ORLANDO – Winding through the intricately detailed, fantastically designed house at the heart of one of Universal Studio’s most impressive original haunted attractions, Dollhouse of the Damned, visitors wander into a nursery filled with two over-sized cribs, inside of which are two grown men in diapers with grotesque baby doll heads for faces, furiously shaking the crib rails, wailing and reaching through to grab anyone nearby.
It’s possibly one of the most unsettling visuals you’re likely to see all year.
Halloween Horror Nights, now in its 24th year, remains one of Florida’s must-visit October destinations. Featuring a healthy balance between iconic horror film and television properties, and original concepts, the eight haunted houses and four scare zones may well represent the best the theme park has ever offered.
But the reality is that every house and scare zone delivers equal parts gore, chills and genuine creativity, and there’s literally something for every type of fan. Halloween Horror Nights is now open on select nights through Nov. 1.
If you’re terrified of clowns, there’s Giggles & Gore Inc., which creates a blood-soaked factory staffed by deranged clowns who torture unsuspecting victims.
For those who like their history spliced with urban legend, there’s Roanoke – Cannibal Colony, which reimagines the first English settlement as a village filled with crazed colonists driven to eat other people, and themselves, by the spirit of a Wendigo. It’s by far the goriest house at Universal Studios this year, and it also has the best concluding scene, which puts you face to face with the towering half-man, half-beast of lore.
“The Walking Dead: End of the Line” is a special treat for zombie fanatics of television’s most popular show. It’s also the largest attraction ever created for Halloween Horror Nights, filling an entire sound stage.
Most houses have nine scenes, or rooms, and between 20 and 30 performers. “The Walking Dead: End of the Line,” which takes fans through the entire fourth season of the show, from the virus outbreak at the prison to the perceived promised land of Terminus, has 14 scenes and more than 60 performers. There’s one scene in particular where visitors have to navigate through a room filled with zombie walkers that is absolutely surreal.
The most well-known property, “Halloween,” is pitch-perfect, offering fans the chance to live out the events of director John Carpenter’s first film. It’s all there – from Annie’s final moments trapped inside a car with Michael Myers to Bob’s demise in the kitchen to Laurie’s battle in the living room with The Shape to Dr. Loomis’ oft-quoted final speech. There’s even a brief shout-out to “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” for fans who love the maligned but cult classic third film in the franchise.
The biggest surprise is probably “AVP,” which began as a comic book imagining a world where aliens and predators battled for supremacy, and then was brought to life in two Hollywood films. Halloween Horror Nights has one-upped the movies, creating an exceptional thrill experience that puts you face to face with alien pods, face huggers, full-size xenomorphs (aliens) and towering predators, while incorporating moments from all of the movies, particularly James Cameron’s “Aliens.”
If there’s a weak link to be found, it’s likely two houses based on lesser-known properties, the reimagined “From Dusk Till Dawn” television series, which debuted last year on the new El Rey network and “Dracula Untold,” which is supposed to be an enticement for the upcoming feature film of the same name.
From “Dusk Till Dawn: is simply too short, and much of the vampire makeup effects are hidden by shadows and curtains. As a haunted house, “Dracula Untold” is beautifully designed but it fails to generate much excitement for the film.
There are two live performances that fans also can check out, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the revamped “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure.”
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure is a scatter-shot mashup of pop culture, popular radio and unexpectedly mature content. The performance, which features a wet T-shirt component, scantily-clad dancers and a Donald Sterling impersonator, manages to offend just about every demographic. The low-light: A voluptuous blonde pretending to be Princess Elsa singing “I Let Myself Go” while scarfing snow cones.
The scare zones, which are essentially live-action street performances, spotlight several fun movies and television shows, including “The Purge: Anarchy” and the SyFy Channel’s wildly successful reality makeup competition, “Face Off.” Many of the characters lurching through the street for Face Off – In the Flesh represent some of the most inventive designs you’ve seen from a distance on TV, and that’s not by coincidence.
Laura Tyler, who won the fifth season of “Face Off” in 2013, now works with the event as a makeup artist. Tyler, who was on hand for last week’s opening celebration, said she is a longtime visitor to Universal Studios every October.
“It’s amazing coming as a fan then working here and then seeing your design in the street,” she said. “It’s like coming back home. You can’t not come to Halloween Horror Nights.”