The phone calls started last week: eerie whispers, sputtering chainsaws and chanting children on my voice mail, with nothing to identify the source. Turns out I had a stalker – three of them, in fact. Universal Orlando has upped the ante for its annual Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) event by building a first-ever partnership with New Line Cinemas. This macabre marriage allows them to bring a terrifying troika to fully licensed life – the amoral antiheroes of Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Will a face-off with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Thomas “Leatherface” Hewitt be the bait needed to lure you into the madding crowds of Jack’s Carnival of Carnage?
As a lifelong horror aficionado, I was initially skeptical of this year’s HHN theme. The characters of Jason, Freddy and Leatherface, though indisputable icons of the genre, have been sequeling toward self-parody for years. Making them underlings to Jack Schmidt, Universal’s homegrown psycho-clown master of ceremonies, seems like the last shark-jumping straw needed to push them firmly into Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein territory. Besides, every neighborhood haunt in the nation exhibits generic stand-ins for these famous fiends, even if they’re called “razor glove guy” or “hockey mask maniac” for copyright reasons. So, would New Line’s kiss of approval make a difference beyond the marketing materials?
HALLOWEEN HORROR NIGHTS XVIII: CARNIVAL OF CARNAGE
Universal Studios Florida
Select nights through Nov. 3
I had the opportunity to confront James-Michael Roddy, Universal’s manager of show development, with my concerns. One of the creative forces behind HHN’s late-’90s golden age, Roddy left to work on Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream for several seasons, but returned for last year’s much-improved HHN XVI. A genuine gorehound, his enthusiasm over the opportunity to work with these classic characters is infectious. For starters, he assured me that Jack (a character Roddy created for HHN X) will never “manipulate” the trio, nor be placed in a position of dominance over them. Each of the three will be restricted to his own signature haunted house, so don’t expect any Freddy vs. Jason–style smackdowns (even the TV ads are careful never to frame them together in the same shot).
While casual customers may not notice, the horror hard-core should appreciate the care taken with canon and continuity. The houses serve as semi-sequels to the recent theatrical releases – that means no new nightmare Freddy, one-armed Leatherface or potato-sack Jason (though the noggin of mom Pamela Voorhees makes a cameo). New Line is firm in safeguarding the integrity of their valuable properties; to that end, they opened their archives to HHN’s creative team, enabling them to craft film-ready reproductions of familiar props and costumes. As Roddy recounted his exploration of the vaults of the “house that Freddy built,” examining original artifacts from the fright flicks we grew up with, my suspicion melted into envious anticipation. (If he weren’t such a nice guy, I’d have to dismember him out of jealousy.)
As usual, Universal’s ambitious plans are best realized in the Soundstage houses on the west side of the park, which benefit from extensive construction time. Nightmare on Elm Street: Dreamwalkers, my favorite of the three headliners, begins with a cinema-quality re-creation of the distressed 1428 Elm St. facade, as seen in the 1987 Dream Warriors. Nancy Thompson’s home displays fan-nods like framed photos of John Saxon and Heather Langenkamp on the walls, then descends into a disorienting dreamscape of sideways bedrooms and twisted boiler rooms. The Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre mazes, though competent, feel predictable and underpopulated in comparison. I preferred the less-hyped haunts: A terrifying tribute to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing features elaborate latex labors of love, including a Kurt Russell-sicle; a black-lit retro-psychedelic funhouse is filled with goofy 3-D gags. Best of all is Dead Silence, a decrepit theater packed with clever mirror stunts and lighting effects, and Psychoscareapy, a witty yuletide romp through a gore-saturated suburban neighborhood.
OTHER 'ORROR OPTIONS
Skull Kingdom has crumbled and Nights of Terror slunk off into the darkness – but there are still a few haunting-season alternatives left in town.
Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party
Disney’s Magic Kingdom hosts parades, fireworks and trick-or-treats geared to little ones. Don’t miss the newly refurbished Haunted Mansion: All the classic chills have been carefully restored, and state-of-the-art upgrades (beware of Constance, the attic bride!) give this old favorite new afterlife. (through Nov. 2; $45.95 adults, $39.95 children; 407-939-6244; www.disneyworld.com/mnsshp)
Robert Englund, Gunnar Hansen and Kane Hodder – the original actors behind Freddy, Leatherface and Jason – are among the many men-behind-the-masks participating in Spooky Empire’s annual horror convention, to be held here for the second year in a row. Expect the Wyndham Orlando Resort to be filled with gory goods, creepy cosplay and goth-friendly musical acts like Voltaire. (Oct. 19-21; $25 per day, $35 weekend; 954-258-7852; www.spookyempire.com)
Terror in Orlando
Orlando’s latest stab at a year-round haunted attraction arose on I-Drive last Friday the 13th. Choose between the mad-scientist maniacs of Mayhem Manor (created by haunt industry legend Leonard Pickel) or Kilmore the Clown’s 3D Funhouse, featuring the world’s longest inflatable hallway. Terror in Orlando doesn’t try to compete with high-tech gore; instead, it delivers an intimate and affordable experience that managed to give this jaded horror junkie a jump.
In response to complaints about chronic overcrowding, Universal has built a record high of eight haunted houses and diluted their traditional “scarezones” by spreading crazed-carnie scareactors throughout the park (with some success). Even so, HHN’s overwhelming popularity can result in hour-plus queues on slower nights and double that (or more) at peak times. The only way to see everything in one night is with a guided RIP Tour. The starting price of $120 per person (plus regular admission) is steep, but it’s a better value than spending $36 to $66 on express passes that still require standing in line.
If your pockets are shallow, your best strategy is to get in early (with an annual pass or nominal upgrade) and experience the three soundstage mazes prior to the park’s official opening. Then spend the bulk of the night seeing the four crowd-eating stage shows. This year’s edition of the crowd-pleasing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is scattershot, even by pop-culture spoof standards, with an emphasis on celebritard stupidity. Jack’s Carnival of Carnage panders to the audience’s bloodlust with icky illusions, while tattooed blockhead the Enigma (of X-Files fame) hosts a fantastic old-fashioned Freak Show, featuring sickening sideshow stars like Brian Brushwood. Most enticingly, the Rocky Horror Picture Show Tribute boasts a talented cast belting their way through a PG-13 CliffsNotes condensation of the campy cult classic.
Recent recipient of HauntWorld Magazine’s Best Amusement Park Halloween Event award, Universal is a mob scene every October for good reason: Despite some frustrations, HHN faithfully delivers the frights. Just maintain modest expectations, be judicious in applying alcohol and keep conga-lining past the creeps – it’s what the sinister season in Orlando is all firstname.lastname@example.org