Hell Fest (2018)
Directed by: Gregory Plotkin
Written by: Akela Cooper, Blair Butler, Christopher Sey, Seth M. Sherwood, William Penick
Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards, Tony Todd
IN CINEMAS: 16th November
RUNNING TIME: 89 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A masked killer murders a woman at a theme park. Shortly afterwards, Natalie returns home after being away and is dragged by her friend Brooke – and Taylor whom she doesn’t like so much – into a plan to visit a horror-themed amusement park named Hell Fest, along with their boyfriends Quinn and Asher as well as Gavin. They all have a good time at first, though Taylor doesn’t seem to be scared by anything while Natalie is more interested in Gavin. However, the same masked killer begins to stalk Natalie and then seems to kill somebody in front of her, though in Hell Fest it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t….
Any slasher worth its salt should have a frightening killer, likable characters, creepy stalk sequences, shocking death scenes, a few [but not too many] false scares, a setting that’s made good use of, and an exciting fight to the finish between the final girl and the killer to be considered a success in the genre. Hell Fest achieves most, if not quite all, of these objectives while giving us a lengthy climactic struggle between the killer and two final girls instead of one, which is a reasonably original tweak and maybe a bit more believable then the way one girl suddenly becomes incredibly tough even though the previous characters who encountered the killer obviously didn’t stand a chance. Generally though Hell Fest, which sounds awfully similar to this year’s earlier Blood Fest [which I haven’t yet seen] and which may also remind viewers of The Funhouse, is a distinctly back to basics effort that belongs in the ‘80s – and is proud of it. Those not enamoured of this particular genre won’t find much to shout about except for perhaps the look of the piece, while if you prefer your slashers to give us something new rather than stuff that’s been done, perhaps be a bit meta [not something I’m personally too keen on with the exception of the sadly under-appreciated Behind The Mask], smart-ass, etc, you may not enjoy it too much either. But for those of us old-timers who aren’t too keen on all this clever-clever stuff and still think that all you really need are some teenagers stuck in a particular location with a killer, and a director who is at least able to scare and shock in the right places if maybe not do much else, then Hell Fest should satisfy. While I don’t see quite as many slashers as my colleague Ross Hughes, I found it to be the most enjoyable new one I’d seen in some time.
The titles unfold during the first kill, a stabbing in a room full of fake hanging bodies which are then joined by the corpse of the victim. While the killing isn’t particularly memorable, I was instantly impressed with the hooded killer’s mask, which is in a way quite tacky and probably cheaply constructed but also somehow rather unsettling, a hideous cross between Leatherface and the Aztec Mummy from those wacky Mexican oddities from the ‘50s. Then we meet our teenagers, Natalie arriving at her former apartment where her best friend Brooke still resides. She’s disappointed to learn that a former classmate Taylor whom she didn’t get along with is living with her. Sadly, apart from Taylor who has sex on the brain – that’s the extent of her characterisation – there’s not much to differentiate them which is a flaw with many modern slashers. In the ‘80s you tended to have a diverse group which created a nice dynamic, even if the people tended to be stereotypes. Here, they’re pretty much the same and therefore not enough empathy is created because we don’t get much of a sense of who these people are even though we’re spending a lot of time with them. I wonder if the insidious, stifling disease that is political correctness is one of the causes of this development. On the other hand the dialogue between this lot feels quite natural, even if it’s not always delivered very well by the cast – though they do seem to get better, as if the film was shot in sequence.
Hell Fest turns out to be a place where Yours Truly would probably hang out out very often if it were real. The main central outdoor area is a horror themed rave while all around it are various rooms with a variety of scary and/or gruesome attractions where it’s often impossible to tell a dummy from somebody in a costume. One room just consists of a train that nearly runs people over. Another one that particularly struck me is a medieval torture chamber by way of Dr. Freudstein’s charnel house of a cellar in House By The Cemetery. And then there’s Deadland, a sparsely decorated open area that permits the monsters to touch the guests, while everywhere visitors are likely to have somebody in a costume jump out at them at any moment. Even though not all of this is believable, and it seems a little sparsely populated considering it’s supposed to have sold out in a few minutes, it’s a fantastic setting for a slasher, a place where the killer can easily blend in and where the victims-to-be are already frightened. Even better is that much of the place is strikingly lit in red, blue and green, as if the characters have suddenly stepped into the world of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. Jose David Montero’s cinematography is excellent throughout, and helps make Hell Fest far more striking visually than your usual slasher and sometimes look far more expensive than it actually is.
