Spirit Endures through Wet, Dreary Halloween

Each year it seems that the final couple of reviews get delayed and for that I am sorry. I’ve made great strides over the years to ward off procrastination but sometimes the old girl wins out. Well, it’s been long enough — here’s the chronicle of Halloween 2012.

PROMISE AT DIMENSIONS OF DARKNESS

It was dreary and overcast as John and I departed the apartment. Last Halloween we found ourselves in the Flint area where we paid visits to St. Lucifer’s, 13 Feet Under, and The Crypt — this year we’d strike out in the opposite direction with our sights set on Dimensions of Darkness and Terror Town both just south of Toledo. As Trick r’ Treating drew to a close we arrived at our first stop, the third your haunted attraction — Dimensions of Darkness.

The event was held in a strip mall which reminded me somewhat of Extreme Scream, I hoped that the similarities wouldn’t end there. There wasn’t much of a line or crowd of any sort — perhaps the weather had suppressed the nightly horde, sadly my festive mood was dampened by all of this as well. This was Halloween damn it! Let there be a raucous!

We entered the haunt shortly and were directed to sit in some large, wooden chairs positioned in front of a series of video screens. Soon, a fast paced video began to play which was done well enough, but displays such as these work best as distractions and I eagerly awaited the payoff. Intermittently, our chairs buzzed to life — it was neat but not the payoff I had hoped for.  This would have been an excellent setting for the falling ceiling gag.

Despite this underwhelming start, Dimensions of Darkness was successful on many fronts, combining haunt fundamentals with a stark contrast of dark corridors and radiant rooms that exuded a phosphorescent glow. The cast was a highly energetic and vocal group featuring screamers of all shapes and sizes, some crawled as vermin about the floor, one even performed a grotesque crab walk.

One area that stood out featured my favorite sect of the monster community, zombies. We crossed a narrow path, motionless flesh eaters surrounded us. My past experiences told me that most of the shadowy figures were merely props, camouflage for the one or two actors who would eventually lurch forward and deliver a scare. Imagine my surprise when half a dozen zombies sprang to life and moved in for the kill! One of the actors seemed to have a ghoul attached to each side of his body which moved in unison, a very cool effect.

Another interesting area had the look and feel of a control room, but this one had been deserted. A single, tortured eyeball stared out at us from the various monitors. The room was alight with the prospect of malevolence, the collective glow of the monitors cast unnerving shadows and left this haunt adventurer feeling vulnerable to attack.

In another room a black box hung mid air suspended by chains — a nod to this groups’ logo which is prominently displayed on their website. A lone creep crawled from beneath the box which admittedly wasn’t all that spectacular of an act but the box was an interesting visual and such a scene has loads of potential for interaction and creative scares.

The haunt did end anticlimactically which is something I often lament of haunted attractions. Following a series of rooms that resembled sordid medieval labs we entered a small morgue where a deranged doctor and his freakishly tall assistant had clearly been up to no good. The assistant wore a medical mask, the doctor sported a halo which had been bolted to his skull — the costuming and make up were well done.

The interaction was fairly well done too — the pair presented us with the choice of two doors although they did not specify which doors they meant and as there were several paths that could have passed as doors we were some what confused. I thought, or perhaps hoped is a better word, that one of our choices was to crawl through one of the various hatches on the wall. I tried the handle to one but it was not functional, so with the various corpse chutes ruled out this left two standard doors — one unimpeded and one blocked by a creepy mannequin. I inquired about the blocked door but was informed that was incorrect. It became clear which door through which we had to proceed and as it turned out there really wasn’t a choice in the matter. We took the only door available and promptly exited the attraction.

Despite the lackluster finish I enjoyed many aspects of Dimensions of Darkness and hope to see this group grow and evolve in the years to come. The actors made good use of their environment, an environment that was expertly lit which allowed the actors to deliver many startle scares. The decor in particular was eye catching and exuded ambience — the multitude of glowing oddities encased in mason jars possessed a creepy kitsch quality that won’t soon be forgot.

