It is October so it should surprise no one that at least one cheaply made horror film is in theaters right now. We usually get at least ONE every year around this season and this year we have “Hell Fest”, a slasher film that honestly has a pretty cool premise. What would it be like if a horror themed park became the site of a real murder? The setup offers a lot of opportunities for creativity and scares and maybe even some commentary on the obsession that people have with the macabre and horror in general. Or it could just be a bland slasher offering that wastes it potential. Which one is it? Well the park is open and I decided to find out for myself. This is my review of “Hell Fest”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Hell Fest” takes place within the titular Halloween-themed carnival which exposes guests to a variety of spooky settings and characters including a back section of the park specifically designed with the intent that cast members will interact with and touch “victims”. A group of six friends (three couples) includes Amy Forsyth’s Natalie, Reign Edwards’ Brooke, Bex Taylor-Klaus’ Taylor, Christian James’ Quinn, Matt Mercurio’s Asher and Roby Attal’s Gavin. The group attends Hell Fest, which became infamous after a young woman was really killed in the park and mistaken for a prop for days. The sextet find themselves being followed by a mysterious man in a mask called The Other but mistake him for a cast member. However they soon realize The Other is much more sinister but security and guests believe their fear to be a side effect of the park. With the killer seemingly always one step ahead and hiding in plain sight the friends try to escape Hell Fest before their Halloween escapades take a very real turn.
Don’t go into “Hell Fest” expecting groundbreaking performances because, well to noone’s surprise you’re not going to get them. However I can’t say I didn’t enjoy some of the characters or their portrayals. In fact I found a few stood out quite nicely. The first of those is Amy Forsyth who plays the true main character of the film Natalie, a college student who returns to her former home and enjoys life for a change with a night out with friends at Hell Fest. Forsyth for me was charismatic enough. She plays a character that could have easily been overdone or forgettable but she’s neither of these things and manages to find a happy medium that I honestly never expected from a generic slasher movie. Another fun performance, and for me the best character in the whole film, was Bex Taylor-Klaus who portrays Taylor, a hyperactive rebellious girl who is clearly the wild and crazy one of the bunch. I enjoyed her sarcasm and her personality which continuously brakes up the tension in the movie reminding us that they are in a theme park where nothing is supposed to be taken seriously. She’s the skeptical character who doesn’t get along with the main lead making her a constant doubter that they are really being hunted by a masked killer. Of all the characters in this movie she seems to be the most defined and for me was the most fun to watch.
Sadly that’s about it in terms of the memorability of the characters. The three men are terribly generic and forgettable caricatures of slasher film must-haves and the third female character, Natalie’s best friend Brooke, is positioned to be the secondary lead of the film but is overshadowed by almost everyone even some of the side characters like genre staple Tony Todd who plays one of the actors in the park. Brooke has little personality or defining traits once she’s in the park which stinks because early in the film we do see some potential from actress Reign Edwards when she’s talking to her in-movie boyfriend and interacting with Natalie. This tells me that Edwards was given poor material from a lazily written screenplay in an attempt to make her an important character without overshadowing the character of Natalie but she’s downplayed so much you forget she’s even in the story half the time. In the end “Hell Fest” contains maybe one or two good characters that I remembered after leaving the theater. Overall though while the performances aren’t stale and the actors do feel invested to some extent few of them stand out as unique people. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t get invested in their fates, in fact I could and I’ll touch on that soon, but I couldn’t tell you the names of almost any of these people without looking them up making them part of an all-to-common sin in horror films that the story is more dependent on shocks, kills and gore than actual character development and personality.
I might as well start off continuing to talk about the characters because I’ll admit while I couldn’t tell you their names or anything I was invested in their well-being. Unlike a lot of cheap horror movies we’re really not given any reason to think these kids are stupid or deserve what’s coming to them because they made bad choices. The way the narrative works their ignorance is justified because they’re in a carnival designed to scare them so there was never a moment where I said to myself how stupid someone in the film was for putting themselves in that position. It’s perfectly understandable, they think it’s fake and all part of an act. Even when characters did die off I felt oddly invested despite their lack of proper development or defining traits. I think there was maybe one character that I felt got killed off unceremoniously. Otherwise I felt invested in the fate of these teenagers. I wanted to see them find a way to survive despite the fact that the movie gave me no reason to care about them as people. I don’t think that’s ever happened before for me, a movie containing poorly laid out and clichéd characters that I somehow still feel bad for when they die. It’s a unique first for me personally.
