Review by Mitch
There’s some poetic credit, and something seemingly fitting, that the final event of my Halloween season was the original, the forefather, the archetype of UK scare attractions: Tulleys Shocktoberfest. Anyone with even a millimetre of a toe dipped in the waters of the UK haunt industry will know of the legacy of Tulleys, and many hold it within nationwide best regard; even so far as using it as the barometer to which all other scream parks and mazes are held up against. This all being accounted for – and once the mammoth 4 hour commute was conquered – it goes without saying that this, our first ever trip to Tulleys, was one we were very excited for.
First impressions when approaching the park is that this is far more expansive and professional than its farm setting would prospect; towering jack-o-lantern scarecrows and eerily fire lit escarpments beckon into a dark entrance tunnel. The main park itself is frankly sprawling, but it has to be considering it’s host to no less than 8 mazes and double the amount of food outlets, not to mention two live stages (bonus awesome points to the werewolf band playing a medley of Lost Boys soundtrack songs), fairground rides and sideshow stalls. Suffice to say, Tulleys is massive. So massive, we sadly didn’t get all that much interaction with the infamous street entertainment and roaming scareactors, a victim of unfortunate timing rather than a lack thereof. However, from what we did encounter – a delightfully rambunctious gin guzzling gypsy, a disconcertingly polite trio of Victorian policeman (possibly a hint at next years 9th maze) and some silent Shining-esque twins – all were nicely varied but invariably nice. Then there was possibly the standout actor of the entire event, a vicar carrying around a possessed child in his arms- a costume with a neatly disguised puppet that would truly send people running for the hills, screaming. To anyone going, I would strongly recommend either milling around in the open areas or actively seeking out these street entertainers, as it would be very remiss to not experience them in full force.
These are all just an aperitif to the main dish though, and in Tulleys’ case, the entrée is a bonafide feast; a bloody buffet compromised of a somewhat staggering 8 servings. For reference that’s by some margin the most mazes of any scream park in the UK, and isn’t shy off rivalling the amount on offer at Knotts Scary Farm or Halloween Horror Nights.
The Creepy Cottage
Almost an aperitif in itself, this “Beginners” maze is the one that started it all almost 20 years ago for Tulleys, and while I can’t vouch for how unchanged it remains, the energy and atmosphere inside the maze certainly belies its age. Considering this one labels itself as the least intense of the whole event, we were subject to a surprising slew of well timed jump scares. It’s even more impressive when considering that the length of the maze only features 3-4 actors; and yet so well seasoned to their surroundings as they are, our entire group seemed to be attacked from all angles, chased room to room and never felt any dead spots. As far as simple dusty & decrepit haunted-house haunts go, they don’t get much better executed than this.
The Horrorwood Haunted Hayride
Keeping on trend with executing concepts to the finest of their remits, Tulleys (similarly longstanding) hayride is truly a perfectly crafted experience beginning to end and rivals any attractions of its ilk this reviewer has done on either sides of the Atlantic. Taking the guise of a studio tour through an old movie backlot, the Horrorwood Hayride seamlessly combines campy theatrics – much in line with The Dungeons – surprisingly intense intimate scares and some stunning setpieces. Several moments had this reviewer genuinely cry out in shock; one particular saw me cowering from a ‘falling’ billboard, much to the delight of rest of the trailer. The scale of each of the scenes the hayride pulled through – be it a drive-in theatre, a full western ghost town, or a Texas Chainsaw-esque outpost – were something to really marvel at. A distraction that proved perfect for the perfect foil for energetic actors that were NOT shy to leap aboard the moving wagon. Between laughing and screaming, there really wasn’t a dull moment throughout the entire extensive attraction.
