Hell Fest (2018)
Fun Getting In. Hell Getting Out.
A gaggle of young twenty-something friends decides to hit up a horror theme park called ‘Hell Fest’ to celebrate both Halloween and the return of their old somewhat reserved pal Natalie (Amy Forsyth). The crew is using this as an excuse to get the studious Natalie together with the eager-to-impress Gavin (Roby Attal), who’s arranged VIP passes to the event. Also on board is Natalie’s loyal best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards), her boyfriend Quinn (Christian James), and her new roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a hyperactive rebel who’s dragged her obliging boyfriend Asher (Matt Mercurio) along, too.
Hell Fest mostly consists of scare-mazes, dance parties, an assortment of interactive displays, and, of course, thousands of dress ups — freaks, monsters, phantoms, you name it. While making their way to the spooktacular showgrounds, Taylor shares an eerie urban legend about an incident at a similar event, where a young girl was murdered and assumed to be a prop, and simply part of the scare maze. Unbeknown to the group, it turns out the story is true, and the mysterious killer, ‘The Other’ (Stephen Conroy), is keen for another good night’s slashing.
The most unexpected thing happened while watching Hell Fest. As the killer was stalking a character and the tension began to build, I felt a sense of dread. When this character’s face is smashed up, I felt the loss. You see, I actually cared about where he was in his narrative journey and wanted to see it fulfilled. I can’t express how rare this is in a horror film, let alone a slasher. To make a comparison, while I enjoyed last year’s Halloween (2018), I didn’t really care who lived or died outside of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a character I had already been invested in, courtesy of its predecessor.
So, what’s so different with Hell Fest? Well, outside of one glaringly in-your-face character in the punky and kinda annoying Taylor, I didn’t feel forced to like any of the protagonists. Instead, they carried a natural, relatable charm all on their own. In fact, the best way to watch the movie is to see it as a filmed walk-through one of the most elaborate horror theme parks you could conjure up — think the Disneyland of horror, with a group of excited new pals and yes, it just so happens that there’s a murderous madman on the loose. As someone who actually watches theme park walkthroughs on YouTube, I loved it.
This is a real testament to the cast, with up-and-comer Amy Forsyth, Beautiful Boy (2018), matched with the slightly twitchy, yet sweet Roby Attal, the two having real, palatable chemistry on screen. An appearance by none other than the unmistakable Tony Todd of Candyman (1992) fame was a welcome addition, too, and it did make me feel there was plenty more room for genre cameos. With a bigger budget, who knows, this could’ve been the Ready Player One (2018) of horror pictures!
Naturally, I have to talk about the slasher elements because that’s really the main marketing push that the production has gone with, and fair enough, this hook is highly profitable. Thing is, I can understand if casual slasher fans and gorehounds are left wanting more because there really isn’t a lot in that way in this one. We get a decent amount of blood, but nothing to write home about, with the goriest death (the head-smashing mentioned earlier) cutting away before it gets too gruesome.
Now, there are two paths that the filmmakers could’ve gone with here — either totally commit to an R rating and ditch the cutaways and so-so splatterings, or hold back entirely and go full PG-13, aiming for a younger demographic, perhaps those just getting into the genre. I’m gonna be controversial and suggest the latter would’ve been the best way to go as, 1) the film manages to have a lot of accessible theme park scares already, and 2) I’m not sure if the gore would necessarily make this a better movie because, 3) the tone is generally light, perfect for a Halloween night where trick-or-treaters knock at the door. I feel that upping the gore would make the affair much more mean-spirited and cold, possibly leaving a bad taste in one’s mouth.
When it comes to slashers, I generally like them with either a mix of fun, over-the-top, silly and/ or weird. Hell Fest aims straight for the fun, creating an atmosphere that’s perfect for the drive-in crowd and popcorn moviegoers — I’m suddenly thinking of a Thriller-era Michael Jackson sitting in the theatre, gleefully watching on. It’s not a movie to be taken too seriously either — we’re familiar enough with the setup to kick-back while living vicariously through the cast and this amazing theme park, which, by the way, is tragically only a work of fiction — oh, how I’d love to visit!
The central team that has created this twisted, macabre wonderland — production designer Michael Perry, It Follows (2014), art director Mark Dillon, Blood Money (2017), and costume designers Tony Gardner, Tank Girl (1995), and Eulyn Colette Hufkie, TV’s The Walking Dead (2010-16) — have clearly had a blast coming up with all sorts of creepy corners, energetic scare tactics, and ghastly ghouls to haunt the grounds, which seem to spread far wider than I expected. It’s no wonder cinematographer José David Montero, Apollo 18 (2011), makes the most of his wide shots, reveling in the generally bright and vivid colors afforded by the sets — a welcome change to the traditionally bland, morbid, and borderline greyscale look that has dominated the more modern horror entries, along with their generally overdone close-ups.
Director Gregory Plotkin cut his teeth as an editor for Blumhouse on the Paranormal Activity series — from the second in 2010 through to The Marked Ones (2014) — before making his directing debut on the final chapter, The Ghost Dimension (2015), which, to be kind, was a dud, but perhaps he was a victim of a tired series more than a lack of talent. He has since backed down to the editor’s chair, contributing to the highly acclaimed Get Out (2017) and the amusing Groundhog Day-esque slasher that was Happy Death Day (2017), before being backed up to direct again by producers Tucker Tooley, Hunter Killer (2018), and the once legendary Gale Anne Hurd, who’s mostly been in TV land after a series of underperforming flicks such as Punisher: War Zone (2008) and Æon Flux (2005). Following the Blumhouse model of high concept, high gloss, low budget, unlike Sony’s desperate attempts in the recent Escape Room (2019), this is an investment that deserved to pay off, but the poor performance of the film in the U.S. market has barely gotten it by.
Gregory Plotkin has talked of a desire to do a sequel, but given the aforementioned, it’s looking unlikely to get traction, which is a massive shame. Perhaps the bad box office was due to a mix of under-the-radar marketing, misaligned expectations of audiences and poor timing — the film dropping in September, attempting to steer clear of Halloween, but simply not stirring enough of an appetite. Either way, if you’re looking to chill with some fun spooks and munchies, you can’t really go past Hell Fest. Take the ride.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie