“The Addams Family” Animated Movie Review

Not creepy, mysterious, or spooky, but it’s certainly kooky and fun. Duh duh duh dum, snap snap. Just in time for Halloween is The Addams Family! I went into this movie not expecting much. A friend of mine loves all things Addams Family (even his drag persona is Katrina Von Addams), so he wanted to see it together. And to be perfectly honest, I enjoyed the movie. Is it predictable? Yes. Is the screenwriting weak? Yes. But is it a fun way to just kick back with a movie that entertains sufficiently enough? Yes. The voice cast is great and the character designs feel inspired by the earliest drawing in The New Yorker magazine. For me, the characters feel like the Addams Family that we have known for over 75 years. And just like the family themselves, the plot defies all logic. But that doesn’t take away from the good time I had watching it. It provided me with precisely what I needed, about an hour and a half of turning off my brain to have fun with endearing characters that have had a home on the small and big screen alike over the years. During the opening credit sequence, I saw that Bette Midler was in it! I literally yelled Bette Midler in the auditorium because that elated me. No surprise, she plays the role of grandma–a witch. The Divine Miss M returned to her witchy roots. In addition to Midler, you will enjoy the voice talents of Oscar Isaac, Charlize Thereon, Allison Janney, Chloe Grace Moretz, and other familiar names. The theme of the story is acceptance and individuality, which bodes well for this movie. Although we never dive deep into this topic, the B and C stories parallel one another in theme, but approach the topic from different perspectives that touch on immediate family, extended family, and friends/neighbors. Even though the characters are not as dark as I was hoping they’d be, you do get some trademark Addams Family macabre humor at the mansion. While the movie does not open up with the iconic theme song, the end of the movie includes a tribute to the original TV series opening that will leave you with a smile. If you’re searching for a great animated movie, then this is not it; but if you are looking for a fun way to spend 1.5hrs with your kids or friends, then this movie works very well.

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Joker” Film Review

A truly phenomenal motion picture with a tour de force lead performance and relevant social commentary for today’s audience. Warner Bros’ highly anticipated Joker opens everywhere this week. Once again, we get an origin story of Batman’s favorite nemesis. Only this time, it’s told through an extremely heavy film that is less about the violence, that so many seem to be fixated on, and more about the unapologetic character study of someone whom has suffered egregious psychological and physiological trauma at the hands of those whom are supposed to be loving caregivers, friends, or mental health professionals. Prepare yourself to go down the rabbit hole of the mind of a madman in this no holds barred exploration of the far reaching effects of untreated trauma, grief, and schizophrenia. From a critical perspective of analyzing this as a motion picture, I find there is so much to admire! If I was to grade this film on a 1 to 10 scale, it would honestly be 8s, 9s, and 10s across the board. But you know what, if I am to be perfectly candid with my readers, I did not particularly care for the story, lack of likable characters, or even this iteration of The Joker. While I cannot deny the critical achievement of this motion picture (or film), as a movie, I did not care for it. I know some may use the terms film and movie interchangeably, but I often differentiate between them when drawing a distinction between art and entertainment. Some movies are both. For example, since we are in the Batman universe for this one, I will point out that my favorite Batman movie is equal parts film and movie, an “arthouse film masquerading around as a superhero movie,” and that would be Batman Returns. Even after watching Joker, my favorite iteration of the iconic character is still Jack Nicholson’s in Batman (89). That being said, Joaquin Phoenix is acting circles around Jack in this film and blows us away with his spectacular performance as this version of Joker.

Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker. (IMDb)

This film is extremely heavy. Usually I don’t make it a point to mention that element of a film; but in the case of this one, it is important that you go in knowing what’s in store for you. Joker is both a character study and an exploration of our present day society as viewed through a 1980s lens. It also sets up Batman, but that is only a small part of this film. Prior to reviewing the performance of Phoenix, I feel it’s important for me to mention that I don’t see him as portraying The Joker as much as I do an authentic, genuine, terrifying madman. It’s no surprise to my readers that I prefer the Burtonverse to the Nolanverse when talking Batman, so my Bat-par is set by 89 and Returns. Nicholson is the standard against which I measure up all other iterations of Joker. And suffice it to say, Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker is not Joker. A brilliant performance as a sociopath, a psychopath, or just plain crazed serial killer with a sordid past brought on by unimaginable trauma, YES; but “Joker,” he is not. Joker is not just a madman, he’s an intelligent, calculating, organized crime boss with a penchant for murder and mayhem that is told through exemplary, if not sinister, showmanship! At the end of the day, Joker is an entertainer. We love to watch him on screen, and even root for him sometimes. There is little reason to root for this Joker. He may start out as an underdog who kills two men in defense; but then starting with the third victim, he is just interested in killing, anarchy, and watching the world burn. He lacks what we love about this iconic villain, and for that reason, I do not feel that this he IS Joker.

While I may not see Phoenix as portraying The Joker (and this has much more to do with the screenplay than his performance), his performance as this madman is off-the-charts great and could possibly be the best performance delivered by Phoenix ever. There is an unapologetic, candidness about this performance that feels incredibly genuine–no pretense about it. Phoenix is 110% committed to this character and stays true to Arthur Fleck the entire time. He is vulnerable and terrifying all at the same time. When analyzing the performance of Phoenix, I am reminded of Norma Desmond’s lines from Sunset Boulevard when she states “my eyes, I can say anything with my eyes” and “we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” Phoenix could have played a mute Arthur Fleck, and we would still have known precisely what he was thinking and more importantly feeling. He embodies the sage screenwriting words of “dramatize, don’t tell.” Phoenix is consistently committed to the character of Arthur Fleck from beginning to end. And I say “Arthur Fleck” because I don’t believe him to be portraying The Joker. In an exchange on Twitter with my friend Jeremiah that I had (as I was writing), I was reminded of what I learned in geometry, “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.” From that we can extrapolate that a theory could be “every Joker is a madman, but not every madman is The Joker.” I’ve seen a lot of great performances over the decades, but I can honestly say that this lead performance by a male actor is among the best I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps Nicholson is still my favorite Joker, but Phoenix’ Joker is certainly the most realistic portrait of the descent from slightly crazy to utter destructive madness to the point that one laughs as the world implodes around them.

Joker is rich with poignant thought-provoking social commentary on our current state of affairs (albeit exaggerated) as the divide between the rich and poor is growing ever so rapidly. Just as American Psycho used the self-centered, consumer-centric, self-indulgent late 1980s to comment on the late 90s//early 2000s, this film also uses the early 1980s lens to comment on the late 2010s/early 2020s. The choice to use the early 1980s as the setting isn’t only because 80s is popular right now, what with Stranger ThingsAmerican Horror Story 1984IT, and more, it’s because it was a highly transitional time in the country. The 1960s was pretty much peaceful, the 1970s was experimental that turned chaotic, and everything came to a head in the early 80s before the economy turned around and the late 80s ushered in the bountiful, progressive 1990s. So the choice to set this film in the inner city of the early 1980s allows it to comment on similar issues that are plaguing us today. Perhaps not to this extreme, but we encounter conflicts that parallel the ones outlined in the film. Instead of treating mental illness, often our society masks it with medication or hides it from view to deal with it later (only later never comes). The rich just keep getting richer, and the poor just keep getting poorer, all while the rich blame the poor for their circumstances and standby and watch the lower rungs on the ladder just fall off; survival of the fittest, one might say. Self-centeredness runs rampant throughout the streets of Gotham as it does in our own cities and towns today. Everyone is so concerned with themselves that they stop to think about building a community that builds up one another to construct a society that is just as much about the quality of life for its citizens as it is the produces and services it can crank out. How do you view our world? As a factory or as a community?

I wish I had known just how heavy this film was going to be before I watched it, as I was not prepared for how dark it was. There are no moments of levity in this film, which I find to be particularly dangerous for audiences. As a screenwriting lecturer, I remind my students that it’s important to use levity strategically even in dark dramas or horror movies. It serves the purpose of not leaving the audience in a depressed state and allows for the writer to deliver an impactful punch when the audience least expects it. Levity relieves negative stress and resets the emotional barometer. I was feeling so oppressed by the tone of this film that I nearly left the cinema because I couldn’t’ take the darkness anymore. And that says a lot, considering that I watch a lot of dark movies and TV shows. Beyond the absence of levity, there aren’t any likable characters. To put it bluntly, everyone is an asshole. The treatment of everyone’s fellow man is despicable. It’s important for a film to establish one or more characters that the audience can identify with and even root for, but I find that everyone is so unlikable that I cannot connect with any of them. Yes, those whom have experienced trauma will likely identify with Arthur, but even he offers nothing redeeming or endearing. Unfortunately, Joker is a film that I may never watch again, despite praising it for its critical achievement as a motion picture.