I think a lot of it has to do with the atmosphere too which makes this story so much easier to enjoy because it cancels out a lot of the typically stupid aspects of horror movies and slasher films specifically. For me this made it a lot more fun because I felt like the setting was unique and surprisingly effective while justifying the actions of the people involved. I could understand why people doubted the teenagers’ claims and why patrons looked the other way when it seemed like someone was in trouble. I’m actually surprised this concept hasn’t been explored a lot more in horror because you’d think that a spooky theme park would be a great place for someone to commit these crimes while hiding in plain sight. The backdrop provides some legitimately creepy settings that are well designed to be scary and crazy on purpose in the film’s universe instead of leaving me wondering “why does a place like this even exist”. This also means we get to see some awesome kills too which is, after all, why people will inevitably go to see this movie no matter what critics say. “Hell Fest” features some crazy, over the top and delightfully cringe inducing deaths that had me on the edge of my seat as they were taking place. While not every death works several of them are well paced and had me wondering if I wanted to see the result which is a reaction I haven’t had to a horror movie in some time. So while “Hell Fest” has a LOT of problems I enjoyed it. I had fun watching it. It works in the way many other similar films work but in the end that still means it works on some level.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While “Hell Fest” might be fun it’s really nothing special in the grand scheme of things. Other than its setting, which you could even argue was a means to an end more than a truly inspired creative choice, “Hell Fest” pretty much follows convention relying on jump scares, fake outs and predictable clichés to get the job done. There are few surprises in this film. You know exactly where it’s going to go and the movie feels perfectly comfortable just sticking to the same old song and dance we’ve seen on screen before. I can’t say that “Hell Fest” doesn’t have its own identity but I don’t feel like it has ENOUGH of an identity to stand out. It’s perfectly serviceable as a guilty pleasure horror feature but lacks substance and leans on a poor script and typical screenplay to give audiences exactly what they’re looking for and not a whole lot more.
Then there’s the villain in this film which I think COULD have been the best part of the movie but the filmmakers made a creative choice that ended up going nowhere over time. We never learn the killer’s motive. We never get to understand why he is the way he is or doing what he’s doing. All we get to truly understand him is a kind-of-twist ending that sheds very little light on the man behind the mask. Apparently that was the point. After all they don’t even give anyone credit for playing The Other at the end of the film. I think the filmmakers were trying to show that anyone could be this crazed maniac who makes the horrors of a carnival a reality. That’s a good idea but it falls flat when your killer has no identity. Other than humming “Pop Goes the Weasel” as he stalks his prey The Other has nothing to set him apart from the typical slashers of the past. He’s just a generic bad guy made all the more typical by the abundance of similarly masked people in the park. I will admit I did feel like the movie was going to go in a different direction after we learned the killer was using a mask seen everywhere in Hell Fest but that never transpired. He’s just a basic garden variety faceless killer. No motive. No personality. Nothing to make him stand out.
Finally I feel like “Hell Fest” loses its way in its final act. There are glimmers of a more inspired movie and even some great kills up until a certain point where The Other just goes full on slasher, throwing all creativity out the window and settling for a generic “bad guy slowly chases the victim” finale. Now it’s not all bad. There’s one specific scene where the survivors are hiding from The Other right in front of his eyes and the tension builds up to a cool moment but even then that scene is followed up by, you guessed it, another slow walking chase. It’s all pretty predictable and while it has its moments this all makes “Hell Fest” a bland product overall.
“Hell Fest” could have probably been a great movie. I truly feel like there was potential in this concept. But in the end this film is no more than a fun feature that lacks creativity or memorability on almost every level. It offers enough in its atmosphere and backdrop and it’s selection of cool kills to remain interesting for a single viewing but after you watch it chances are it won’t leave much of an impact. It’s just a bland, paint by number slasher film that seems to try to do something different but ends up settling for the same conventional clichés. I can’t say it lacks imagination, but it could have been more inspired. If you’re looking for simple scares and some gruesome and fun slasher violence to tide you over for Halloween well this might do the trick. I can’t say it’s not a fun movie to watch at least once. However “Hell Fest” does little to add to the genre or justify its existence outside of its setting and is destined to be lost in the shuffle of similar, superior films that came before it and are still to come.