Halloween Horror Nights 2016

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I’m a huge horror fan, and love theme parks, but had never merged the two interests together in an official “haunt” event. I hate “jump” moments and even try to avoid seeing scary movies in theaters because I know I’ll fall for every one of them. Experiencing an onslaught of “jump” moments in person was an ordeal I had long stayed away from, but finally decided to give it a try this year.

My Halloween season is a loaded lineup, including Knott’s Scary Farm, Haunted Hayride, Dark Harbor, and more on the way, and it all kicked off last night during Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.

I’m sure it varies night to night, but for my visit (Saturday Sep 24, 2016) the event officially began at 7 pm. Early Entry is also offered – on Universal’s official site, they recommend arriving by 5 pm to access select mazes at 5:15 pm. Early Entry made all the difference for us. We completed everything by 9 pm, including all the mazes and Terror Tram.

Across the board, I had heard how bad lines were and guests weren’t able to do everything they wanted (and, to be fair, lines got pretty crazy as the evening progressed). But during that Early Entry period, lines were in the 10-30 minute range, and we hit everything on the Backlot and Lower Lot before the event officially started at 7 pm. (Long story short: take advantage of Early Entry. It will make or break your night.)

So we lined up at the gates around 4:15 pm (a small line had already formed) and were able to enter the park around 4:45 pm, where we bolted down to the Backlot where the Early Entry-accessible mazes were. We hit:

  • img_2687The Exorcist (~10 minute wait) – This maze was interesting for how the Exorcist story was retold within a maze format. If you’ve seen the movie, you know most of it takes place in one room. The maze had us walking through the front door, where a Regan robot was spiderwalking down the stairs. This effect was a bit slow and clunky, not at all a match for the unnerving speed of that moment in the film. From there, we followed a pattern of Regan’s bedroom, then black “transition” room, then another bedroom, another transition room, etc. The bedroom scenes were pretty great recreations of moments from the film, including the rocking furniture, levitating Regan, even her infamous green vomit. The transition rooms were more abstract dark spaces, with images of Regan, the demon Pazuzu, and random “real” Pazuzus and Regans popping out at you. It all ended with exiting by a statue of Pazuzu, who came after some guests but left us alone. Phew!
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Less spooky at 5 pm in the afternoon
  • American Horror Story (~10 minute wait) – This maze took you through seasons 1, 4, and 5 of the series (Murder House, Freak Show, and Hotel, respectively). I don’t particularly care for the TV series so the maze didn’t click much with me. The Murder House section probably had the most meat to it, going through dark hallways, the bathroom (complete with Piggy Man!), and the basement. Freak Show had us going through the forest then the main tent. Hotel (a season I haven’t seen yet) had us going through more hallways and eventually a nursery.  This maze had standard doors opening and characters coming after you, but no special effects or moments particularly stood out. For most (if not all) of the night this maze had the longest wait, so if you aren’t a particularly big AHS fan and are short on time, I would recommend skipping this one altogether.
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    You better watch out…

    Krampus (~10 minute wait) – The home terrorized by Krampus and his krew was probably my favorite facade of all throughout the night. The snow-covered house, with Krampus perched overhead, was a great “weenie” in the backlot and looked terrific at night too. This maze through the house brought us face-to-face with the evil elves, man-eating toys, and back outside to a convincing “indoor-outdoor” scene of ominous snowmen and Krampus’s portal to the underworld. I actually just saw this film days ago so it’s fresh on my mind, but this maze impressed me for how well it told a linear story through three-dimensional space. The sets and effects were all very good, and felt like a real environment rather than actors popping out at you.

  • Freddy vs. Jason (~10 minute wait) – Linear storylines and believable environments are meaningless in the dream world ruled by Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Like any good horror buff of course I’ve seen the films that made these icons famous, but I haven’t yet witnessed their face-off in the titular “Vs” film. It may not matter though, because the real victim here is you. This maze was a non-stop assault of trick windows and pop-up Freddys and Jasons all around you, a perfect fit for the irrational, illogical nature of nightmares. I gave my one genuine scream during this maze: Freddy was stepping away after scaring guests on the left, then Jason came at us with a knife from the right. The 1-2 punch of this maze kept you on your toes and made the scares even more unpredictable. This one also had great smells, especially the smell of fire & smoke (in retelling Freddy’s death) and nature & dirt (for Camp Crystal Lake). Look out for the always-welcome appearance of Jason’s mom, who still has it going on.

After the Backlot, we hiked back to the Lower Lot for the next maze. (At this point, it’s still before 7 pm and HHN has not yet officially started!)

  • Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield (~15 minute wait) – Michael Myers is back and causing trouble at Haddonfield Hospital. We walked past a dead receptionist, through quiet hallways, into patient rooms, all as Michael popped in and out with his trademark knife. At one point we walked through a giant pumpkin (?) and this great dark room with glowing faces, some of which were “alive” and came at you.

It was nearing 7 pm and HHN was about to officially start. We headed back up to the main entrance area and were routed through the French section, as we watched Purgers get ready for the “opening scaremony.” The Purge had taken over the park, with multiple scare zones and walkways with patriotic-themed killers eager to come after you. We had a nice side view of the scaremony: the Purge alarm sounding, and Purgers running through the guests as they tried to escape (and probably get down to the Backlot). Through all this hustle and bustle we fought our way to get to the next maze.

  • img_2700The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Blood Brothers (~20 minute wait) – Definitely one of my favorite mazes of the night. Had all the right sights, sounds, and smells you would want from a maze celebrating this classic horror film. Leatherface and his clan terrorized us as we walked through their home, the surrounding woods, and even this great earthy-smelling underground layer. Lots of clunking hanging bodies to walk through and the smell of sizzling (human) barbecue made this maze a sensory overload. Similar to the Freddy Krueger and Nightmare on Elm Street saga, this story has such a demented sense of humor that it’s more fun than frightful.

We had put off Terror Tram (since online reviews weren’t that positive) but since we’d finished everything else, we opted to give it a go:

  • Eli Roth Presents Terror Tram (~30 minute wait) – After our longest wait of the night (which frankly wasn’t that long), we boarded the tram and the videos overhead recounted the story of Koodles the Clown, a former TV star turned serial killer who apparently stalks the backlot of Universal Studios. Around Whoville, we were let out of the tram to fend for ourselves in a couple of circus-themed scare zones, with clowns and freak show performers coming at us with knives, chainsaws, the whole shebang. It wasn’t as intense of an experience as I expected (feared), but was a nice break after being terrorized for the last couple hours. It was pretty clear where we were supposed to go, Universal cast were directing us to one tent or the other, and once it was done we boarded a tram back to the station right away. Smooth sailing!

We encountered several throughout the night, and have to give high praise to The Purge scare zones. The concept behind The Purge (an annual 12-hour event where murder is decriminalized) has a lot of potential for an event like this, and making it park-wide rather than one specific maze was a great move. The Purge: Gauntlet of Fear felt like an outdoor maze (with a set path) but still felt like a scare zone in terms of its openness and more casual nature. (It was not the enclosed, dark space like the traditional indoor mazes.) Later in the night, the Purge took over the tunnel space between the Lower Lot and the Backlot, with strobe lights hiding performers as they’d suddenly appear, with weapons and noisemakers at the ready. The best for last though, was the Purge zone at the very front entrance/exit of the park, themed to Election Year with patriotic Purgers running amuck. A highlight was a demented Statue of Liberty stilt walker with a neon glowing mask.

So in summary —

  • The good: Most of the mazes, particularly KrampusFreddy vs. Jason, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Also The Purge Scare Zones.
  • The bad: American Horror Story, and long lines as the night progressed.
  • Tips: Do Early Entry. Do it!

Are you going to HHN? Or did you survive, and what did you think? Reply below in the comments!

Announcing the “Dual Roles Blogathon: One Actor ~ Multiple Roles”

Check out the Dual Roles Blogathon: One Actor ~ Multiple Roles — accepting submissions now!

Christina Wehner

Dual Role BannersThere is something particularly riveting about watching a film where an actor plays more than one role. Ronald Colman in The Prisoner of Zenda, Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap, Michael J. Fox in the three Back to the Future films. Even Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor.

It is that combination of technical know-how, make-up, and the sheer skill of an individual actor that produces the peculiar exhilaration one can feel. Cinema is, after all, about role playing and the illusion of reality, an image of reality. What can typify this more than the concept of dual or multiple roles?

In that spirit, Ruth of Silver Screenings and I are so excited to announce the Dual Roles Blogathon: One Actor ~ Multiple Roles.

Time – Friday, Sept. 30th – Sunday, Oct. 2nd

Rules – Duplicate posts on the same film are most welcome (it seems…

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Weekly Round-Up: July 10-16, 2016

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Last week, I saw:

  • Her (2013) – The instant the film ended, my friend asked, “And why isn’t this Criterion?” Her is nothing short of brilliant, exploring universal themes of relationships and connection set in the not-too-distant future. In a similar level to Inside OutHer is a profound and emotional statement on the human experience. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Le Amiche (1955) – I love movies about rich people, but I’m still brewing about how I feel on Le Amiche (I’m always iffy with Antonioni). Five girlfriends, including one newcomer, in postwar Turin share gossip and boyfriends. Each is well defined, and her intentions made clear to the audience. The story felt a little slow and directionless, but was also true to life…. yeah, still out on this one. TBD.
  • Ghostbusters (2016) – I almost liked this one. I really wanted to like it. Kristen Wiig is the standout comedy actress of our time, and the rest of the gang all has done solid work in the past. As the movie went on, certain elements just started chipping away at my overall enjoyment – lines would misfire, we’d revert back to lazy “jump” scares, and worst of all, cameos/throwback moments thrown in for… what exactly?  To elevate the quality of the film? (This Dorkly post on the continuity of ghosts didn’t help either.) NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Armageddon (1998) – This big-budget disaster movie is a bona fide disaster, with director Michael Bay either unaware or unwilling to bring it down. From the opening titles literally exploding to Liv Tyler & Ben Affleck embracing in a NASA rocketship, everything in Armageddon is laughable. I’m amazed this hasn’t become a camp classic a la Mommie Dearest or Valley of the Dolls, but we need to make that happen. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about the new Ghostbusters?

Weekly Round-Up: July 03-09, 2016

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I can’t believe I went an entire week (June 26 – July 02) without any movies. And this week was a slow one too! I saw:

  • The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) – Very thoughtful and respectful biopic of the pin-up queen of the 1950s. The film’s greatest strength, and bravery, lies in its blending of Miss Page’s career choices and spirituality not as contradictory, but complementary in forming a complex, confident woman of the 20th century. Gretchen Mol shines in the title role. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ghostbusters (1984) – Rewatching the original to prep for the remake’s launch the following week. It’s been years since I’d seen it, so I was a little surprised by the slower-than-expected pacing as well as the dirty jokes (PG was a different time back then!), but the moments of sheer insanity are still thrilling. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ghostbusters II (1989) – First time with this one – not quite as good as the original, but there were some great laugh-out-loud gags and character interactions. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?

Criterion Collection: Oct. 2016 Titles

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I had fully set my expectations for next week, but lo and behold here came the new titles announcement right on (unofficial) schedule, the 15th of the month!

We’ve got a couple that were confirmed plus a few that weren’t even on my radar – excited to check them out!

  • The Executioner
  • The Tree of Wooden Clogs
  • Short Cuts – Blu-ray upgrade
  • Boyhood – This one is the “winner” of the month for me. Loved it when I first saw it in theaters almost two years ago and have been holding off for the long-confirmed Criterion release. My original review is posted here, and can’t wait to revisit this film in October with even more perspective of time and growing up.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth – I liked (but not loved) Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tale when it first came out, but I’ll probably rent it again to double-check before its Criterion release.

Which titles are you picking up?

2016 Check-In

2016 Part 1

2016 in film has been an interesting year to say the least.

This summer is all but cursed, with disappointing sequels and lackluster starts to would-be franchises opening nearly every weekend. The term “box office poison” was used to describe Hollywood stars of the 1930s, but one could almost apply it to the bizarro movie season we’ve had lately.

In between the weeds, however, several sequels and original stories are making an impact among audiences and critics alike. Some of my favorites from 2016, in order of release, are:

  • The Witch – An early American horror film with arthouse sensibilities. This wasn’t for all audiences (I recall a fella in my crowd declaring “This some bullshit!” as the house lights came back on), but The Witch is just the right pace for the set who prefers slow-cooking scares over a torrent of “jump” scares.
  • Zootopia – For a film buff, the best kind of movie-going experience is getting to revisit a classic and uncover layer upon layer with each additional viewing. Zootopia is one such film, and after four viewings (in less than one year, mind you) I always find something new in this remarkably mature, complicated take on inequality and prejudice in the animal kingdom (which isn’t too different from ours). I’m still amazed, but greatly pleased, that this dialogue-driven, morally challenging animated flick has been such a hit with audiences.
  • Finding Dory – I’m too in the “honeymoon phase” to say whether this sequel surpasses its classic predecessor, but Finding Dory offers a substantially different and more emotionally resonant story than Nemo did over ten years ago. Similar to Zootopia, this movie about talking sea life is an often upsetting look at how we treat nature and each other.

I’m also just now realizing that my three favorite films of 2016 all feature talking animals.

What are your favorite movies of 2016 (so far)? Reply below in the comments!

 

Work, Work: Repetition and Circular Songwriting in “Hamilton”

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Look at where you are. Look at where you started.