Sadly not able to upkeep a non-stop level of entertainment is VIXI, Tulleys’ resident hooded maze. Now I will preface here to say I am far from the biggest enthusiast of this style of maze – it simply doesn’t work for me – but on an objective level I think there are parts that both work and don’t work in VIXI. The setup is the linchpin of how convincing a hooded maze can be: if you’re going to rob me of my sight and rely on using a guests’ imagination for scares, you need to establish a story, setting or scenario in which you are venturing into. As such – and especially at such a theatrical and established event of Tulleys – I felt slightly cheated when the hoods are unceremoniously given to you & you’re instructed arbitrarily follow a rope. Moreover, for a style of maze wherein visual jump scares are moot, if actors are barred from touching guests as they are at Shocktoberfest, then it limits any ‘scares’ to growls and boos in your vague vicinity. Up to here, nothing about VIXI enamoured me. But where it does get things right, and really gets things right, is in the manipulation of your surroundings to create tactical discordance: hot, cold, raging winds, cacophonous falling water, unstable ground underfoot, and the sensational effect which is the first thing you see after several blinded minutes: a 10 foot high detonation of fire seemingly inches from your face. Moreover, there’s a nice surprise at the climax of the maze that warmed me to the experience much more. Some kind of pre-show or storyline plus a little more guided or personal scares from the actors inside and this one could be the game-changer for us hooded-maze haters.
Twisted Clowns 3D
Pulling double duty in scare-maze box ticking here, the new for 2017 maze, perfectly unites in-vogue coulrophobe provokers with mind melting acid-trip visuals. This maze really does what it says on the tin: a warped and hallucinatory carnival ram packed with Pennywise challengers. With mazes fixated on one specific character, it’s easy for all actors to blend together, but the cast in Twisted really endeavoured to make each of their clowns stand out from one another- both in their visual appearance and in their scare tactics. Some were manic and abrasive, others were restrained and creepy, and this combined to create a constantly unnerving environment. An environment that even without actors would be bewildering considering it’s FULL of funhouse tricks to confuse and discombobulate. The use of the 3D paint is ingenious in its ability to both hide the true dimensions of the room you’re in (sometimes it seems enormous until you rap your head on the ceiling), and hide what is a wall painting and what is a lurking actor ready to pounce. Moreover, certain costumes on some actors utilised the 3D paint to transform them into trippy almost shape-shifting monsters that seemed to bend the very physics of the room.
Just like a rickety old seaside ghost train: terrifying it may not be, but its ability to catch you off guard and make you jump is undeniable, as is how much you’ll be laughing as you stumble out of its exit. As previously neither a big fan of either clown or 3D mazes, you’ve made a convert out of me, Tulleys. LSDelightful.
In 2017, as the scare market grows exponentially, with almost 100 scare mazes spread out across the UK now, each pushing for diversity & theatricality, with increasingly more complex and high concepts, it is invigorating to see a Haunted House in the most classical sense pulled off to such a high standard. Replete with horror-movie quality sets, the level of immersion you have in The Cellar is conveyed from Room 1, establishing a palpable tension that around any corner could be a scare. I say could…whereas ‘would’ is the more appropriate modal verb, as the jolts in The Cellar are absolutely relentless and unpredictable in their assault. I really have to commend how acrobatic and inventive the actors within the maze were in their attacks, effectively turning the decrepit abode into a gymnasts playground. Creature attacks came from the most unlikely of angles, and even while sticking to Tulleys no-touching rule, manage to get remarkably close. One particular maze passage – a claustrophobic triangular tunnel with countless eye-level gaps that gave the impression actors were almost on top of you and only a thin metal grate separated your skin from their teeth – was one of the most intense moments of any maze I did this year. However it does appear the no-touching rule does not apply to puppets, as the maze’s stand out moment comes in the form of a staggeringly big snake head, that lunges out of nowhere and caught more than a few people in its jaws, sending the rest scurrying off down a sloping inflated squeeze tunnel that takes you into the titular cellar. As far as classical old dusty haunted houses go, it really doesn’t get any better executed than this.
If there was one negative that made me ponder was why exactly 7 of the other mazes were freeflow but The Cellar required a traditional hands-on-shoulders conga line. If this trope was taken away, this maze has a shot at being one of the very scariest out there.
