Attraction Review: Halloween Horror Nights

Well, it only took me 28 years, but I finally ticked off a biggie from my bucket list - I visited Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando! I was so overwhelmed I almost cried. Almost. I'm not a little bitch so no tears actually fell. At least none anybody saw anyway. Walking under the arch under the giant pumpkin sign and down the main street past all of the mini sets for each of the key mazes was a real pinch-yourself moment for me. Like, I've been to Universal a billion times but this time felt truly special. And I was so bloody excited to get stuck in and get spooky!

We arrived slightly before the event kicked off and did the whole stay-and-scream thing so we got a couple of rides in before the event kicked off. First spooky stop was the tribute store. I literally had no idea of what to expect going in here, I guess I thought it was just going to be a regular shop just selling Halloween Horror Nights merch. Well, imagine my face when the cute spooky pumpkin and skeleton theming on the outside of the store exploded into full blown Halloween ridiculousness from ceiling to floor once we turned the corner inside. Instagram walls, vintage Halloween masks, jack-o-lanterns and black and orange bunting covered every inch of the interior. And then there was the Stranger Things themed section that ACTUALLY RAINED DUST like it does in the show. God, if this is how far they go for a store I was chomping at the bit to see what the mazes were like.

So going into this, I'm going to give my spooky pumpkin ratings to the haunted houses themselves and then just post pics of the scare zones. I think it's also fair to note that these ratings are based on the attractions in comparison to each other as opposed to in comparison to other horror mazes I've done previously. Halloween Horror Nights is probably the most unique Halloween event I've ever done, therefore I don't think it'd be fair to compare it to other events I've been to. It just does things differently, and that's fine. Oh and, spoilers ahead obv.

Obviously we started off with Stranger Things. We hung out in the stay and scream and ended up only queuing about 20 minutes for it - result! I'm a huge fan of the show, so I was stoked to see how Universal were going to bring it to life. I adored the way the maze narratively echoed a Netflix show with a little pre-credits section, followed by LITERALLY WALKING THROUGH THE CREDITS. I died when that soundtrack started playing, it was a proper goosebump moment. I think I just stood in the room and went OMG!!

The pre-upside down sections were probably my favourites - walking through the town of Hawkins, past the clubhouse and through the past the infamous Christmas lights scene. All of it was just pure fan service and I was not mad at it. It was spot on, and stacked full of moments that made me squeal with joy. And the casting. Hot damn. In that spooky haunted house lighting and through the fog you'd be forgiven for thinking the actual cast were in there. So, so convincing, I was actually shocked at how perfect they were. Especially the kids - to find such convincing adult actors to portray such iconic roles is a feat all of its own so kudos to Universal on that one.

Scare-wise, it wasn't my favourite. I don't think Demogorgons are particularly that scary anyway, but when they literally look like a guy in a rubber suit going 'boo' and you walk past more than one readjusting their heads it got a little much. And it was very repetitive - the maze was very enjoyable as a fan experience. To walk through the sets we've seen on the show was pure magic but the 'scares' that punctuated those scenes didn't feel very 'Stranger Things' - I actually think it would've been more effective to have less Demogorgons and more just wandering through with a sense that you're being pursued? I don't know, I loved it but not as a scare attraction if that makes any sense at all?

Next up, one of my most anticipated mazes of the event - Poltergiest. It felt like a random IP to me given that the film came out in the 80s and nobody really talks about it anymore, but I wasn't exactly complaining - it's one of my all time favourite horror films and knowing the special effects and set pieces from the movie I was very excited to see those brought to life. And damn, I was NOT disappointed - from the minute we entered the warehouse and approached the facade of the house accompanied by a REAL RAIN EFFECT I knew we were in for a good time (even if I was a little bummed out that I had pitched the idea of a real rain effect for this year's FRIGHT NIGHTS and now it would look like I was copying BUT THAT'S FINE!!). The facade of that house was amazing - fantastic use of forced perspective to give everything a creepy distorted style like those early German Expressionist horror movies. I was beaming like only a huge nerdy horror movie fan would from the very start.

Again, Universal nail it with the fan service - after trudging through the soggy empty swimming pool scene we come face to face with Carol-Anne transfixed to the white noise of the TV screen as we're sucked into the other side of the evil's domain. But not before a brief interaction with the legendary Tangina. I think I actually cheered when she popped out from around the corner. Loved it.

