When Thorpe Park opened SAW - The Ride last year, it was always expected that the park would look to further exploit the horror movie license upon which it is based. The devious traps laid by evil genius Jigsaw in the six Saw movies to date would surely provide inspiration for a Halloween horror maze or two – and indeed live actors did terrorise guests in the coaster's queue line during last year's Fright Nights event.
After that half-hearted attempt at a "live" Saw experience, though, it was something of a surprise when the park announced that it would install a permanent, year-round attraction known as the SAW Alive Horror Maze for the 2010 season. So just how scary is it entering a recreation of Jigsaw’s twisted world? TPT editors Nick (a horror fan) and Natalie (most definitely not a horror fan) went to Thorpe Park to find out.
Warning: this review contains gruesome images and plot spoilers, including a full description of the events inside the SAW Alive Horror Maze. Do not read on if you want the plot to be a surprise - or if you do not like the sight of blood.
Expanding the Saw area
We have to admit to being pretty skeptical when SAW - The Ride was first announced. Although it's a popular-enough movie franchise (and the first installment was a great piece of horror film-making), we feared that Thorpe Park was playing too much to its core teenage audience at the risk of producing a tacky attraction that wouldn't "belong" in a theme park.
But full marks to Thorpe Park, they pulled it off in some style. Although the Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter rollercoaster itself has divided opinion (we are fans, especially of the initial dark ride section), the park invested in strong, immersive theming of the queue line and ride building which genuinely helps to build an intimidating atmosphere. In fact, we think SAW -The Ride is one of the best-themed rollercoasters in the UK – and certainly puts the token efforts to date on Thirteen at Alton Towers to shame.
For SAW Alive, the park has expanded the industrial-style setting of SAW - The Ride to encompass an "abandoned" paddleboat on the edge of the park’s muddy, brown lake. It's hard to think of a more appropriate setting for a Saw attraction – combined with the "warehouse" which houses SAW - The Ride, the grubby waterfront location looks like exactly the sort of place that Jigsaw would bring his victims to torment them. We were genuinely concerned about what lay within the boat as we approached SAW Alive’s queue line.
Building the suspense
As with SAW - The Ride, a combination of Jigsaw-designed torture contraptions and mock razor-wire has been used to create a creepy queuing area for SAW Alive. Unfortunately, the sense of suspense and danger created by the well-themed queue evaporates when visiting the attraction as we did on a sunny spring morning. For all the effort Thorpe Park has put into the queue line, we felt more scared queuing in an empty field at the back of the Alton Towers Hotel during Scarefest 2009 than we did waiting for SAW Alive. The simple reason? Everywhere is scarier in the dark. It's hard to feel threatened when you can see people cheerfully queuing for Colossus only a few dozen yards away.
Of course, we can't blame Thorpe Park for the weather and on darker days the queue line will look suitably foreboding. However, we do wish the park had followed the example of other mazes such as The Boiler House at Alton Towers and incorporated some of the plot into the queue. Even SAW - The Ride's waiting area includes voiceovers that give some indication of the situation riders are supposed to be facing. However, we entered SAW Alive with no background whatsoever on why or how it was that we had come to be captured by Jigsaw.
Entering Jigsaw's lair
As with most horror mazes, guests enter SAW Alive in groups of around 10 people. Placing your hands on the shoulders of the person in front, you march across a short drawbridge into the paddleboat – greeted by Jigsaw's "face your fears" slogan daubed onto the wall in (we hope) fake blood.
We doubt that too many of Jigsaw's victims in the movies were asked to pose for a photograph with his favourite "Billy" doll before being brutally tortured. However, that’s exactly what guests do on entering SAW Alive. Hardly the stuff of nightmares – but a good chance for Thorpe Park to sell you something on the way out.
Following the photo, groups head into a small room where they are introduced to the plot by a typical "challenge" video from Jigsaw. You'll face 6 deadly traps – and have only 16 minutes to make your escape. Do you want to play a game?
Escaping with your life
The maze gets off to a promising start (for those who like to be scared, at least). Groups pass through the iconic bathroom set from the first movie, where they are supposed to get a gruesome look at the scene above (along with the smell of Britain's stinkiest urine). Unfortunately, on both occasions when we went through the maze there was no live actor in the bathroom (he had left his foot behind and presumably made an escape) – although the rest of the maze was very well populated with some enthusiastic actors.