If you are searching for a film that offers a prolific amount of content for purposes of a character study or cinematic study, then this is an excellent one to put on your list. Personally, I did not care for the story even though by all measurable accounts it’s a great film. But I suppose sometimes there comes along films that we acknowledge for their artistic and critical achievement but do not necessarily need to see again.

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“JUDY” Biopic Film Review

A truly gripping motion picture that will bring you to tears during this somewhere over the rainbow redemption story. Bring tissues. Renee Zellweger is captivating as Judy Garland, and you’ll swear that you’re watching Garland on the big screen. Although we may be familiar with the broad strokes career of the legendary entertainer, this film goes beyond the headlines and tabloids to deliver a true life story that could ironically be titled A Star is Born, or perhaps reborn. Ironic in that this film shows the life of a movie star after the lights have faded and the offers stop coming in, much like the movie she starred in. It’s a rise and fall story, of sorts, but is more precisely a fall and rise story as the movie focusses in on the last year of Judy Garland’s life. If you are worried that the film ends on her death, you can be relived that the film chooses to stop the story prior to the end of the iconic star’s life. And it works so incredibly well! While there are many movies (not unlike A Star is Born) that focus on the rise and fall of a talent in showbusiness, this movie skips all the glitz and glamor to paint a realistic portrait of what it is like for those whom grow up in front of the camera, controlled by those around them, just to wind up in front of booing crowds, empty bank accounts, homelessness, and a tumultuous custody battle. Not to mention her addiction to pills that was caused by abusive treatment at the hands of the old studio system because of being force fed pills from an early age. Whether you are a fan of the iconic diva or not, if you love command performances, then you do not want to miss the uncanny performance of Zellweger as Judy. All the way down to the mannerisms, vocal inflections, and over all behavior, she IS Judy. Although we all know of the tragic ending, no mistaking it, this film is an inspirational story of redemption.

The money is gone, career on the rocks, and risking the loss of custody of her two youngest children, that is the last year’s of Judy Garland’s life. Unfortunately the other side of the rainbow for Judy was anything but magical. Three decades after starring in one of the greatest film musicals of all time The Wizard of Oz, the beloved actress and singer is in dire straights. She is left with virtually nothing except her name and what remains of her timeless voice that charmed millions throughout her early illustrious career. In order to prove that she can provide for her two youngest children, she accepts a gig in London playing to sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town night club. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans, fights her depression and anxiety over performing, and begins a whirlwind romance with her soon-to-be fifth husband.

“For one hour, I am Judy Garland, and the rest of the time I am just like everyone else” is a paraphrased quote from the movie, but it illustrates how the actress and singer felt about her relationship with the world. The movie chronicles her inability to stay afloat financially in Los Angeles and must accept a gig in London where her personal troubles continue to follow and haunt her. Her character is so incredibly relatable because many of us have found ourselves in traps that we have stepped in and are at a loss as to how to get out. If you thought this was going to be another cliche musical biopic, then you would be mistaken. No pretense about it, this is an unapologetic look at the dark side of Hollywood in perhaps one of the greatest stories that is right up there with Norma Desmond. Now, I am not equating Judy with what is, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time Sunset Boulevard, but her story is not unlike the one experienced by Norma. The movie also comments on the far reaching effects of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. No one understood the extent that she was abused by the studio system except for Judy herself. If her present-day handlers knew what she went through during the years that American fell in love with The Wizard of OzMeet Me in St. Louis, and more, then they would not-so-casually write her off as a wrecked hasbeen who mismanaged her money and relationships. The film deals with perception versus reality. Strategically placed in the film are flashbacks to her childhood at MGM that provide context for moving the present story forward as each moment reveals a new layer to the legendary entertainer.

Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages in this film. More than a spot-on impression, she transforms into Judy Garland to the extent that you will almost believe that you are watching the iconic actress and singer on the big screen. It is clear that Zellweger studied Judy Garland for months in order to get into character. Her movement, speech pattern, posture, and other behaviors completely sell the audience on this audacious portrayal of such an icon. Never once does she break character and allow the actor to shine through, she remains committed to this phenomenally genuine portrayal of Judy Garland. We all know Zellweger can sing, after all, she wow’d us in Chicago (a rare example of when the movie adaptation IS better than the live show); but nothing will prepare you for the power of her singing in this movie. Other than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you will hear Zellweger sing other famous songs by Garland such as Get HappyThe Trolly SongCome Rain or Come Shine, and of course the encore of Over the Rainbow. during the movie’s climactic, emotionally charged, showdown. Even when singing, Zellweger is determined to deliver the songs just as a late-40s Garland did, complete with all the stubbornness, anxiety, and even anger. I truly hope that Zellweger is nominated for this role.

Perhaps the reason why Liza Minelli was quite objectionably vocal about her mother’s portrayal in this movie is because there are creative liberties taken by the writers in order to further dramatize Judy’s story. As I’ve told my screenwriting class, dramatize don’t tell. If a “based on a true story” or biographical film was simply concerned with the timeline of events, the cold hard facts, and cause and effect, then it might feel more like a police procedural or college lecture. Hence why it is imperative that writers DO get a little creative in the dramatization of events for cinematic purposes. For instance, the facts are largely correct in this story as I have compared them to Wikipedia and other newspaper articles, but where I can see the difference is Judy’s reaction to the timeline of events. Articles and tabloids may be able to show what happened, but it is up to the screenwriters to dramatize the reaction to the conflict. So perhaps that is what Liza is upset with, she doesn’t agree with the story details between what we know from Hollywood history. One of the tangential components in the movie is Judy meeting up with “Friends of Judy” at the end of one of her shows. Judy joins them, rather than be by herself for a night of poorly made omelets and casual singing around a piano. It’s an emotionally moving tribute to all the gays who’ve loved her over the years. In all likelihood, this was written for the movie as there is no way of verifying if this night ever happened. This is the scene where I feel that she should’ve sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because tonally it was similar to that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Instead, she sings Get Happy.

Maybe this is an unconventional redemption story, but that quality is clearly communicated through the film. Rising up against the internal and external monsters in your life that have dragged you down so far that there is no end in sight. Whereas Judy may not have changed as dramatically as Scrooge did in  A Christmas Carol, she does change during the climax of the movie. If you want to know just how, then you need to go out and watch it!

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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!

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“Ad Astra” Film Review

A thought-provoking science-fiction exploration of the depths of self and space. Fox Searchlight’s Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones is a visually stunning tour de force that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Not since Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey have I experienced such a pure science-fiction motion picture. The plot is so simple, yet the characters highly complex. And the questions posited by the film provide an opportunity to not only engage your senses but also your mind. On the surface, it’s a search and rescue; but beneath that premise, the conflict is built around the idea of man vs himself and father-son relationships. What happens to our minds and relationships when we devote ourselves so intensely to our academic or vocational pursuits that life is flying past us? More specifically, this film’s thesis can be summed up in one impactful, memorable quote from the movie, “he could only ever see what wasn’t there and missed what was right in front of his face.” Perhaps I do not have it quoted precisely correct, but that line spoke volumes to me. Because I will admit to you that I often become so consumed by my studies, social media presence, and what I do not yet have that I sometimes neglect to value what I have right in front of me. In many ways, this film serves as a mirror to not only me, but to all those who allow work or other ancillary elements of our lives to consume our every thought instead of appreciating the relationships we have and the needs/wants that have been met. Powerful stuff. Not only does this film deliver an outstanding original story, but the cinematography, score, editing, and production design are stellar. It’s a testament to the ability motion pictures have to evoke us emotionally and physiologically. We may spend most of the movie with one character, but it never feels boring (maybe a little slow in places, but definitely not boring). Certainly one to watch while it is in theaters for the full cinematic experience.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos. (IMDb)