Rating: 3.5 stars

There was a distinct chill in the air when we arrived at Terror Town, and although the crowd here was considerably larger than the one at our previous stop, I remained disappointed by what I considered a small turnout for All Hallow’s Eve. We exited the car and stomped through the muddy parking lot of the Lucas County Fairgrounds toward the ticket booth.

SUBTLE TWEAKS BOLSTER BIG TOP TERROR

Our first target here was the 3D attraction called Big Top Terror. If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll probably remember the very lows marks I gave this particular attraction last year and it deserved every bit of it, but I’m happy to report that Big Top Terror has made strides in the right direction this year although drawbacks still exist.

When we entered the first area a large entryway stood before us, painted in the fashion of a gigantic clown face. A spunky harlequin emerged and playfully taunted us before granting us passage through the brightly decorated door. It was a nice bit of interaction that could have provided a little more substance but it was a decent start nonetheless. Midway through the attraction we came to a series of white and red flaps (the type you might see on a circus tent). Each time we pushed one aside we’d find ourselves in an identically small room, perhaps a 3 x 3 space. It was claustrophobic, amusing, and themed appropriately. We tore through those flaps wondering as we pushed each aside if we’d come across some horror. The whole segment was pulled off quite well and served as a fresh twist on what could have otherwise been an uninspiring maze.

The circus tent section, as we came to call it, helped increase the length of the attraction which was one of the primary detractions during last year’s experience. Another point of contention last year wasn’t just the utter lack of workers in Big Top Terror but also the lethargic performances those actors delivered. This area too was improved upon but could still use some work. There was certainly more live bodies this season and these ghouls definitely outperformed their predecessors from a year ago, but two particular scenes that held a lot of promise fell flat due to the absence of an actor.

The first scene included a dunk tank, a wonderful prop for a carnival inspired attraction and something I can say I’ve never witnessed anywhere else, but it was nothing more than mere scenery. I couldn’t help but think of the possibilities this room held. Why wasn’t there a hapless rube in that dunk tank? Why wasn’t a snaggle-toothed carnival barker urging me to heave a ball at a target and sink the son of bitch!? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what could be done with such a scene. Needless to say, it was an opportunity lost.

The second area I mentioned came shortly after the room with the dunk tank and was just as visually striking but also featured no actors with which to interact. As we entered this particular room a counter stood to our right, behind it the wall was decorated in large, brightly colored tubs of popcorn. Once again ideas exploded in my head — why not a shifty carny tempting us with blood splattered confections? Perhaps guests could be lured near the table where a series buckets stood, overflowing with popcorn and when the moment is right an arm or head burst forth from one of the buckets?! That’s the kind of interaction and creativity that I love as a haunter. These rooms were visually appealing but there was potential for so much more and it would have improved the overall experience of this attraction considerably.

The vortex near the end of Big Top Terror forced us to maneuver past a creep in an atomic orange morph suit — this wasn’t exactly frightening in any way but it was different and mildly amusing as I cannot help but think of the Putties from Mighty Morphin Powers Rangers any time I see these suits. After exiting the vortex, we came to the final room of the attraction. A comically large button was affixed to the wall in front of us accompanied by a large sign that read “Don’t Push the Button.” The fine gentleman assigned to the area however kindly asked that I do push the button, so I did and was promptly sprayed with water through a small hole in the wall for my obedience.

On one final negative note, there were a couple of malfunctioning props or animatronics inside of Big Top Terror. Unfortunately we’d discover that this was also the case on more than a few occasions inside of the House of the Dead, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

Rating: 3 stars

CLUTTER ABOUND IN HOUSE OF THE DEAD

House of the Dead is a special, interesting, and different haunted attraction. Each year the operators add some new, animated craziness — it is perhaps the only haunted attraction that I’ve  encountered where props and animatronics can deliver an excellent show without much assistance from live actors. However, I think the practice is finally catching up to the minds behind the madness here, amidst the shuffle of scenes, characters, and gags over the years something has been lost. Terror Town has become a haunted attraction rife with maddening highs and lows. Without question the special effects and animatronics (when functioning properly) are among the most impressive we’ve encountered. On the negative side what used to be a simple lack of a few key actors has now turned into an almost complete dearth of such. Some areas are elaborately designed and feature a highly convincing atmosphere while others appear as if they were thrown together haphazardly with only a fraction of the attention paid to detail. It’s almost as if the place was designed by a manic-depressive hoarder. It is both an interesting and frustrating cross section of the haunted attraction industry.