And then there were the puppets. Huge, terrifying warped ghostly beasties popping out at you from every angle as you get more and more lost on the other side of the closet searching for Carol-Anne. The scale of the things is just so impressive and the way they move and get in your face is utterly terrifying. One great thing about the 80s theme HHN have gone for this year is that back in those good old days horror movies still used a lot of practical effects, which are much easier to emulate in the very real space of a haunted house, resulting in the effects and reactions created feeling very true to the movie. The whole thing was just endlessly impressive, the sets were incredible, the scares were thick and fast and as a fan of the movie I just died the whole way through. Excellent.

Our first non-IP house of the event comes in the very twisted form of Scary Tales, a HHN staple for years now based on twisted versions of classic fairy tales. One can't help but feel this is a very not-so-subtle jibe at Universal's Orlando competitors down the road, but that only makes me love this maze even more. Where do I even start describing how utterly incredible Scary Tales is? I think, as above with Poltergeist and Stranger Things, it helps to be a fan of these things anyway. I know it sounds weird to say I'm a 'fan' of fairy tales, but little known fact about me I am genuinely obsessed with fairy tales and have a pretty extensive collection of old, illustrated Brother's Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson stories. And sure, the 'dark fairytales' thing can feel a little Hot Topiccy and emo sometimes, but I think that only made me love it more.

The creativity with the scares here was fantastic. Witches that actually fly, creative and disturbing use of grotesquerie and some truly terrifying costumes. There's something about that scalped Rapunzel desperately calling out 'MY HAIR MY HAIR' that will stick with me for a long time *shudders*. And the smell pods! Omg, do they sell the scent used in the Hansel and Gretel scene because, I need that spooky shit in my house immediately.

And this was the closest maze so far to me that felt more like the 'classic' style of maze I'd been used to previously. I was actually scared in this one and was reluctant to turn a corner and enter the next room. Which is what I felt Stranger Things in particular was lacking - not one point did I think urgh I don't wanna know what's in the next room but after seeing a maniacal Goldilocks frantically stabbing at a bear corpse you'll understand why I didn't wanna. Grotesque and wickedly fantastical from start to finish - wonderful stuff!

It is my humble opinion that the macabre Blumhouse studio are churning out some of the most effective, terrifying and iconic horror movies of our generation, so I was delighted to see what terrors awaited us in the Horrors of Blumhouse. A double bill extravaganza, the Blumhouse maze focussed on the studio's two newest hits - The First Purge and Happy Death Day. Having seen both, I kind of expected Happy Death Day to be pointed, violent and fun and The First Purge to be...dull? And to be honest, I wasn't wrong.

Don't get me wrong - the Happy Death Day stuff was clever. For those who haven't seen it, the movie is a sorority house slasher crossed with Groundhog Day where the protagonist keeps getting murdered at the end of every day, only to wake up and have to relive it all again. And this theme of repetition was expertly realised by the maze having us go through the 'same' scene over and over again, reiterated by a sound effect of 'nice one, dickhead' played repeatedly to reinforce that idea. It's an effect I've seen done before at Dr. Fright's, and one I absolutely loved for its innovation but wished at the time I could see done with more budget, which is exactly what Universal were delivering here. Thing is, doing the same thing over and over again quickly gets old and no longer scary - there's only so many times the dude in the baby face mask jumping out at me is actually going to make me jump. So whilst as a fan of the film I was loving life, as a seasoned scare maze goer I was left unsatisfied in the scare department.

Which leads us on the The First Purge. I'm reluctant to call this series a horror franchise. As the films go on, there are more and more explosions, more heavy artillery, more ammunition. THey're like Michael Bay does thriller - an enjoyable romp, but not scary and certainly not something that would lend itself well to a haunted house. This IP most certainly works best as a scare zone - the whole premise is that the streets are dangerous to walk down because some crazies are going to kill you - that's basically what a scare zone is!! So yh, suffice to say this was the dullest part of the event for me by a long shot. They drew people in with The Purge IP but ultimately we all know deep down that unless Annabele and Valak are involved you're not going to get the most out of a Blumhouse scare attraction - ghosts is absolutely what they do best so a little sad we didn't get to experience any of that this time.

