universal’s halloween horror nights 29 (2019)

this year’s halloween horror nights will be my third! it’s turned into a pretty awesome tradition for me and one of my partners. we went to halloween horror nights 29 in 2019 on our first date. and i just love that this was the case? it combines one of her biggest special interests (theme parks) with one of mine (halloween). how perfect is that?

2020’s was, of course, canceled due to the early stages of the covid-19 pandemic when the powers that be were pretending to actually try to prevent its spread. we went again in 2021 with her husband and our mutual partner (who is also my fiancx, it’s okay if you need to draw a diagram to follow this), and this year we decided to go again just the two of us because we had such a nice time together the first time.

anyway i’m a giant dork so i figured i’d share (in two parts) some review-shaped thoughts on the previous two plus the movies they’re based on, and if you think i’m not gonna be posting a review of this year’s plus all the movies the rides are based on, you might be surprised in a week or two…

we actually got to the park a bit early to check out diagon alley and ride gringotts before halloween horror nights actually started. obviously me and harry potter aren’t really friends anymore given j.k. rowling’s entire deal about people like me and my loved ones, but i gotta say as a theme park experience what i was able to see was pretty damn impressive. i just wish it were for literally any other franchise. but yeah we rode a pretty cool rollercoaster (it was tame enough for me, a noted rollercoaster wimp) and i tried butterbear which probably everyone needs to do at least once if they used to be fans of that benighted book series, and we got to see the dragon shoot fire out of its mouth so yeah now i never need to go back there again.

… unless i want to see the islands of adventure part of harry potter world at some point which, let’s be honest, i guess i might as well at some point. j.k. rowling fucking sucks and whatever love i once had for those books was totally sucked out of me like by a dementor’s kiss, but i like theme parks and the harry potter stuff at universal is just a kind of a historically amazing theme park experience, so i should probably check it out once and then never go back.

scarezones

before you even get to any of the queues, one of the most readily-apparent changes for horror nights is that much of the walkable area of the park is divided into themed “scarezones” with outdoor sets & props, as well as costumed scare actors. despite my enthusiasm for the whole thing, i scare kinda easily so i was often hiding or half-hiding behind my partner (gaining partial cover, in d&d terms), and to my delight this seemed to encourage the scare actors to target me specifically, and obviously that’s kinda exactly what i wanted anyway so it worked out pretty well! (this also happened in the haunted houses, but idk, it seemed even more obvious in the scarezones!)

the first scare zone we encountered at the entrance to the horror nights event was zombieland: double tap, because i guess that was coming out shortly after horror nights? i saw zombieland in theaters with some friends in college and enjoyed it at the time but prior to (spoilers) rewatching it for this silly little review i hadn’t seen it again since, and i hadn’t seen the sequel at all, but i still really dug this scare zone. there were some burned out cars and whatnot to give you the feeling of walking around in a zombie apocalypse, and the scare actors were all covered in blood and zombie makeup and did a really great job scaring people. even though zombieland is hardly my go-to for zombie movies, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with zombies as a scare zone theme.

aside from the rob zombie one which i think we skipped, the other scarezones were all original concepts and i really enjoyed all of them! vikings undead was exactly what it says on the tin. viking zombies are like torturing bound prisoners and whatnot, and yeah obviously that super worked for me. the other two were the vanity ball where surgeon “artists” turn people into living works of art and the anarch-cade where a blacklit arcade was full of scare actors clad in neon-lit clothes and wielding neon-lit weapons.

all of these really added to the ambiance of the whole thing, and really made it feel like a much more complete experience instead of just like waiting in line for an hour or two, doing cool halloweeny stuff, and then walking through normal universal studios stuff to get to the next line and wait in line for another hour or two and do another cool halloween thing. especially since a lot of the queues went through hilariously non-halloweeny areas like the jimmy fallon race through new york or the curious george playground. we had a kick talking about how scary those sorts of things were gonna be while we were queuing through them.

