Halloween Horror Nights gets bigger, better and busier every year -- so much so the annual theme park event seems ready to burst like the bloody entrails spilling from the guts of so many hapless victims at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Horror Nights 2011 has grown to six mazes, many with hourlong waits during my visit on opening night, but the increasingly popular event probably needs twice as many mazes to handle the bloodthirsty hordes that crowd the park to capacity on the busiest evenings.
A simple stopgap to thin the crowds would be some additional live shows beyond the tired and cliched "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure." Horror Nights dropped the campy "Rocky Horror" tribute in the Terminator theater and the "SlaughterWorld" show in the WaterWorld theater without filling the lineup with new entertainment.
Universal has acknowledged the popularity problem with variable pricing that offers discounts on slower nights (Thursdays and Sundays) in hopes of shifting the burden from Fridays and Saturdays.
But those are the travails of success. We always want more blood, guts and gore. And this year Horror Nights delivers with a series of detailed and disgusting mazes, each increasingly more disturbing than the last. For the squeamish, consider this your warning. Turn back now.
Here's a rundown of the mazes, from best to worst:
1) Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare -- A departure from Horror Nights' dependence on movie-based themes, the Alice Cooper maze takes visitors through the terror-filled songs and theatrical live show of the shock rocker. Among my favorite scenes: a startling Dr. Alice with a bone saw in the operating room and a shocking stilt-walking Headmaster Alice in the schoolroom. The Alice Cooper maze has the longest queue, stretching upstairs and backstage. Head to the lower lot as soon as you arrive at Horror Nights to hit the Alice Cooper maze when the lines are shortest.
2) La Llorona: Village of Lost Souls -- Horror Nights positioned La Llorona as a scare zone last year, which connected with visitors who knew the Mexican legend of a distraught mother who drowned her children and then herself, but befuddled those who were unfamiliar with the back story. Moving La Llorona into a haunted maze solved the storytelling problems and resulted in the best themed attraction of the night. Among my favorite scenes: walking through the sticky pig carcasses hanging in the carniceria amid the smell of rotting meat, the child being eaten alive by La Llorona entering through a bedroom window and the horrifying moonlit lake full of drowned children floating facedown in the water.
3) The Thing: Assimilation -- The lack of a central villain didn't deter from this alien-centric maze based on the film remake about a scientific research facility overrun by an epidemic. I was simultaneously scared and amused by the litany of fantastically repulsive alien puppets that popped out of hidden holes. The infected researchers in fur-lined parkas trapped behind frosty windows were especially effective.
4) Eli Roth's Hostel: Hunting Season -- The extreme gore maze starts in a queue where a pair of prostitutes invite you into a European youth hostel with a terrible, dark secret. Among my favorite scenes: the twitching upside-down victim spurting "blood" at visitors, the crazed guy emerging from beneath a pile of body parts and the barking dog puppets popping out of a hallway wall. My only complaint: At times, the Hostel maze felt like just another installment of the Saw maze from the previous two years. Just like the Alice Cooper maze, hit Hostel early in the evening before the crowds descend to the lower lot.
5) Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses -- Based on the horror movie by the filmmaker and rock star, the 3-D maze features a walk through the Firefly family residence, Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen, and Dr. Satan's lair. The only returning maze from last year remains a crazy-mad fun-filled experience even if the "scareactors" were a bit sparse in the first half of the attraction. I encountered only one great scare but still had a good time. It says a lot about the quality of this year's mazes that House of 1000 Corpses was my favorite from 2010 and remains just as good this year.
6) The Wolfman: Curse of Talbot Hall -- The mazes in Universal's year-round House of Horrors attraction always seem like an afterthought at Horror Nights and this year is no different. The Wolfman maze based on the 2010 remake of the 1941 classic does little if anything to improve upon the same old, lame old House of Horrors routine. I let a group of screaming girls literally afraid of their own reflection in the mirrored hallway go ahead of me just for the entertainment value. The pathetic theming of the maze consisted of sticking half a dozen wolfmen in the mad-scientist laboratory. Save this one for last and skip it all together if you're running short on time.
Sadly, also worth skipping is this year's back lot Terror Tram: Scream 4 Your Life, based on the movie-within-a-movie slasher film series. Next to the famed Bates Motel, a feeble sheet maze populated by Ghostface killers from the "Scream" movies was seriously short on scares. The tram ride featured zero scares and no King Kong attraction but plenty of commercials.
The back lot seems like the perfect solution for Universal's space crunch during Horror Nights. Why not build a couple of quality mazes out near the "Psycho" house and just shuttle visitors out and back by tram?
This year's installment of "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure," with a hunt for Osama bin Laden theme that falls flat early and often, fails even in comparison to past editions of the pop culture parody show. Your time will be better spent in the mazes.
Halloween Horror Nights runs on select nights at Universal Studios Hollywood through Oct. 31.
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