Ooooh boy, from the social media tidbits for this maze y'all know I was up for some trashy b-movie video nasty action from Slaughter Sinema. Anyone who knows me knows I absolutely LIVE for a tacky gorefest straight-to-video horror movie, so the fact that Universal decided on the year I finally visited HHN to realise this weird sub-genre in a haunted house felt like the stars had aligned. One of the most enjoyable and sickeningly fun mazes of the entire event - purely for the mania of it all. Devil-babies? Check. Sexy alien babe monsters? Check. GIANT FUCKEN CRITTER RIP OFF PUPPETS IN THE WALLS?! You betcha. Honestly I'd love to see a video of my face going around this one, I bet I was grinning like a moron the entire way around it. I just loved it so, so much!

And it was so clever - the way it ran narratively was like you were watching the trailers for this corny crap before the main feature you'd headed to your local movie theatre to see. Each was a short section, often only a room or two but each preceded by a walk through a cinema lobby complete with poster for whatever ridiculous mash-up you were about to find yourself on the set of and cheesy trailer-voice-guy announcement. Yes, it felt like a lot of random, ridiculous ideas thrown together with some bright red blood splattered on it, but that's exactly what those movies are like. The way Universal managed to capture the tone of such a weird cult sub-genre and bring it to life was absolute perfection, and as a horror fan I do think this has been an underrated house this season so far from other reviews I've read. I don't know, maybe you have to 'get it' and understand that it's tacky and bad and distasteful because THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF THE THING?!

If there's anything I love about a scare event it's when parks really go out on a limb to try and create something original and different. And when you have such a weird and diverse genre to pull from as horror, you can almost be certain that somebody has already done your idea before. Not the case with Seeds of Extinction, or at least, not that I've seen anyway. Sure, the idea of giant evil plant has been done before, as fans of the likes of Day Of The Triffids can attest to, but not quite in this way I don't think. Seeds of Extinction felt more like Dawn of the Dead meets Little Shop Of Horrors. It wasn't quite as camp and silly as Shop, but it definitely didn't take itself very seriously. The sets were eerily colourful, and I don't know how Universal do it with their lighting but the effect created really did feel like watching VHS tape as you made your way through each vine covered set.

The scares on this one were clever because of just how well the cast and costumes blended in with the sets. Everything's a plant, you see, so it's very difficult to distinguish where the set ends and the actor begins, meaning maximum effect jump scares aplenty were to be had through this one. And it's just, bizarre. I love a bit of weirdness when it comes to my horror movies and mazes and Seeds of Extinction definitely gets a big fat tick in that box. Creative and interesting sets and genuinely scary with clever use of levels and flooring - Seeds was arguably the most unexpected hit of the event for me.

Let me start off by saying, everyone else in my group bloody loved this maze so I know I'm in the minority here but whatever. There are a few things that probably affected my enjoyment of this maze before we'd even gone in. Firstly, we queued FUCKING AGES for it in a gross, poorly lit cattle pen at the end of the night, so I was tired and cranky. Secondly - I'd heard somewhere that this maze was meant to be terrifying. Thirdly, I wrongly assumed this was going to be yet another zombie infection themed thing, and working for Thorpe you'll forgive me for feeling a little exhausted by zombies after the Year of the Walking Dead. Anyway, the maze.

Starts off very cool, fog billowing out of what eerily looks like the Calais jungle to set an unpleasant tone. Barbed wire fences and signs all in French for some reason warn of infection and that decontamination must take place for us to go on. I won't lie, I liked the touch of making it French. It was a nice way to differentiate and we don't often get such elaborate scene setting in horror mazes that go down to the detail of having signage in another language, so that was definitely appreciated. So yh, we start off in a lab testing on monkeys. Erm, 28 Days Later much? I didn't like that it was such a blatant rip off, so that put me in a bad mood.

Then...not zombies but...weird skeleton jazz musicians? What? I know that's not what they were meant to be but to me the creatures dwelling in this attraction reminded me of that cool band of skeleton dudes from Mickey's Boo To You parade and I couldn't unsee it. There were definitely some really good scares in this mazes - strobe lights on the Metro, terrifying. The skeleton trio fake out - terrifying. But for me it mostly fell flat, I found it just did the same thing over and over again and didn't really do anything that unique or original. Not my favourite.

As a fan of amusement parks, ratchety old funfairs, vintage spooky shit and horror mazes - I was SO READY for Carnival Graveyard. And the second I turned the corner into this attraction my jaw hit the floor. THE SETS. ARE. AMAZING. Never have you ever seen trash and carnage look so good. Funfair themed trash piled high all around, as far as the eye could see and completely immersing you into the trash heap fantasy, the sets created a real sense of claustrophobia combined with intrigue as you desperately trying to leave you eye lingering long enough to attempt to discern where that pile of creepy broken dolls ends and the battered old car begins.

