you’re in for a special, once-in-a-lifetime treat. It’s obvious the designers’ unflinching focus was on recreating the film’s story, and they did so to a degree that is both surprising and impressive; from The Shining’s opening to its harrowing climax – and all the blood-soaked moments in between – the maze simply has it all. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that the story is retold in such a way that you, the guest, are made to be young Danny Torrance – meaning that all the horrors of the Overlook Hotel unfold around you specifically.

When combined with the beautifully-detailed sets and the pitch-perfect scareactors, it makes for an experience that may not be the scariest but is certainly the most narratively in-depth.

Read the announcement

5. Hive

Hive at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 2017
Hive at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017

Hive, the first original house on our list, has a lot of potential to improve as the event goes on, and we certainly hope it does. However, even in its current form, it has a lot to offer: gruesome, animalistic vampires, an ‘80s synth soundtrack, and some pretty solid scares.

Perhaps most impressively, the haunt manages to nail something that HHN’s designers have been experimenting with for the past several years: ultraviolet light. The scareactors here (some of whom elected to shave their heads in order to complete their Nosferatu look) brandish special contacts that make their eyes glow once blacklight is triggered – providing for a really cool, really creepy effect. It is, hands down, the most effective use of either contacts or blacklight in a house yet.

Where Hive gets its (slightly) lower marks are in the sound and (normal) lighting categories. This house is loud – another recurring theme for this year – and it’s almost pitch-black, which actually detracts from the visuals instead of enhances them. Happily enough, however, its sound and lighting are actually two really easy fixes, so we’re extremely hopeful about its future prospects – and place in our rankings.

Read the announcement

4. American Horror Story

This year’s American Horror Story maze, which covers the second, third, and sixth seasons (subtitled “Asylum,” “Coven,” and “Roanoke,” respectively), has a lot of things going for it: it’s a very, very strong house; it’s one that has an extremely accurate representation of its source material; it brandishes four distinct – and bold – smells, which is the most we’ve ever noticed in one HHN haunt; and it’s on the long side, consisting of approximately 15 rooms. For the fan of the American Horror Story IP, this one will be a rather big treat.

Regrettably, it still manages to come in behind last year’s AHS outing (which consisted of seasons one [“Murder House”], four [“Freak Show”], and five [“Hotel”]), although part of this seems less to do with the house’s design and more to do with the source material itself; the seasons selected this year are far less differentiated than last year’s, which means they all tend to blur together.

Still, should the scareactors (who are all perfectly cast) pick up the intensity just a bit, this is one maze that could easily break into the top three for this year.

Read the announcement

3. The Fallen

Before we get into our top three houses, specifically, we should make a general note first: these three mazes are so good, they could all easily be the best of the best. What exact way they break down, then, is entirely dependent upon your personal preferences.

Ours places The Fallen in the number-three slot. Caught in the middle of a battle between immortals – the light-loving Eternals and the darkness-spewing Fallen – guests find themselves making their way through a gothic European-style church, with the scareactors jumping, soaring, and, in a first for HHN, leaning (thanks to a bungee harness equipped to their backs) into and over and all around their would-be victims. The effect is a good one, giving the impression that demons are hopping over you, and – just as with the UV contact lenses in Hive – it shows that Universal is getting much better in implementing various new techniques

What ever-so-slightly knocks this one down below the other two in our eyes has to do a little with the darkness factor yet again. Put simply, this is one haunt that you simply don’t want to do during the day; if your eyes don’t get the chance to adjust to the almost-complete absence of light, it’ll feel like you’re just walking through your basement with all the lights off – which is a shame, as there are some really nice touches, such as the stained-glass window at one point in the cathedral. (We also would’ve preferred to have more of these architectural flourishes, maybe even attempting to recreate the 2012 Gothic house’s grand vistas and massive sets. Alas!)

Read the announcement

2. Scarecrow: The Reaping

A Depression-era Dustbowl atmosphere. Real cornstalks adjoining the front of the haunt. A stunningly large variety of scares. What more could you possibly ask for in a maze?

Scarecrow: The Reaping is a showstopper in nearly every sense of the word. All the scareactors here are over 6’2”, and they’re outfitted in some impeccably-designed costumes. Vines double as cornstalks in the dark, constantly brushing against you to instill a level of paranoia or claustrophobia that just isn’t present anywhere else in Halloween Horror Nights this year. Dust flies in your face, the scares are the best-disguised in any of the houses this year, and – in the coolest touch, by far – birds do their business directly unto you thanks to a really clever water gag.

