Sure, the temperature is a little cooler and people are starting to put out their decorations, but it’s not really Halloween until Halloween Horror Nights, the annual celebration of all things spooky, begins at Universal Studios. (It happens at both the Hollywood and Orlando parks, but we just went to Hollywood.)
On select nights through November 3, you can come face-to-face with some of your favorite characters from horror cinema and television, in interactive, industry-best houses. We went to see what this year’s offerings were and have handily ranked every house, for those too scared to experience it for yourselves. And if you are planning a visit, come back and read this after you go. We wouldn’t want to ruin a single terrifying moment.
8. The First Purge
This was the least successful maze, because it’s connection with “The First Purge” (the not-half-bad franchise prequel from this past summer) was so tenuous that, instead of being scared, I spent the entire walkthrough thinking, Wait, how does this connect to the movie? And, truth be told, it might not be all that connected to the movie, instead using the film's plot as the jumping off point for an original story.
But if that was the case, it wasn’t conveyed very effectively. It’s not a terrible maze, per se, but if you don’t have an express pass and are looking to trim the fat, this is a good place to start, especially if you’ve seen some of the past “Purge”-inspired mazes.
7. Terror Tram: Hollywood Harry’s Deadtime Stories
The centerpiece for any Halloween Horror Nights is always the re-theming of the Hollywood tram tour into the blood-curdling Terror Tram! Last year, it was hosted by Chucky, but for 2018, it reverted back to an original character, the murderous clown Hollywood Harry.
The build-up to the tram, including the grainy, found footage-like sequences of Harry haunting the backlot, is highly effective but the rest? Not as much.
Part of it is because the sequencing of the tour is so deliberate and unsurprising (you get off, wander through the Bates Motel and “War of the Worlds” crash site -- re-themed of course -- etc.) And while there is much to appreciate in terms of the world of the tour, with each section ostensibly part of a ghoulish bedtime story, the cumulative effect lacks punch.
6. The Horrors of Blumhouse, Chapter 2
The downside to this year’s Horrors of Blumhouse house is that it’s built around a couple of crummy properties (“Unfriended” and “Truth or Dare”), titles that don’t exactly scream “perfect material for a haunted maze.” Fortunately, the third part of this house is genuinely incredible -- it’s a brand-new story based around the little girl character from the Blumhouse logo. Honestly, this sliver of the house is one of the crown jewels of this year’s Halloween Horror Nights; the only problem is that it’s one-third of a much larger, more traditional maze. Even if you don’t care about “Unfriended” or “Truth or Dare,” you should still visit this maze for that amazing third section (dubbed “The Girl”). It’s so, so cool.
5. Stranger Things
This year’s Halloween Horror Nights has been all about “Stranger Things.” And, admittedly, the property feels like it would be perfect for the yearly celebration of all things spooky. (This house marks the first time a Halloween Horror Nights house has been built inside a soundstage at Universal, which tells you how large and technically elaborate the house is.)
The maze is full of all your Season One favorites -- spinning bicycle tires, ominous blinking Christmas lights, trips into the Upside Down and, of course, multiple appearances from the Demagorgon.
Everything looks beautiful, including the Upside Down sections, which have an eerie, shimmering solitude to them, but it feels a little bit been-there, done-that, like we’re over the hump on the “Stranger Things” hype graph. Also, it’s unclear if it was the fact that it was inside a cavernous soundstage but this maze is really loud -- not only are the dialogue and sound effects booming, but the faux-80s soundtrack also blasts throughout.
4. Trick ‘r Treat
Michael Dougherty’s cult favorite has had a fascinatingly long life. What started out as a nearly unreleased horror anthology eventually wound up going direct-to-video two years after it was finished, but in the years since, it has been hailed as the holiday classic it rightfully is. And at this year’s Halloween Horror Nights, we get double the “Trick ‘r Treat” fun, with both the delightful house (segmented just like the film, with the movie’s mascot Sam popping up from time to time) and the equally delightful “scare zone,” which features the doomed bus from the film. (Creepy!)
Fans will get a huge kick out of the house, particularly when it comes to how the different phases of the maze present themselves. And if you’ve never seen “Trick ‘r Treat,” well, let these haunts inspire you.
3. Universal Monsters
A little over a year after Universal mapped out its ambitious (and ultimately woe begotten) plan for the so-called Dark Universe, a series of interconnected movies and multimedia experiences centered around the studio’s roster of marquee monsters (The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, etc.), it seems to have been forgotten about entirely. Exhibit A is the fantastic Universal Monsters house, which doesn’t acknowledge the heavily-hyped Dark Universe at all.
Instead, it’s all of your favorite Universal Monsters, only slightly modified for modern audiences (things are definitely edgier -- and bloodier!) Maybe my favorite gag in all of Halloween Horror Nights is the presentation of the Invisible Man, cannily utilizing black lights to give off a really cool and creepy illusion.
2. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
It’s strange that there isn’t a house this year dedicated to the brand new “Halloween” movie (out October 19), especially considering that it’s a Universal corporate priority (there’s even a little preview during the Terror Tram). But hey, there’s always 2019.
This year, we have a “Halloween” house themed instead to 1988’s not entirely awful “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.” In the film, unstoppable killing machine Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield to murder his niece, the daughter of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. As always, Dr. Loomis is in pursuit. The house recreates many of the movie’s more memorable set pieces, utilizing audio from the movie and, of course, liberal use of Myers doubles that will scare the bejeezus out of you at every turn.
It’s kind of shocking that there has never been a Halloween Horror Nights house devoted to Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, “Poltergeist.” Thankfully, this year that oversight has been righted.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to John Murdy, who oversees Halloween Horror Nights, and he said that “Poltergeist” was a challenging house to put together because so many of the scares were visual more than experiential. But he really did something special with this house, from walking into a 1980s suburban façade to encountering all manner of creature and ghoul, who are brought to life via cutting edge puppetry and ingenious special effects. (Also, be prepared to see that moment where the researcher imagines that he’s pulling his face off over and over again.) This house was easily the greatest in this year’s Halloween Horror Nights line-up, not only because it was so frightening but also because there were moments where its otherworldly beauty was just overwhelming.
It’s a real accomplishment and the biggest reason to go to Halloween Horror Nights this year.
Experience Halloween Horror Nights for yourself, at both Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Orlando, on select nights until November 2.