“Sorry about the screaming girl. She’s my best friend’s best friend. She doesn’t really get horror.”
Consider for a moment the underappreciated plight of the horror slasher villain. He or she has a finite amount of time in which to make the biggest, bloodiest impression possible. This, despite the fact that movie maniacs are not hydrogen bombs, laying waste indiscriminately, and must generally both pick and pick off their targets with some degree of thought. Though blessed with the improvisational skill necessary to turn almost any found implement into a weapon of destruction, this is still grueling and, one imagines, often tedious work, far less glamorous than it might appear on screen. An effective slasher must, of course, evade detection long enough to rack up the desired body count, which is admittedly easier when working at night, with its wealth of shadowy alcoves into which one might duck, but gets trickier when you factor in the inevitable eye-catching mask, intimidating physicality, and overtly menacing manner. Public confrontations should similarly be avoided whenever possible, lest some would-be hero, good Samaritan, or doddering extra end up complicating your plans. Much, but not all, of what elevates Hell Fest from its seemingly predestined fate as otherwise anonymous late night streaming fodder into something quite possibly worth catching at a theater matinee is how it acknowledges all the old tropes straight up, and then works with and around them to an agreeably clever degree. It also employs a lustful embrace of capital-H “Horror” as a concept that, for a genre fan, is refreshing to experience. It pulls a few too many punches for my liking, but also makes sure the punches it does throw count.
Slasher history is replete with trips to summer camps, ramshackle farms, and underlit cul-de-sacs, and the subgenre is ever in search of more varied destinations to keep its cliches from turning instantly musty. The greatest strength of Hell Fest lies in its fairly novel setting, a traveling, amusement park-sized version of a traditional Halloween “haunted house” of the sort you’d find seasonally at Six Flags or Cedar Point, although, presumably, here with bigger teeth. I’ve never personally visited anything along these lines that exceeded the local DIY level, as I generally find the atmosphere lacking and the overreliance on relentless attempted jumpscares – an issue that Hell Fest recognizes and even in its latter stages subtly satirizes – tiresome. Perhaps I’m missing out. Despite its party destination trappings – our crew of photogenic young expendables stops off for shots on top of shots before hitting their first haunt, though you rarely notice so much as a beer afterward – the park has been cunningly engineered to at least try to stoke fear, with not only rotting ghouls and other grotesques roaming amongst the clientele like the idiotically waving mascots at Disneyland (“I have a childhood phobia of demonic clowns,” one embarrassed character explains to his date) but a layout that ratchets up visitor tension incrementally by arranging the various mazes and attractions on an unofficial scale from “training wheels” to “spinning buzzsaw”, and inspiring each patron, properly energized from the preceding experience, to want to challenge him or herself and push farther upon surviving.
Under normal circumstances, even in a venue designed to scare its patrons to death, “survival” would not be so subjective or open-ended a term. Sounds like a great premise for a horror movie, huh? Hell Fest opens, for contractually obligated contextual reasons, with the shocking murder of an attendee at a different but similar haunt days earlier. Sarcastically attempting to brush off her assailant right up until the precise moment it is too late – so much of the point of enduring public scare attempts lies in personally proving bravery or, rather, ironic detachment, to your friends (or yourself) – the girl, stabbed, is strung up among the fake corpses in a blood-spattered workroom and left for the police to eventually discover, her killer long since fled. Why this shouldn’t serve as some flashing red warning light, since the incident made the local news and is even referenced by our band of junior thrillseekers as they enter the park, is well beyond me. As yet more proof of the axiom about any press being good press, Hell Fest is doing brisk, enviable business, this night like every night.* Nobody looks twice at the hoodie-wearing man with the scuffed work boots as he moves through security, not even the guard who cursorily scans then admits him. Mere steps into the first maze, he spots our intrepid young sextet whilst cornering a victim and apparently takes an instant homicidal shine to one in particular (“Natalie”, a sympathetic Amy Forsyth), tailing her for a time before finally endeavoring to cut through her protective layer of companions to get closer.
*It’s fun to see genre icon Tony Todd (“Candyman”, “Final Destination”, the 1990 “Night of the Living Dead” reboot) pop up in a splashy cameo as a carnival-style barker who whips the assembled crowd into a hooting lather before picking an audience volunteer to help him demo some, um, heavy equipment. It doesn’t quite go as planned.
In a subgenre that is ostensibly about the struggle of victims but invariably ends up elevating its killers to near-rockstar status, Hell Fest at least gives things a good go. Its characters, especially the women, are written and acted in an unforced, unfussy manner that imparts some semblance of reality to the proceedings. Part of why Hell Fest doesn’t just spin apart into bedlam once the slasher festivities commence is that the characters help keep it grounded, adding light but appreciable weight in their reactions and interactions to the abundant ambience. They’re neither comedians nor utter bores; instead they smack of pleasant, unremarkable normalcy in a way that horror screenwriters en masse have both idealized and largely failed to achieve since John Carpenter’s original Halloween. Returning to her hometown on break following a brutal quarter away at school, fresh-faced “everygirl” Natalie reluctantly syncs up with her childhood best friend, Brooke (Reign Edwards), and her new roommate, party-girl pest Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), for an expedition to the titular park, finally swayed by the strategic application of peer pressure and the promise of a cute date. Watching the girls and their plus-ones traverse the lengths of Hell Fest – scaring each other in the kiddie maze, making out on a modified “Tunnel of Love” cart ride, negotiating the objectively unsettling introduction to the park’s “Deadlands” area (where, having signed a waiver, attendees can legally be touched by employees) – I was reminded of former New York Times critic Janet Maslin’s lament (paraphrased) of how it was a shame that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter invested such time in making its teenaged cannon fodder likeable, since that only made it harder to watch them die. That’s the point. A competent filmmaker mines horror wherever it can be found.
The other reasons for Hell Fest’s abiding steadiness derive directly from screenplay decisions, and might well raise the ire of slasher fans who, intrigued by the title and premise, arrived expecting a more uncompromising, adrenalized gorefest. Surprisingly little is made (until the end) of the obvious plot device/running joke that actual mayhem might be occurring in the midst of a mass of giggling, tipsy humanity conditioned to jubilantly ignore it. I think this qualifies as progress from a narrative standpoint. Instead, director Gregory Plotkin focuses on dense, creepy, increasingly intense atmosphere and, it should be said, some pretty nasty individual kills to keep his thrill quotient up to par. Even under extreme duress, I never noticed the characters acting egregiously stupid – unless, again, you count going in the first place – or at least in any way antithetical to their established natures. Natalie is smart and inherently cautious, with the resourcefulness and resolve of an above average “final girl”. Brooke is a people pleaser who misses and is protective of her best friend, while Taylor remains a flip and genial risk-taker right to the bitter end. The movie gets impressive equivalent mileage out of the killer both stalking Nat in full Michael Myers mode (even his expressionless mask seems a knowing homage) and dispatching her friends in interesting, agreeably squishy, pseudo-Voorheesian ways, and even involves him in a surprisingly thought-provoking, though otherwise pointless, coda. How he is able, with minimal searching, to somehow locate what is likely the only legitimate axe in a park literally overflowing with lethal-looking stage props is at least worthy of a golf clap.
“Hell Fest” (2018) 2.5/4 stars