For those of you who have never visited Terror Town the main attraction, House of the Dead, is divided into several sections spanning several buildings and a cemetery. The building where guests begin their journey used to be a separate haunt but in 2010 the operators added it to the main attraction and it’s all been billed as the House of the Dead since. Each area is distinct from the next — the first building is greatly detailed, darkly lit and requires roughly ten minutes to traverse. This leads to a second building where haunters pass through a massive vortex tunnel. After this a path leads outdoor and weaves guests through an elaborately decorated cemetery before finally coming to the main building where detailed decor gives way to plain hallways and rooms dominated by larger than life animatronics. Each area has it’s strengths and weaknesses but I rate it all as one attraction as it is billed as such.

I feel that the first area was as well done as I have ever witnessed it. The layout had been sufficiently altered from a year ago, successfully blending new scenes with old favorites such as the shifting bookshelves and the realistic hologram of a maggot infested poo pile inside of a toilet that sprays curious onlookers in the face! There was a fair amount of workers in this area as well which only further makes me question the decision to go so scant in the latter building. Undoubtedly, the coolest and most atmosphere inducing aspect of this first building is the effect that is done with the sound and lighting. Thunder can be heard rumbling throughout the house and lights flicker according — a particularly large rumble will cast your party into total darkness momentarily. The effect is timed expertly and does a great job of creating that authentic haunted house feel — a competent ghoul could really use such an effect to create unforgettable scares.

The cemetery did feature a couple of noteworthy scenes as well. Upon entering we passed beneath towering gates, sitting a top loomed an imposing grim reaper which directed a large scythe at all who dared to enter. Ahead I spotted a mausoleum which housed an enormous floating ghoul bathed in black light, as we approached this creature of the night danced forward effortlessly in mid air. As we came to the end of the cemetery and entered the final phase of the House of the Dead we passed a stone pedestal featuring a skeletal bust. I approached the statue to admire the craftsmanship and detail and was provided a genuine shock when the stony skeleton made a grab for me! It was an ingenious blend of costume and prop and that’s precisely the kind of thing that keeps me going back to Terror Town.

Up to that point things had been clicking along pretty well and with the heart of House of the Dead coming up I was holding out for big things. Unfortunately this would be the area that was most sloppily constructed. Upon entering this section of the attraction, haunters are loaded onto an elevator or Hellivator as some attractions call it. Terror Town uses it to tell the story of the House of the Dead — each year guests are transported by the Hellivator to a new level of the this house most macabre. It’s always a fun way to begin any haunted attraction and House of the Dead features one of the best we’ve ever experienced.

As I stated earlier the usual killer animatronics were on hand — there was a Sasquatch tearing a man in half, a man eating plant, and what I can best describe as a cloven-hoved demonic yeti that seemed to tower somewhere in the range of 14 feet. Stuff like this is always visually stunning but when an attraction hits you with it one after another after another it loses it’s effect. Worse, as we traversed the halls of Dead House we discovered a number of the animatronics non-functioning; it seemed there was a problem with the pressure plates by which the creatures are controlled. Worse still, in several instances there were actors in plain view operating the controls to various props. Initially, I didn’t realize exactly what they were doing and so expected them to offer up some scare or interaction when John and I made our presence known. Would you believe they wouldn’t so much as look at us? It was as if they thought by not making eye contact they were some how rendered invisible. I understand that sometimes actors are caught out of place or like these guys are sometimes required to operate a prop or animatronic but typically the latter is hidden as they aren’t a part of the show. It was very odd to see them seated in folding chairs just toying with controls and pretending that we didn’t exist.

