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HHN Hopeful Marquee

As we near the end of the Halloween without a Horror Nights, the event’s future can only look bright. The first haunted house of 2021 has already been revealed, with the fates of the two houses already open for daytime guests left to feverish off-season speculation. The full line-up of HHN 30 will likely stick as close as contractually possible to what was planned for this year; torn down, packed up, and put away, a built set is still a built set. But even without the extenuating circumstances, Halloween Horror Nights is staring down a new era. Disney acquiring 20th Century Fox effectively knocks that entire catalog out of consideration. Warner Bros.has held its own competing event with its own crown jewel horror properties in recent years, complicating further inclusion. With only so many white whales left in the genre, Universal is going to have to start digging deeper and darker to fill its roster. The following films are suggestions based on popularity and feasibility, both as a walkthrough adaptation and merchandise mover. None of them are speculated or rumored to appear anytime soon.

FRIGHT NIGHT

Roddy McDowall in Fright Night
Image: Sony

Between 28 and 29 alone, the ‘80s have been pretty well covered at Halloween Horror Nights. It’s unlikely the event will dedicate itself to the era of gratuitous neon again in the near future. However, like so many of the slashers spawned in the decade, the ‘80s never seem to die. 

The prevalence of Beetlejuice merchandise this year, along with the plain-sight speculation that it was all intended to accompany a haunted house, suggests the decade will live on at Universal, just in smaller doses. There may be no untapped vein of ‘80s horror gold more evocative, more effective, and more eminently adaptable than the original Fright Night.

Writer-director Tom Holland’s vampire riff on Rear Window was the highest-grossing horror film of 1985 that didn’t star Freddy Krueger. It managed to walk the horror-comedy tightrope with uncommon, if not unmatched grace. 

Teenagers appreciated the high school romance. Grown-ups appreciated the Hammer Horror gravitas from Roddy McDowall in perhaps his finest role. The monster-minded appreciated the kitchen-sink effects work from Richard Edlund’s legendary team. The red-blooded appreciated Chris Sarandon’s weaponized sex appeal as the Nosferatu next door. Fright Night truly had, and still has, something for everybody, including the HHN faithful.

Like the beloved H.R. Bloodengutz Presents: Holidays of Horror house from 2011, Fright Night hinges on a public-access horror host losing his job. Though there are plenty of more traditional options for an entrance - McDowall’s reluctant hero approaching the vampire’s estate remains an unforgettable piece of anamorphic atmosphere - an HHN adaptation could easily open within the low-rent ruin of a “Fright Night” broadcast, all blue fog and bats on strings.

The rest of the film is a smorgasbord of can’t-miss scenes, some of them tailor-made for bait-and-switch scares. When high schooler Charley Brewster waits by the blinds for his weird neighbor to do something weird, he has no idea said weird neighbor is already hiding in the closet behind him. “Evil Ed,” his misunderstood friend, runs for his life down a smoke-clogged alley not realizing there’s only one way out and it involves fangs. In a kaleidoscopic dance club kept squirming with industrial-strength pop, the vampire hides in plain sight, only given away by the mirrors that nobody’s watching anyway. In addition to the expected bloodsucker, Fright Night includes appearances from close-enough werewolves and zombies. This is to say nothing of the shark-mouthed facial prosthetic so horrifying that it made the poster.

If there’s a catch to Fright Night, it’s the semi-legendary rat’s nest of rights issues. Despite the blockbuster release and a well-received remake, it’s not an easy movie to find today. Fright Night Part 2, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace of It miniseries and Halloween 3: Season of the Witch fame, was buried alive in just 148 theaters by a studio ashamed of the little vampire movie that could. Attempts for a third came to a historic halt when the executive in charge was killed along with his wife in the 1989 Menéndez murders. 

As of 2019, the rights to the franchise reverted to original mastermind Tom Holland, but given the continued home video limbo of Part 2, it’s hard to say who owns the actual films. But it sure would be nice to see at the event formerly known as Fright Nights.

GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH

Gremlins attack a horror host
Image: Warner Bros.

Every IP-based house at Halloween Horror Nights has the same limitation - the source material. While recent adaptations have notably and successfully colored in the margins - the otherwise unseen Other Side in 2018’s Poltergeist house, for terrifying instance - any given property comes with its own distinctly limited sandbox.

Gremlins was a dark horse rumor in the earliest rumblings for HHN 30. It’s a savvy guess after HHN 29 - Gremlins opened on the same day as Ghostbusters, became the second-highest-grossing horror comedy of 1984 behind it, and now carries a similar cult following to Killer Klowns From Outer Space - but the sandbox is awfully tight. The Midnight Snack vignette of Slaughter Sinema, already a send-up of the Gremlins-adjacent Critters franchise, proved puppets aren’t out of the question, difficult as they may be. The Rockwell-Christmas-gone-awry setting has already showed up a few times, most recently and similarly in the 2016 house based on the Gremlins-inspired Krampus. It’s a steep technical challenge only made steeper by the second-hand familiarity from imitators and also-rans.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch, on the other hand, has about as many limitations as a Looney Tune.

The 1990 sequel was funded out of studio desperation and shaped by sheer madness. Joe Dante, the director of the original, couldn’t stand to look at another puppet so Warner Bros. soldiered on without him. After five years of spun wheels and tossed scripts, the studio had nothing. The powers that be came back to Dante with an offer no filmmaker could refuse - $50 million to do whatever he wanted, so long as it involved a Gremlin or two.

The resulting film may be the most subversive summer blockbuster ever unleashed. It holds no cinematic rules sacred, including any of those explicitly laid down in its predecessor. At one point, the film itself breaks and Hulk Hogan flexes until it is properly repaired and respooled. The grand finale involves Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and the most animatronics ever squeezed into a single frame of celluloid. The sexual union of a human and Gremlin is not only implied, but included as the possible hook for an as-yet-unmade third film.

