Sinister Summer: Burnt Offerings (1976) Retrospective Review

A haunting, dreamlike supernatural horror film about a truly hangry house that was ahead of its time. This month’s retrospective review is on Dan Curtis’ only theatrical film,: 1976’s Burnt Offerings. While I have certainly heard and read good things about this film, I had not really made it a priority to watch. A priority in that I would spend the $4 on Amazon to rent it. But the night before writing this, I saw it show up as a featured Shudder offering. With a mediocre IMDb score, I wasn’t convinced to spend my evening watching the two-hour film; however, upon a Google search, I saw that Golden Age screen icon (“fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) Bette Davis was in a supporting role, as well as Burgess Meredith. Throw in leads Karen Black and Oliver Reed, and you have one stacked cast. But an opportunity to see those Bette Davis Eyes was what swung the pendulum in favor of selecting this more-or-less obscure 70s horror film.

Ben Rolf (Reed), his wife Marian (Black), and their son Davey (Lee Montgomery) visit a country manor up for rent for the summer. They are welcomed by weird siblings Roz Allardyce and Arnold Allardyce (Meredith) who offer the mansion for $900 for the whole summer. Ben is concerned with the upkeep of such a stately place, and the Allardyces state that the house will take care of itself as long as they show it love. The only condition to the siblings’ generous offer is that the Rolfs feed their mother that lives in a plush, cozy attic apartment three times a day by leaving a tray outside of her room. The Rolf family accepts the too-good-to-be-true offer, and move in right away with Ben’s vivacious, eccentric Aunt Elizabeth (Davis). Not long after moving in, Marian begins to become more and more obsessed with Ms. Allardyce and the house. Meanwhile, unsettling things begin happen to the Rolf family, including violent outbursts, and even an untimely death. Ben feels that something sinister is going on with the house, and urges his family to leave. But leaving the estate is not as easy as it seems.

It’s all too easy to see hues of The Shining, Poltergeist, and even The Haunting and The Skeleton Key in this film, but remember that Burnt Offerings came out four years before The Shining and six years before Poltergeist. So if the plot feels a little predictable at times, it’s not because William F Nolan’s screenplay borrowed heavily from those tentpole heavy-hitters, but because those two iconic films perhaps took a little inspiration from it. Where Curtis may have taken inspiration was from Carnival of Souls because it feels like there is a nod or two to that film. Curtis has pacing down to a science! He demonstrates command of the emotional and psychological journeys of the characters and audience. Those who watch this film without reading up on it will scarcely have the leisure to ask why the Rolf family isn’t more observant and curious about their grand dwelling. At the time this film was released, horror was increasingly concerned and even obsessed with supernatural villains and primal fears take that place in otherwise innocent settings, such as an innocent little girl in The Exorcist or an innocent palatial estate in Burnt Offerings. In the case of the latter, the supernatural monster/entity is the house itself, which manifests its sinister desires in very much the same way a vampire does. It’s romantic, alluring, feeding on and sustaining itself with violence and death. This monster is capable of menace, vengeance, outrage, and even murder.

Instead of a shaky handheld camera, promiscuous teens/college students, and poor pacing that lacks a true windup or never pays off at all, comes a film that was ahead of its time in haunted house storytelling. This film feels far more polished and meticulously executed than most present-day haunted house movies. You won’t find jump scares or haphazard pacing here; this film comes from a time when the slow burn was both the norm and it was strategically utilized to setup a brilliant, shocking payoff that is ultimately among the most effective and memorable horror film endings of all time. In terms of its alluring aesthetic, Burnt Offerings harkens back to the days of Gothic horror in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe and the first and second generation of Universal Pictures Horror. Particularly Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher feels heavily channeled in this otherworldly, unsettling horror film. The film location itself comes completely with a sordid past. The estate in the film is the Dunsmuir Estate in Oakland, CA, which was used in every scene according to Curtis (so sound stages). It was built by coal fortune heir Alexander Dunsmuir in 1899. Dunsmuir intended the house to be a wedding gift for his new bride; but in horror movie fashion, he didn’t get to live in it with her because he fell ill and died while on his honeymoon in New York City. His new bride returned to live in the house but died soon after in 1901. What better haunted house location than a location, which may be truly haunted?!?

Burnt Offerings was one of many horror films in the 1970s and early 1980s that commented on the rising negative societal effects of middle-class life, including viral consumerism and obsession with single-family-house ownership, the family is destroyed by a house they otherwise dreamed of. Furthermore, it also provides an exploration of the perceived breakdown of the nuclear family, following the civil rights and sexual revolution movements. Closely reading the major themes in Burnt Offerings leads me to posit the idea that perhaps the most effective way to critically analyze this film is to interpret it as a supernatural parable on the risks of being controlled by one’s possessions. That said, contrary to how the Biblical proverb is so often misquoted; money is NOT the root of all evil; it’s the LOVE OF money that is at the root of all evil. And here, we can replace money with possessions (more specifically, the obsession with possessions). This is shown through Marian’s obsession with the Allardyces estate and possessions therein, Ben’s sexual obsession with his wife (as an object to possess), and the house’s evil energy possessing and draining the family. Anyone who’s ever owned a car, a house, or any kind of property can relate to what this family is going through. We know it as viral consumerism, or the toxic desire to acquire material objects (in today’s language, we can include experiences), which can begin to dominate one’s life. Furthermore, we’ve all been there, experiencing that feeling that repairs to, taxes on, and upkeep of property (be it cars, houses, or anything really) can become a burden that is figuratively unbearable. Ostensibly, the property and experiences we sought to possess, in an ironic twist of fate, now possess us.