The house is situated in the same location that Tomb of the Ancients was last year, and it shows; the two share more than a few qualities, just with a different aesthetic wrapped around them. And while it’s just as dark as, say, Hive or The Fallen, it actually somehow works to Scarecrow’s benefit, heightening the terror instead of taking away from the overarching experience.

Scarecrow: The Reaping is, hands down, the scariest haunt of the year, and it will be one of the highlights of your night at HHN, guaranteed

Read the announcement

1. Dead Waters

What could ever top Scarecrow? The answer – to us, at least – is the Voodoo Queen.

Originally introduced in the Bayou of Blood scare zone from 2014, the Voodoo Queen has been resurrected (pun certainly not intended) for a fully fleshed-out, pull-no-punches haunted house that still has us reeling. Guests start their journey on a half-sunken riverboat, the Steamer Susan, before tentatively working their way to the Queen’s bayou village – a journey which presents many opportunities for Universal’s designers to wield aesthetic flourishes and novel scares in equal measure.

The Susan’s floor, for instance, is slanted, meaning that scareactors have an even easier time of catching you off balance (both literally and figuratively). The village’s ground is spongy and squishy, meanwhile, and the Voodoo Queen’s little “castle” is fashioned out of dead bodies – all the little details, all the sights and textures, add up to create something that is breathtakingly immersive and, of course, creepy.

Even more promisingly, the house has seen a lot of improvement already, with the scareactors getting more comfortable in their roles. That Dead Waters should only get scarier as the event continues clinches its supreme spot in this year’s Halloween Horror Nights roster – and we can’t wait to experience it again. And again. And again.

Read the announcement

The scare zones

This might be a banner year for Halloween Horror Nights’s haunted houses, but we’re disappointed to say that it’s a rather mediocre showing for its scare zones; many of them are light on scares and, in at least some instances, on props or set-pieces. Hopefully, this is a situation mostly due to Hurricane Irma, which means that it can be easily rectified.

We still recommend that attendees make the effort to stop by the zones and to appreciate them – some are actually incredibly photogenic, so you’ll be able to nab a few of those all-important selfies with aplomb – but we also want to be as upfront as possible with you and your all-too-limited HHN time.

5. Altars of Horror

Altars of Horror at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 2017
Altars of Horror at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017

The premise behind Altars of Horror is a stunning – and potentially, for Horror Nights, a revolutionary – one: take all of the characters from all of the various intellectual properties that are at this year’s event and have them populate Production Central, allowing guests to get an up-close and personal view of them all.

The irony here is that this premise is also the scare zone’s biggest weakness. With all emphasis being put on the scareactors, there’s very little in the way of set pieces or other unique elements, making the area feel decidedly bare – an impression that is only reinforced by the rather limited number of actors that are actually there at any one time to pose for guests’ selfies.

Altars of Horror, in short, is easily the lowest-intensity facet of Halloween Horror Nights 2017 altogether.

4. Festival of the Deadliest

Festival of the Deadliest at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 2017
Festival of the Deadliest at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017

It’s obvious to us that Festival of the Deadliest was the scare zone that was the most impacted by Irma: the mini-stages that are now strewn throughout Hollywood, replete with actresses atop them, weren’t being used on opening night; one of the largest stages (next to Ash vs Evil Dead’s exit) was still, by the first weekend’s end, damaged and cast aside; and, in perhaps the biggest of the telltale signs, unfinished prop pieces sat at the zone’s entrance.

Because of all this, we’re hesitant to be too harsh on Festival, but some of its problems might go beyond weather disruptions; this is probably the darkest zone this section of the theme park has seen in quite some time, and while this should provide for ample scares, it simply doesn’t – at least, not yet, though it remains an extremely easy fix for future event nights.

The single most intriguing element of Festival of the Deadliest is Bone, the large stilt walker, who is well worth visiting the area for.

3. The Purge

The Purge at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 2017
The Purge at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017

This scare zone will produce two entirely different reactions in HHN guests. For all those who didn’t make it out to the event in 2014, when the first Purge zone was in place, they will probably instantly fall in love with the area; it’s actually full of scares and is nothing short of fantastic, and it’ll probably shoot to the number-one position among this group.

