Halloween Horror Nights 2017 house-by-house review: “The Shining” stuns as Universal Orlando unearths truly iconic event

in Events, Theme Parks, Universal Orlando

Another year of fear is upon us as Universal Orlando this weekend unveiled a dazzlingly dreadful display of terrors at Halloween Horror Nights 2017. This 27th year of the event does not disappoint in any way, one of the strongest overall lineups of thrills and chills Universal has created in recent years.

They specifically left out an “icon” to represent this year’s event, instead showcasing Halloween Horror Nights itself as a truly iconic haunted happening. As such, there is no overall story that links the houses or scare zones together, beyond a “festival” of all things creepy. And while some longtime fans may lament the loss of a central iconic character, the event is actually better without it, enabling each theme – whether based on a hit intellectual property or an original concept – to stand on its own.

This year also marks the end of another long-standing tradition as the final time Bill and Ted will host their Excellent Halloween Adventure. As such, Universal kicked off Halloween Horror Nights 2017 with a surprise appearance by the somewhat dimwitted duo, including them in the opening moment in front of reporters. Since capturing video and photos of their show is never allowed, this enabled us to record a farewell to the popular pair before enjoying the beginning of their last performance run.

Here’s this year’s introductory moment, featuring Bill and Ted, Show Director Patrick Braillard, and a whole bunch of spooks:

Beyond their show, there are 9 haunted houses and 5 scare zones to explore at the event, along with another lively stage show and plenty of opportunities to spend money on food, drinks, and merchandise. And below I offer my thoughts on it all, to help you plan how to make the most out of your trip to Halloween Horror Nights 2017.

On with the specifics…

The Rules

As with previous years, this Halloween Horror Nights event review includes each haunted house, scare zone, and show summarized and ranked into one or more categories: Screamer (scare-filled), Gut Buster (comedy-packed), Eye Popper (visually-stunning), and/or Mind Blower (overall best in show). And in the case of a complete dud, I refer to it as a Grave Digger. Use my thoughts as a guide to help you plan your attack.

Read on for my Halloween Horror Nights 2017 review from Universal Orlando.

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Haunted Houses

This year’s lineup of mazes is quite the balanced, but eclectic mix with 5 IP-based and 4 original concepts. Much like the last two years, there really isn’t a weak one of the bunch. I’m consistently impressed at how Universal is able to crank out so much quality content year after year. They’ve definitely nailed down a perfect formula for capturing the true spirit of Halloween.

So, with that said, on with my house-by-house review, in which I will have to be a bit nitpicky to even rank them at all, since the overall lineup is so strong…

1. The Shining

RANKING: Mind Blower, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Brilliant. Perfect. As a lifelong fan of Stanley Kubrick’s work, I am thrilled to report that this haunted house does the movie justice. It’s a tall order to present a psychological thriller filled with deep subtext as a linear walkthrough, but Universal Orlando has tackled the challenge with grace. From the opening scenes of being trapped in a “shining” moment to stumbling through the Overlook Hotel – recreating in stunning detail – following Jack’s descent into madness, this experience thrusts visitors deep into the madness found throughout the classic film.

And all the best elements I hoped to see are there. The twins. The bear. The hedge maze. The axe. The bar. And, yes, even the blood elevators are actually there, not just as a prop or a projection but really, truly there – flowing blood and all.

In the past few years, Universal Orlando has really evolved what haunted houses can be, moving past a series of dark corridors and boo scares to what amounts to a fast-paced, nightmare-fueled theatrical experience. And for someone like me who doesn’t get startled in mazes anymore, I really appreciate being able to soak in the atmosphere and watch the actors perform memorable lines of dialogue from the film face-to-face, rather than trying to connect with rubber-masked creeps. Granted this maze’s balding-head prosthetics are a bit odd-looking, it doesn’t matter in the moment. It all feels right.

See it for yourself:

2. Scarecrow: The Reaping

RANKING: Screamer

REVIEW: This is easily the scariest house this year and the one that I received a few half-startles from. From the opening of walking through a classic corn maze outside to the claustrophobic feeling throughout the maze, this experience never relents. The cast is massive and attacking from all angles. And while these scarecrows are doing a great job at startling you, it seems the birds aren’t quite scared away because when they attack, it’s a series of scenes you’ll definitely remember.

Watch the walkthrough:

3. The Fallen

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Bringing back the feeling of one of Halloween Horror Nights’ greatest haunted houses ever, Gothic, this new experience demands constant attention with so much to look at throughout. But as you’re marveling at the architecture and scenery, you’ll be caught off-guard by winged creatures literally flying around you, flapping their giant wings with force. It’s a maze I’d love to walk through at half speed, to have a chance to soak in all the grand atmosphere.

Watch the walkthrough:

4. Ash vs. Evil Dead

RANKING: Gut Buster, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Though I am a huge fan of the “Evil Dead” / “Army of Darkness” series, I have to preface this review by sadly stating that I have not yet seen a single episode of “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” I know, I know. I’ve been meaning to since it debuted. So going into this maze, I was definitely a little bit behind, not even getting the “Ashy Slashy” reference. But even so, I still enjoyed the hell out of this experience. It was great to see Ash finally officially appear at Halloween Horror Nights after he was vaguely hinted at a few years ago and especially after we saw a maze devoted to the more recent (and far inferior) remake of “Evil Dead.”

This haunted house is definitely this year’s comedy house, though captured through the infinitely large personality of Bruce Campbell, portrayed through actual lines he has spoken mouthed by lookalike actors. It’s far more effective than the rubber-masked Bruce Campbells seen throughout Hollywood’s version of this maze this year and delivers quite a treat.

Watch the walkthrough:


5. American Horror Story: Volume 2

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Another preface: I haven’t seen the “Roanoke” season of American Horror Story, but I happily watched the rest. And I was thrilled to find myself stepping into the titular setting for the “Asylum” series at the beginning of this haunted house, recreated in tremendous detail with an outstanding facade and entry. Many of the best moments from that season are featured here, though I was a little disappointed there was no “Name Game” scene. But you definitely meet Bloody Face in a big way, along with that deranged doctor and his deformed victim(s). Moving into the “Coven” season, thankfully the designers of this maze stayed within the first half of the season, before it devolved into a giant Stevie Nicks music video – who is completely absent from the haunted house. But “Coven” is definitely the weakest of the three here, as “Roanoke” ends it all with the most scares, even for those who haven’t seen the series.

All in all, it’s a highly detailed experience that packs a few good surprise scares.

Watch the walkthrough:

6. Dead Waters

RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer

REVIEW: I’m shocked this haunted house is so “low” on this list because it is fantastic and one of my favorites. The fact that it’s way down at #6 is a testament to how good this year’s lineup is, when just a few years ago this could easily have been one of the top two. The swamp-sunken steamboat facade for this maze is a highlight of the entire event, massive and perfectly foreboding. But once inside, it’s all just a bit too dark. I can tell there are endless details in each scene – but I just couldn’t see any of them because of the extreme low light level. And as the maze went on, I kept waiting to finally encounter the Voodoo Queen that was plucked from a scare zone a few years ago to be the lead of this maze. Sadly, her eventual appearance was rather anticlimactic. While the visual style of this house is stunning, it never quite grasped the full feeling of a voodoo-driven bayou experience in the same way that Busch Gardens managed to achieve for many years with their similar New Orleans-set house that simply blew me away. And for that reason alone, this house does deserve its #6 ranking. It’s fantastic, just not as fantastic as I’d hoped it would be.

Watch the walkthrough:

8. The Hive

RANKING: Screamer, Eye Popper

REVIEW: Dispensing with recent trends of sparkly, sexy vampires, this haunted house promises a classic assortment of deadly vampires who are clearly more bat-creatures than anything else. And the scares are there, mixed amidst a perfect feeling of an ’80s house infested by these very creatures. The vibe is great, as is the premise, but ultimately the execution suffers from the constant screeching found throughout. The vampires often come off as annoying rather than startling, at least to my ears. It’s a maze I’d probably enjoy more without the vampires present, allowing me to simply take in the wonderfully crafted surroundings.

Watch the walkthrough:

8. Saw: The Games of Jigsaw

RANKING: Screamer

REVIEW: There are haunted houses that feature beautifully crafted scenic elements and stunning visual moments for you to marvel at. And then there are those that just pummel you with an onslaught of violence, torture, and screams. That’s where the latest maze based on the “Saw” franchise comes in. While I did enjoy the film series and am curious to see where the new movie takes it, this haunted house features just a few too many shrill screams for my liking. The iconic scenes are there from the series, from the barbed wire room to the bathroom to the many traps. But mostly what I remember is a non-stop series of people grabbing various body parts in pain while screaming. After a minute or two of that, it’s time to bust out the Advil.

Watch the walkthrough:

9. Horrors of Blumhouse

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: This montage of Blumhouse films proves that this production company does not have a strong enough catalog to support an entire experience based on pieces of its films. Individually, they are great. Past “Insidious” mazes in Orlando and Hollywood have been incredibly effective at achieving a slow descent into a hellish underworld. “The Purge,” while getting a bit tired at this point after appearing at Halloween Horror Nights for several years, still holds strong as a premise of the dangers of real-life criminals. And “Sinister” just isn’t a good enough movie to justify being included at all and does not translate well. I would far rather have seen a creative treatment of “Get Out” featured over this film.

With all that said, it’s still an enjoyable overall experience, even if it seems to stumble through scenes at times.

Watch the walkthrough:

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Scare Zones

This year’s event features a rather bizarre mix of scare zones, most of which simply are not scary at all. But don’t take that the wrong way. As street entertainment wrapped in the Halloween theme, they are exceptionally enjoyable. Just don’t expect to be screaming your way through all the streets this year, as you’ll surely be distracted by the vibrant visuals packed within.

1. Trick ‘r Treat

RANKING: Mind Blower, Eye Popper, Screamer, Gut Buster

REVIEW: Never have I seen such a perfect representation of all things Halloween in one scare zone than in this gorgeous masterpiece. Granted, I absolutely love the film “Trick r Treat” for all the same reasons, but this zone perfectly recreates the mood that movie offers. It’s an ideal balance of the childhood spirit of trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, and dressing up in costumes together with just the right amount of over-the-top grotesque moments that are purely for adults.

Sam appears in both the innocent and the more menacing version, complete with his iconic lollipop. The zone is packed with more memorable characters from the film, some of whom play out small scenes as vignettes on the side. And the whole area is lined with the most impressive collection of illuminated jack-o-lanterns overhead that I’ve ever seen. Coupled with the perfect shades of red, purple, and orange, and I’d have a hard time coming up with a better overall picture of “Halloween” as a concept than what is presented here. It’s simply beautiful.

Take a walk through:

2. The Purge

RANKING: Screamer

REVIEW: Despite the fact that this scare zone is nearly identical to last year’s (and not all that dissimilar from that of two years ago), it’s still extremely strong. The theme of “The Purge” simply makes sense for the New York streets, so they’ve expanded it even further this year. What makes it work is how real it feels. The danger is present. At any moment as all crime is legal, anything could happen. And you stand by and watch as it does – as victims are kidnapped, hauled away in a van, and auctioned off to the highest bidder to be slaughtered.

It feels like you have stepped into “The Purge” movies in every conceivable way short of actually killing you. The cast’s energy is what makes it work.

Take a walk through, short film style:


3. Festival of the Deadliest

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: This isn’t so much a scare zone as a chance to put Halloween’s sexiest creatures on display. And it doesn’t even appear to be finished, as there are mini “stages” that were not yet in use for opening weekend, destined for dancers down the line, from what I’ve been told.

Even so, the assortment of hard bodies does not go unnoticed. It’s a zone that’s easy to find yourself lingering around, simply gawking at the sights. And it’s great for the camera too.

Take a walk through:

4. Invasion!

RANKING: Eye Popper, Gut Buster

REVIEW: Welcome to the weird world of sci-fi horror. Let’s just put this out there: this zone is not scary. It’s far too amusing and colorful to truly scare anyone. But it’s highly entertaining as military types cower behind sandbags just feet away from a crashed spaceship from which a delightful assortment of aliens has emerged. It would be another area to just sit back and watch – if space allowed. But since it’s crammed in the San Francisco area of the park, you just have to keep doing circles around it to take it all in.

Take a walk through:

5. Altars of Horror

RANKING: Eye Popper

REVIEW: I wouldn’t classify this as a scare zone at all. It’s a walk-through commercial for the entire event, introducing guests to a few characters they’ll meet throughout the evening. And it’s a bit of an odd decisions to put guests face-to-face with recognizable characters from many of the IP-driven houses before they’ve had a chance to step into the houses themselves. But it serves well as a “teaser” of sorts. The standout highlights of the zone are easily the Grady twins from “The Shining.”

Take a walk through:

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 Live Shows

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure

RANKING: Gut Buster, Eye Popper

REVIEW: The final year of this Halloween Horror Nights staple does its history justice, leaving audiences with just the right amount of bittersweet conclusion while still packing the majority of the show with inane humor and pop culture jabs. No punches were pulled as all things Disney became fodder for some stinging jokes, hilariously aimed at Moana and Pandora – The World of Avatar. Some familiar faces from past years of this show made surprising cameos in this proper sendoff. I’m glad to have seen so many of these shows – and now I’m happy it’s moving on, looking forward to something new next year.

Academy of Villains: Afterlife


REVIEW: I didn’t see this show personally and, for now, it’s being performed in a smaller scale on a temporary stage while the main stage is rebuilt post-Hurricane Irma. So we may add some thoughts down the line once we have a chance to see the proper version of it.

Halloween Horror Nights 2017 continues on select nights in September and October at Universal Orlando. You can buy tickets now and find more information at HalloweenHorrorNights.com/Orlando.

(Photos by Michael Gavin, Ricky Brigante. Videos by Ricky Brigante.)

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