The horror of Burnt Offerings is portrayed as a manifestation of the family’s inner turmoil. We aren’t given much to go on, as far as the family’s backstory, but clearly the facade of a happy couple is merely a thin veneer covering a very unhappy marriage–one that is using this summer get-away as a means to rectify. Although not specified, Ben is likely a teacher or non-tenure track college professor because his family is there for the summer (I infer this because Marian encourages Ben to work on his doctorate, something I intend to do as soon as I land a full-time staff/faculty position at the university where I’ve taught part-time for over five years). The manifestation of the internal conflict is expressed through the atmosphere and external behavior of the characters, much in the same way we witness this in The Shining, but more effectively witnessed in Rosemary’s Baby. The screenplay by Nolan (and Curtis) grafts this familial dysfunction onto the haunted house conventions to create an eerie sense of tension, both supernaturally and psychologically. As we observe how the Rolf family interacts in public (in front of the Allardyces) and in private (in their vehicle in a Shining-like motif), it’s easy to imagine that perhaps the “right people,” the Allardyces seek for the house, are ones living under a pressure cooker of repressed animosity and barely controlled hostilities.

Lastly, but certainly not least are the overall performances! Everyone in Burnt Offerings delivers a stellar performance. Talk about an award-winning, powerhouse ensemble! From the leads to our supporting cast, you will be delighted at the top shelf quality of the actors and their respective characters. What I appreciate most about each performance is just how authentic they were, no matter if the actor was playing a lead or supporting character. Both Reed and Black completely sell audiences on the stages of the relationship between their two characters as they go from happy to toxic couple, and it all feels so incredibly genuine. Montgomery’s performance as their son is par for the course, but effective and believable enough in this story (albeit he sometimes acts a little older than a 12-year-old would act). Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart simultaneously convince audiences their characters are jolly, eccentric siblings–yet there is a nuance of something creepy underneath. But the performance you really want to know about is the incomparable Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth. You get it all: Davis’ trademark sassy personality, witty quips, independence, and her eyes! Yes, those Bette Davis eyes that are a hallmark of cinema. One of the most beautiful faces the silver screen has ever seen, and yet she was adamant that she look like her character should look. Therefore, you eventually get a haggard, makeup-less, decrepit old woman that is the complete 180º from how we commonly see Davis. She delivers a fantastic performance, and you will be left wondering why she didn’t do more horror films to rescue herself from TV movie hell in the latter part of her career, from the golden age until she passed away in 1989.

If you are a fan of 1970s horror, The Shining, Poltergeist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Amityville Horror, I feel confident that you will enjoy this film. While it’s not a great horror film, it is a solidly good one that fans of the genre will likely appreciate. In retrospect, there is so much to unpack in this dreamlike, haunting gothic horror motion picture. Perhaps audiences at the time it was originally released weren’t ready for this methodical haunted house film.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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SPOOKIES (1986) Horror Review

The criminally underrated obscure schlocky movie that delivers everything you wanted (and even that which you didn’t know you needed) out of a horror B-movie! After the guys at the Cinema Speak Podcast featured a micro-review of Spookies (1986), I knew right then and there that I needed to seek out this movie for both my viewing pleasure and as a horror academic. After seeing a countless number of horror movies, over the years, ranging from junk to masterpieces, I love when a horror movie can surprise me! And that is certainly the case with Spookies. But why?

Does this movie do anything particularly innovative? No.

Does it provide thoughtful commentary on the human condition? No.

Well then, it must deliver underrated performances or a compelling story? Not at all.

What it does provide is an hour and a half of truly mind-blowing creature effects and entertaining kills! Spookies packs a punch in all the right ways, delivering the perfect amount of spookiness one wants to see in a movie that’s ostensibly a surreal combination of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction, Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and even The Isle of Dr. Moreau. You don’t watch this movie for the story, although it is loads of fun; you watch it for the sheer spectacle of a no-holds-barred love of the American horror film.

A 13-year-old boy runs from home because his parents forgot his birthday. Making his way through the woods, he encounters a drifter who is subsequently slashed to death. The boy stumbles upon an old mansion where a room is decorated for a birthday celebration that he (for some bizarro reason) thinks is for him. Like the call of a siren, a group of partiers also stumble across what they think is an abandoned mansion in the middle of nowhere. No one has any idea that it is home to a powerful sorcerer. With the help of other-worldly creatures and a werecat-like sidekick, the sorcerer terrifies and threatens the unwelcome house guests with one horror after another, as he needs sacrifices to give eternal life to his beautiful but dead bride.

Spookies was originally shot by two first-time filmmakers, friends and horror fans Thomas Doran and Brendan Faulkner in 1984, with additional scripting, directing, and editing by Eugenie “Genie” Joseph. Originally titled Twisted Souls, the first incarnation of this film was met with conflict and chaos on and off set. So the long and short of it is, the original director was fired from Twisted Souls, and the movie’s financier gave what had been shot over to Doran and Faulkner, both of whom had a vision of an ethereal movie with a monster a minute that takes place at a haunted mansion! And they couldn’t have asked for a more ideal location. The new directors brought their highly skilled crew to the John Jay Estate, located in Rye, New York. This colonial manner was once the home of one of America’s founding fathers, John Jay, who co-authored the Treaty Of Paris and the Federalist Papers, and was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

As you already know, the horror genre is filled with immense, and often underrated or undervalued talent, imagination, and sheer excellence in craftsmanship that work together to bring our nightmares to life. The proliferation of A and B horror movies in the 1980s resulted in an explosion of creativity on screen that made us laugh and scream. Rarely have I found myself genuinely surprised by a horror movie, but I absolutely loved this one for feeling fresh yet familiar! When I was asked by another podcaster, what about Cinema Speak’s review made me immediately seek it out, I responded with the description of the practical effects as being cheesy and charming as the commentary that inspired me to locate this obscure 1980s gem! Anytime someone highlights the practical effects in (any, but especially in) a horror movie, I am compelled to check it out.

