It’s finally here! Initially teased at the end of last year’s HHN24 event, Jack Schmidt has returned with his Carnival of Carnage to once again terrorize Universal Studios Orlando for Halloween Horror Nights. We’ve been previewing the event here on IoM (thanks to our friends at View From The Cheap Seats), and this past weekend, after much anticipation, the event began. The opening weekend of HHN is always a bit chaotic, and this year, with more content than every, even with the media event on Friday, we had to make TWO trips just to be able to see everything! Let’s tackle each piece of the opening weekend separately.
Rather than give each house an individual score, let’s start with least favorite and make our way up to, what’s in our opinion, the best of the best this year…obviously personal experiences will vary. First up….
Run – Blood, Sweat, and Fears: Lights on, lights off, in action or not, I just really didn’t care for Run. While I get the concept mixed two HHN mainstays (Hellgate Prison, and the Run concept itself), the house itself felt very stale to me. Essentially an homage to The Running Man, you are on a game show where “Reavers” from different countries hunt you down on live television, all presided over by the grandson of the warden of Hellgate Prison. I appreciate the effort that went into this house (easily the bloodiest from what I could tell with the lights on), but even with the effort, I just didn’t find much scary to it.
The Walking Dead – The Living and the Dead: Now, to be honest, I’m not a Walking Dead fan, and I would never fault Universal for appealing to fans of the highest rated TV show out there. Seeing Greg Nicotero and Chandler Riggs in person opening night was also an awesome experience. But I just didn’t get much out of this house. Perhaps fans of the show will enjoy it more, due to the house concept of taking you through Season 5 of TWD, beginning to end, but for myself, while I did find some interesting ideas in the house and a number of scares, it just felt like a series of generic locations – again, maybe reconizable to fans of the show but not to me.
The Purge: It’s been well documented that The Purge began its life as a different house and was changed to Purge at the last minute (heck, the house isn’t even represented on the t-shirt from the event). With that in mind, it was hard to separate what was intentional Purge vs. what was repurposed from the previous property. After an impressive opening with large TV screens, we get an attack on a household and various other locations from Purgers. An intense house, but not a spectacularly memorable one like the Purge scarezone from last year.
Asylum in Wonderland 3-D: I’ve said before that I’m a sucker for the idea of taking a children’s story or fairy tale and turning it into something dark and scary. While Asylum doesn’t bring much in the scares department, it is visually the most impressive 3D house I’ve ever been in, including the most effective spinning room I’ve ever seen. The 3D is genuinely amazing, from an intro where you walk INTO a comic book, to a deranged tea party where the White Rabbit has taken a turn for the worse.
Jack Presents – 25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem: I know a lot of folks will disagree with me on this being fifth place, and not first. I loved this house, and for it to be in fifth place, you know the competition was tough. Having been following the icons and HHN since 2013, I’m familiar with a lot of the original concepts and every year I cry out for more original concepts, and less licensed properties. This house actually takes the original concepts and throws them all together, to varying degrees of effect, while also calling back to the original Horror Nights icons, the classic Universal Monsters. I enjoyed immensely the rooms with the classic characters, as well as enjoyed the beginning sequence where we see some of the icons (Caretaker and Cindy, to my recollection). However, without an obvious appearance of Jack in the house (from what I hear, this will change, it’s basically a result of a delay in masks), the cohesive whole was lost a little bit on me. Also, the meshing of concepts like Gothic/Havoc/Nightengales ends up with a bit of an identity crisis in the middle of the house. HHN XX had a similar house, calling back to the previous years of the event, and I felt that worked spectacularly. Perhaps with a little polish, this can get there, but right now it feels a little disjointed. I’m being hard on the house because it’s the main selling point for me this year, but I really did enjoy it. Just hopeful it can come together with a little more polish to get its intended point across better.
American Werewolf in London: While most folks who visited this house in HHN23 weren’t impressed with it (besides the awesome new werewolf puppetry), I freakin’ loved this house. I was a little off-put in the first couple of rooms because there were no scareactors (for the two times I went through, anyway), but man, the werewolf puppets, the scenes from the movie, the actors…all of it was spot on, intense, and scary. Great special effects, great themeing. Again, I hadn’t seen the house from years ago, which was a lot of folks’ favorite, so this year being my first time seeing it, I was intensely impressed. Great job on this one and I’m glad they brought it back so I could see it.
Insidious: This was one of the first houses we hit on opening night and whew, was it intense! Insidious received rave reviews from Kyle when he visited media preview night, and man, was he right! I’m a big fan of the Insidious movies, and this house called back to all three of them, displaying the iconic characters and scenes from each movie with delicate detail. I loved seeing the Lipstick Face ghost, and the Bride in Black, and all the rest. They very intricately recreated the scenes and locations from the movies (right down to the wallpaper), and the attention to detail really paid off for a fan of the franchise such as myself.
