Hell Fest is another one of those substanceless films where our lead characters — or should I say beautiful walking talking cardboard cutouts — get taken out one by one by an anonymous killer donning a Michael Myers-esque mask. Apparently, it’s called a ‘slasher film’ and the genre has its fair share of enthusiasts. Enthusiasts, who put films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th on a pedestal. “They’re classics!” a friend of mine once yelled. Me? I don’t get it. The same way the late great Roger Ebert probably wouldn’t get my adoration for the John Wick films. (Concerning Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption [a masterpiece in action cinema if you ask me], Ebert once said: “The Welsh director, Gareth Evans, knows there’s a fanboy audience for his formula, in which special effects amp up the mayhem in senseless carnage.”)
That said, of all the slasher films that have come out in recent memory, this at least has a refreshing concept. Natalie (Amy Forsyth) pays a surprise visit to her best friend, Brooke (Reign Edwards). Meanwhile, another one of Brooke’s friends, who has a crush on Natalie, has scored VIP passes to Hell Fest, a popular travelling Halloween carnival, that’s supposedly shit-your-pants scary. We’re told that “tickets sold out within minutes.” Throw another three friends into the mix and we have our sexually charged protagonists ready to be murdered.
I like that the film (besides the introductory scenes) takes place in a Halloween carnival, in which our protagonists go through various horror themed mazes. It gives director Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension) the license to mess around with cliche horror tropes without it coming off as a cheap trick. Here, the infinite amount of jump scares and screeechy ear clawing sound effects that are dialled to a hundred makes perfect sense. Anyone who’s ever been to a haunted house will know that actors in costumes randomly jump out from various directions, props fall from the ceiling and pop up from the ground and the entire experience isn’t without the sound of babies crying their lungs out, wailing witches, glass breaking, nails on chalkboards, you name it.
But the more interesting dimension this setting adds is that it allows the killer to operate in plain sight. My favourite sequence comes very early on. The masked psychopath stabs someone in front of our protagonists. They’re shocked, but just shrug it off and walk away. If you were in their shoes, would you be able to tell that it’s not part of the act — part of the advertised scariest experience of a lifetime you’ve paid top dollar for? On those fronts, Hell Fest is surprisingly realistic.
Realism aside, though, there is also nothing particularly gripping about the writing and nothing particularly standout about Plotkin’s directorial efforts. The characters are one-note. There’s the scholar, the scholar’s ethnic best friend and the obnoxious and douchy housemate who makes fun of everyone. Three of these girls have male counterparts, who mirror their personality traits. These characters pair up — the scholar with the more reserved nerdy guy, the obnoxious girl with the loud asshole, yadda yadda yadda — and spend most of their time making out with each other. Except for our lead and her male counterpart, who desperately want to do it too, but are too shy. But eventually, they do make out, in a photo booth. (That these cardboard cutouts disguising themselves as characters have more than an ounce of personality and some chemistry between them is another pleasant surprise.)
Sure, perhaps you don’t go to these films for their nuanced character exploration, the same way I don’t need to know what any of the characters in The Raid do when they’re not smashing heads into walls (I would like to though). But for a film like this to work, it needs to be merciless with its thrills. It needs to be creative with its murders. The audience needs to be played like a fiddle to the point where we’re one millimetre away from dropping from our seats. In other words, it needs to commit! So much so that we’re only allowed to catch a breath at the end of the film, by which we’re already on the floor, popcorn box turned upside down over our heads.
Hell Fest doesn’t commit. Besides the first victim, whose face gets smashed in with a mallet (it made me flinch), everything else is pretty mundane. There are a couple of thrilling moments, but nothing worth talking about or remembering. The events that unfold from scene to scene feel repetitive after a while and the film starts to feel sluggish, which is saying something given its mere 90-minute runtime. Not to mention, the murders themselves are pretty tame — mostly just a regular, bloodless stabs to the guts — considering its R-rating.
Despite my general disinterest in the genre, I actually dig Hell Fest‘s concept. It is one that reeks of potential. One that deserves better writers and a far more ballsy helmer. Ultimately, my biggest takeaway is this: Hell Fest the carnival seems like a blast; Hell Fest the movie, not so much.
Despite my general disinterest in the genre, I actually dig Hell Fest's concept. It is one that reeks of potential. One that deserves better writers and a far more ballsy helmer.