Review: Halloween Horror Nights 2018

Review: Halloween Horror Nights 2018

Review: Halloween Horror Nights 2018

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The buildup to Halloween Horror Nights 2018 has easily been one of the most exciting in a considerable amount of time, with the various haunted-house and scare-zone announcements coming fast and furious (unlike last year) and containing veritable doozies, starting with what is arguably the biggest announcement in the event’s 27-year history: the arrival of Stranger Things on the annual-event scene.

Given that nearly each and every reveal seemed to knock it out of the park – original houses that dripped with creativity and licensed properties that were steeped in nostalgia and potentiality both – and given that the fan community’s collective level of excitement was ratcheted up even further every step of the way, one could be excused for wondering if, perhaps, the hype might have made it impossible for Horror Nights to actually deliver this year. Well, we’re extremely happy (not to mention relieved!) to report that this isn’t the case at all – this year’s event is absolutely one for the history books, having already sealed its top-tier status just in the opening weekend (when you stop to consider how much stronger HHNs get over the course of their runs, we’re positively shivering with the thought of how much better it’ll be come the first weekend of November).

In fact, this year is already proving to be so good, we find ourselves here at OI HQ having to rethink our approach to the way we do these reviews; unlike previous years, in which we could do a strict ranking of all the houses and scare zones, 2018 requires us to just point out the weakest entry and then, basically, everything else, which more or less ties for first (or second or third) place – everything is (largely) so good and so strong and so consistent, it really does come down to personal preference.

Universal has said that this is easily the most ambitious event they’ve done yet, breaking records not only for the number of mazes, but also for the quantity of scareactors. We’d add into the mix the quality of everything across the board, and then finish with this assessment: boy, they ain’t kiddin’!

 

The haunted houses

We just got done saying it, but we think it’s more than worth repeating: this year’s haunted houses are almost universally top-notch, delivering strong atmospheres, well-timed scares, and absolutely brilliant premises. It’s hard to go wrong with any of them – which is why we have the weakest haunt labeled as such and everything else, well, not numbered or structured at all. (You can tell us your own personal order of preference, if you’re so inclined, over at our Universal Community on Facebook – we’d love to have your thoughts join those of 50,000 other die-hard Universal and Halloween Horror Nights fans!)

Last place: The Horrors of Blumhouse

We’re sorry, Blumhouse Productions – we may get a kick out of your experiences in the movie theater, but when it comes to realizing them in the haunted-house format, something just feels a little… off.

On the one hand, this – we suppose – isn’t that much of a surprise, given the original Horrors of Blumhouse’s lackadaisical showing at last year’s event; on the other hand, however, we really did try to go into this maze with an upbeat mood and an open mind. The combined experiences of Happy Death Day and The First Purge unfortunately fall more on the flat side than not, delivering a lot of the same type of scare over and over again (perhaps an unintentional echo of Death Day’s premise?), easily making this the least impressive haunt of Horror Nights 2018.

All’s not lost, however – we’re happy to report that The Horrors of Blumhouse does manage to deliver in some respects: namely, supplying more jump scares than what you would otherwise expect, and providing one or two really nifty moments, such as the disco party scene (long live the frat boy’s pleasure dome!). We suppose it’s possible that, in a different year, these would’ve been enough to elevate the experience to the middle of our list as opposed to the very bottom, but 2018 is a far different beast than your average event.

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Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is another solid representation of the venerable (if gimmicky and cheesy) horror series, continuing the tradition that Universal began with 2014’s outting. It’s an enjoyable haunted house, one that delivers in ways both standard (Mr. Meyers lands pitch-perfect scares, just as he did in his previous two haunts, in no small part thanks to the sheer number of scareactors who wear the jumpsuit and mask) and surprising (other characters manage to get into the fright game, which helps to keep you on your toes, and there is a cool last outside scene that we really don’t want to spoil for you).

But if we did have to do a traditional ranking, all this wouldn’t stop Halloween 4 from appearing towards the very bottom of the pile. We suspect this has something to do with a bit of Michael Myers burn-out – something which Universal may want to take into account, as there are still five films in the original overarching series to go (and four more beyond that if we include the parallel timelines, such as next month’s brand-new [and familiarly-titled] Halloween). It’s going to take a lot to make the next haunt – if, indeed, there is one for 2020 or beyond – feel even remotely fresh, we’re afraid.

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Stranger Things

The biggest question going into Halloween Horror Nights 2018 was, without a doubt, how good would Stranger Things really be? The property has become a massive presence in our culture even after just two short years, spawning dedicated sections in Target and, now, a series of tie-in comic books and novels – not to mention the rafts of HHN-specific merchandise and food and drinks. It’s obvious that Universal would throw tons of money at the haunt, but could it actually manage to stick the landing?

