Universal’s marketing team had a challenge when coming up with their campaign for “Dracula Untold,” the studio’s latest tale of Vlad the Impaler who becomes the iconic blood sucking vampire.
The film, which Legendary Entertainment helped co-finance, revolves around the origins of the character and his love for his family, and stars a younger Vlad, played by Luke Evans, who wears armor rather than a cape. The film also spends less time in a dark, dreary castle and more time on a battlefield with Turkish armies. There are still bats, however. Lots of bats.
With Halloween Horror Nights, Universal found itself with the opportunity to turn to its theme parks to bring the film to life with a maze that showcases the film’s setpieces and introduces them to moviegoers who may not have known about the new angle producers are taking on the classic monster.
SEE ALSO: Film Review: ‘Dracula Untold’
The maze is a series of rooms that re-create some of the locations from the film — a dark, skeleton-filled cave, a Turkish army camp, a burned village, the woods leading to Dracula’s castle — even a sequence that wound up cut from the film involving the home of Baba Yaga, an evil witch.
Universal calls it an “immersive preview” of the film. “It really is a living trailer,” said John Murdy, creative director for Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights. “We’re a working studio and our job is to bring the movie to life.”
A classic monster movie fan — especially of Universal’s creature features that include Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon — Murdy jumped at the chance to turn “Dracula Untold” into a maze this year.
Other mazes or attractions at the parks this year are themed around AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Robert Rodriguez’s TV series “From Dusk Till Dawn,” the sci-fi franchise “AVP: Alien vs. Predator,” Universal’s upcoming film “Dracula: Untold,” the studio’s “The Purge: Anarchy,” and SyFy’s “Face Off –- In the Flesh.”
Studios have designed interactive experiences around their upcoming films before — especially with installations set up at San Diego Comic-Con like Legendary’s “Godzilla Encounter” and promotions built for “Ender’s Game” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Universal’s remake of “The Thing” also got a maze at Halloween Horror Nights in the past around that movie’s release.
But with “Dracula Untold,” Universal was able to make its experience part of one of the theme parks’ most popular attractions each year. While Universal does not release attendance figures for Halloween Horror Nights, the annual event is one of its biggest ticket sellers, selling out on many nights, with the parks shut down in the evenings to transform into the scarefest.
Murdy worked closely with “Dracula Untold’s” producers and director Gary Shore to come up with the concept.
“There were a lot of emails,” said the film’s producer Alissa Phillips, who remembers “running around (the set) taking iPhone photos and sending them straight to (Murdy and his team) so they had real-time updates of exactly what we were shooting, how a particular set looked and how a key character’s look had evolved. They have an insanely talented team of designers and yet they still involved us all along the way. I genuinely looked forward to getting emails from them. Sending the first image of Charles Dance as our ‘Master Vampire’ started a particularly spirited exchange.
“As a filmmaker I love their incredible attention to detail,” she added. “The costumes, make-up, props and even the color palette are all taken as directly as possible from our film. The Master Vampire’s cave looks almost identical to our set. There are images that could easily be our production stills.”
While Universal is in the midst of reviving its classic monsters for the bigscreen with a Marvel Studios-like approach, the strategy actually begins with “The Mummy,” out June 24, 2016. “Dracula Untold” already had been given the greenlight before Universal came up with the idea of telling a larger story with its iconic characters, although producers did film a sequence that attempts to connect “Dracula Untold” with that world.
Phillips would only be happy to have another one of her film’s featured at Halloween Horror Nights in the future.
“Working on the maze construction was one of the more fun experiences I’ve had as a producer,” she said. “It’s not exactly an opportunity that comes along often.”
With Halloween Horror Nights having started Sept. 19, “Dracula Untold” has had several weeks of promotion before it opens in U.S. theaters on Oct. 10 (it bowed overseas on Sept. 30). The maze will be part of HHN through Nov. 2.
“We are huge fans of these mazes,” Phillips said. “They’re positively terrifying and so well executed. And the maze they created goes well beyond our trailers and marketing. “Every step of their development process was thoughtful and quite frankly fun. And having it up and running so early is a huge asset to us as we’re coming up on the opening of the film. It’s its own unique experience of our film.”