amiliar, frightful faces fill this year's edition of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios — but a few longtime fiends come with twists.
The silver-screen theme that runs throughout the event, from haunted houses to scare zones to shows, provides opportunity to interact with bigger-than-life scary characters dating from the 1930s to today, plus it teases to upcoming Universal productions.
"I think Saw is the most popular of our brands this year," says Michael Roddy, show producer at Universal Orlando. "I think it will be one of the major draws. It's prevalent, it's contemporary, people know what that is."
Saw, a series of torture-driven mind-game movies, debuts its sixth installment Oct. 23. Horror fans know the stories and expect realistic simulations. Roddy says the Saw haunted house will be "greatest hits" package of the Saw films.
"You're actually going to walk into Jigsaw's lair," he says. "As you walk in, it's an industrial building, almost nondescript. And as you enter, you're immediately in his workshop. You'll see all of the TVs and the cameras, and you'll come face-to-monitor with [puppet] Billy, who'll give you your task, which is to make it through this maze."
Tobin Bell, who plays the diabolical scientist Jigsaw, recorded new lines for the house.
"For us, it's a big, big challenge that we replicate this 100 percent," says T.J. Mannarino, director of art and design for Universal Orlando. "Saw will have to match that intensity, that excitement."
For old-school, classic characters Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, Universal will present a modern take on the original movies. Don't look for Herman Munster or Count Chocula.
"In 1931, people fled the theater [during Frankenstein]. In Dracula, people fainted," Roddy notes. "Now, so many years later, you go back to 'Well, what is Frankenstein's monster?' It's a reanimated corpse that has been burned, and it was stitched together."
The pieced-together theme runs throughout the Frankenstein: Creation of the Damned house, which is set in time after the Bride of Frankenstein movie. The castle — and other creatures — are being reassembled haphazardly with available materials.
The monster looks like a work in progress — thin, skull showing through in spots, and gray, not green. The costuming has a steampunk look: sort of a science-fiction feel using Victorian era materials such as polished wood, brass and iron.
"It's taking the beginning of electric and the beginning of that kind of life and bringing it into a period costume," says Susan Moore, design manager of art and design.
For the Dracula: Legacy of Blood house (very gothic with tapestry and statuary), designers shunned the widow's-peak look for a Vlad the Impaler style: belted tunic, high boots, cape and a key bit of protection.
"He's going to get one piece of armor that protects his heart," Moore says.
There will be a few different incarnations of the Count.
"We have the bat-faced look for him, and we have more of where he's changing from one to another, but always coming back to our classic look for him," Moore says.
The house will be populated with Dracula's wives. Some are pale and beautiful, but some aren't taking to this marriage. Universal calls them the "feral brides."
They're "really decrepit, disgusting, almost beastlike," Mannarino says.
The Wolfman house essentially serves as a preview of the Universal Pictures' upcoming The Wolfman starring Benicio Del Toro.
"We were basically given access to all their designs, and this is a big-budget version. A lot of amazing production value has gone into it." Roddy says. Although the house is built inside a soundstage, it has an outdoors feel with a gypsy camp, a forest and the sensation of being chased by a lycanthrope.
After Tuesday night's employee preview, I've officially been inside every haunted house at this year's Halloween Horror Night event at Universal Studios. (We didn't make it into Frankenstein: Creation of the Damned, but I was in there as construction finished -- and with the lights on and without scare actors -- last week.
I am firmly anti-spoiler. But here's a brief rundown of what to expect in each of the eight houses. Horror Nights begins Friday and runs 23 select nights through Oct. 31.
+ SAW -- Like the movie series, many torture scenes. Effective disembodied voice. The exit, clearly visible to passers-by, is filled with squeals.
+ The Wolfman -- Very woodsy, very English. Tight quarters. Near the end, look up.
+ Chucky: Friends to the End -- Colorful, dark in tone but not in lighting. Fun costuming, some of which made me laugh -- and not that nervous giggle laugh. Freaky opening tunnel messes with your equilibrium.
+ Dracula: Legacy of Blood -- Full of great architectural touches and hissing brides.
+ Frankenstein: Creation of the Damned -- There's a running stitched-together theme here, from the rebuilt castle to the rebuilt monsters. I'm eager to see the steampunk-style costuming.
+ The Spawning -- Plenty of lurking creatures and sewer features. Seems like there were more dangling things to interfere with your vision and comfort levels.
+ Leave It to Cleaver -- Nasty, gross and creative. It's a 1950s butcher setting, thoroughly themed in a borderline cartoon way. End room is simultaneously disturbing and delightful. (Oh second thought, EWWWW).
+ Silver Screams -- I liked the format of the house, which spotlights films selected by the Usher character. It's well organized, not as mishmash as I imagined, but it's loud. From cranked-up old-timey theater organ music to the cacophany of the Shaun of the Dead room, I started turning into an old man. Turn down that radio, whippersnappers! Now that's scary.
After our tour of houses, we watched a performance of Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure. It was a strong outing -- still in rehearsals, remember -- but I felt old again. Some of the characters were strangers to me, I think, because I've been slack in my moviegoing lately. But any show that manages to skewer Shia LaBouef, Tyra Banks and the economy before it even begins is OK in my book.
Had a conference call this afternoon with Michael Roddy, show director at Universal Orlando. There was lots of Halloween Horror Night tidbits, which we'll get to, but for now, here's the locations of the scare zones and haunted houses for the event, which kicks off Sept. 25. It's a clip-and-save. Use something sharp and scary.
After passing through the turnstiles, you should be able to see "Containment," the zone about bio-nerve gas, in the valley between Jimmy Neutron and Shrek. Cue the green mist. Your alternative is to bear right down Hollywood Boulevard, home of "Lights, Camera, Hacktion!!!" That's the imagined filming of The Chainsaw Drill Team Massacre in 3-D. "It's going to be chainsaw alley," Roddy says.
"As you enter the park you can look down toward Shrek/Jimmy Neutron and there will be this wall of green, glowing fog," he says. "You can look down Hollywood Boulevard and there’s a film crew being hacked to pieces by a chainsaw maniac. So it’s like 'Which way do you go?' ... Well, have fun with that."
Others: "War of the Living Dead" will be in the Shrek/Monsters Cafe alley, "Apocalypse: City of Cannibals" on New York street, "Cirque Du Freak" at the entrance to KidZone and "Horrorwood Die-in" at Mel's Drive-In.
After the jump: haunted house/maze locations.
Three houses will be built in the Universal soundstages: "The Wolfman," "Dracula: Legacy of Blood" and "Frankenstein: Creation of the Damned."
"Saw" -- the Jaws extended queue.
"Leave It to Cleaver" -- the Disaster! extended queue.
"Chucky: Friends to the End" and "The Spawning" -- The tents behind the Simpsons Ride.
"Silver Screams" behind the Barnie attraction.