The answer, we’re delighted to say, is yes, the company most certainly did. The house hits just about every major scene you’d expect from the first season of the series, with sets that seem to come right off of the screen (seriously, this house has more detail than any of the others) and with scareactors that look remarkably similar to the show’s cast. The only real drawback here is that Stranger Things doesn’t manage to achieve the same level of scares as its 2018 brethren do, but, then again, this is most likely due to the source material not necessarily being as horror-filled as many of the other properties are.

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Trick ‘r Treat

This maze is, hands down, unbelievably beautiful – the amount of love and attention that was obviously poured into it is enough to possibly even rival Stranger Things, and that’s saying quite a bit. From the haunted house’s façade to its entrance to its grand finale (which, in and of itself, is extraordinarily impressive, from its rockwork to its sheer, multi-story height), everything about Trick ‘r Treat is detailed and engrossing.

When one throws in the fact that the haunt manages to tell the anthologized story of the 2009 film flawlessly, it’s almost impossible not to fall completely under its sway. (But just in case you need one last reason, try this on for size: Universal has, apparently, been spreading the little nugget that Sam, the diminutive face of Trick ‘r Treat – and, for many, of Halloween itself – will, on certain dates, be a dummy and, on others, be a flesh-and-blood scareactor, adding a delightful level of surprise to this already-great experience.)

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Poltergeist

Despite the legacy of the big name behind it, Poltergeist had at least one major element going against it: it’s paranormal in concept, and delivering supernatural scares in the haunted-house format is notoriously difficult – a fact which Universal itself readily admits to.

But the designers here really managed to deliver despite the obstacles, creating what we think, in our humble opinion, is the best execution for a house of this type. Poltergeist starts in the middle of the classic 1982 film, utilizes puppets and air bursts to bring the paranormal entities to tangible life around you, and uses abstract imagery from the source material to anchor their own scenes (not unlike with Exorcist from 2016’s event, although to far, far better effect). And surrounding the design decisions are some pretty detailed sets, including some impressive roofs of houses (which may sound blasé in and of itself but which, in the context of a horror experience, can make all the difference).

All of which combines to create one simple fact: Poltergeist isn’t your typical IP house. And we couldn’t be happier by the bold variation on the theme.

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Dead Exposure: Patient Zero

Dead Exposure: Patient Zero, the prequel to a haunted house from 2008, contains both the biggest and best scares in Halloween Horror Nights 2018, hands down. Revolving around a conceit that only small bursts of strobe lights will, well, light your way through the maze – a premise interesting on its own and made all the stronger by its integration into the narrative – both the designers and the scareactors use it to great effect, the former by completely disorienting your senses and the latter by positioning themselves in the periods of darkness to do the most damage to your psyche. Needless to say, it’s a great deal of fun.

With all that said, however, we would be remiss to not point out that Dead Exposure isn’t for everyone. Just as with a 3D haunt – what has been a staple for most of the event’s 27-year history – not everybody will care for this maze’s particular style, which encompasses a more simplistic design (to best take advantage of the strobes) as well as the unique lighting arrangement. We guess you should just enter at your own risk, in more ways than just one.

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Carnival Graveyard: Rust in Pieces

Carnival Graveyard: Rust in Pieces feels different than most Horror Nights houses, and Universal used this slightly-off-kilter approach to all sorts of great effect – there are some really unusual scares contained in this house, wrapped around even more gorgeous scenic design (really, between this, Stranger Things, and Trick ‘r Treat, HHN 2018 is a banner year in aesthetics alone) and burnished with multiple guest-activated triggers that don’t always lead to an optimal outcome. And the icing on the horror cake is the constant series of callbacks to both Halloween Horror Nights, specifically (look for nods to Run, Jack the Clown, and Universal Palace, among others) and Universal history, generally (Dueling Dragons and Disaster: A Major Motion Picture… Starring You).

Carnival Graveyard’s strong performance actually comes as a big relief to us, as it managed to capture our imagination in quite a striking way when it was originally announced two months ago – everything from the concept itself to the description of its set design and costumes just seemed impeccable. We couldn’t be happier with the final result.

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Seeds of Extinction

Seeds of Extinction, in a lot of ways, continues the trend that we saw started with Carnival Graveyard: Rust in Pieces – it contains a lot of beautiful interior design (in this case, particularly with the plant costumes, which allow the scareactors who wear them to hide really well in their surroundings) and a lot of Easter eggs to other HHN events (it’s a ton of fun just to go through looking for them all by itself). And, oh, yeah – it’s scary, making for an intense maze.

But what makes Seeds go over the top is – well, some set pieces that we’d love to go into detail about but which we won’t, for fear of spoiling the experience for yourselves. Suffice to say that there are a whole slew of top-notch effects, such as rain and wind, and they’re used to help make the scares even better.