While I compare this movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey, their respective plots are different, so it does not feel like a movie that secretly seeks to remake the science-fiction classic. The strength of Ad Astra lies in the exemplary screenwriting. We have a clearly defined central character, an external goal, and the subplot driven by the need that supports the motivation to achieve the goal. Every scene meticulously peals back layers that reveal to us the depths of Pitt’s character of Roy and consistently point us to his journey to locate his father on Neptune. Although Roy is not an extremely dynamic character, and there may not be a hero’s journey, we do witness a positive growth arc. In a manner of speaking, he experiences an existential redemption that corrects the course of his psychological trajectory. If you’re seeking a contemporary film that boasts an excellent opportunity for a character study, then the two principle characters in Ad Astra will be brilliant subjects. Jones’ character of Clifford McBride may not have nearly the screen time that his son has; however, his presence is felt throughout the film. We see the father in the son, and by extension we can extrapolate that Roy was on the path to become his father. Not unlike the path that Scrooge was on before his encounter with Marley and the three ghosts. Only when faced with the reality of what his future looks like, and the effects on friends and family thereof, does Roy see the need to change. Man is often his worst enemy, an enemy that we are eternally cursed to battle in perpetuity.

Not only does this film deliver outstanding writing, but it equally delivers mesmerizing visuals that earn the film high marks in technical achievement. Never do the effects detract away from the narrative, but they are incredibly impressive. Everything feels real. Like this is a story that could believably take place in say 2100 (maybe it could have been called 2100: A Space Odyssey). When speaking on science-fiction movies with my screenwriting students, I mention that many sci-fi screenwriters spend so much time on the technology and world building that the characters suffer. Needless to say, I will be able to use this movie as a prime example of how to write a character-driven science-fiction motion picture. The technology that is used in the film feels just a few decades ahead of what we presently have, so we can connect with the people and the technology that is used much better than in more fantasy-like science-fiction movies. The cinematography shines brightly in the dark of space. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this film was shot in space because of just how real the movement of the characters was and the technique through which each and every scene was lit and shot. So smooth are the movements of the camera and the editing that brings the story together that, as the audience, you forget that you aren’t a fly on the wall of this spectacular film.

Preparing for my own review, I often like to peruse what others have said. So I sometimes read reviews or listen to podcasts to get a feel for other opinions that are out there in order to expose myself to a wide variety of opinions as a way of collecting evidence to support my own opinion on a film. And upon doing that for this review, it didn’t take long before I came across a few options that fixated on the lack of screen time for Roy’s estranged wife  played by Liv Tyler. Furthermore, opinions along these lines suggested that there needed to be a more significant female presence in the film. I disagree with these opinions because this is a film about a father-son relationship and the idea of a man battling his own internal demons, so to speak. Liv Tyler plays an important role in representing that which Roy lost as a result of his self-centered career-driven behaviors. However, she also serves as a totem for him because it is the thought of a life without her entirely that brings Roy back to earth. She is an important character in this story despite not having much to say. Her presence is a powerful reminder to Pitt that he does not want to wind up like his father. Even if Tyler was not in the movie, at the end of the day, this IS a movie about the relationship between a father and son. While mother-daughter, mother-son, or father-daughter movies are much more common, there is a need in our cinematic library for father-son movies to explore those relationships.

Do yourself a father and go see Ad Astra in theaters! Experience it in Dolby Cinema or IMAX if you can because the visual spectacle elements of this film deserve that crystal clear, larger than life treatment. At little more than two hours, the film’s pacing is pretty good for most of the story; that being said, there are a few places that my attention did drift. But it wasn’t for long, and was always hooked again. Perhaps this movie could have been shortened to 1:45-50 instead of the just over 2hr run time. I am already thinking of seeing this film again, because I know there are elements that I may have missed the first time through.

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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!

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Halloween Horror Nights XXIX Full Review

You know it’s Halloween season when Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights opens! And this year, it opened earlier than ever. What a banner year it is! Opening weekend with my friends was an absolute blast. Over all, this was a solid year for the event that turns 30 next year. Although there lacks an official theme for HHN29, it is very clearly 80’s nostalgia, complete with the laser lights and electronica sounds that were such a quintessential part of the decade. The lineup of houses is outstanding; from fantastic original concepts to familiar and even historic licensed IPs, HHN29 has something for everyone. New for this year is the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem projection/water nighttime spectacular on the lagoon that has showings a few times a night. Don’t miss it! In addition to houses, the crowd favorite Twisted Tater is back; I remember all too well, last year, the iconic starchy snack was absent on opening weekend. Not this year! Although my friends and I had Express Passes, the general wait times were all mostly under an hour. That number will likely increase the closer we get to Halloween; but for right now, waits are reasonable.