zombieland: double tap (movie 2019)

both of the zombieland movies would actually be pretty awesome if it weren’t for all the things about them that are completely terrible. the biggest and most glaring of these being the just absolutely nonstop misogyny. holy shit.

fwiw, i could be wrong but i got the very distinct impression that it wasn’t intentional or malicious? like the vibe i get from the overall tone of the movie is that the filmmakers are the kind of people who think they’re being “equal-opportunity assholes,” and they’re just genuinely ignorant of the fact that a) the kinds of jokes they’re making at the characters’ expense are inherently not equal? and b) given the relative power disparity between the people they’re dunking on, even if it were completely equal it wouldn’t have the same impact?

on top of that, even if we set aside all the social dynamics at play, there’s just a tangible difference between dunking on a group you’re a part of and a group you’re not a part of. the latter is just always going to be less respectful, i’m sorry, it just is.

it sucks because it absolutely drives a knife through one of the things that otherwise would make it such a damn likable movie? like, having a fun romp through the zombie apocalypse rules, actually? and having nearly constant narration from an informal, fast-talking dork would be a fucking spectacular accompaniment to that if the person doing that narration weren’t just the absolute biggest douche ever and if half the shit he was saying wasn’t incelly bullshit. and even that could be fine if the movie were at least not trying to sympathize with him, but not only is it clearly trying to do that, the action of both films is also clearly from the exact same point of view as all his bitching and moaning. take that shit back to reddit, man.

as far as stuff specific to the second movie, i really just fucking hate how genuinely awesome all the people the movie thinks it’s dunking on are. the movie is just so fucking smug about people who give any kind of shit about anything, it’s just such a huge turnoff.

i did love the drastically more functional version of columbus and tallahassee’s dynamic we saw from their two lookalikes that showed up like halfway through the movie. also, out of the two movies, the second one had the drastically better bill murray cameo even though it was much shorter. (actually, that almost certainly helped.) i actually noticed a garfield 3 poster early on in the movie but for some reason it just didn’t quite click that there wasn’t a garfield 3 a garfield 3 until the mid-credits scene. and ending the whole thing with murray sighing, “i hate mondays” was just priceless.

again there is a lot about these movies that is actually genuinely fun. like i really wish i could like them more because i like the kind of movie they’re trying to be, i like a lot of things about them. the action scenes are frequently great, the overall structure and tone is kind of exactly what i’d want from a zombie movie… but it’s just hard to get over how baked in the grossness is. it taints almost everything i like about the movie.

idk. it probably sounds like i’m taking this movie too seriously, and like, i’m not. i’m still able to kinda let go and have fun watching it. like, basically 10 seconds into rewatching the first movie (i had seen it before, but not the second) i was like, oh, right, it’s gonna be that kind of movie. i get it. but when i sit here and think about the movies, it’s just kind of hard to say that i like them or will ever rewatch either of them without a pretty good reason.

in the spirit of columbus’s rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse, i guess that’s a good rule #1 for making movies: don’t be a dick. c-rank

before we pivot back to my thoughts on the theme park attractions themselves, i’m just gonna stick my thoughts on all the movies the haunted houses were based on here. i’m not actually rewatching any of them. (though, i did actually rewatch us recently for the totally unrelated reason that jordan peele had a new movie coming out, so that one’s pretty fresh in my mind.) i’ve seen ghostbusters like a billion times and although i’ve only seen killer klowns and house of 1000 corpses once apiece, i don’t need to see either of those movies more than once. (i mean, i wouldn’t hate rewatching killer klowns i guess, but you’d have to pay me kind of a lot to get me to watch another rob zombie movie ever again.) anyway,

ghostbusters (movie 1984)

“do you believe in ufos, astral projections, mental telepathy, esp, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the loch ness monster, and the theory of atlantis?”