Coven of 13: The Village
Alas, with eight mazes on offer there was bound to be one that wouldn’t work for me. Sadly, in Coven’s case it happened to occur on one of my most anticipated mazes, and when it didn’t work, it really didn’t work. The maze seemed to suffer from effects not working, not enough actors to populate the maze (they may have stuck a little too literally to the maze name), large open sets meaning actors really didn’t have much to help them prepare scares, and maybe criminally of all, one of the very best scenes I’ve seen in a scare maze EVER, utterly squandered. This is the much written about ‘swamp set’, wherein between a waist-high squeeze tunnel, a dense hovering fog and a shimmering flat green lazer miraculously turns the whole room into a tropical bog. While initially our trudge through this was both tense and filled with genuine awe at the design, no scares backed this up, when the setup was perfect for surprise scares (I also believe an illusion involving a levitating actor was supposed to materialise here, but was not in operation for us). Following this, the maze took us outside into a historical recreation of a medieval village, that due to being totally open from the first view, had all of its upcoming surprises neutered- you could see them unfolding on 2 groups in front of you. This all led to a finale which was effectively a woman stood atop flickering lights to intimate a stake burning…no jumps, no scares, no big reveals. It is of course possible that our runs suffered from effects being broken or switched off, but if this is the case, some contingency needs to be put into place to provide that final scare. A shame because, the frankly stunning sets were either not capitalised upon by the actors, or actively inhibited actors from being able to scare. There is so much untapped potential in Coven, and despite our experience being a disappointing and frustrating one, I can’t wait to try it again next season to see this fulfilled.
One maze that totally fulfils on its potential is Chop Shop; a maze with one sole intention, and that is to prove the Saw is the Law. The maze story borrows heavily from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, though instead of a cow-butchers-turned-murder-shack it’s a car garage. The logic jump may be questionable there, but the impressive Wreckers Yard façade as well as richly detailed first half of the maze more than justifies it. Where Chop Shop really shines though is when all pretence of storyline or detailed theming drops away, and the mechanics of the garage swiftly switch their chainsaws from detailing VW’s to narrowly skimming guests faces. To have over half a maze, a good 5 minutes, to be *nothing* but zigzagging strobe lit corridors and an endless stream of chainsaw wielding hillbillies is both brave and inspired, the result is an onslaught on both your ears, eyes and nose as petrol fumes fill the shipping containers (completing the mechanics illusion). This one entirely rests on whether you find chainsaws in scare mazes remotely threatening. To some it was utterly petrifying, to others quickly monotonous. For me, I found it a cacophonous and chaotic blitz, brilliant in its simplicity, but really in need of a finale or ante-upping to differentiate it from the repetition that came before.
It’s clearly apparent from within feet of the scream park’s entrance that The Colony may be the maze the creators are most proud of. It stands front and centre and boasts a vast imposing façade. No matter how colossal it looks from the outside I can’t overestimate how long this maze is, for us in a fast group it was a good 15 minute experience. The Colony sees you enter into a Neolithic settlement of savages, like Shamylan’s THE VILLAGE meets the feral cast of MAD MAX, wherein you quite literally explore the entire parish inside and out. The experience really is one of total immersion, right down the inhabitants seemingly having their own language that they bark at you. For its length, and the group batch size, the scares were astoundingly frequent and unrelenting and across its literal village populace cast size, not one person dropped the ball. Moreover they really seemed to inhabit each of their roles, despite not understanding a word they were saying, you could tell between the beekeeper and the butcher etc. The only break in illusion is the finale which utilises a weapon not in line with the medieval setting, and one that Tulleys uses exhaustively in 2 other attractions, lessening its impact. The Colony really is something to marvel at, be it at scenic design or the actors dedication, and of all the mazes at Tulleys, this was the one I immediately wanted to experience again (5 times over) as there is just so much to see and so much potential for variation.
So if you’ve made it this far, congratulations and thank you. And congratulations and thank you utmost to Tulleys Shocktoberfest for managing to live up to my lofty expectations; it really is one of the strongest scream parks in the country, and it seems will only get better in 2018.
Across the board I must commend Tulleys on keeping the queues remarkably low for a Friday night (with peak times reaching 20 minutes), though this presents the minor niggle of groups being batched quite close together and unfortunately meeting up mid-maze, diffusing any potential scares. Another note I would love to see Tulleys embrace are more heavily themed introductions or pre-shows to match up with the immense level of detail in the maze itself. Whether this was an actor led spiel, a video, or even an attraction story billboard in the queue, it felt that many of the richly themed and theatrical mazes could be made that much more immersive with this small addition.