At Hell Fest the members of our group all get VIP wrist bands that allow them to skip queues, while at the same time the killer, called The Other in the credits, is seen arriving. A girl dismisses both The Other and a worker for not being scary, so The Other targets her. When she appears to Natalie looking frightened and telling her that a man is after her, Natalie assumed it’s part of the show so she reveals her location, but in quite a disturbing if unoriginal moment she’s stabbed to death in front of Natalie who still thinks it’s an act but finds it a bit too realistic. She and Gavin get more and more friendly, but The Other is now after this new group and especially Natalie. It’s not clear what his motive is, and of course he doesn’t necessarily need one, but he does seem to be bothered when people aren’t scared of not just him but things at Hell Fest. He seems to want folk to be frightened, and much like Michael Myers [at least in some of the films] likes to scare people as much as kill them. Of course, doing it at an amusement park where he doesn’t look at all out of place and can easily pose at a worker is the perfect place to do this. In fact I’m surprised a Friday The 13th or Halloween film hasn’t played with this idea, but now I’ve said this we’ll probably have one just like the crappy Halloween: Resurrection was clearly inspired by the far superior My Little Eye [now there’s another unsung slasher].
Candyman himself Tony Todd turns up towards the end in what is little more than a cameo, but as usual he makes every second count, here as a kind of master of ceremonies dressed up like a more expensively clothed Barom Samedi from Live And Let Die. He participates in a great and funny gag involving a guillotine and a deliberately unconvincing severed head which then turns nasty. I personally wish that the film had played more with what people think isn’t real and what they think is, but this isn’t really that kind of movie. I could have also done with a bit more stalking, but what we have is fine, and you just never know when The Other is hiding which does keep you in some suspense, while there’s an especially good ‘trapped in a toilet’ bit. While the kills tend to be quick in the manner of an ‘80 slasher and the budget probably wasn’t there for lots of bloody special effects, there are two which you will remember including an eye stabbing where I could almost hear the ghost of Lucio Fulci cheering at it. What effects we do have are pretty convincing and seem to be all practical too. And by the time we get to the extended climax, the settings have become almost surreal such as a room full of dolls who have their faces covered in what look like very old style table place mats, and another one which is entirely black except for lots of black cloaks with white masks sat atop them. Because of its very nature, I can’t imagine that Hell Fest is getting much in the way of good reviews from the mainstream press, but there was no doubt to me that by this stage director Gregory Plotkin, who previously helmed Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension [which I liked more than some] but who also edited most of the films in that series as well as Get Out and Happy Death Day, was in total control of his perhaps limited material and doing the very best he could to make the most out of it. It’s our five screenwriters who let the side down in some areas, notably not really bothering to create characters.
Reign Edwards does in the end make for a good heroine you get behind though of course she’s not really the only one, and the film’s ending is curious in a good way – I think. It’s not your typical final shock, it’s something that – as I thought about it – could be more frightening, because it reminds us that not all murderous psychopaths are obvious, not all are misfits who are isolated from society. The nice kind person living next door to you could be one. It also leaves things open for a sequel and even a franchise, though due to its disappointing performance in the U.S. I doubt we’ll get one. It’s hard to start up a successful series that has a new bogeyman these days, folks seeming to prefer the familiar – or rather studios prefer to spend big bucks convincing them that they do instead of taking some risks. While I didn’t have time to talk with people as I had a bit of a journey home and wanted to get the bulk of this review written before I went to bed, I sensed that Hell Fest somewhat divided the preview audience I saw it with. However, if you’re the sort who has much nostalgia for the simple, ‘straight to the point’ slashers of old, and was perhaps distinctly underwhelmed by that mediocre H20 remake that’s still currently raking it in, I reckon you’ll get a bit of a kick out of Hell Fest.