Written by: Seth M. Sherwood & Blair Butler (screenplay), William Penick & Christopher Sey (story), Akela Cooper (screenplay)
Directed by: Gregory Plotkin
Starring: Gregory Plotkin, Reign Edwards, and Bex Taylor-Klaus
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Fun Getting In. Hell Getting Out.
If thereís one type of movie Iíll never grow tired of, itís the likes of Hell Fest: not only is it a slasher throwback, but itís also set in an elaborate fall carnival attraction on Halloween. Few loglines can immediately grab my attention like that one. It might not be a surefire formula, but itís reasonably close and will usually yield something worthwhile, be it striking imagery, atmosphere, or gore. Thankfully, this one offers a combination of all three, plus tosses in some fairly decent, likeable characters to boot. While this sounds like just the bare minimum, Hell Fest is a fine reminder that slasher soften thrive best without a complex formula that simply involves a mysterious psychopath stalking and hacking up a group of kids within a relatively isolated, evocate setting. Holiday trimming is a bonus, though it goes a long way here.
Fall is in the air, and with it comes an assortment of regional haunts, some more rickety and quaint than others. Hell Fest, however, certainly isnít your ordinary ramshackle attraction: rather, itís an incredible rolling roadshow featuring an assortment of byzantine mazes, funhouse rides, and enthusiastic scare actors just looking to put a jolt into a throng of eager customers. Among the Halloween night crowd is college student Natalie (Amy Forsyth) and her group of friends, all of whom are way more excited about the prospect than she is. As the reserved one of the bunch, sheís a bit more hesitant, making her the ideal target for a masked maniac who infiltrates the park and begins to stalk her throughout the night.
Itís a familiar yet undeniable hook, one that captures the appeal of ghoulish urban legends come to life: ďdid you hear about the girl who was butchered in the haunted house a few towns over?Ē this one begins for our group, only their playful attempts at spooking Natalie are true since we watch the mysterious killer (dubbed in the credits as ďThe OtherĒ) murder an unsuspecting patron at another funhouse during the prologue. Even the most seasoned and battle-hardened horror hounds have to admit thereís something slightly unsettlingóand disturbingly plausibleóabout this scenario: anyone whoís ever found themselves herded into one of the backwoods haunts has this thought lurking somewhere in their minds as they tip-toe through the dark, trusting that all of those masked employees are totally on the level. Scoff all you want, but, deep down, thatís the twisted appeal of these places: you want them to feel at least a little dangerous, and Hell Fest preys on that almost unconscious desire.
It also makes the case that it could totally happen, at least if the attraction is as impossibly vast as the titular Hell Fest. Again, this isnít some dinky little homespun haunt, as itís more like an extensive Halloween-themed amusement park that sprawls across acres of land. In fact, itís probably a little bit too elaborate to buy as a travelling theme park, but thatís an easy detail to just sort of gloss over considering how goddamn impressive the production design is. Hell Fest is the actual star here, and director Gregory Plotkin is keenly aware: his lens practically gorges on the festive surroundings, inviting the audience to soak in the seasonal atmosphere, here taking the form of shitty carnival food, frustrating games, masked boogeymen, intricate, neon-splashed mazes, and rollicking dark rides.
Much of the filmís appeal derives from living vicariously through the charactersí own wandering: itís secondhand thrills, of course, but Iím such an avowed sucker for this shit that I couldnít help but crack a smile at every gag, whether it involved a spider dropping from the ceiling, cackling animatronics, or the various, gruesomely made-up scare actors charged with spooking the guests. Getting lost in Hell Fest would be a genuine pleasure, and Iíd probably be okay with an entire pseudo-documentary taking the audience through its various attractions (hint hint, home video producers!).
Of course, some bad shit does have to go down within its confines, and Plotkin mostly delivers in this respect. From the outset, it seems pretty clear that Hell Fest is the strain of slasher looking to emphasize mayhem and carnage over character development. His bunch isnít exactly the most disposable in slasher history, but they arenít exactly paragons of depth, either, so you donít exactly feel guilty about craving something awful to happen to most of them. The script mostly obliges here with a couple of outstanding splatter sequences: where most of Hell Fest involves some unremarkable stalk-and-slash that ends with your standard issue stabbings, two go the extra mile with head-bashing and Fulci-inspired eye-gouging gags that truly play to the gory, trash movie potential of something like this. Truth be told, if it boasted at least one more similar sequence, Iíd be even more enthusiastic about it. At one point, the script toys with one more, only to back off from it in a somewhat disappointing turn of events. Just put it this way: teasing the use of a guillotine without following through with it should be punishable by slasher movie law.
For the most part, though, Hell Fest is the goods. The enigmatic slasherís look might feel a touch generic and unimaginative, but thatís easily forgiven since thatís a functional choice: ďThe OtherĒ obviously has to blend in among the crowd without drawing too much attention to himself, a dynamic the script exploits a couple of times for dramatic irony and added suspense. Most noteworthy is the moment the masked killer first appears before the group, brandishing a knife while in pursuit of a terrified girl; assuming itís simply part of the act, the friends urge him to gut his ďvictim,Ē only to be startled by how realistic it looks.
Plotkin and company return to this unsettling sense of uncertainty a couple more times throughout, though it never quite reaches the paranoiac heights of The Houses that October Built. Granted, Hell Fest isnít exactly trying to be that sort of movie, either: for better and for worst, itís an unapologetic slasher movie throwback thatís most preoccupied with providing funhouse thrills: cheap jolts, outlandish gore, and an altogether playful spirit. Look no further than Tony Toddís delightful cameo as a demented M.C. for one of the parkís interactive stage shows to determine just what this movie is up to: it knows youíre here for the carnage and is happy to obligeóand with a sense of showmanship to boot.
Plotkin sprinkles in just enough beyond that, too: Hell Fest is alluringly photographed, candy-colored carnage that should make it an immediate candidate for each Halloween season from here on out. If, like me, youíre too busy to visit any actual haunts during this time of the year, this is a fine substitute; whatís more, the characters donít even make for the worst company. With the exception of Bex Taylor-Klausís turn as the resident horror enthusiast (which feels like an extension of her role in the Scream TV series), these arenít the glib, self-aware slasher types. Theyíre just decent, nice kids that the script even finds occasional moments of sympathy for: one guyís simply trying to do a sweet thing by trying to win his girlfriend a prize by any means necessary, a transgression that ends with the killer rearranging his face. For a brief moment, you consider just how fucked up that isóright before you go back to marveling at how fucking awesome it is, too.
That latter sentiment wins out for the duration of Hell Fest, where the main attraction is non-stop bloodshed, and its commitment to such savagery extends to an obligatory coda that sets up further exploits for its masked slasher. Itís an interesting one at that, one that resists the usual ďitís not really over!Ē clichť with an unsettling suggestion about the killerís identity that a sequel might explore. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen (and the early box office receipts donít look promising, unfortunately), but this one feels likely to endure even as a one shot. If there are still cult home video labels (and assuming we arenít living in a nuclear hellscape) in 30 years, Hell Fest is the sort of movie that will likely inspire a Collectorís Edition release on 8K Super-Ultra Blu-ray or whatever. Go ahead and hop on the bandwagon now.
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