First came the Haunted House, 1992’s landmark standard-raising moment for British dark rides.
Then, in 2003 – and to the apparent dismay of original creator John Wardley – the house was metamorphosed into Duel: The Haunted House Strikes Back!
Fast forward to 2023 and Alton Towers’ third incarnation of this enclosed ride has opened: The Curse at Alton Manor.
But this time Wardley has been back on board. Now 72 and offering what he describes as “wisdom” to the Merlin Magic Making team headed by John Burton, Merlin’s creative lead designer.
The newly-imagined ride has been promoted by an excellent marketing campaign, which has seen Banksy-like murals and, at 9 pm on the night before opening, one of Alton Towers’ scariest video clips.
WARNING! This review contains some descriptions which can be considered spoilers, but it by no means describes every aspect of the ride’s content.
For those old enough to remember the original Haunted House, it will probably come as a nostalgic pleasure to once again queue in the ambience of Gloomy Wood in the ride’s outdoor queue line.
The humorous gravestones are back with a vengeance, and virtually every one contains an ‘Easter Egg’ nod to Alton Towers’ past.
But in the distance, a spooky doll figure with blackened eyes disturbingly looks towards those waiting to ride.
After over an hour’s delay, the lengthy opening-day queue moves at haste, helped in part by the ride system’s return to six-seater cars for the first time in over 20 years.
The Curse at Alton Manor’s theme is highly fitting with the original Haunted House, and the façade looks spectacular in its new, slightly darkened colours.
The plaza in front of the house has also been revamped nicely, with iron gates and Alton Manor signage added to the entrance columns.
Entering through the front doors of the house, which is up for sale at a suspicious £1.992 million in this new storyline, much of the original décor is retained.
There is real emphasis on a backstory with ‘the Curse’. It is based around the deceased Emily Alton, a Victorian-era girl who lacked attention from her parents.
She was the famous projection of a girl playing in a dolls house that was visible throughout the Haunted House and Duel eras.
Now the star of the show, Emily’s hide-and-seek games are the focus of the new experience, as those on board become unwilling participants in the game.
There is a new pre-show of sorts, but because there is no synchronisation of when people enter, you have to rely on luck to get the best experience.
The pre-show uses audio commentary, some clever props – including a couple retained from the original Haunted House – and an impressive climax worth waiting around for.
The pre-launch marketing for the Curse at Alton Manor was at times on the more extreme end of the ‘laughs and frights’ category Alton Towers describes rides not as daring as ‘thrills’.
With a 0.9 metre height restriction (when accompanies by a 16+ year-old), it wasn’t clear what sort of vibe the re-worked ride would have.
In reality the Curse is of mixed intensity. It is too intense to be appropriately classed as a family ride, but there are only a couple of real scare-jump moments.
The occasional use of video screens unfortunately gives a lack of realism at times, but a shadow projection against a figure of Emily is a great use of alternative technology.
Some of the sound effects are demonic and almost reminiscent of the classic horror film the Exorcist, including one before the revamped spinning tunnel – or trommel – which makes a welcome fully-functional return.
The original Haunted House was relatively scary to youngsters due to its effective use of light, or lack of it.
And with Duel’s lasers removed, the Curse at Alton Manor is once again a theatrical tour of suspense and surprises.
It is dark, sinister and – at times – bordering on the psychedelic with the supernatural pulses of purple energy that encapsulate Emily.
There are a couple of moments of complete darkness, and while these are a little unsettling, there is no logical reason or jump-scare in them.
Elsewhere the theming is of good quality and it is possible to see Wardley’s influence in some of the more conventional effects, which adds a great mix to the ride.
The final part of the ride sees you briefly pass through Emily’s doll-house, but unfortunately the video screens, short duration, and an actually pretty good finale sadly don’t quite pull off the idea that you are miniaturised.
The Curse at Alton Manor is a solid and commendable reincarnation of a classic three-decade Alton Towers ride experience. It is a huge step-up from Duel.
But while at this stage it can be seen as just a little underwhelming, there are plenty of opportunities to tweak and improve the ride going forward.