janine

so, let me get this straight. in one corner, you have gozer the gozerian. a nonbinary deity whose chosen form in the movie is a femme with massive Will Step On You energy. their keymaster directly told a horse that all prisoners will be released when gozer is in power. gozer later transformed him into a dog, and upon transforming back he was clearly less than thrilled about being a human again. at their back is a literal motherfucking army of the dead that they don’t even need because they are clearly capable of taking on just about any force the earth can throw at them by themself.

in the other corner, we have the ghostbusters and the city, state, and county of new york.

the ghostbusters. you know. two scientists with their heads in the clouds, a guy just looking to collect a paycheck who both movies barely acknowledge his existence even when he’s onscreen to the point where you kinda wonder why they bothered including him at all, and their de facto leader who is a fairly accomplished con artist and a fairly unaccomplished sex pest. those guys. who the movie shows bravely show standing against the horror of *checks notes* any government oversight of businesses whatsoever.

and the city, state, and county of new york. you know. one of the most racist and corrupt city governments in the world, whose police force is basically a private army whose primary purpose is harassing marginalized groups and hemming them in to “their” parts of the city, keeping them away from the parts frequented by tourists and people who wear expensive italian suits. honestly, the only good thing about new york is actually showcased in the opening act: the new york public library.

and you want me to fucking root for THE SECOND TWO???

ok but seriously this movie still kinda rules even though its theming is awful in places. but also, yes please do step on me, gozer. also i wonder if the whole ghost blowjob thing could work in the reverse, like, with the living person blowing the ghost. anyghost wanna help me find out? b-rank

killer klowns from outer space (movie 1988)

the protagonist might be a racist/sexist dialogue spewing machine (which is especially uncomfortable as everyone in this movie is white, and the only female character is literally dropped off at home so the Men Can Handle This before being kidnapped), but it’s impossible to deny that this thing is wildly creative.

i mean. aliens who disguise themselves as clowns so they can kill you and wrap you in cotton candy to store you until they drink your blood? that’s a new one for me, at least. and just when i thought their antics were going to wear a little thin, they throw pies that can melt you and popcorn that turns into weird snake things. oh, and the aforementioned kidnapping of the only female character? yeah, she’s trapped in a balloon, because of course she is. pennywise whomst? c-rank

house of 1000 corpses (movie 2003)

ok so like. i used to have a blog about bondage in popular media, which hey wait i suppose i actually do again funny how things come back around. anyway i heard this was a horror movie with a lot of bondage imagery and uh yeah it has a ton of bondage imagery and some of it is even kinda hot? a lot of it is very fucked up. a lot of it is both at the same time.

that’s literally the only reason i can recommend watching this movie? if you want to see just a ton of (oftentimes fucked up) bondage imagery? that’s literally it? like, honestly, i just don’t recommend this movie, like, at all. me categorically refusing to watch it again was basically what broke the dam on me not actually rewatching all these movies. this movie sucks. it’s weird and it’s dumb and it sucks.

between this and his halloween reboot, i just have seen enough rob zombie to know that i just don’t even want to ever bother giving him another chance, sorry. d-rank

us (movie 2019)

jordan peele has made three films but he is just kind of the greatest living horror movie director? and although his first film was staggeringly good it was his second film that really cemented that statement as one of obvious fact?

us is a much more complicated movie than get out, which is the only movie in peele’s ouvre we had to compare it to at the time. get out is extremely straightforward about what it’s saying and in many ways is a very theme-driven movie, which isn’t to say there isn’t breathtakingly good filmmaking in it because there totally is, but it’s just structured in such a way that very actively conveys what it’s saying thematically and there’s very little chance of anyone leaving the theater or turning off the tv at the end of the movie without knowing exactly what the movie is about.

it took me multiple passes of us to even begin to grapple with what to say about it? it’s just a much more thematically-complex movie and on top of that it doesn’t feel quite theme-driven so much as theme-informed? there’s just so much going on in it and it isn’t all in service to any one single, obvious thing?

all of this would arguably make this a weird pull to base a theme park haunted house on, except that the scares in this are so fucking effective it would actually be worthwhile to see this movie literally just for them? and how often is that the case with arthouse horror? how often is that the case with horror in general?

