September 2, 2023, 1:48 AM ·
Dr. Oddfellow might be the icon for Universal Orlando’s 32nd Halloween Horror Nights, which opened Friday night at Universal Studios Florida. But it’s an old attraction from Islands of Adventure that stole the show.
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 what will be 48 nights of the event this year. And the timing with which you hit the cadence of scares within a house can make your experience vary substantially from visit to visit. But based on nothing more than my first time through these houses, in an effort to get a conversation going, here is my ranking, along with commentary on each house.House of the yearDueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate – Islands of Adventure’s Dueling Dragons roller coasters got a rebrand in 2010 when the land around them was rebuilt into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The coasters themselves hit the scrap heap in 2017, to be replaced by Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.But Dueling Dragons, with its embrace of Merlin from Arthurian legend, remains fondly remembered among long-time Universal fans. Fan service alone does not make a great attraction, of course. But Choose Thy Fate honors the memory of this IOA original with a house every bit as grand, entertaining, and – ultimately – thrilling as the dueling coasters themselves.The evil warlocks of fire and ice – Pyrrock and Blizzrock – are battling for Merlin’s spell book after the great wizard is turned into the Enchanted Oak. To deter them, Merlin changes the warlocks into dragons of fire and ice, who continue their battle through the forest. Ultimately, you must “choose they fate” and decide whether to follow fire or ice, just like coaster riders needed to choose which track to ride after waiting in Dueling Dragons’ elaborately themed queue.The HHN house calls back to multiple details in that queue, but you need not know any of them to enjoy the awe-inspiring production design of this house. And the split path at the end, each with two possible endings for a total of four possible outcomes, makes multiple trips through this house an ever-rewarding joy.
Top tierI don’t want to pick among the next three houses, except to say that they were my top tier after Dragons.Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count – Universal goes meta with this one. They built a Chucky house, only to have the real Chucky veto it because Universal wasn’t actually killing people inside. And this is the result, “Ultimate Kill Count,” in which a variety of dolls, puppets, facades, and scareactors all possessed by Chucky are wiping out not just characters from the various Chucky productions, but people who look a whole like other guests and scareactors in the house. The Darkest Deal – Universal retells the classic “Crossroads” myth of a musician selling his soul to the devil for fame and success. Lest you believe this an exclusively American tale, long before the story was told of Robert Johnson and his guitar, people were telling it about Paganini and his violin.Here we have another blues musician who makes a deal with the devil on a run-down honky tonk, only to lose it all when the devil gets his due. This is the type of simple, well-known story that makes a perfect original concept house, and Universal executes it well.Dr. Oddfellow: Twisted Origins – HHN32’s icon gets his backstory in this house, which just happens to take place on the final mortal day of one Jack Schmidt, killed by Dr. Oddfellow only to become the equally immortal Jack the Clown, another long-time HHN icon. We’re visiting a dilapidated circus, only to run into Dr. Oddfellow, who needs some human souls to feed his ambitions. It’s all just the right kind of creepy for me, and the focus on two Horror Nights icons adds a welcome layer of fan service.The next tierOne notch below the above, but all still solid experiences.Yeti: Campground Kills – This year’s camp comedy house – literally – brings a whole Yeti family (allegedly, a collection of Yeti is a blizzard), to Shadow Creek State Park in the 1950s for a nice camping getaway. But when a human boy kills a baby yeti, it’s time for vengeance.Bloodmoon: Dark Offerings is set in U.S. colonial times, with a cult of moon-worshippers looking to sacrifice some non-believers to ensure a healthy crop of food in the fall. The bell tower that looms over this settlement sets an appropriately ominous tone for this house.Universal Monsters: Unmasked takes us to Paris and delivers us the Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde), The Invisible Man, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s pretty heavy on the Phantom, this time stealing faces from opera patrons to make his masks, but the highlight for me was the Hunchback and his thrilling dive toward you.The Exorcist: Believer is based upon a movie that won’t come out until next month, prompting Universal to call the house “a living trailer.” All you need to know is that the story involves two girls who get lost in the forest only to return possessed. Sure, the Exorcist gets called to do her thing, but do you think that’s really going to help?If you know ’em, you’ll love themI am not going to try to rank these last two, outside IP-driven houses, because your enjoyment will depend upon your familiarity with the original works. If you know them, you’ll love them, as they both do an excellent job of immersing you in iconic moments from their stories. However, if you don’t know those stories, you’re gonna be lost. Still, enjoy the production design and go with the flow. Both houses deliver compelling moments for even non-followers.I am leading with Stranger Things 4 simply because I know that IP better. Look up in the trailer home for my favorite scene in this house, which also does a nice job of bringing us into Eddie’s finest moment. That leaves The Last of Us. This one is based on Naughty Dog’s Playstation game rather than the HBO series adaptation. I’m not a follower of either, but others in my group tonight raved about how well Universal created a feeling that you were walking through the game in this house. Again, if you know it, you’ll love it. If not, well… eh?Halloween Horror Nights continues on select nights between now and October 31.