Freddy vs. Jason: These are two more properties that I’m a fan of (heck, who isn’t?), and Universal Studios paid both great respect in this house, while also genuinely referencing the Freddy vs. Jason movie. We experience iconic kills from the Friday the 13th movies, before Jason is fooled by Freddy to going to Elm St, where we then experience some of the best kills from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies (this house, and much of the event, felt like a bit of a callback to HHN17, which featured houses based on these properties as well). Finally, we see Freddy and Jason duke it out in person as well as in screens that present a fight with special effects just not possible in person, and the transition is almost seamless (the projection is a bit bright and stands out). There is so much substance to this house, it begs for repeat experiences and a lights-on tour.
Body Collectors – Recollections: While I admit an unfair bias, as I am a HUGE fan of the Body Collectors concept, I also have to say I’ve never been huge on Psychoscareapy and the Shadybrook residents. However, combining the two? Gold, absolutely gold. This house explains not only where the Body Collectors come from, but also where a certain clownish icon may have been born. The amazing themeing in this house, the actors, and the story – everything meshes to create the ultimate HHN house for me, while also paying homage to two HHN classic properties. I love the Body Collectors, and they have ties to the other icons as well – would love to see the concept expanded out to an event theme. Let’s also mention that it freakin snows as you walk into Shadybrook asylum, by the way. Amazing!
Same concept here, least favorite to favorite….
Scary Tales – Screampunk: This scarezone combines fairy tale/medieval type characters in a steampunk environment (and two previous HHN properties, Scary Tales and ScreamPunk) and is the first scarezone you hit as you walk through the park. Despite a pretty impressive central piece full of gears and body parts, this zone is terribly lackluster. I mentioned earlier my love of fairy tales, but this zone was light on scares, and other than the aforementioned central piece, really light on any props.
PsychoScareapy – Unleashed: A huge scarezone in the New York section of the park, this one works because of the excellent scareactors employed in it. So many actors in this large area, and some of them sell their roles so well, you can’t help but get creeped out. The concept, that the PsychScareapy residents have escaped from a crashed bus into a neighborhood filled with classic Halloween decorations, is a lot of fun, and actually lends itself to a number of street show experiences, should you spend long enough looking around.
All Nite Die-In Double Feature: What a great scarezone. Featuring different eras of movie monsters, depending on when you walk in, you’ll see either classic movie monsters like Dracula and the Invisible Man, or more modern characters like Chucky and the Strangers, all within a drive-in in Carey, a town that’s also an HHN mainstay. Well worth going through multiple times to experience it all, and some great photo ops.
Evil’s Roots: Other than the odd inclusion of fairy-like characters in this scarezone, the themeing, with pumpkins, scarecrows, mason jars, and bats, is really kind of breathtaking at night. It feels like the best of Halloween, and some familiar faces (like the Gog and Magog pumpkin totems) make their appearance once more to spectacular effect.
HHN Icons: There was no way this wasn’t going to win for me, though. Less a scarezone than a series of photo ops and mini shows, each icon has a “kill show” where they are seen murdering someone, and in between has a wonderful set in order for guests to take photos. While similar in nature to a scarezone in HHN XX (which worked a little better because the actors were ground level, and not on stage), you can’t help but love to see the icons back together again, including Cindy. I would have loved to see Bloody Mary or Eddie in some way though. The fans, including myself, would eat that up.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure: If you’ve seen a Bill and Ted show before, you know exactly what you’re in for here. A send up of the latest and greatest pop culture. Despite some jokes that should have been left on the cutting room floor (a Deflategate joke feels a little too late), this show brought a ton of humor and playful ribbing at Disney’s expense. Adding to my experience was sitting right behind John Landis, Greg Nicotero, and J. Michael Roddy.
The Carnage Returns: This. This is what separates HHN from all the rest. Despite being in an awkward location (though with the number of pyrotechnics, probably necessary), this show has Jack and Chance front and center, as they murder unsuspecting victims in imaginative and gory ways. Amazing special effects, great acting…this is a true winner and an absolute MUST if attending the event.
With the recency of it, it’s hard for me to declare this a favorite amongst the years I’ve attended HHN. Time and some more thought will help with that. However, it’s certainly one of the better years for the event, and with the sheer amount of content this year, you owe it to yourself to plan for more than one visit. This is the first year since HHN 18 (I believe) that I’ve attended more than once, and I’m glad I did. The return of an icon-focused event seems to have helped the creative team have more passion about the event than in recent years, and I hope they don’t lost sight of that as we get into HHN26 planning. Jack is back, and I couldn’t be happier. Universal Studios has put together an event that will be remembered with some amazing houses and a Jack show unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. If you’re wondering if this year is worth going to – wonder no more, just get the hell out there and enjoy the ride!
Check out video of the event, including a peek inside the houses, on our YouTube channel!
Halloween Horror Nights continues select nights through the end of October. For more information, visit the official site.