So much of this movie’s plot makes absolutely zero sense, but it somehow pulls off the impossible by making that work! From a random, isolated thirteen-year-old boy running around the woods to celebrate his birthday to a group of college-aged young adults hanging out with an older couple to a cat-like love child, the movie defies all screenwriting logic. And you know what? It’s perfectly fine. Because where this movie excels is in the art of the horror experience! You get it all, unlikable characters that you cheer for when they meet their demise, a stupid kid that gets what he deserves, a tragic and twisted love story, and a haunted mansion in the middle of the woods surrounded by a graveyard. Throw in a heaping helping of high-budget ambition on a low-budget wallet, and you get this phantasmagorical movie that will make horror fans gleefully smile at the high degree of entertainment value with heart.

The movie’s technical achievement is outstanding! And not just the monster/creature effects, the cinematography and score are also quite good! While the performances are nothing to particularly write home about, they deliver what you want to see and experience in a schlocky horror movie. But the real stars of this movie are the monsters and ghouls created by the puppeteers, makeup artists, and other technicians. This movie could be read as a love letter to creature effects and to the work of Jack Pierce, Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, and other behind-the-scenes stars of the screen! Every time a new spooky monster was introduced, I was left simultaneously with my mouth agape and hugely smiling at the originality of each and every creature. Sure you have zombies, but the zombies were all designed with the utmost care. Ken Brilliant (The Lost World: Jurassic Park), John Dods (Monsters TV series), Ken Walker (Frankenhooker) and Jon Mathews (The Deadly Spawn) were on the special effects crew, and they did a great job despite the low budget. Nothing was left to chance or hurriedly constructed–well, except for maybe the grim reaper monster costume that is from Spirit Halloween.

Not only are the monsterous creations in the house, but they are outside as well! Literally everywhere you turn, there is a nightmarish entity just waiting to stalk and attack you. This addition of monsters in the yard offers up a clever dynamic that isn’t seen often in these type of horror movies. Usually the monsters or ghosts are contained within the walls of the house. Cinematically, what this does is convey that there is no escape from the claws, teeth, and tentacles of the monsters. This proliferation of monsters actually plays quite well! Clearly the directors knew how to handle this spectacularly because it could’ve so easily been disastrous. The film’s success is attributed to the directors’ talented crew and ability to execute a grand vision on a limited budget. But why does this film succeed at it’s poorly written plot? It wasn’t intended to tell a thoughtful or even coherent story; the intention was to immerse the audience into a surreal nightmarish world of monsters, magic, and mayhem. A world WITH DIMENSION that is so incredibly impressive and entertaining that we forgive the story for not making any sense, because we can see and love the hands of the artisans in each and every scene.

Spookies is one hot mess of a horror movie, but it could quite possibly be the most phenomenal hot mess horror movie ever! Don’t try to make sense of the plot; you will go crazy trying. In a manner of speaking, the movie has to be experienced rather than understood or passively watched. After reading this review, you may be temped to think of this as just another B-movie that only ardent horror fans whom refuse to acknowledge the accomplishments of contemporary horror cinema enjoy; but if you think that way, you will be doing yourself a grave disservice because this movie is fantastic! And at a quickly paced 85-minutes, you will be surprised how much you enjoy it and will want to watch it again to get a better look at the creature effects. This is definitely one of the most insane low-budget horror movies out there. Prepare to witness the monstrous special effects extravaganza of a group of clueless people running around being killed in glorious fashion. So do yourself a favor and gather a group of your friends together with some drinks and popcorn, and turn the volume way up to experience the horror gem that is Spookies (1986). 

Spookies is available on BluRay from Vinegar Syndrome or by more nefarious means. But if you choose the more nefarious route, you will deprive yourself of the behind the scenes documentary and special featurettes ONLY AVAILABLE on the BluRay.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail full review

If you’re searching for the most intense local haunt in Central Florida, then you need to head to Plant City to face the terror of Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail. By far, of all the events that I have attended this season, Sir Henry is definitely the scariest out of all of them. From the scareactors wandering about the common areas and queues for the mazes (and yes, I do mean mazes) to the ones within the dark corridors and pathways of the trails, each and every one is uniquely terrifying. Sir Henry, with featured now perennial guest Ominous Decent (whom joined Sir Henry after Hurricane Irma destroyed its original home in Bartow, FL), is made up of three trails, a laser tag arena, and an escape room. Amping up the scare factor, small groups are admitted into the mazes, leaving plenty of space between you and the groups in front and behind. No scares are spoiled like in more conveyer belt type houses. In addition to the attractions, there are shows performed in the presence of the statue of Sir Henry. While resting between mazes and enjoying the food truck offerings, you will be entertained by a group reenacting the Thriller dance and the Lipstick Players performing Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show. So much to do and see at Sir Henry. And with various ticketing options, this haunted attraction is the most scream for your buck. Oh yeah, be on the lookout for Vex. She is a wandering scareactor host who is always happy to answer your questions.

Returning for a second year to Sir Henry is Ominous Decent. New for this year is Twisted Souls, a maze that takes you through the ranch and slaughter house of a family that may just want to serve you up for dinner. Although there are returning set pieces from last year, this year’s maze is reimagined with new twists, turns, dead ends, and haunts. Of all the trails at Sir Henry this year, this is definitely the most frightening of them all. The attention to detail is incredible and nightmare inducing. Each and every trail at Sir Henry has a story posted out front for you to read the background of each and every trail. Although the signage is something that many guests may walk past, take your time to read it. Just like the preface of a book or trailer of a movie sets the tone for the experience, so does this narrative. The general theme of Twisted Souls is hillbilly horror. And within the livestock corals and humble abode of the family, you will encounter unspeakable terror and will wonder if you can escape with your very life.