Sadly, a part from those we witnessed in this fashion there was precious few workers to speak of — this last section of House of the Dead was as devoid of live actors as any attraction I can recall, and there were certainly instances were actual people would have greatly enhanced a scene. For instance, not long after we’d departed the Hellivator we heard the unmistakable moan of a zombie horde. We turned a corner and came to a pair of double doors — the type of ones you might see in a hospital — a wonderful holographic display of brain munchers was splashed across the windows inlaid in the doors. The doors had even been rigged to sway back and forth as if the hunger bastards might come tearing through the door and consume us! it was a great effect and my adrenaline got pumping, surely we were about to be assailed by zombies…but nothing. The effect was cool but without human interaction it loses it’s edge; after that I didn’t hold out a whole lot of hope for in the flesh actors.

House of the Dead is a cool concept for a haunted house but the event is staged in a large building on the Lucas County Fairgrounds — perhaps it’s a pull barn. The ceilings are very high and while haunters are enclosed in themed portion of the haunted attraction if you simply look above you can see the high ceilings of the pull barn. It’s something that really dampens the overall effect for me; I love haunted houses and even though I love to critique and analyze them in this fashion I go into them completely willing to suspend my disbelief. In my heart of hearts I’m not a critic, I’m a fan — but it’s hard to suspend that disbelief when I look up and there’s a giant gaping void in the scenery. I would suggest the use of camo-netting which is ubiquitous in the haunt industry and can go a long way in preserving atmosphere.

Even with all of these complaints in mind, House of the Dead has always been a good to great haunted attraction other oddly it’s never delivered a truly killer finale and this year was no different. As we neared the exit we were confronted my the same mutant dwarf prop we witnessed early on during the season in the Barn of Horrors at Erwin Orchards so we knew what was coming but we never bust a performer’s balls just because we’ve witnessed a particular gag before. We played along and waited for the moment that the head would detach from the body which is the cue for the actor to charge guests. It was an uninspiring performance to say the least — it’s a very convincing scene and honestly it takes somebody just not making an effort for it to fail. I doubt anybody who hadn’t previously witnessed it wouldn’t have been surprised, shocked, or scared as well after such an anemic performance.

Alas, we came to the final room — again we could see a worker sitting in a chair operating a control; he made no attempt to conceal himself. Less than suddenly a large garbage truck plowed through the wall opposite us and slowly proceeded toward our party with horns blaring. It was a super-sized version of the old car through the wall trick and it would have been very cool if it had been pulled off correctly but the truck proceeded so slowly it couldn’t possibly have been viewed as threatening.

This review may sound fairly critical of Terror Town but that’s only because I’ve seen better from this location and I hope with a little house cleaning and some tweaks it can exceed my best expectations. I would still recommend a visit to anyone who has not yet experienced it — it’s fun and you will see things you aren’t likely to see anywhere else, but attention to certain fundamentals has been replaced by a glut of props and animatronics; the overall effect has been a detrimental one to this storied haunted attraction.

Rating: 3 stars

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Spirit Endures through Wet, Dreary Halloween”

  1. Glad to hear that you enjoyed DOD, I expect BIG things out of those guys… 🙂

  2. Dimensions of Darkness was definitely cool and has a lot of potential. And I promise Rob I’ll get to the Darksyde review — I’ve been too busy since my beloved haunt season concluded. How are things at the pig farm?

  3. Hey No Hurry on a review, I check your page from time to time because you actually write some pretty good stuff and its enjoyable. I talk back and forth with one of the owners over at DOD from time to time and have heard great things about their show. As for the Pig Farm, We’ve just about made it through another winter so thats always a plus. The Paranormal activity picked up earlier this month so thats always FUN!

  4. I appreciate your patronage Rob. I’ve written about the haunt industry for 6+ years now and for a great while my only readers were my brother and one good friend, both fellow haunters. It’s nice to know that others can enjoy it as well. What kind of paranormal activity do you experience at the pig farm?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: