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Things gets hairy at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights with 'American Werewolf' maze

By SEAN DALY

Times Staff Writer

ORLANDO

John Landis, a man with the energy and volume of someone perpetually hailing a taxi, is in an extra-excitable froth. The director of An American Werewolf in London is about to follow a small cadre of writers through a "maze" based on his 1981 flick at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights.

There's even a full moon tonight. "I called," he deadpans.

But before Landis can usher us in, Michael Aiello, the chief creative brain behind Universal's annual screamfest, starts revealing details on the lycanthropic "immersive theater" inside. Half-kidding, half-geeking, Landis throws his hands in the air.

"Don't tell them about it!" says the 62-year-old responsible for such pop-culture-defining staples as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Michael Jackson's Thriller video. "What the [bleep]! There are no wolves in there!"

Everyone laughs — until they start screaming, scampering, sprinting, this detail-rich American Werewolf maze more ambitious, and unnerving, than anything Universal has attempted in the past 22 Halloweens.

Of course, that terrifying success irks Landis, too: "They don't [bleeping] look at the puppet! They're not looking at anything! They're running away! Nobody walks through it!"

• • •

A filmmaker wants you to sit still. A maze-maker wants you to run for your life. And therein lies the reason why the American Werewolf haunt took so darn long to get to Florida.

"I wouldn't give them the rights," Landis says.

"John challenged us every step of the way," Aiello says with a smile, adding that this maze is as close to a "passion project" as it gets.

Landis' concerns were based more on the narrative than the technology. "How do you generate real tension if you're walking through?" asks the director, a guy who basically owned the '80s before a tragic accident on the set of The Twilight Zone movie tempered his career.

In many respects, this is Landis' return to the spotlight; he wants everything to be right.

Unlike any film before it — and a progenitor for such genre-blending frights as Poltergeist and the Scream franchise — American Werewolf was written by Landis in 1969. He was 18.

The story of wisecracking hitchhikers who get ravaged by a monster on the English moors blends slapstick comedy, scads of nudity (guys and gals!), gore aplenty and, of course, a ground-breaking "transformation" scene that made effects guru Rick Baker a cinematic god.

"The problem with a lot of horror movies today is … you don't have the same emotional involvement," Landis says. "Who cares?"

You could say the same thing about haunted houses today. A rich story trumps a messy bucket of rubber eyeballs every time.

Now about those wolves.

• • •

Aiello has every right to be jumping the gun and bragging on his beasties:

"We've never used puppets to this scale before."

Yes, the story rules — but wow, those titular critters are NASTY.

Equipped with pneumatic jaws and roaring audio triggers, the bulging-eyed wolves are ferociously more effective at making you whimper than, say, the part-timers in bloody makeup at new mazes devoted to The Evil Dead and The Cabin in the Woods.

The assault doesn't stop there. A strobed-out diorama showing an attack on the English moors is "incredibly well done," Landis says. Aiello & Co. have gone so far as to remix the original sound effects and music, all cranking as you wander from a near-exact replication of the Slaughtered Lamb pub (love the dartboard effect) to the disorienting showdown in Piccadilly Circus.

"You're going to hear Blue Moon as you leave," Aiello says, sending shivers down the collective spine of Nerd Nation.

Landis' movie is terrifying, but it's also funny, especially buddy corpse Jack (played in the movie by Griffin Dunne), who returns to lay a guilt trip on ill-fated hero David (played by David Naughton). You'll find Jack in the "See You Next Wednesday" porn theater, but the zombie is not exactly yukking it up like in the movie.

"When horror is good you latch onto it," Aiello says. "We want people to be scared, to be horrified. Bring out the intensity of the film."

So not a lot of chuckles.

But the faithful will be sated. The money shot in the film is also featured in the maze: David's full-moon transformation. Effects wizard Baker altered the biz with his stretching, cracking, moaning man-to-wolf morphing. He used zero computer imagery, all physical ingenuity — just like Aiello and his team.

"I wish I could see it in two weeks," Landis says about the maze, which is already being heralded by theme-park nerds. "The performers have to get used to the rhythms of the crowd."

Still, despite his nervous exhalations, the infamous director is happy to be scaring again: "It's fun to be behind people when you know what's coming."

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

Things gets hairy at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights with 'American Werewolf' maze 09/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 7:01pm]
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