as i stated in a prior review, i am not the expert many of my friends are in this sort of stuff but to my admittedly fairly untrained eye it really does seem like the camera is always just exactly in the right place? and there are so many interesting angles and frankly just gorgeously composed shots in this?

the three movies he’s given us so far have shown us that peele just has a tremendous amount of range as a filmmaker. like you could distill it down to “get out was the smart one, us was the scary one, and nope was the funny one” and like… all three movies contain all three traits in abundance, it’s just that one of the three is more dominant than the others.

i’m struggling to think of another time that a filmmaker has so quickly established that every time he has a new movie coming out it is just going to be an event, but jordan peele has been there basically since day one. he’s the real deal. a-rank

haunted houses

of the licensed property houses, stranger things was a pretty easy skip because it had huge lines and i loved the first season but lost interest after that. i don’t think we made it to the universal monsters one, which in retrospect i kind of regret but that’s okay!

we actually started with the ghostbusters one, and it was a really great warmup because it obviously wasn’t too scary or anything but they clearly put a lot of effort into it. it started strong with an awesome recreation of the library scene complete with moving books and even slime on some of the shelves that you could touch. again this wasn’t particularly scary but it was still a heck of a lot of fun.

as far as other licensed property houses, we also checked out the killer klowns from outer space one and the house of 1000 corpses one, mostly because i had seen both movies when i was doing a horror movie challenge on letterboxd. both of these houses… sure were haunted houses based on these two movies!

honestly my ulterior motive for wanting to check these out aside from familiarity was that both movies had a ton of bondage imagery and i figured that might be reflected in the houses, but it mostly wasn’t the case? but the killer klowns one in particular had quite a bit of obvious effort put into its production values and really did reflect some of the rather impressive set design of the movie. there were also some pretty cool effects with uv lights and blacklights, as well as some great jumpscares involving airhorns and sudden loud air jets, so that was awesome. also, both of them had fairly cool facades at the end of their queues, whereas the ghostbusters one was just kinda in a giant studio building with no real exterior decorations, so i guess that’s exactly one (1) thing they did better than that one.

but by far the actually scariest of the licensed property haunted houses was the one based on jordan peele’s us. either this one or ghostbusters was definitely my favorite of the licensed properties ones, though they’re super hard to compare since they were going for drastically different experiences. the scare actors in the us house were on point. like, i basically knew going in what one of the last scares was probably gonna be, and it was basically exactly that, but it still totally got me.

i learned that first year that the real stars of the haunted houses were the ones not based on any properties, though! the ones we experienced were:

  • nightingales: blood pit, where roman gladiatorial games have been attacked by a race of opportunistic predators that look like humanoid vultures. i loved that a good portion of this took place in the gladiators’ prison, but the scenery through the whole thing was just super impressive.
  • depths of fear, which is kind of like the aliens franchise but underwater, with fish-like parasitic monsters attacking an underwater base. i super love underwater settings, so this was for sure one of my favorites.
  • yeti: terror of the yukon, which i wasn’t super looking forward to since “you’re in the northern wilderness and there’s a yeti” didn’t really sound as exciting as the other scenarios but the execution on this was so phenomenal i ended up really enjoying it anyway. and a lot of the scares really got me! especially the ones where the scare actors waited until i had already passed and jumped out from behind me. and the “outdoor” portions were just super impressive.
  • graveyard games, where some kids defaced a graveyard and now the ghosts are hella pissed at them. you get a lot of imagery related to the backstory in the queue (once you got past the kids zone the line started in, that is, lmao). i don’t have as much to call out about this one as i did about the others, but it was another example of them just going all out with the design of the setting and the costumes and everything.

halloween has been my favorite holiday for the longest time, but i frequently found myself in the position of not really having anything to do on or around halloween, so i love that this has become a tradition for me & my partner. that first year is also just a really special memory, it was just really cool being there with her and like… killing time in line together and all that good gay stuff. i can’t wait to go back.


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