Most songs, whether on the radio, on stage, on film, follow the basic “Verse-Chorus” structure. If the Chorus is the “thesis,” or point of the piece, the Verse is the “body paragraph,” providing specifics, examples, additional color to flesh out the key message of the Chorus.

The music of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton shatters this convention. Its score can be described as less like a traditional book musical, and more like an opera, set to a hip-hop, R&B, and pop score. A few numbers fit within traditional song templates (there are nearly 50 songs), while the bulk of it is more on the operatic side, with musical moments and ideas presented, then swirling to another phrase, then back again.

Hamilton is almost the anti-musical, presenting what I consider “circular” songs: presenting one single instance, frozen in time and/or inviting us in media res, flooding us with context, then snapping back to the present. They have elements of the traditional “Verse-Chorus” template, but have a unique structure all to their own.

One example of this is the terrific introduction to The Schuyler Sisters. Three high-class ladies hit the New York scene, introducing themselves by name: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters.” Led by Angelica, the trio rebuffs men’s romantic advances for more intellectual pursuits: discussing Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, politics, and gender equality. They all agree that “History is happening in Manhattan, and [they] just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.” The song expands, as a hearty ensemble joins them for another chorus before we lock back into the opening refrain: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters!”

Not only is this song immensely entertaining, but it leaves a considerable impression for essentially starting and ending at the same place – the opening “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy” introduction, rather than the song’s chorus. In the narrative proper for this show (excluding the opening number), literally the first words out of each sister’s mouth is her name – seemingly the basest level of introduction. The song turns out to be anything but, as we learn more about the different personalities, attitudes, and minds of these modern, well-rounded women. The reaffirmation at the song’s conclusion, their re-introduction, nails this home. They’re at the same place they were when the song started, but we’re not – three minutes later, we’ve been remarkably introduced to the Schuyler Sisters.

This songwriting in media res is even more profound for Angelica’s lead song Satisfied. She toasts the marriage of Eliza to Alexander Hamilton: “A toast to the groom, to the bride, from your sister who is always by your side. To your union and the hope that you provide, may you always be satisfied.” The number then literally “rewinds,” back to when Angelica first met Hamilton. She reflects (via rap) how quickly she judged him before passing him off to the instantly-smitten Eliza, regretting her choice now that the former has fallen for him herself. At the same time, however, she reminds herself that as the oldest sister, she has a responsibility to marry rich and look out for her sisters’ happiness. To have taken Hamilton for herself would have broken both 18th century codes.

The liquid piano line glides us back into the present, as she repeats her toast from the beginning – but now weighed down by the understanding and acceptance of her choice. Her tongue-twisting rap and rapid turn of phrase illustrates how quickly her mind works and all the thoughts and fears running through as she realizes, all in one instant, she will never be satisfied.

The traditional approach would have been each song concluding with the main Chorus, but instead, the songs wrap around back to their introductory phrases. The Schuyler Sisters and Satisfied are just two examples of how Hamilton turns the musical on its head, from classical “move-the-story-along” songs, to literally stopping the narrative action, working backwards to contextualize a key moment, then moving forward.

The effect of each song is less from a “message” driven home through a Chorus, and more in the reaffirmation of the opening phrase. To hinge a song on the repeating of a single phrase once, rather than multiple times (as a Chorus would have been), is an admirable exercise in restraint and creates an even greater musical impact. Hamilton is a remarkably rich score with terrific numbers, but these “circular” songs stand out among the best for their uniqueness and memorable power.

Weekly Round-Up: June 19-25, 2016

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Last week I only saw three movies, as much more time was spent with family and friends (not a bad thing!) —

  • The Last Days of Disco (1998) – Whit Stillman is back with his fast-talking young urban professionals, who dress and look like the 90s but apparently are in the late 70s / early 80s. I had a hard time keeping all the names and characters straight, which might not have been of high import as the dialogue could have come from any of their mouths – each character was interchangeable. High marks for Kate Beckinsale playing a cold, oblivious roommate to Chloe Sevigny. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016) – This didn’t hit as well as it did when I saw this in theaters a few months ago, but this Old Hollywood comedy is still charming and inspired. The whole (a kidnapping plot by Communists) is eh, while the sum of its parts (Channing Tatum tap-dancing, and anything with Alden Ehrenreich) is pretty great. RECOMMENDED.
  • The In-Laws (1979) – Insufferable action-comedy about a mild-mannered dentist whose daughter’s future father-in-law is a CIA agent who gets them caught up in wacky adventures! The acting was fine, but nothing about this was funny or entertaining. Wish I had my two hours back! NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?