The setting is flexible - a skyscraper that has everything from a toy store to a cable network to a genetic testing facility - and the scares are so wide open that there’s an entire Key & Peele sketch about how many ludicrous kinds of Gremlin appear in this movie.

So if there was a contrivance halfway through a Gremlins 2 house that made them briefly, say, man-sized, it would still be a mundane twist by Gremlins 2 standards. The fourth-wall break, so integral it was worked into the novelization, could even make the translation. All it would take is one “wrong turn” backstage, somebody in a Universal polo to protest, and a Gremlin horde to drag them away screaming.

Gremlins may be warm and fuzzy, but The New Batch is certifiable. Both are fun, but one’s a lot more memorable than the other, Hulk Hogan impersonator or no.

THEY LIVE

The aliens of They Live
Image: Universal

Realistically speaking, Halloween Horror Nights has run out of John Carpenter movies.

Halloween and The Thing have been done multiple times and, in all likelihood, will be done again. The Fog might be in the running if Universal didn’t already do its own cover with The Forsaken at HHN 21. Everything else, though, is a different shade of cult.

In the Mouth of Madness would finally check the Lovecraft box while also side-stepping the baked-in racism of the author’s actual work, but it’s an unknown quantity outside the horror community. Prince of Darkness is a trickier source material with an even smaller fan club. Besides the notorious Stephen King hurdle, Christine would be only marginally easier to design than a haunted house based on Jaws.

That leaves They Live, Carpenter’s anti-capitalist screed about chewing bubble gum and kicking ass in Reagan’s America, as the most viable adaptation.

The extraterrestrial threat is mask-ready, souvenir-friendly, and already familiar to a lot of folks who don’t even know it’s from a movie  - once you see one of these skull-faced aliens in all their bug-eyed, DayGlo glory, you don’t soon forget it. Early scenes could be done up in grayscale to simulate the infamous sunglasses that show the world how it really is, subliminal advertising and all.

It has the spirit. It has the soundtrack. It even has Universal Studios distribution. The trick is the subtext. The film’s scariest sequence is easily its most controversial - a violent police raid on a shantytown full of homeless people. The mission statement of They Live is loudly, proudly opposed to the modern neon-and-Nintendo shorthand of the 1980s. Would it work as a throwback and what would be lost in translation?

Given that HHN 28 devoted half of a house to The First Purge, a prequel which reveals the titular spree was explicitly designed as a means to kill poor people in lieu of funding social services, this may be a split hair. Given that the first half of that same house, devoted to Happy Death Day, included a poster for They Live, this may be a sign.

Good luck in advance to the scareactors tasked with recreating one of the longest fistfights in cinema history for forty-five minutes at a time.

DAWN OF THE DEAD

Zombies roam the Monroeville Mall
Image: Richard P. Rubinstein

There is no more glaring absence from Halloween Horror Nights than George Romero. As the godfather of modern zombies, his influence can be felt almost annually. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead. His depiction of the creatures - closer to the Arabic ghoul than the Haitian zombie and identified as such in the original film - has spread beyond the subgenre, influencing the cannibalistic ways of many an adjacent monster since. 

And yet, Romero has only been directly represented by a 2019 Creepshow maze, just in Hollywood, and even then his work shared real estate with scenes based on the recent TV series. 

His trademark shamblers are overdue for an HHN debut. But which Dead is better?

Night of the Living Dead would easily be the most striking, at least if designed entirely in black-and-white. The social commentary wouldn’t survive the adaptation, but that’s probably for the best - there’s no way to translate the film’s revolutionary gut-punch ending without cheapening it into a final scare involving armed townsfolk and gunshot noises. Despite one-set houses working in the past - Evil Dead, most ingeniously - there are only so many ways to gussy up a Pennsylvania farmhouse.

Day of the Dead, despite a recent rehabilitation campaign aided in part by a prominent cameo in the third season of Stranger Things, is still a contentious-at-best cult curio. By the time Romero’s third undead epic opens, the zombies have won. Normalcy is a bad dream. If the virus doesn’t get you, the equally contagious soul sickness will. It’s a cruel, cold film, the director’s own low-budget reckoning with the Reagan era. 

The consumerist apocalypse in Dawn of the Dead is a lot more fun. The Deadtropolis house from HHN 14 piggy-backed off the success of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake and the scarezone sequel even borrowed musical cues from Romero’s Land of the Dead, but nothing has come close to the Technicolor dread of the 1978 original. 

The middle of Romero’s original Dead trilogy is also the grandest, taking giddy advantage of the sprawling Monroeville Mall. Universal’s Art & Design team have tackled similar environments before - recently, the beginning of 2018’s Seeds of Extinction and end of 2019’s Stranger Things - but never a full-blown shopping center. And what a shopping center it is.

Two floors. JC Penneys. Fountains and foliage. An ice skating rink. A conspicuously well-stocked gun store. A Waldenbooks. The sky’s the limit when it comes to scenic possibilities. Tom Savini’s famous slate-gray make-up might be quaint by modern standards of the damned, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be goosed with some gnarly prosthetics. 

What would really make it a house to remember, however, is its singularly demented sense of humor, biker gang pie fight aside. Romero wrote the film on the observation that the only thing separating shoppers from zombies is complexion. There are plenty of sight gags to be mined from the living dead limping along in clothes with the tags still on and banging at storefronts promising BOGO sales. We’ve all seen plenty of people getting eviscerated in the dark to the tune of heavy metal and/or synth. But under the harshest ‘70s fluorescence, by the slide whistles and flutes of golden age mall muzak? That’s the Dawn of the Dead difference.

End the house with “The Gonk” and it might just be an all-timer.

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