It’s really nice that every haunted house this year is very different from one another, and, even against this formidable backdrop, Seeds of Extinction still manages to stand out. What could serve as a better compliment?

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Scary Tales: Deadly Ever After

It’s difficult to say anything even remotely negative about this haunt. Hailing from a long-lived line of mazes that extends all the way back to 2001, Scary Tales: Deadly Ever After takes the tradition of twisting fairy tales and doubles down on its usual-but-not-always inclusion of The Wizard of Oz by making the Wicked Witch of the West – the original iteration of the character, Universal is quick to point out – the framing lens of the experience: the Witch has cursed many a beloved childhood tale, resulting in scenes, gags, and scares that will simultaneously delight and revolt you. As is, by now, standard practice for Halloween Horror Nights this year, there is a surprising depth of detail on display throughout the house, capped with some of the best use of smells we’ve seen (or is that smelled?) in a long time.

The real kicker here, however, has to be the numerous aerial scareactors, who rain the scares down on you from above – a practice which starts right from the get-go, giving the maze one of the best openings in HHN history, as well.

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Slaughter Sinema

The humorous haunt is another time-honored tradition of Horror Nights, and while some have managed to worm their way in our once-beating hearts, most have the problem of tilting too heavily in one direction or the other.

Not so with Slaughter Sinema – this is the best example of this particular type of house, providing a balance that is almost sublime. This is in no doubt helped by the structure of the maze, with the movie poster of the next fictitious ‘80s-esque B-flick being used to differentiate one section from another (the queue video also helps in this regard, selling Slaughter’s tone and setting guests’ expectations). And the fact that you can just tell how much love went into the concept and its execution adds a lot to the overall experience, as well.

How many haunts can claim to be bright and bubbly and genuinely scary both?

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The scare zones

While having an incredibly strong lineup of haunted houses is all well and good, in some ways the strength of the scare-zone roster is even more indicative of a Halloween Horror Nights’s overall quality; last year, for example, was impressive with the former but nearly abysmal with the latter, making for a decidedly uneven experience.

The good news with 2018 – well, the even better news, we should probably say – is that this most certainly isn’t the case here: the scare zones are all well done, strong in either concept or execution – or, frequently, both. As a matter of fact, they are all so solid, we’ve been forced to repeat our little trick from the haunted house section and not rank them in any sort of strict hierarchy; instead, we’re listing the two weaker zones first, and then moving on to the number-one finish, which is, of course, a three-way tie.

The Harvest

There is just no way that we can’t compare The Harvest to the scare zone that was in this spot last year, Altars of Horror. In this regard, it succeeds – Harvest is more atmospheric and makes the actual attempt to scare people, which is a huge step up from Altars’s straight-on, barebones photo-op approach.

But, on the other hand, this zone really just isn’t designed to be effective in either the atmosphere or scare department. That’s not entirely The Harvest’s fault (its placement in Production Central’s Avenue of the Stars, right up at the very front of the theme park, is the very definition of a chokepoint), and it does, arguably, the best it can given its constraints, but it still can’t really hold a horror candle to its scare-zone compatriots.

Even given all this, make sure to stop by and spend at least a little bit of time here – there are little details to soak up and enjoy, such as Harvest’s stilt walkers (and who doesn’t get the chills when walking around a horror fest with the Halloween soundtrack playing in the background?).

Revenge of Chucky

Revenge of Chucky at Halloween Horror Nights 2018
Revenge of Chucky at Halloween Horror Nights 2018

Revenge of Chucky – based, obviously, on the hallowed Child’s Play series, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – has some neat elements going for it. Themed as a Good Guys Doll toy fair, the titular anti-hero has possessed all of the exhibits and is now intent on turning the former fixtures of your childhood against you for a little bit of bloodletting – a premise which allows for vignettes or scareactors that are funny (the man-child in a diaper) and creepy (the “peeing” monkey). And the very heart of the scare zone is Chucky himself, who’s brought to life on the streets of Universal Studios Florida via puppetry and who spends most of his time calling out and insulting guests.

But these highlights have their weaknesses, as well: the toys are outnumbered by similarly-possessed Good Guys employees, who fall more under the generic category, and Chucky is stationary, making the zone rely on these walk-around characters even more. Yes, we’d rather have the puppet Chucky than a full-grown adult wearing a costume (what the designers opted to do back in 2000), but that still doesn’t prevent Revenge of Chucky from being eclipsed by the other scare zones this year.

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Twisted Tradition

Twisted Tradition at Halloween Horror Nights 2018
Twisted Tradition at Halloween Horror Nights 2018

Are you bummed out that yet another Jack-o-lantern-infused scare zone has gone into Central Park? And are you even more disappointed that a goodly swath of the area has been claimed by Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration’s new viewing section? Don’t be in either case – Universal has found a way to make the traditional Halloween iconography be both more original and still compelling, and then, to compensate for the loss of greenery space, the company has spilled Twisted Tradition’s territory out more towards Hollywood proper, including the area that was used for Academy of Villain’s stage last year (which is now home to a giant church-like structure that has a collection of ‘80s teenage victims stationed around it).

Tradition is, without a doubt, beautiful, filled with breathtaking lighting, some wonderful costumes (its denizens are individuals who have their rotting flesh merged with decomposing pumpkins, which they now used as heads), and what we think is one of the best uses of stilt walkers at Horror Nights yet, a costume that comes replete with a glowing skeleton seemingly embedded inside it. Trust us – everything has to be seen to be believed, and enjoyed, and be frightened of.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Killer Klowns from Outer Space at Halloween Horror Nights 2018
Killer Klowns from Outer Space at Halloween Horror Nights 2018

This scare zone is just a ton of fun – the visuals, the costumes, the music, the gags that some of the scareactors (the human ones, that is) engage in. It’s hard not to have a big smile plastered on your face while walking around this area, even when the Killer Klowns themselves make their way over to you and peer intimidatingly in your face.

And speaking of the Klowns, the detail and authenticity that’s realized in their costumes – especially their masks! – needs to be highlighted; even in a year when nearly every single haunted house and scare zone features copious amounts of detail themselves, the Killer Klowns from Outer Space zone still stands out. Even the set pieces and props, such as the cotton candy-ified human cocoons, are straight out of the 1988 movie, helping to (re)create a time and place unlike any other.

If we had to pick out a negative here, it would be that the projections used on the area’s various walls – showing the circus-tent spaceship periodically taking off and landing – really don’t add much to the overall atmosphere of the zone. Good thing, then, that doesn’t even qualify as a scratch on Killer Klowns’s metaphorical surface!

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Vamp ’85: New Year’s Eve

Vamp '85: New Year's Eve at Halloween Horror Nights 2018
Vamp ’85: New Year’s Eve at Halloween Horror Nights 2018

Without a doubt, Vamp ’85: New Year’s Eve is a blast. The costumes and props are pitch-perfect, the mini-stage production when the ball drops at midnight (which happens at least once an hour) pushes Horror Nights 2018’s live-entertainment quotient through the roof, the spoofs of various ‘80s personalities is hilarious (our personal favorites include Freddie Mercury and Run DMC), and the interactions and/or vignettes that some of the scareactors engage in, either with themselves or with guests, are golden.

Even at this extremely early juncture, we can tell that everyone involved is dedicated to making sure Vamp ’85 is just as scary as it is engrossing, and once that particular threshold has been reached, we can’t see how any other scare zone this year – or, for that matter, in the past several years – can compete.

 

The show

Breaking with the past few years of tradition, Halloween Horror Nights 2018 only features one live show: Academy of Villains: Cyberpunk. Those fans who were hoping for some type of tonally-similar follow-up to the just-ended Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure production will, undoubtedly, be disappointed by this fact, but we feel confident in saying that most attendees will be happy with Academy of Villains’s third straight HHN performance.

Academy of Villains: Cyberpunk

Academy of Villains: Cyberpunk at Halloween Horror Nights 2018
Academy of Villains: Cyberpunk at Halloween Horror Nights 2018

Let’s divide our thoughts about Cyberpunk up into pros and cons, shall we?

First up: the pros. There is no argument that Academy is a very talented dancing troupe, and that they can put on a great show – in this case, a futuristic, Terminator-esque number that fits in rather nicely with Horror Nights’s ‘80s vibe. The choreography, multimedia elements, and Academy standards – such as making the audience clap along and having their members face off in dance battles – are all vivid and strong, and will make a number of viewers fall immediately under the company’s spell. We enjoyed these aspects of the production, no questions asked.

But there are a few other facets that may give some guests pause. Academy of Villains utilizes its stage space a lot differently than Bill & Ted did, including some platforms that extend out into the audience (reducing the seating and limiting one’s view) and the presence of a ton of low-hanging lights (which combine with the fire effects to create an uncomfortably warm theater). And there’s the fact that, well, Cyberpunk isn’t Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure: whereas the pairing of a comedy show with a horror event is kind of like a sweet-and-sour combination, a dance production at HHN doesn’t quite feel like a break from the horror – though we freely admit this will be more of an issue for grizzled veterans than for newer devotees.

Regardless of which side of the argument you come down on, though, do yourself a favor and check out Academy of Villains’s newest Horrror Nights outing at least once – we believe you’ll be happy you did.

Are you eager to try out all the chilling Halloween Horror Nights 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.

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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.