If I was to sum up the experience of this year compared to years gone by, I would have to say that this year’s HHN is less scary than previous seasons. This sentiment appears to be shared by others as well. The trend to catering to younger (and by younger, I mean under 17) and their families began last year with the introduction of Stranger Things. Now, I don’t only go to HHN to be scared–that’s not really the point–yes, is that an added benefit? Sure! But when you watch horror movies on a regular basis and attend this most prestigious Halloween event each year, you’re naturally going to become desensitized to the scares. Therefore, it may become less scary over time, but I would have liked to have experienced more terrifying moments in some of the houses. While I am being negatively critical of the level of terror, I want to emphasize that this IS a solid year, and one that I’ve experienced three times this season and plan to attend more.

This year’s houses: Universal Monsters, Graveyard Games, Nightingales Blood Pit, House of a Thousand Corpses, Depths of Fear, Us, Yeti Terror of the Yukon, Ghostbusters, Stranger Things, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space

This year’s scare zones: Anarch-cade, Zombieland Double Tap, Rob Zombie Hellbilly Deluxe, Vikings Undead, Vanity Ball

Let’s start with my favorite house Universal Monsters! This was the house that I was most eager to experience even before the event began. And I am pleased to report that it exceeded my expectations. In a world of so many remakes and reboots of classic properties, this house delivered a fantastic experiential interpretation of the original monsters that started it all! You get The Hunchback, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Wolfman. Every aspect of this house was planned and executed with detailed precision. We didn’t get some reimagination of these characters in such a way that the house sought to “improve” upon the source material, it was a beautiful display of Universal’s legacy of horror.

My pick for best original concept house is Graveyard Games! This house transports you to a beautiful gothic haunted cemetery that delivers the scares for which you’re searching at HHN. The level of detail in this house is truly outstanding. And it’s not just the undead that are hunting you down. It would have been all too easy to just have another cemetery filled with zombies or other minions of the undead, but here you find any and everything that goes bump in the night and more. This is a house that I could do over and over again, and never get tired of it. I love how much like a real gothic cemetery it feels and that the scares are some of the best at the event this year.

Nightingales Blood Pit is the sequel to Nightingales from several seasons ago. Here you will find yourself in the trenches and catacombs of ancient Rome where sinister, blood thirsty  birdlike creatures have taken over the city. Not even Rome’s famous gladiators are a match for these horrifying abominations. If there was an award given out for best facade, then this house would win! I absolutely love the production design on the outside of the house that (1) you can take pictures of and (2) it instantly begins to immerse you into the nightmarish world into which you are about to descend. All that was missing is the aroma from the scene where “the great library of Alexandria was burned” on Spaceship Earth at Epcot.

House of a Thousand Corpses (HOATC) is an outstanding translation from screen to attraction! This is another house with a great facade, and the best one I’ve seen on this building in years. HOATC delivers precisely what you desire to see in this house! Not only does it have some great hillbilly horror scares, but the casting is fantastic, especially the actors playing Captain Spaulding. The moment I walked into the lobby of the store and saw Captain Spaulding standing behind the desk, you could have told me that it was Sig Haig and I would have believed you. You get it all, blood, guts, the music of Rob Zombie and more.

Depths of Fear is likely the weakest house out of the lineup this year. And it’s not because the concept is weak as much as it is the execution. I get it. It was going for Aliens set underwater. But for most of the house, I wouldn’t tell if I was in outer space or in the depths of the ocean. If this was supposed to be a horror comedy house, then I think I would have liked it more, but I don’t think the comedy was intentional. Although the costuming, puppet design, and other effects were creative, they lacked anything truly scary. Maybe this was another house, much like Stranger Things, that was supposed to appeal to a younger audience.

You may find yourself in the US house at HHN29. Based on the popular Jordan Peele movie released earlier this year US takes a stab at adapting Peele’s movie into an attraction. And if you’re a fan of the movie, then you will most likely enjoy this house because it is virtually every major plot point from the movie. The design and attention to detail is right out of the movie. As I found the movie to be just okay, I also find this house to be just okay. I can certainly understand why it was chosen over Toothfairy (which was actually a better and scarier house concept, btw) because of the box office success.

Bring your parka if you want to survive the night in Yeti Terror of the Yukon. Universal Creative delivers another excellent original concept house, loosely inspired by last year’s Revenge of the Swamp Yeti in Slaughter Sinema. So much fun! Not only is this house full of traditional scares, but it is incredibly fun. Completely re-doable. Although you are inside a sound stage, you will feel as though you are braving the icy temperatures of the Yukon. One of my favorite scares is when a giant Yeti arm attempts to grab you from above. Completely unexpected! And the costuming is fantastic too.

Who’re you gonna call? GhostbustersFollowing Universal Monsters, this was the next house I was looking forward to most. And although I was pretty much able to predict what I was going to see in the house, it doesn’t take away from how much fun it was! Many people that are now fans of or regulars at Universal Orlando are unfamiliar with the former Ghostbusters special effects and stunt show that was located where Jimmy Fallon is now. After the house was announced, I was hoping that I would see the same optical effects that the movie and live show used to bring the world of Ghostbusters to a haunted house attraction. And you know what? Universal did just that! From the use of projections and mirrors to a giant StayPuff Marshmallow Man head that smelled of toasted marshmallows, the commitment to staying true to the movie (and even the previous live show) was outstanding.

Returning for a second year in a row is Stranger Things. This time, immerse yourselves in “a solute to all [seasons] but mostly [season two].” My followers who, are friends of Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios will appreciate that reference. By all measurable accounts, season three of the hit Netflix series is the stronger one between 2 and 3; however, this house is three-quarters season two. In fact, Star Court Mall, for all intents and purposes,  comprises one room–disappointing. I’d say that’s the word that sums up my experience of the Stranger Things house this year. It’s unfortunate that it was disappointing to me because Season Three lended itself to horror so much that I thought for sure it would have been a more significant part of the house.

Continuing the pattern of a scare zone turned house, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (KKFOS) has lots of cotton candy and popcorn for you! As a scare zone this IP worked so incredibly well that I was cautiously optimistic for the house translation. The caution was because I felt that HHN28‘s Trick ‘r Treat worked better as a scare zone (HHN27) than house. I am pleased to report that as successful the scare zone for KKFOS was, it worked equally well if not even BETTER as a house! Everything about this house works incredibly well. From the campy costumes to most memorable moments from the movie, and even the sounds of popcorn and and aroma of cotton candy permeating every nook and cranny. If you suffer from a fear of clowns, then this is definitely a house where you can face your fears!

If there is an overall weak area of HHN28, it is the scare zones. Compared to year’s past, the scare zones seemed to not be as immersive as they usually are. I was told my a team member that some of the house facades and scare zone elements were removed when it was predicted that Hurricane Dorian was going to significantly impact Orlando. As I have only been to HHN opening weekend (Fri, Sat, and Sun), I have not been back to compare what is now there compared to opening weekend. Of all the scare zones, Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe is the zone that offers guests the best experience. However, I would be remiss not to mention the brilliant laser and neon lights of Anarch-Cade! I loved the cabinet video games and all the lights that reminded me of an old-school arcade in a mall. The other zones are okay, so definitely don’t miss them. But the zones are the weakest part of the event this season. If for no other reason, they are lacking in scares.

Do not leave HHN29 without watching the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem nighttime spectacular on the lagoon. The nights I was there, it ran at 10, 11, and 12M. Although only about 10mins, it is a great way to pay tribute to Universal’s legacy of horror and each house that makes up HHN29. The music and lights are a direct extension of all the houses, full of 80s nostalgia and neon! If there is an area of improvement for the show, it would be to include some pyrotechnics. The water screens, fountains, and projections are great, but I would have liked to have seen some fireworks as well. Now I know that would be difficult with the show running multiple times, but I imagine that Universal Creative is innovative enough to develop a safe method for setting up the show to have pyro in each showing.

There you have it, folks! A complete review of Halloween Horror Nights XXIX!. As fantastic as this year is, I cannot wait to see what Universal has in store for HHN 30! Maybe we will see the return of past icons or even reimaginations of past houses. Horror Nights is running on select nights now through November 2nd. If you can afford to buy one of the frequent fear passes with express or just one night of express, then you will definitely increase your enjoyment level and minimize the negative stressors that come along with this annual event.

For my friend Dani’s review of HHN XXIX, please visit her blog too!

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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!

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