Universal Fright of Fancy
Updated: Nov 23, 2019
Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights Gets It Mostly Right in 2019
Given that Universal Pictures pioneered the art of the mainstream horror film, it’s fitting that my favourite house in this year’s edition of Halloween Horror Nights is a blood-and-gore-soaked love letter to horror’s most famous monsters.
Universal’s classic monster movies include Phantom of the Opera (1925), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Werewolf of London (1935) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). They’ve all been brought back to life in the one house – their 21st-century versions given a high-tech, full gore update on their black-and-white originals.
I interrupt a terrifying Dracula chomping down on a victim in his gothic castle. Around another corner and I’m in the Bavarian forest, home of the Wolfman, who appears from behind a tree with a bone-chilling roar. Next is Frankenstein’s lab, where the bloodied doc is strapped to a table while his monster tears up the place, his bride not far and just as angry.
Then I’m in the bowels of the Paris opera, where the horribly disfigured phantom terrifies me with his very appearance – and not a song to be heard anywhere. And, just for good measure, the Mummy breathes his venomous creepiness inches from my face before the Creature from the Black Lagoon emerges from the dark and actually makes me scream.
I loved every second of it.
If you don’t know it, Halloween Horror Nights is Universal Studios’ annual feast of frights at its Orlando theme park. A bunch of sound stages are transformed into 10 carefully designed mazes based on a mix of well-known scary movies and the dastardly imaginations of Universal’s own creative team.
The frights are provided by costumed ‘scare-actors’ hidden behind nooks, drop windows and doorways, who perform a sophisticated version of hide-and-boo (they’re not allowed to touch you, but that’s a moot point when they’re inches from your face). The whole effect is made even more unsettling by the clever use of lighting, sound, smell and a brilliantly effective bit of low-tech called SIF, or stuff-in-face (the creative team use a slightly ruder term), which is any bit of material that brushes you as you walk by.
The best bit of SIF was in one of the most anticipated houses, Stranger Things, based on series 2 and 3 of the Netflix TV series. Fans will relish the chance to walk through Hopper’s cabin, through the tunnels beneath Hawkins and into the Starcourt Mall. The snarling Demadogs were scary enough, but the fear was compounded by the unexpected brush of thin threads of string on my face – sounds silly but it was genuinely unsettling.
The other big showstopper this year is Ghostbusters, which for all of its creative wizardry doesn’t really work as a haunted house. Gozer the Gozerian, the Library Ghost, the Terror Dogs and the Slimers are all there, as are the original Ghostbusters and Janine Melnitz, who is frantically answering the phone in the firehouse. It’s brilliantly done (I liked the Rick Moranis-lookalike who kept repeating “are you the keymaster?”), and fans will love the recreations, but none of it is really scary - not even the final showdown with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, which was more comedy than horror in the 1984 original.
Comedy is not an issue in any of the other houses. Yeti, Terror of the Yukon does pretty much what it says in the title, with blasts of cold air to set the icy scene and ‘blood’ spray (well, water mist) to make the yeti attacks seem all the more real. In Us, Jordan Peele’s hellish nightmare is recreated in the Wilson residence, where you come face-to-face with the Tethered – there’s a particularly brutal moment when Adelaide Wilson is confronted by her own doppelganger, Red, with terrifying results. And if that’s not enough, there’s the House of 1000 Corpses (where you get to see a woman ‘scalp’ a man), Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Depths of Fear and Graveyard Games – because what’s there to be scared of in a haunted Louisiana graveyard at night?
In between house visits, there are five ‘scare zones’ to explore where zombies and the undead come at you with bloodlust in their eyes. Some carry chainsaws (fake ones that just sound real) for extra effect. It’s all part of the fun and it works really well, though in the crowds it was sometimes hard to distinguish the scare-actors from the most enthusiastic visitors, who show up dressed as their favourite villains and really get into the mood, fuelled by beers and bites from the selection of snack stands throughout the park.
Halloween Horror Nights also features two live shows. On the main stage, dance troupe Academy of Villains perform Altered States, which features some pretty fearsome acrobatics performed to a pulsating alt rock soundtrack. The freaky highlight is when contortionist B-Boy twists his whole body in ways that seem barely possible: I posted a video of it on social media and the general response was one of awe-struck revulsion.
Nothing repulsive about Marathon of Mayhem, a neon light-and-water show over the lagoon that features projections of all of the horror nights characters against the backdrop of an impressive fountain exhibit. And then it’s back to the houses.
The Scariest House of All
If Universal Monsters and Stranger Things were my favourite houses, the last house of the night scared me the most. The premise of Nightingales Blood Pit itself is creepy: set in AD117 during a long drought, the Roman emperor has ordered that gladiatorial games continue until the rains come, but the blood seeping through the ground has roused the nightingales, which are less songbird and more a grisly race of creatures that feast on the dead and the dying. The maze is set in the tunnels beneath a colosseum, where visitors are unwelcome intruders on the bloody action taking place. For set design alone, it’s fab; for fright factor, it was superb.
Volcano Bay & Harry Potter
But my visit to Universal wasn’t all about Halloween Horror Nights. During the day, I explored all three parks including Volcano Bay, the water theme park that opened in 2017 – a welcome relief in the Florida heat. It also gave me the chance to try out Universal’s newest rollercoaster, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Islands of Adventure. With top speeds of 50mph, a sudden drop and even a bit of backwards travel, it’s quite the adrenaline rush. Not quite like having a bloodthirsty demon baring his sharp teeth inches from your face, but still thrilling.
This piece was published in the Irish Daily Mail on September 21, 2019