Nevertheless, we were pumped full of adrenaline as we ploughed on into the infamous "electrocution corridor" section. Yes, that's right – Thorpe Park wasn't kidding when it hired students to test out electric shocks for use in SAW Alive. There's a sense of genuine physical danger as you pass through a narrow tunnel surrounded on all sides by the (very low voltage) electric fence – we can only imagine the carnage that will ensue when groups of Surrey teenagers pass through this area.
Continuing the positive start, we were scared out of our wits when encountering a scene of chained-up bodies, one of which was contorted into a seemingly impossible position. We'll let you use your imagination as to which one of the bodies turned out to be real (and alive) – it seems that Thorpe Park has invested in some genuinely talented people to provide the scares in SAW Alive.
From that point on, things get pretty confusing. Groups move on past a number of other contraptions from the movies, most of them in the process of torturing some poor soul. In addition, a number of actors move through the attraction providing traditional "jump out" scares along the way. However, we struggled to discern any cohesive plot once we'd passed the electrocution area – and certainly didn't feel personally involved in any of the trials that Jigsaw had set up.
Before long, guests emerge with little fanfare into the exit area, where they can purchase their group photo and emerge back out into the daylight.
Is it scary?
For us, a horror maze has been successful if you emerge at the end breathless, giggling, and bursting to discuss the highlights with your fellow survivors. SAW Alive's "escape from Jigsaw" plot would seem to be the perfect set up for such an experience. So were we terrified in the best possible way? Unfortunately, we’d have to say no.
On the plus side, the theming, acting performances and level of detail in the maze are all excellent and well above the standard of most temporary Halloween attractions. Given the level of effort on display, then, it's slightly disappointing that SAW Alive is not nearly as immersive as it could, and should be.
The Saw movies provide just about the perfect set up for a horror maze. Most of the movies see groups of people staggering from one gruesome challenge to the next, hoping to satisfy Jigsaw and escape with their lives. That's the key element – Jigsaw does not mindlessly murder people, but gives them a chance to escape if they are tough enough. Who wouldn't want to prove their will to live by surviving an imaginary Jigsaw challenge?
Having recreated several of those challenges very convincingly, though, Thorpe Park has missed the opportunity to place guests into the thick of the action. With the exception of the excellent electric fence section, groups file past most of SAW Alive’s traps without even having the chance to register what is happening – and shoot out of the other side in well under the 16 minutes demanded by Jigsaw at the start.
Of course, we're not suggesting that Thorpe Park should physically involve its guests in torture traps (though it might help to deter the constant breaking of its no-smoking rules). Nor do we think that the actual physical length of SAW Alive is a problem. But it would be a far superior attraction if guests were given time to linger at each trap, and witness actors trying to escape (and probably failing). This would have implications for throughput, but has been achieved on other scares mazes in the past. It would also make better use of the actors, rather than having them wander aimlessly through the maze providing traditional "boo" scares.
And why not give guests some small tasks to complete in order to escape? Even something as simple as unchaining an actor or locating a key would add immeasurably to the overall experience.
Finally, we'd like to see a proper climax to the attraction that leaves guests with some sense of achievement and has them buzzing on the way out. We’ve witnessed people physically sprinting away from horror mazes in the past in order to escape from hoards of zombies or some other spectacular finale, but SAW Alive simply sees people emerge, blinking into the post-ride shop – many of them exclaiming "was that it?"
As we've mentioned, there were some scares along the way – most of the hand-on-shoulder, jumping-out variety – and judging by the shrieks emanating from around the boat (and from Natalie) these had the desired effect. We certainly enjoyed SAW Alive, but hope that Thorpe Park continues to evolve the plot to make it more immersive and exciting.
Although it's not quite the interactive horror experience we had hoped it would be (and could still become), SAW Alive is still an intriguing addition to Thorpe Park that builds upon the strong theming of SAW - The Ride. Adding a year-round horror maze is certainly an interesting experiment by the park, and we hope that it will continue to evolve and improve upon the experience to keep the attraction fresh.
That said, we can't help feeling that SAW Alive would be much more effective on a cold, dark evening when a dimly lit paddleboat would seem very spooky indeed. Unfortunately, even with the extended opening hours Thorpe Park offers during the summer, it won't be possible to try out SAW Alive in the dark until Fright Nights in October – which perhaps goes some way to explaining why horror mazes are usually reserved for such events.
We'll be back at Thorpe Park for Fright Nights, ready to be scared – and SAW Alive will be one of our first stops.
Have you survived SAW Alive? Were you terrified by Jigsaw's traps? What could Thorpe Park do to improve the attraction? Let us know in the comments section below.