For everyone else, however, this section of the park will receive a much cooler reception. While the scares are solid and the atmosphere is appropriately high-energy, it just has a little too much overlap with its predecessor. Yes, there are certainly a few new wrinkles introduced this time ‘round – the Christmas-light cars are a nice touch, and the post-cleansing wood-chipper is spot-on – but they’re not nearly as much there needed to be in order to make this a refreshing take.

2. Invasion!

Invasion at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 2017
Invasion! at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017

Invasion is, perhaps, the most interesting scare zone in this year’s lineup, and it has an interesting dynamic that it, perhaps, isn’t quite sure how to handle: it toes a thin line between comedic or interactive elements and traditional scares. The area made substantial progress in interactivity by the third night of the event, with some of Invasion’s “victim” scareactors creating some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments – but it’s still not frightening, which it needs to be in order to solidify its place as a scare zone. More intensity would be much appreciated here.

The most intriguing element of Invasion, however, has to be how it handles its backstory: via broadcasts that can be overhead on one of the car props’ radios. Trust us – it’s absolutely worth your time to linger around long enough to catch it all.

1. Trick ‘r Treat

Trick 'r Treat at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 2017
Trick ‘r Treat at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017

Based on the 2007 anthology film of the same name, Trick ‘r Treat is, hands down, one of the most gorgeous scare zones that we’ve ever seen at Halloween Horror Nights – period. The slew of Jack-o-lanterns, the extremely accurate recreations of the characters (and, even, entire scenes!) from the movie, and other thematic details are myriad and beautiful; it’s nearly impossible to walk through this section without pausing to soak it all in.

It’s so captivating, in fact, that the almost-complete absence of scares is basically rendered irrelevant (perhaps the very effect that Universal’s designers were going for with Altars of Horror, ironically enough). And once the iconic fire pumpkin starts working regularly, watch out – it’ll be hard to steal the number-one title from this zone.

Do yourself a favor and unwind whenever possible in Trick ‘r Treat; it just might end up becoming the highlight of your entire evening.
Read the scare zones’ announcement

The shows

Halloween Horror Nights 2017’s two stage shows – Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure and Academy of Villains: Afterlife – are, essentially, more of what we received last year. Not that this is anything particularly bad; Academy’s previous showing was one of the best parts of that year’s event, and we’re happy to see the dancing troupe come back for a repeat visit. (Your own mileage with Bill & Ted will, like always, vary – yes, even for its farewell tour.)

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure

Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights 2017
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2017

After being the sole recurring element across the past 26 years of Horror Nights, the famous ‘80s duo of Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan are being permanently retired after the 2017 season. Many thought this would have a noticeable effect upon this final production, and that turns out to be the case, but only to a certain degree; the storyline has far less of a reliance on roasting the past year’s pop culture and much more of a focus on previous shows.

While this provides the note of closure that many fans have been asking for, it does nothing to change Bill & Ted’s fundamental quality – it’s still a mixed bag, and it’ll still elicit polarized reactions from the fandom, with some calling it the best showing in recent years and others claiming it to be the absolute worst. For our part, all we’ll note is that this last narrative is rather barebones and leave the final judgement to each individual audience member.

Party on, dudes.

Read the announcement

Academy of Villains: Afterlife

Academy of Villains logo
Academy of Villains logo

In another instance of Hurricane Irma fallout – though, oddly, in keeping with recent HHN history – Academy of Villains: Afterlife’s normal stage was damaged, not only preventing the company from performing there, but also preventing them from doing their full show. This means we have yet to see the complete Afterlife, which, in turn, means we are unable to weigh in on either its contents or quality.

What we can say is that we enjoyed the snippets that we’ve seen of the temporary, abridged stage show, and we’re excited to see the real deal – which should, hopefully, start this weekend.

Read the announcement

Are you eager to try out all the chilling HHN attractions for yourself after having read so thoroughly about them? Great – use our touring plan to maximize your time and ensure you see everything there is to see.

And be sure to follow Orlando Informer on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for even more on Halloween Horror Nights 2017.

Marc N. Kleinhenz Marc N. Kleinhenz’s first dream in life was to be an astronaut. His second was an Imagineer. While neither completely worked out, he now works exclusively for Orlando Informer as a writer, editor, and podcast co-host. He’s also written for 32 other sites (including Screen Rant, IGN, The Escapist, and California Informer [OI's sister site]), has had his fiction featured in several publications, and has even taught English in Japan. Imagineering school won’t be too far behind.

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