[Review] "Hell Fest" is an uneven but entertaining kickoff to the Halloween season
For some time, horror has been on the rise. Just this year, films such as The Meg and A Quiet Place have blown the box office wide open. Others, like Hereditary, have challenged the pre-conceptions of the genre, forcing critics who generally view horror as “sleaze” to at least give a nod of respect. Horror is hot. One thing that’s been missing though? Slashers. A favorite sub-genre amongst fans that, for the most part, has disappeared as of late. With any luck, the release of Hell Fest this weekend is about to change that…
…Directed by Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension) and written by (deep breath), Seth M. Sherwood (Leatherface), Blair Butler (Polaroid), and Akela Cooper (Grimm), with William Penick and Christopher Sey receiving a story credit, Hell Fest tells the scream-packed tale of a group of friends who are terrorized by a masked killer at a horror themed amusement park.
We’re going to get back to how many cooks are involved in this creative kitchen, but first, let’s take a look at one of the more underrated but most important elements of a slasher film…the characters. I can hear you already, “no way Matt, the kills are all that matters”, but, I’m gonna have to disagree with you. See, slashers can have all the great kills they want, but if the film is packed with obnoxious assholes who irritate the hell out of you every time they’re on screen, we don’t really care as much, and those kills have far less of an impact. More than anything, what the team behind Hell Fest gets right is character. Led by Amy Forsyth as Natalie, this group of friends is energetic and endearing to the point where it actually hurts when some of them get picked off. Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), Brooke (Reign Edwards), Quinn (Christian James), Asher (Matt Mercurio), Gavin (Roby Attal) and Forsyth are all fantastic and deserve a mention. Somewhere along the way, slashers began making the mistake of populating their films with obnoxious brats that treat each other like shit and in many ways encapsulated the worst stereotypes amongst teens. What Hell Fest does so well with this cast is that they all actually FEEL like friends. They’re fun, they’re sarcastic without bringing each other down, and they actually give a crap about each other, which in turn, makes us care. Going all the way back to the original Friday the 13th, the initial intention of slashers was for the cast to feel just like your group of friends, but at some point, characters were narrowed down to roles like “the jock” and “the slut”. Thankfully, Hell Fest avoids pigeon-holing the cast and just allows them to be people.
As for the killer, Hell Fest aims to establish a more traditional horror icon, but unfortunately, makes plenty of missteps. Many modern slashers, like the Scream franchise, have taken the “faster is better” approach, with killers that can actually run and don’t seem to be suffering from dementia. Hell Fest, as it does in many senses, takes us back to the 80s/early 90s with a killer that never runs. If you were to look at a wall of his role models, you’d probably see Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, killers who stalk their victims and wait in the shadows for the right moment to strike, which seems to be this guy’s MO. The droopy, rusted mask which the killer dons is effectively creepy by giving him a not-so-human look. The filmmakers are missing one key element though to creating an iconic slasher: the lore. Whatever you want to call it, a back story, a legend, a great motive, the killer in Hell Fest doesn’t have it, and something like that is key to a slasher franchise. Just think about it, all of the best slashers have one. Freddy, Michael, Jason, Chucky, all of them have something that either happened to them or is driving them. Without it, they’re just some killer, and a few weeks down the line, the audience won’t remember a damn thing about them. What do we know about the killer in Hell Fest? He goes after people who don’t think the park is scary. THAT’S IT. The secret ingredient to slashers is a good legend, and in this case, the filmmakers might as well have dumped a pile of anchovies on your plate, because the killer’s motive STINKS.
To make up for the lack of an interesting villain, Hell Fest does present a clever premise that works on all levels. By framing the story within a horror themed amusement park, the filmmakers are given plenty of opportunity to scare the audience while appealing to just about everything horror fans love. The setting is a visual treat for fans of the macabre, with set pieces and haunted houses that will make you drool at the idea of a place like this ever actually existing. Forget Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, I want to go to Hell Fest. There’s also an innate sense of dread with the location, because not only does the audience expect to jump from a fun scare like the park’s scare actors jumping out at our group, but we know that at any moment, our killer could strike, and no one would know because this is a horror themed park after all, and who would bat an eye at someone getting “stabbed”? They could just be actors for all you know. And therein lies the intelligence of the premise: No one is going to help the cast. Security waves off their stalker as someone at the park just doing their job. Attendees would do nothing but point and laugh if the killer attacked them out in the open. Even in a park full of people, the main cast is on their own, and in a place where they are constantly assaulted and split up by different terrors and mazes, we as the audience can hardly ever predict when the killer will strike, or who will face the chopping block.
As for the kills, Hell Fest is a bizarre mix of insanely violent and awesome to a level of mediocrity that is eye-roll inducing. Remember how I said I’d come back to the group of creatives involved in the story? This is why. In Hell Fest, you can actually sense the pulling and tugging of the creative team just by how different certain points of the film seem to be from others. For example, during the first half of Hell Fest, there is a grim, excessively violent tone to the kills, which are gory and spectacular, including one reference to the grisly eye scene in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. But, at a certain point (and ironically enough, in the middle of what COULD HAVE BEEN a memorable kill), it’s as if the filmmakers suddenly decide to stop taking their time. Forget the stalking. Forget the even pacing. Forget the scares, the bloodshed, and the fun. Let’s just have the killer run around and stab a bunch of people in a matter of seconds. Imagine as if Plotkin is filming, checks his watch and says oh shit, we have to wrap this thing up in the next fifteen minutes! I want to be clear, Hell Fest is expertly paced until near the third act, where it becomes clear why it’s generally an issue to have so many creatives involved in storytelling, because the film becomes tragically inconsistent. And don’t even get me started on the god-awful finale, in which our final girl barely gets to have her moment, and the filmmakers settle for the most clichéd, laughable ending possible.
Hell Fest is one of those films that comes so close to nailing its premise, but thanks to a few fatal flaws, just barely misses the mark. But if you’re a fan of slashers, that shouldn’t stop you from checking this one out, as it’s a great example of dumb, entertaining horror which acts as the perfect kickoff to the approaching Halloween season, and, I hope, a renaissance of 80s/90s esque slashers. Let’s see how Halloween does in a few weeks…
Hell Fest is now playing in theaters.
By Matt Konopka
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