Like a slow but determined zombie, Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain continues to lumber in the right direction after years of generic Halloween fare.
Following the addition of more mazes and monsters last season, Fright Fest 2012 introduces a new standard of excellence by which all future haunted attractions will be judged at the Valencia amusement park.
A state-of-the-art makeover of the Willoughby's Haunted Mansion, a venerable but aging Fright Fest mainstay for more than a decade, raises the bar for all Magic Mountain mazes and serves as a warning shot that the Six Flags park is prepared to go head-to-head with its Southern California rivals.
With Universal Studios Hollywood and Knott's Berry Farm locked in a bruising bloodfest for local Halloween supremacy, Magic Mountain has quietly but steadily continued to increase the quantity and improve the quality of its Fright Fest mazes and scare zones in hopes of joining the battle.
The passionate and energetic Magic Mountain monsters are already better looking, harder working and more relentless than their counterparts at Knott's Halloween Haunt.
The new Willoughby's maze is equal to the movie-quality haunted attractions at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.
The comic book-inspired villains in Magic Mountain's DC Universe constitute the best scare zone in Southern California.
And Fright Fest remains a relative bargain, with the mazes costing just $13 over the price of an all-day admission as compared with the $50-plus evening-only, separate-admission ticket prices demanded by Knott's and Universal.
But you get what you pay for and Magic Mountain still has a long way to go before it can climb out of a distant third place. Removing the older, unimaginative mazes still remaining in Fright Fest's off-the-shelf lineup would be an important first step.
Here's a look at each of the haunted mazes at Fright Fest 2012, ranked from best to worst:
Willoughby's Resurrected (new in 2012) - This completely refurbished attraction combines detailed set dressing, imaginative practical effects, inventive video projections and high-energy monsters into a fantastic maze that is head and shoulders above virtually everything else at Fright Fest. Projected onto walls and built into the sets, the 20 video animations throughout the maze are triggered by the talent, resulting in an ever-changing experience.
The best scene in the Willoughby's maze was in the library study where a video projection spelled out "murder" in blood on the wall. A headless man drew our attention as another monster popped out from a hidden door and a third jumped up from behind a desk. Repeatable triangulation scares like that are what will elevate Fright Fest to the next level.
This buzz-worthy maze is so good I'd recommend going through it again and again.
The Aftermath (new in 2011) -- The breakout best maze from last year still remains impressive with its post-apocalyptic scenes of overturned vehicles, hovering helicopters and fireball explosions in the former Batman stunt show arena.
The tireless monsters, the biggest cast of any Fright Fest maze, kept us on edge throughout the dystopian world of nomadic creatures. And I still love the fog-filled entry tunnel that left me unable to see my hand in front of my face, uncertain which way to turn and unsure what to fear.
The highlight of the night: A stilt-walking cyborg robot just outside the Aftermath entrance that looked like some kind of insect-android mutation.
Chupacabra (new in 2011) - With more monsters and an increased fear factor, this year's most-improved maze still remains light on the thematic side with painted plywood walls rather than props and three-dimensional sets. The rabid werewolf-like monsters were certainly an improvement over last year's curiously spandex-clad beasts.
The highlight: A blood-splattered woman just inside the entrance cradling an animated baby chupacabra in her arms. A great final scare from a caged chupacabra with a triggered audio roar sent visitors running out of the maze screaming in fear.
With a little more attention to detail, Magic Mountain could turn this compelling story about the legendary Latin American creature into a unique signature maze not found at any other Halloween event. Universal's La Llorona maze is a perfect example of how to make a Mexican village look spooky without becoming clichéd.