The whole thing had a very Mad Max meets House of 1000 Corpses vibes. The industrial, mechnical post-apocalyptic feel of Mad Max, realised in the costumes and weapons of the characters and the use of sparks and metal and junkyard in the sets and the wildly colourful yet grungy and dirty feel of House of 1000 Corpses in the gore and colour palette - most notable for me in the Love Shack scene with the lovers making out wearing the faces of some poor sods strung up as a centrepiece. In places it actually felt a little 90s Tim Burton-esque too, with the twisted towering sets really leaving you feeling trapped and encapsulated in this house of madness.

And then the scares - classic but simple. A clown on a bungee dangling above you threatening to descend at any point, loud banging metal erupting suddenly out of nowhere and making you jump out of your skin and general freaks popping out of dark corners at every turn. Wonderfully creative with a rusty, hard edge of pure scare and originality.

Time for another IP maze now, this time in the shape of 2007s Trick R Treat -  a classic Halloween tale which has recently gained quite the cult following. This movie just oozes Halloweeny goodness and I was so keen to see how that would translate into a horror maze setting. My previous complaints about the HHN mazes was that they maybe weren't scary enough, but the thing about Trick R Treat as a movie is that it's not actually that scary of a film, so in this instance I was cool with it. Trick R Treat is absolutely an IP that's all about the vibe, it's all about those iconic sets and scenes and characters, about walking through a neighbourhood and really feeling like it's a dusky evening on October 31st and for me the maze really did do that. Somehow they captured that orange glow everything in the movie has, as well as that underlying creepiness that stalks the viewer throughout the entire narrative.

And the weird thing about Trick R Treat again is, it's kind of cute in a warped way? The characters and scenes aren't meant to make you run shrieking into the night, they're meant to make you go awww, lull you into a false sense of security and then stab you in the neck with a half-eaten lollipop. And this maze does all of that, and then some. It's creepy as balls, it's adorable where it needs to be, it's weird as hell in some scenes and above all it felt truly Halloween to its core. 

I do think with this maze though you really did need to have seen the film to get what the hell was going on. You would have absolutely zero clue of the narrative if you hadn't so I can understand why going from old man running around a house with a shotgun to sexy werewolf girls in the woods could feel a little jarring and insane. But whatever, if IP mazes aren't about fan service then what are they for?

Oh baby, Halloween was by far my favourite maze of the event. And that has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with me being a huge fan of the Halloween franchise in any way. Alright maybe it does, but damn if a little help from rose-tinted glasses didn't help bring a little extra enjoyment to my night, I'm fine with it. I'll be honest, Halloween 4 feels a little random. I always thought I was the only person who'd ever seen it, and the only reason I had watched it was because I had the box set! But let's face it, the best thing about a good old fashioned slasher franchise is that it doesn't really matter what film it is, as long as our favourite knife-wielding madman is on the loose, slaughtering unsuspecting teens and reigning terror on an autumnal, leaf strewn suburbia then who really honestly gives a shit? Not me!

So why did I love this maze? Other than being utterly blinded by fangirlism, it was the misdirection. For me Halloween felt most like the maze where I was actually in the movie - victim characters wielding guns would pop out and shout to look behind you before firing the gun, only for you to turn around and see that MICHAEL WAS JUST ABOUT TO BRUTALLY STAB YOU TO DEATH! The sense of peril here was palpable and I genuinely was scared to move forwards through the attraction. I absolutely loved the feeling of being places right in the centre of one of my all time favourite horror franchises, the whole experience felt a lot more active than the likes of Stranger Things where you are very much a passive audience member simply passing through iconic scenes. Much more exciting to actually feel like you're going to die in my opinion. 

And that brings us to the end of the haunted house list! Like I said previously, HHN really is an event all in its own league. It does things entirely differently from every other horror event in the world, and whilst it doesn't deliver the most terrifying horror maze experience what it does do is deliver on the fan favourites, create the most intricate and detailed sets and give horror film fans the closest chance they'll ever get to literally be in their favourite scary movies. And for that reason it is truly excellent and unlike anything else on the planet. It's an absolute phenomenon and deserving of its infamous reputation.

Talk later xoxo,