Halloween Haunt 2011 at Knott's Berry Farm

The clown and his pals need to get their act together. (Knott's)

It saddens and pains me to say it, but the granddaddy of all Halloween theme park events has gotten tired, old and complacent.

After 39 years, Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm looks like a creaky, middle-aged zombie that's lost its will to rise from the grave every night.

> Halloween Haunt 2011 preview: Mazes | Shows | Photos

I'm not sure whether to blame the malaise on contemptuous familiarity, increased competition or just a slow night on an opening weekend, but the Buena Park theme park that set the bar for haunted attraction excellence has become overrun with interchangeable mazes full of indistinguishable monsters.

With 13 mazes, Knott's tends to add about three new mazes annually which usually stick around for four years or so. Haunt has built several well-themed new mazes over the past couple years, including the Jack the Ripper-inspired Terror of London and the zombie-filled Virus Z. 

The problem with this year's batch of new mazes (and many of the aging ones) is they lack a compelling back story, set amid a distinct environment with a recurring villain. Too much of Halloween Haunt features recycled themes set in repurposed mazes with reused costumes.

Don't get me wrong. I love Haunt and only want the legacy to continue. Unfortunately during my visit, Haunt 2011 failed more often than it succeeded, with each successive maze more disappointing than the last.

Throughout the evening, I repeatedly headed back to the park's moody and pitch-perfect Ghost Town area in hopes of redeeming an otherwise lifeless and lethargic fright night. But like the rest of Knott's Scary Farm, I found indifferent monsters kicking back, chatting with coworkers and watching the clock.

The only thing that saved my dismal experience was the absolute best installment of "The Hanging" I've ever seen. The irreverent and self-deprecating show can be hit or miss, but the 2011 edition was laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish.

Employing a "Cowboys & Aliens" theme filled with blood, flames and gunfire, the pop culture revue skewered all the year's most infamous celebrities, including Amy Winehouse, Anthony Weiner and Charlie Sheen.

I especially liked the fierce battle between the pitchfork-wielding town folks and the mop-wielding army of Arnold Schwarzenegger's impregnated housekeepers. And somehow "The Hanging" even made me feel bad for Justin Bieber, who had to be killed three times because, like in real life, he just wouldn't die.

Here's a rundown of the mazes, from best to worst:

The Best

> Endgames: Warriors of the Apocalypse - A post-apocalyptic arena where gladiators battle to the death for the entertainment of the rich and powerful. The best new maze of 2011 was also the top maze of the night with a great theme and plenty of good scares.  (In CampSnoopy at the former Peanuts Playhouse location).

> Terror of London - Featuring Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll. Great scenery, a solid back story and plenty of atmospheric talent keeps this outstanding maze near the top for the third year in a row. The perfect prototype for future Haunt mazes. (Mystery Lodge)

> Slaughterhouse - A deranged butcher runs a barbecue restaurant. Returning to form after a dip last season, this 2008 maze could be easily elevated and refreshed with a stronger back story and a central villain. (Near main gate)

> Corn Stalkers - Scarecrows and demented farmers amid rows of rotting corn. This year's most-improved maze managed a higher scare-per-scarecrow ratio than in any previous season. (Along Butterfield Stagecoach trail)

> Virus Z - Replicates a small town overrun by infected cannibals, zombies and bloodthirsty corpses. Haunt's best themed maze missed out on a lot of potential scares. Maybe the monsters were on a break. Strong characters and a concise back story make Virus Z the perfect blueprint for future Haunt mazes. (Fiesta Plaza)

The Rest