After narrowly escaping the hillbillies of Twisted Souls,  my friends and I headed for The Carving. Again, there is a great story to read before you ender the terrifying field. From the entrance to the queue to the make itself, there is a noticeable attention to theming. The sinister jack-a-lanterns are incredibly creepy and truly set the tone for what you will encounter in the field. While my friends and I were waiting in the queue, none other then SIR HENRY himself came over to greet us. How many horror attractions have a consistent icon who wanders about, greeting guests? I cannot think of one. I love how Sir Henry walks around greeting his guests. This shows such an attention to the guest experience. Truly adds a personal touch. Instead of a ranch ran by cannibalistic hillbillies, this maze takes you through a field and village of deadly villagers that seek to carve up more than just pumpkins. With only some small candles and the stars to light the way, this is a dark maze. I love how it feels as though you are helpless in the middle of a forest. Because you are actually outside in a field and forest, speckled with foreboding cabins, this maze achieves an intense feeling that no amount of theming in a sound stage can fully replicate. You may even encounter low hanging shrubbery and even thorns. It’s a legit wilderness. Perfectly spaces out and paced, the haunts and scares are terrifyingly effective. Whereas this maze is not quite as scary as Twisted Souls, there are plenty of times that I was scared. And I do not scare easily.

Lastly, before experiencing the laser tag and escape room games, is Silent Walls. What is scarier than an orphanage with a sordid past? Answer, not much. With a serial killer on the loose, do you have what it takes to survive a maze through the house, grounds, and hospital with a murderous boogeyman running around? The entrance of this house is actually a house! You get to enter the orphanage through the front door and enter the dimly lit foyer. Every room is frightening and no amount of psyching yourself out or preparation will protect you from the boogeyman. The boogeyman may be any of the characters you encounter in the house, on the grounds, or in the hospital. Don’t trust anyone. The corridors are narrow and twisted. One wrong turn and you may wind up the next boogeyman victim. Like with the other mazes at Sir Henry, this one also boasts spectacular attention to production design and detail. Not all the scares are jump scares, and that is true of all the mazes at Sir Henry. Some of the frightening imagery is right there in front of you when you enter a room. The combination of jump scares and morbid characters gives this house an extremely strong presence. There is an atmosphere of dread and terror the whole time in the house. This level of fright exists from start to finish.

In addition to the three main attractions, there are two other offerings at Sir Henry this year. Laser Tag and an Escape Room. Both of them are included with the VIP ticket or available as a separate upsell. But you should opt for the VIP ticket since the VIP line access is included. Moore on that in the following paragraph. Providing guests with a break from the macabre, the laser tag setup is team v team in a small arena with cars and barricades. Plenty of places to protect yourself. It’s a lot of fun! I happened to be the highest scorer in my group despite dying 5 times haha. It’s a five minute game, and you will have a blast. Across the common area from laser tag is the escape room. Be prepared to wait for a while. Instead of loading the game with, say 6 people at a time, it’s loaded by party. So, it may take a while to get to your group especially if there are many groups of 3-4 people in front. Won’t talk about the room because that would give away the mystery. But it’s a lot of fun!

Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail has gotten so much right. In fact, their haunts beat out anything that I have experiences this year in terms of the level of scare and (non IP) production design. You DO NOT want to miss this season of Sir Henry. You will have a great time! Now, for some areas of improvement as this attraction continues to grow in popularity. The VIP queue needs to actually move faster. The problem with combining the VIP queue access with the ticket package that includes laser tag and the escape room is that most guest get that VIP combo package. So, the VIP line moved just as creepily slowly as the regular (standby) queue. Solution: Have the base ticket (3 trails), a combo ticket (three trails+laser tag+escape room), and make the VIP queue access a separately purchased premium offering. That way, you can add it to the base or combo ticket package. With it being a separate charge, fewer people will opt for it, therefore the VIP queue will actually more more quickly. I also suggest that Sir Henry add another food truck or two that gives guests different options. Lighting for the two shows in front of the statue needs to increase. And Sir Henry needs to work on how to communicate the actor changes with the hosts in the greeting positions so they don’t snd guests through while actors are changing (delaying the experience while IN the attraction). On the topic of hosts, the queues need to have a greeter at the entrance of the queue.

Although I still have a couple more local haunts to hit before calling it a season and switching gears to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this is on track to be my favorite experience this year. Most scare for the buck, definitely. If you live in Orlando or Tampa, you don’t want to miss this Halloween attraction!

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Howl-O-Scream 2018 Full Review

Howl-O-Scream is here, and there is #NowhereToHide from the hoards of zombies, killer toys, sociopathic butchers, and more! Opening this past weekend, Busch Gardens’ annual Halloween event kicked off with thunderous applause from all  the fiends that dared face the horrors of the six houses and scare zones. With some new additions to the HOS lineup, this year was screamtastic! From coasters with zombies to great food and drinks, Busch Gardens provides the best value for a large scale haunted event. Enter if you dare, but be warned that there are terrors around every corner and where you least expect them to be, including on Busch Gardens’ heart-heart-pounding coasters! Might just find yourself riding next to a vomit-inducing zombie. In her encore year, HOS also bids the queen of Death Water Bayou a ghoulish farewell. Select night from now until October 27th, you don’t want to miss a single epic moment of Howl-O-Scream 2018 at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

The frights begin even before you enter the from gate. Wandering hoards of a variety of all that goes bump in the night will be your personal poltergeist. In order to make sure you make the most of your time at HOS, I highly recommend the front-of-the-line pass. Fortunately, my friend and I had them on opening night, and it allowed us to move about casually about the event. Even if you do not elect to get the front-of-the-line pass, you will most likely make it to all the houses if you begin right at start time. But, the best way to experience HOS is every night of the event with the season pass. With general admission prices well below Halloween Horror Nights, Howl-O-Scream provides park guests with the most band for your buck. I am often asked by my followers on Twitter which event is more fun or to compare the two, and I often reply with the cliche analogy of apples and oranges because both are fruit, yet unique. Whereas HHN has a much higher production quality, HOS has the better scares. At least, that rings true for my friends and me who attend both these events every year. We go to HHN for the familiar IPs and to HOS to get scared. After all these years, it is getting more and more difficult to startle or scare me. So scare factor is important when I attend a theme park or local haunt.

