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Live Active Cultures

Seth Kubersky's best and worst of Universal Orlando's 21st annual Halloween Horror Nights

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Just like that sinister seven ofspades that always seems to show up when I hit on 15, Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights (“HHN” to its gore-crazed fans) has returned again to haunt the all-hallows season. On Sept. 23 I braved the 21st edition of the popular annual event, facing stinging rain, tables of severed flesh and ravenous creatures – and that was just the VIP media reception.

If you’re expecting signature scares from previous years like Jack the Clown and the Chainsaw Drill team, you’re out of luck; this year is a reboot to launch the event’s third decade. But though the overall event isn’t as thematically integrated this year, the houses’ decor and effects have reached a new peak. The environments and apparitions in this year’s mazes seem more imaginative, more innovative, more ear-shatteringly loudthan ever before. The only kudos I can’t bestow is “scarier”; until Universal reinvents the way they conga-line the crowds (or at least 86 the flashlight-waving attendants shooing you along), I’ll continue to shrug my way past the predictable startles.

Here are my personal superlatives for HHN21 (and a couple of “golden turkeys” for good measure), based on my opening night experience. Keep in mind that the event might evolve over the month-long run, so your screamage may vary.

Best Atmosphere: Winter’s Night: The Haunting of Hawthorn Cemetery

The three houses inside Universal’s soundstages are always the most immersive, but this take on a traditional graveyard sets a new standard with frigid air and actual falling snow. Watch for the corpse crawling out of its grave and a forced-perspective vista of the necropolis.

Coolest Creatures: The Thing

John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing is one of my all-time favorite films, and Universal’s 2007 Thing-themed maze was tough to top. But this version does it one better, placing you in the middle of an Antarctic assault by icky alien atrocities. Here’s hoping the soon-to-be-released prequel is half as visceral as this maze.

Gruesomest Gore: Nightingales: Blood Prey

The trenches of World War I were a real-life horror show, so it’s almost surprising that Universal hasn’t built a haunt around them before. The claustrophobic dirt-and-barbed wire maze filled with deafening gunfire and banshee nurses is freaky enough, but seeing a doughboy get torn in half at the waist, leaving his severed legs standing without the rest of him, is a sight I won’t soon forget.

Most Literate: Nevermore: The Madness of Poe

It isn’t often that AP English comes in handy at Halloween, but observant readers will spot nods to The Pit and the Pendulum, Annabel Lee, The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado and more of the macabre author’s creations. Most frightening of all: the prosthetic foreheads worn by the Edgar Allan impersonators, making them all look like the hydrocephalic rat from Pinky and the Brain.

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