September 8, 2023, 2:03 AM ·

Another week, another coast, and another Halloween Horror Nights. Tonight, we were in Hollywood for the opening night of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. And just like in Orlando last week, one house stood out above the rest.

As I wrote in my review of the Orlando event last week, “ranking the houses at Halloween Horror Nights is always a futile affair.” Driven by the live performances of hundreds of scareactors, the houses evolve over the event’s run, and the timing with which you hit the cadence of scares within a house can make your experience vary substantially from visit to visit.Nevertheless, as a way to spark some well-earned conversation about this year’s event, here are our first impressions from tonight.House of the yearIn Orlando, it was their original Dueling Dragons house that stood above the pack. In Hollywood, as predicted last week by Jacob Sundstrom, it’s Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count. Depraved fun from beginning to end, Chucky thrills and amuses as he goes on a killing spree in the HHN house that Universal created for him. Sure, you might want to laugh at the sad end of a fellow HHN fan, who died watching his vlog about the annual event. But, don’t worry, “blood” will be on your hands by the end of the house – as well as on your face and much of your body. Universal really leaned into physical effects with this year’s houses, and Chucky takes advantage with some substantial water jets.I also appreciated that Hollywood actually delivered a running “kill count” in the house, as its name promised. The use of Chucky puppets and animatronic here also is outstanding, setting a standard that continues in our second-favorite house.

Top tierMonstruos: The Monsters of Latin America offers a gallery of horrifying creatures from Latin American folklore. This house’s use of large-scale puppetry helps push it to the top of this tier. That scale continues in the Latin-themed El Terror de las Momias scare zone that follows at the exit of the house.And the smells in the butcher scene are, uh, something else. Again, Universal really want hard on the sensory effects this year, as smell factored in several of this year’s houses.Last week, I declined to rank two of the IP houses in Orlando, since I thought that a visitor’s experience within them would vary so much based on their knowledge of the franchises. But I didn’t feel that way about their siblings on the west coast. In each case, I though these installations did a good job of creating a self-contained world that would reward fans while also entertaining newcomers to these franchises.Stranger Things 4 does perhaps a slightly better job with its IP’s story, giving it the next spot in our list. This house never reaches for the scale that the Orlando version delivered, but I appreciated the work of the scareactor cast in this house. In general, Hollywood’s houses seemed to use scareactors in places where Orlando relied on mannequins, helping to bring the Hollywood versions literally to life.The Last of Us didn’t lean so much into the video game’s narrative as much as it just immerses you in the scene and environment of the game. Without the emotional foundation that makes the attacks in the game (and HBO show) so powerful, this house feels more like just another collection of jump scares – though in an amazing setting that pushes it into our top tier.Mid-tierHolidayz in Hell returns for an encore after its 2019 debut. A sardonic take on holiday traditions with plenty of the blood and guts that horror fans often demand, this house was a bit more consistent in quality from start to finish than the next one on our list.[More house videos to come]Universal Monsters: Unmasked takes a while to get going, but it finishes strong with The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame coming at you in rapid fashion, accompanied by another original HHN house score from Slash.And that leaves….Evil Dead Rise fills the old Walking Dead Attraction space with one of the longer houses of the night. There are some nice scenes here, but also a lot of long corridors punctuated by what felt like the same jump scare. It’s good, but just not as great as some of the other houses this year.And finally, we have The Exorcist: Believer. They need to turn down the swamp juice on this one. This was the first HHN house that made me fear I was going to suffocate from the amount of fog inside. And endless blood red corridors also lost the momentum from some nice scenes that set up this upcoming film. Maybe with less suffocating fog I would have liked this house more. As is, though, it was just too uncomfortable to enjoy.Beyond the housesAfter the Chucky house, perhaps the most fun I had at Halloween Horror Nights this year was Terror Tram: The Exterminatorz. Terror Tram often leans into humor along with horror, and this year there’s a sarcastic environmental message thrown into this mix, as well. The tram ride provides just enough time to set up the first walk-through scarezone, at the Bates Motel set, before we pass the War of the Worlds set then head across the street for our walk through the Jupiter’s Claim set from Jordan Peele’s “Nope.” This year, there’s a mash-up with the Tethered from Peele’s “Us” on the faux theme park streets, as well.With the construction for the upcoming Fast & Furious roller coaster tearing down the old Castle Theater, Universal turned to its WaterWorld theater for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights live show – The Purge: Dangerous Waters.The Purge franchise probably comes closest of any entertainment franchise at pushing the buttons of the political rift in America at the moment. But it’s a Rorschach test in which most everyone sees their side as justified, not matter which side it is. That’s brilliant business, but I don’t know effective that works as insightful social commentary. Nevertheless, this show fires off a crazy amount of pyro while providing an excuse for some flaming high dives and one very graphic flight moment. It’s not for the feint of heart – but that if that’s you, you’re probably not coming to Halloween Horror Nights anyway. Spoiler alert: No airplane, though. Finally, the Death Eaters added a welcomed foreboding touch to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which you must walk through on your way to Chucky and Universal Monsters houses. Loved the added element of the Dark Mark projected on Hogwarts tower, too. For discounted tickets to Halloween Horror Nights, please visit our partner’s Universal Studios Hollywood tickets page.And for more theme park news, please sign up for Theme Park Insider’s weekly newsletter.

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