There's nothing like holidays for reminding you how the years have flown, and while some may mark time's passage in Christmases, I can chart nearly half my life by Universal's Halloween Horror Nights. It's been 21 years since I attended my first HHN as an employee, and 11 years since I wrote my first article covering the event for this newspaper. I've enjoyed a front-row seat for this fright-fest's evolution, watching it go from a scrappy off-season offering aimed at locals to a massive marketing-driven machine with a worldwide following.
Halloween Horror Nights 27, which runs on select nights now through Nov. 4 at Universal Studios Florida, is in many ways a distillation of the HHN formula that's been honed over the past few editions. Gone are experiments like The Repository, 2016's virtual reality upcharge. Also absent are any unifying themes or iconic host characters. As show director Patrick Braillard explained on opening night, such staples are now unnecessary because "Halloween Horror Nights in and of itself is bigger than anything we're going to bring into the park. Halloween Horror Nights is an institution."
This year's nine mazes feature the now-familiar mix of classic and current licensed intellectual properties alongside original nightmares conjured up by Universal's creative team. I long ago gave up on being genuinely frightened (or even seriously startled) by Universal's conga-line haunts, but as always, I marvel at the craftsmanship of their designers and the enthusiasm of their casts. This year's creepy crop is especially impressive when you consider how quickly Universal had to recover from Hurricane Irma's effects in order to open HHN on schedule. Here's my subjective ranking of the haunted houses from best to meh, based on my walk through each during a complimentary VIP tour; your mileage may vary after queuing for hours.
The controversial Voodoo Queen scarezone character from 2014 returns to rule 2017 with her own house. From the half-sunken paddlewheel riverboat with slanted floors to the mouldering bayou shack, this might just be the most impressive original environment HHN has created in a decade.
I'm not quite sure what the story is about, beyond the "eternal war of light versus dark." But with awe-inspiring Gothic fantasy architecture and bloodthirsty Cenobite-esque demons, do we really need exposition? Keep your eyes up for the aerial "planking" bungee cord stunts.
American Horror Story:
I still haven't seen an episode of AHS, but this supersized maze gives a sample of the Asylum, Coven and Roanoke seasons that even a non-fan can appreciate. Favorite WTF moment: the spider-woman puppet dressed like a French mime.
Ash vs. Evil Dead:
It's not as scary or funny as the source material (what could be?), but after waiting decades for HHN to honor Bruce Campbell's hapless antihero I have to say "hail to the king!" Now, can we please have a full-blown Army of Darkness maze next year?
Based on the entire torture-porn octology (including a scene from the upcoming Jigsaw reboot), the Saw maze is unrelentingly grim, nihilistic and liable to leave you feeling brutalized, just like the movies. Bonus points for guest-activated triggers among the traps.
Unsexy feral vampires (think Nosferatu meets Blade II) infesting a dilapidated Ohio home sounds terrifying on paper, and this house features realistically ruined sets and cool glowing contact lenses for the ghouls. But the pacing felt off during my visit, with an uneven distribution of scareactors.
Scarecrow the Reaping:
Universal should've learned that corn-theme mazes are cursed after Charley destroyed Field of Screams in 2004. The dust-bowl setting is novel, but I found the monochromatic environments monotonous and the ending anti-climactic.
After the triumphant American Werewolf and Exorcist mazes of recently years, I was eagerly anticipating Stanley Kubrick's classic coming to life. Universal nailed the scenery, from Room 237's restroom to the Gold Room liquor shelves. Sadly, key performances border on parody, and unintentionally campy forehead prosthetics on the Jack Nicholson impersonators don't help. It's all surface and no soul.
Horrors of Blumhouse:
I've never seen Insidious or Sinister, and The Purge barely occupies 30 seconds of this maze, so the most I can say about it is that it's got lots of fog and strobe lights. Wake me when they're ballsy enough to build a Get Out house.
Cementing the idea that HHN 27 represents the culmination of kinds, Universal is giving Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure a well-earned farewell tour after 26 years spoofing pop-culture. Though I'll always be partial to the early editions written by J. Michael Roddy and Jason Surrell, I give a standing ovation to writer-director Jason Horne for taking the time-traveling nitwits out on a surprisingly emotional high note, and finally paying off his long-running Avatar sex-tails joke.
While Braillard won't reveal who'll replace Bill & Ted (Harold & Kumar? Jay & Silent Bob?) he does signal a new direction, saying, "We're doing our guests a huge disservice if don't constantly evolve and elevate this event." Between B&T's absence and construction causing mazes to move, we may someday look back at 2017 as the apotheosis of one era in Orlando's favorite Halloween event, and the start of a whole new epoch.