Entering the park from the Nairobi Gate (for the media event), I found myself in the Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) scare zone. The costumes were brilliant! Between the Mexican themed food, music, and the projections on the Moroccan Palace, it was truly an immersive scare zone to kick the opening night festivities off in a superb fashion. After celebrating the Day of the Dead with the inhabitants of that scare zone, my friend Dani and fellow Tweep Off of the Go were on our way to checkin to one of this year’s new houses Insomnia. Insomnia is in the location where Zombie Containment Unit used to be, and it’s a HUGE upgrade. In fact, Insomnia is in the running to be the most popular this year. In the Insomnia house, you are walking through a disturbing psychiatric hospital of the most bizarre nature. While touring this sinister place, you will encounter unimaginable terror around every corner. You’ll not only want to watch out for deadly patients but what lurks in the walls and ceilings. If you can make it out alive, you’ll have more to worry about than Freddy Krueger next time you go to sleep. Maybe it’s best if you never sleep again.

One of my favorite parts of Howl-O-Scream every year is the annual Fiends show!! Consistently irreverent and hilariously funny, this show is the highlight of my experience each year. I was especially excited for it this year because Universal canceled the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure show. As much as I enjoy the macabre nature of the houses and scare zones, Fiends provides park guests an opportunity to laugh! This laughter is both immensely entertaining and it cleanses the pallet for continued enjoyment of the horrifying attractions. Join Dr. Freakenstein, Igor, their sexy pink nurses and all the rest of the fiends as they celebrate Dr. Freakenstein’s birthday number 666. The jokes are funnier, lewder, racier than ever—it’s the honor comedy show not to be missed. Fiends consistently delivers an incredible show that will hold your attention and cause you to possibly engage in uncontrollable laughter the entire time. Whoever writes the show, must have an amazingly fun time doing so! Dr. Freakenstein and Igor are equal opportunity offenders. No one is safe from their riffs and banter. Especially a certain orange-skinned individual with a terrible combover. So much eye candy at the show. Whether you’re looking for sexy pink female nurses, mesmerizingly beautiful vampires, hot shirtless male dancers, or totally rad mummies that can breakdance like no one’s business, you will find them in Dr. Freakenstein’s Castle.

Next door to Fiends is The Black Spot pirate themed haunted maze. Likely in its final year, this is a house returning from the last few years  that invites park guests to enter into a treacherous land of pirates, sea creatures, treasure, and curses. One of my favorite things about this house is entering in through a pirate ship and encountering a massive rock skull. It may not be one of my favorite houses this year, but I do enjoy the themed design. The scares could use a little work, but the production design is solid. Personally, I prefer Dead Fall, which was in this location prior to Black Spot. Once we disembarked the pirate ship, we needed to head for our hotel—motel, rather. The journey would not be as simple as hailing a taxi or requesting an Uber. We had to make the journey on foot through the Deadly Toys scare zone. There is little more terrifying and creepy than that which is otherwise innocent, being twisted into something truly sinister. Chainsaw wielding teddy bears, possessed dolls, killer clowns, and more. Even the toy boxes are enough to strike fear in your mind. Once we escaped the clutches of the dolls, bears, and clowns, we arrived at our destination

Motel Hell is still my favorite house at HOS. Of all the houses, it is the most detailed and elaborate. If there was any one house at HOS that was of an HHN original house quality, it is Motel Hell. I feel that it is the strongest house for effective and consistent theming that works to transport you from a theme park to a rundown motel from the 1950s. Every room in this motel has something terrifying to offer the residents. And yes, it’s complete with that 1940s scratchy high pitched record music too. Something straight out of Insidious. Even though each room is unique, there is still a great deal of coherency in the design. You never feel that you have been taken out of the story. Underneath beds, in bath tubs, in dark corners, and behind the walls, it will feel that there is no way out of this hell. Just when you think it’s over, that’s when the scar actors will get you. In addition to being the best in design, it’s also the most fun house. Lots of horror tropes here!

Located across from Motel Hell is Busch Gardens’ first area to be recommended for 17 years of age and up. With no one checking IDs, I am not sure how this is monitored but I imagine that if someone under the age of 17 wonders in, they have been warned that this is a disturbing area. After all, you are in a meat market. Animals and humans too. There are elements of this scare zone that are not for the faint of heart. If you’re looking to get a great HOS photo, then the photo opportunities in Meat Market are for you. With several to choose from, there is a setting for every fiend. Simon’s Slaughterhouse is a new house for HOS this year that is recommended for those who are 17 years of age and older because of the disturbing and intense material. In this house, you may be separated from your group at the front entrance, which alone can increase the terror level. As you navigate this claustrophobic maze through a sinister slaughterhouse, you will encounter the sounds of meat being harvested, and I am not just talking animals.

If you emerge mostly unscathed from Simon’s Slaughterhouse, you’ll want to make your way to visit the excavation at Unearthed. Returning this year, Unearthed’s maze is modified and additional props are used. Instead of entering the house from the Gwazi platform and walking past that amazing animatronic tree that I’ve always found impressive, you enter in from the basement, so to speak. In order to find your way through the maze, you are given a flashlight. A nice touch! My friend Dani carried the flashlight for us so I could take pictures. Speaking of which, unless you have a lens with a wide-open aperture, photos in side the houses are actually difficult to take. Other than the entrance, the house is largely unchanged. Like Motel Hell, I find that this one has a solid production design, full of details. One of the things that I feel is missing from this house, that cold improve it, is a coherent story. When it was first revealed a few years ago, it has more of a story than it does now. Bringing that back, can assist in the over all experience of this house.

Standing between you and the park’s exit is the Hell on Wheels scare zone. I hope you’re not hungry or thirsty when approaching this scare zone. You see, a notorious gang has staked claim to the food and water supplies after an apocalyptic event. You cannot outrun these bad ass motorcycle gang members, and with #NowhereToHide, you are going to be on the run of your life. Lots of sliders in this area, and those sliders’ scares are always effective. Although we found ourselves in the front of the park, we still wanted to visit the Camp DOA scare zone in the back of the park. Dani and I also had a few scareactors that we wanted to find! We were also craving a pretzel dog from Pantopia. Dani has a friend who’s one of the scareactors in the Maniac Midway, and we missed her earlier when we rode Falcon’s Fury.

Since we arrived in Pantopia before her friend came out, we took a moment to grab our pretzel dogs from that dope quick service location near Falcon’s Fury. I greatly appreciate Busch Garden’s for doing their best to include so many local horror enthusiast and actors who just want to have fun scaring and creeping out HOS guests. No matter if someone may not have the range of physical abilities as others. If you show an enthusiasm for a desire to scare the HOS guests, then Busch Gardens will do their best to accommodate and include you. After spending a moment getting scared by Dani’s friend who was hiding in the shadows in order to startle those who venture into the midway overrun by maniac clowns. Next we made our way over to Sheikra to catch one of my new friends I’ve met on Twitter (MisfitsUnmanaged) who is playing a cider smoking chain-saw wielding clown. But before we can get to Sheikra, we must pass through the Camp DOA scare zone. Located where the Wasteland scare zone used to be, this scare zone is a great interpretation of summer camp slasher horror movies. I love this quick story because it just goes to show how social media can provide an opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals! Fortunately, the timing worked so that MisfitsUnmanaged was going to be coming out as Dani and I were in the Sheikra area. Lastly, I needed to see another friend of mine that I figure skate with who was playing a ghost-like zombie in the front of the park. Timing was perfect, we got to get our picture together!

Well, there you have it! A comprehensive review of Howl-O-Scream 2018 at Busch Gardens!  Although opening weekend has come and gone, you still have many more weekends to enjoy this event! With tickets starting at $39, it’s a fantastic value that gives you the most bank for your buck. I need to return to ride Cheetah Hunt and Skeikra with scareactors, but that just gives me even more reason to get the season pass so I can go back time and time again.

 

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Support Local! Exploring Central Florida’s Community Haunts

Written by Ryan L. Terry & Derek Rosenberg

While Universal parks have Halloween Horror Nights, Busch Gardens parks host Howl-O-Scream, Knott’s Berry Farm celebrates Halloween with Knott’s Scary Farm as well as many other theme parks’ Halloween events, don’t forget that your area may also offer some great local haunts to terrify you during this festive season made up of what haunts you in your nightmares. Whether you are searching for a local haunt that has that quintessential small town Halloween feel or you seek a haunt that takes you where no theme park can without getting sued, there is likely a haunted house or trail located within driving distance of your house that beckons for you to brave the horrors that lie within.

I must confess, I have not supported my local Central Florida area haunts in the past–and that’s always bothered me. Always spent my time at the Universal, Disney, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld events. So this year, I made it a point to make it to at least one, if not more, in order to support local Halloween enthusiasts who enjoy crafting something enjoyably terrifying for the community to enjoy during the Halloween season. And you know what I found? Local haunts are great! They can do things that theme parks aren’t able to do for reasons of liability. They can also do little things that enhance the experience by giving the haunt a more intimate feel. I am certainly not disappointed with my experience; and friends of mine that have supported local haunts this year as well, have commented that the haunted trails and houses offered uniquely fun experiences.

Our first stop is Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail! Located between Tampa and Orlando in Plant City, famous for the annual Strawberry Festival, Sir Henry’s offers two trails and a house. The house was an addition to the annual trails because it was located in Bartow, FL where it suffered major damage from Hurricane Irma. The folks at Sir Henry offered to include the house in order for the owners to recuperate the money it takes to build and support a haunted house AND for additional exposure from people who wouldn’t ordinarily drive the hour from Orlando or Tampa for a local house. Talk about an excellent example of a community uniting after a disaster! I gathered from that story that the owners, designers, and builders of local haunted attractions must be a close-knit community that steps in to help one another out, all while maintaining friendly competition amongst each other.

Parking was free! That was a great start to Sir Henry. You can purchase admission individually for the trails and house (three total attractions), or you can buy a combo ticket. My two friends and I purchased the combo ticket for $30 (saved $6). Individually, the attractions sell for $12/ea. From the moment we walked in, we knew that it would be fun. There were fire pits roaring, people roasting marshmallows, local vendors selling souvenirs and Halloween decorations, and kids whose parents obviously dropped them off for a night of nightmarish experiences. It felt like I stepped into a Halloween event held in one of those towns found in shows on The CW–you know the ones I’m talking about. I was thoroughly impressed by the craftsmanship and simple but effective technologies used in bringing these houses to life. A big difference between the theme park events and these local haunts is the group size. At Sir Henry, groups are broken up into smaller groups of three or four. Furthermore, guests are sent through the trails and house in intervals. This is instrumental in a desire for each guest to experience a scare without seeing it up ahead with other group. The trails and house were definitely maze-like in the design, because we took a few wrong turns and had to backtrack–only to find our pathway blocked by scareactors.

One of my favorite effects that I saw at Sir Henry’s was the fog and green laser that made it look like a swamp. Come to find out, that effect is achieved by cooling the fog to a temperature that causes it to remain condensed and about 3-4 feet above the ground. The addition of the green laser effect actually made it feel like I was wading through a swamp as my friends and I were navigating the maze. Being out in a field was a lot of fun and much different than being in a theme park setting. I really had no idea where scares were going to be; and therefore, I was always processing from turn to turn with heightened senses. It was a great feeling! Demented colonists, abandoned subdivisions, deadly butchers, chainsaw wielding sociopaths, you’ll find them all at Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail in Plant City, Florida.

Let’s head over to Winter Haven, located between Orlando and Lakeland.

The Shallow Grave has been a staple haunted attraction in Winter Haven, Florida for the last 5 years. I have always heard great things about this haunt and had never taken the time to experience it, but couldn’t pass it up this year, after hearing it will be their last year due to low attendance numbers. Built in a 13,000 square foot warehouse, Shallow Grave offers two haunted mazes giving you two very different experiences. Parking is $5 in the field across the street and as soon as we arrived the atmosphere was electric. They have several different ticket options including General Admission for $25 (includes both houses, one admission per house), Quick Death for $40 (allows you to skip the lines, one admission per house), Feargasm Pass for $35 (unlimited access to both houses), Season Pass for $150 (admission to each house for all 14 nights they are open), and the Combo Pass with Chamber of Terror for $55. They also sell Shallow Grave t-shirts to really support your local haunt. There are a few animatronic figures or statues outside the houses that add to the creepy atmosphere and allow for some great photo ops. Standing in line was where we got our first taste of how this is different than your typical theme park haunt. Scareactors are milling about outside the houses, pushing through the lines and popping up to scare guests before they even make it inside. They then tend to be happy to pose for a photo to show off their costumes and makeup.

Now we get into the houses. Updated for 2017 we first have Betrayal. You find yourselves on the haunted property of Thaddeus Van Buren during a rise of the undead. Shambling zombies and chainsaw wielding hillbillies stalk this maze which includes a rundown house and graveyard. This felt like a pairing of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a zombie flick, which are two of my favorite genres. The returning house this year is Pavor Nocturnus (latin for night terror) which delves into the realm of phobias and those subconscious fears you might not realize you have. This house covers spiders, caves, snakes, swamps, voodoo, prison, hospitals, and asylums in all the best and worst ways possible. With sets and props that match Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream quality, scareactors grisly costumes and makeup, and not your average animatronics and puppets, you haven’t been through a maze quite like these before. These are the scariest houses I’ve ever been through, which comes from several reasons. They only let groups of 6 through the house at a time and there isn’t always a clear indication of which way you are supposed to go, so it does truly feel like you’re having to find your way through this maze of horrors. The scareactors are also able to touch you and although it’s typically only a light squeeze of your arm, it’s a whole different experience once that barrier of “safety” is shattered. Having been going to haunted events at theme parks for the last 12 years, I can say that this is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a real shame that this is their last year and I’ve only gone once. I’m hoping they find a new home or financial backer so we can see The Shallow Grave return in the future.

Now, we head to Downtown Tampa for quite the unique experience!

When buying tickets we went with the Combo Pass so that we could also check out the Chamber of Terror in Tampa, Florida. This haunt is built on the SS American Victory, a WWII-era cargo shipped docked behind the Florida Aquarium in Channelside. Parking is available at the Channelside Parking Garage across the street from the aquarium. Ticket options include General Admission for $25, Immediate Demise for $40 (skip the line pass), and the Combo Pass with The Shallow Grave for $55 (skip the lines pass for both locations). From the moment you walk up to this haunt it feels different than any other because you’re walking up to an actual ship. Walking down the darkened alley to the water for the reveal of a huge ship is pretty spectacular. Scareactors amble around outside ready to scare you in line as a taste of what’s to come. Soon you will find yourself deep in the hold of this haunted ship, inhabited by Captain Berwick and his undead crew, lashing out to terrorize you and hoping to add some new bodies to their hoard.

Our combo pass allowed us to skip the line so we almost immediately were sent up the gangplank onto the deck of the ship. The steel door swings open and a group of 6 are beckoned through by an undead shipmate who leads you to the elevator. Here you are shut into a box where the only light is being shown in your face by a scareactor holding a flashlight and shouting while lowering us down into the depths of the ship. What follows is a twisting, turning maze of narrow corridors and staircases that take you through many different sections of the ship including the main deck, which gives you a nice view of the water. This haunt is interesting because each section of the ship plays out like an interactive scene that plays for your group before being reset for the group following well behind you. The costuming and props are great and the scareactors have no problem invading your personal space, especially in the crew quarters. The different levels of the ship disorient you into not knowing where the next scare is coming from and where the terror will take you next. While I didn’t find this haunt as scary as Shallow Grave, it was still a lot of fun and a different experience than I’ve had before. I definitely plan to check out the Chamber of Terror in the years to come to see what changes are made and for more nautical haunt fun.

The final stop on our tour of Central Florida’s local haunts was Scream-A-Geddon in Dade City. Having only been around for a few years, it’s the newest local haunt in greater Orlampa (Orlando/Tampa). We had such a great time! A fantastic variety of haunts including three houses, one trail, and a hayride! That’s right. A Hayride in Florida! From the moment we entered, we could tell that we were in for a spooktacular time. The theme of the event revolves around a classic carnival setup. The ticket windows, entrances, and midway resemble a classic carnival or traveling circus. The scareactors are not confined to the houses, but there are roaming sociopaths and ghastly hillbillies throughout the midway. In addition to the official haunts, Scream-A-Geddon also offers a gift shop, carnival food, and even games. If you’re feeling a big cold, there are two giant fire pits as well. With the night being unseasonably cold for Florida, the climate added to the experience because it felt like how Halloween is supposed to feel in the air.

Blackpool Prison is where the worst of the worst criminals are sent and during a blackout the inmates take control. This was our first house of the night and it was probably the best place to start. Here we were introduced to an element that makes Scream-A-Geddon different than most other haunts, the interactive glow stick necklace. Before you go inside the house, those who are 18 or older are given the option to either go in as a spectator or to where a glow stick necklace to become part of the horror, which allows the scareactors to interact with you. We’re sent into the prison in a group of 6, with 2 in our party wearing necklaces, and I took point. I was almost immediately grabbed by an inmate, taken into a cell, and shoved up against a wall where the inmate screamed in my face that I was going to die in this prison. I was then sent back out of the cell and, having been separated from my group, had to walk alone through the house for a while. Our friend Dani was also grabbed several times and between us we were yelled at, shoved against walls, locked into jail cells, threatened with bodily harm, and in Dani’s case with having her teeth pulled out. The house was very dark and smoky to simulate a rioting prison during a blackout, with threatening inmates and the few prison guards still left alive begging for our help. The set pieces weren’t as spectacular as other haunts, but the atmosphere coupled with walking through sections of this house alone makes that forgivable. This was a great introduction of the best parts of Scream-A-Geddon and got us ready for what was to come in our second house.

We then headed over to check out Infected: Ground Zero, the new house for 2017. Following a meteorite crashing near a rural campsite, a viral infection rapidly spreads, leading to a military quarantine of the area. Before heading out into the chaos we are again asked if we wanted to spectate or take part, Dani and I opted in again and were sent in as a group of 6. Dani was almost immediately grabbed and pulled away from our group and we didn’t see her again until we made it out of the house. This haunt is a maze through quarantine tents, dilapidated cars, and a house of cannibalistic horror. I was eventually grabbed and stuck in an X-ray room where I was hit with a bright light and blast of air and toward the end of the haunt I was pulled into a tent off the main path where the scareactor began shaving my hair to help stave off the infection. The end section was a squared off maze of lit tents, a central tower that spewed fire out the top every 60 seconds or so, and a chainsaw wielding madman chasing you through to the exit. After we made it out we were reunited with Dani where she told us of her experiences inside, which included: being zipped in a body bag and left alone for a few minutes, being forced onto a table where a buzz saw was ran across her forehead, and nearly being grabbed by another scareactor to be given a shot with the antidote. The frantic nature of this haunt was incredible and never knowing what the next section might hold made it the best experience Scream-A-Geddon has to offer and an experience that should not be missed.

The next two haunts on our tour placed us in the middle of the woods–Dead Woods to be precise. At this offering, you are sent on a deathly journey through the woods surrounding a nearly abandoned settlement with only a few cabins remaining. Lurking within the walls of these cabins in the woods, are deadly settlers who refused to leave when the rest of the village took to the city. While the haunts of this attraction were spread a little too thin for my taste–lots of “dead” space–the design of the cabins was great! Derek, Dani, and I really enjoyed the concept and layout. In the future, Scream-A-Geddon may want to consider making each cabin a different theme or including a greater variety of scares. This was also the longest wait, and over all woods did not justify the wait time. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun. But I think this attraction could use a little more “haunt” to compensate for the longer than average wait. Having to use a light stick to find our way was a lot of fun and added to the experience of being lost in the woods. Although using a faceod of a cabin would have sufficed for some haunts, this offering boasted five full cabins that we walked through and encountered the locals who were not happy that we were uninvited house guests. Probably because we witnessed all the sinister things they were up to. Walking through the haunted woods on our self-guided tour, was a great experience!

From walking through haunted woods to riding on a tractor-drawn hay wagon, we headed over to Cursed Hayride. This was my favorite experience at the carnival of terrors because it offers a unique experience. Unique for this part of Florida because hay isn’t something that you see in numerous quantities around the area, especially if you live in an urban core. I hadn’t been on a hayride in more than a decade. Although the ride load, unload and guest circulation could be improved a little, the wait wasn’t terrible. And certainly worth the experience. The theme was two part haunted farm and one part Old Western ghost town. The ride was filled with several pyro effects and scareactors to terrify you on your journey. A small group of girls on our hay wagon were particularly terrified and were all over the wagon. Along your ride, you will encounter farm equipment the has a mind of its own and will try to bail you will the hay. Watch out for a giant man-eating gator too. My favorite part was going through the ghost town. Reminded me a lot of the Western scene in the late Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In fact, I remarked “what is this, Joisey???” An homage to the gangster on GMR. The tour through the ghost town was complete with a bank robbery, shoot out between the law and outlaws, and a terrifying priest. Such a unique experience that ranks highly for me this season.

Our last experience of the night was Bedlam 3D, which is a trip through a carnival madhouse gone mad. No interactive glow stick necklaces here, everyone gets the same experience. Taking some cues from Circus of Superstition 3D that ran at Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream for many years, we are sent through a glow in the dark, neon colored, clown invested, insane asylum. The 3D used here is similar to what you’ll see at other haunted theme park attractions, but is different than what you see in the theater. ChromaDepth 3D relies on the color spectrum where red appears to pop out at you, and blue appears to recede, with differing levels of depth effect for colors that fall in between. This was not the scariest house, but it was incredibly fun. The 3D effects, paint, and laser lights made the house very disorienting. The whole house is lit by black lights, so everything glowed, and it gave a really unsettling effect on the clowns’ makeup and costumes. Some good uses of drop doors, moving props, and a bungie scare really gave this house a zany feel and the scareactors were having a great time confusing guests on which way they needed to go through the maze. This was honestly one of the best 3D haunts I’ve ever been through and a really fun way to end our night.

Well, there you have folks! We’ve explored some excellent haunts outside the world of the theme parks, and hope we have encouraged you to support your local haunts (those that are open on Halloween and the remainder of the week). It really is so important to support your local haunted attractions because they have some great ideas and love to scare you! Whether the local haunt is someone’s sole livelihood or a glorified hobby, they should be encouraged to keep going and developing ideas because this is a way to support your local artistic community. As much fun as you have being scared, those who direct, act in, or build these community offerings love to see you having fun. And in order for these haunts remain around for you to enjoy, it’s important to spend the time and money at them so they can keep growing! This Halloween, remember to support local!