Hell Fest and all the images you see in this review are owned by CBS Films and Lionsgate
Directed by Gregory Plotkin
Did anyone know about this movie more than a week ago? I certainly never got a trailer for it despite being a horror movie being released right around October, but then again I guess Halloween is gonna keep soaking up all the attention this year which is even leaving stuff like the Suspiria remake out of the spotlight. I remember back when Blockbuster was a thing (BACK WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH!) I would rent a bunch of horror movies, and I have very vague memories of one taking place at a circus. It MIGHT have been Funhouse I guess? I honestly don’t remember, but a horror movie set at a spooky amusement park sounds like a match made in heaven and may even twinge a bit of nostalgia or the days when I would rent basically anything in the horror section with an R-rating. Does this manage to be a fun throwback to the carnival horror movies of yore, or is this just another by the numbers horror film made on the cheap to try and recoup its budget in a single weekend? Let’s find out!!
It’s that time of year again where the college kids take a break from their arduous studies to enjoy the spookiest month of the year! Yes, its Halloween time and Natalie (Amy Forsyth) finally has a chance to take a break and reconnect with her friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) and maybe even hook up with the hot stud Quinn (Christian James) who’s been asking about her! Along with Brooke’s roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), her boyfriend Gavin (Roby Attal), and Taylor’s boyfriend Asher (Matt Mercurio), they head off to the most awesome amusement park of all time, HELL FEST! Imagine if the bad guys in all the pre-Nolan Batman movies went into Performing Arts instead of a life of crime and you basically have an idea of just how rad this amusement park is, but something is amiss! You see, among the merriment and fog machines, there’s an ACTUAL serial killer lurking around in a silly mask who decides that Natalie and her friends are gonna be his next targets. Will the group be able to escape from the park with their lives and not just because they’re risking their health with that extremely greasy carnival food? How will they even be able to protect themselves when everything in the park looks spooky and murderous already? How is it that the last noticeable thing about this movie is the guy who’s ACTUALLY cutting people up!? Seriously, buddy! It’s called showmanship, and you’re being outclassed by strobe lights and a scary sound effects CD!
This is a weird one as I certainly know what I DIDN’T like about it, but then I don’t know how much you can separate that from what I DID like in here from what ultimately doesn’t work. It’s probably the first slasher film I’ve ever seen that would have been significantly improved without a slasher in it, and that speaks VOLUMES for how well they pull off the segments that are normally just filler in other movies. It’s all set up without a satisfying payoff as the slasher himself is a big ol’ sack of nothing that is only slightly better than straight to video garbage you find with one star ratings on your streaming service of choice, but everything AROUND the killer, from the set designs, the pacing, and even the characters, is genuinely engaging in its own right to the point that whenever the slasher makes his presence known, it’s an active detriment to the film. I guess it begs the question as to whether a set up like this could work without someone ACTUALLY stalking the cast to hunt them down one by one, and while I probably don’t have a DEFINITIVE answer on that, I am fairly confident that had they at least TRIED to do something in that direction, they would have had a much superior movie than the one we have now.
For the most part, I DO want to stay positive about this movie despite how disappointed it ended up being because I want to encourage what it did RIGHT and what it did that was UNIQUE. Simply put, these characters and this setting deserved either a MUCH better slasher villain or frankly should have just been left alone to do their own thing. Now I’ll admit that it took me a while to warm up to anyone in this (while it was kind of interesting to make the obnoxious jerk archetype a WOMAN in this movie, it didn’t make them any less annoying), but the film took its time and gave them enough moments to be genuinely charming that I ended up liking pretty much everyone in here; even the overly enthusiastic bros who wanted to play tough guys around the park. Speaking of which, this park is REALLY freaking cool and I honestly would love to go to someplace like this, though probably not the part where you have to sign a waiver. The attractions here have so much detail that even when they aren’t THAT scary, it’s still really interesting to just look at all the creepy statues and animatronics that are placed in each room. Honestly it’s not THAT much less scary than most of the horror films I see anyway, and it compensates by having an endearing sort of charm to it; the same way that Rob Zombie got a heck of a lot of mileage out of this kind of American shtick, though it’s much less GRIM here. It’s flashy, colorful, and full of creative little touches that make it all the more obnoxious whenever a murder has to get in the way of it all.
Now when I say the slasher in this movie is bad, I mean he is REALLY bad. I thought guys this boring and one note died out with the eighties, but nope! It’s just a dude in a hoody with a mask who has no discernable personality and nothing the least bit intriguing about his motives. He doesn’t have a sense of presence like the big masked men of the genre Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, and he’s not a good HUMAN villain because his murdering is so… rote, I guess. The most he has going for him is that he hums a little tune as he’s about to kill someone which frankly is not enough to make him the least bit interesting; especially when the film does such a good job with its characters and the setting. Now I won’t say that everything with the slasher villain is COMPLETELY terrible as there are a few highlights here. There’s a bit where he tries to use one of the park’s props which actually works as a self-aware gag and the climax is decent, though again that’s mostly due to how awesome these sets are rather than his ability to inspire fear or menace. Other than that, it’s a lot of uninspired shots of him stalking them and the film keeps hammering the same spiel over and over again about how easy it is for him to pull this off in a park full of masked weirdos (you’d think there’d be CAMERAS or something that would show him blatantly killing people INSIDE THE PARKS OWN ATTRACTIONS), and the good parts just don’t outshine the bad when it comes to the Slasher aspect of this Slasher Movie.
It’s almost fascinating to wonder if fake illusions within the narrative of the film could work as horror in its own right. I mean we’ve seen fake out jump scares before and having characters go into a spook house isn’t too far removed from those kinds of moments, so why not let the tension of who’s gonna come around the corner to try and scare them be the primary source of tension for the audience? Well frankly it IS for a majority of this movie as the slasher himself is only sporadically in it until the end, but the obvious answer is a lack of genuine threat. If they’re just going through a series of safe and preplanned attractions that are designed to be as safe as possible, it’s hard to maintain a sense of tension even if the spooky actors are going through the same motions you’d see in basically any other horror film. That said, this movie STILL manages to do a poor job of it even WITH a genuine threat, so what’s the solution? Well if you’d ask me, I’d try to reframe it to be as small as possible and let the majority of the tension come from character interactions. Tension can come from anywhere as long as you set up the internal logic of the world properly. A gun can either be a fun toy in over the top action films, or the scariest thing imaginable in dramas, and it’s not like there isn’t a precedent for really messed up movies in theme parks (*cough* Escape from Tomorrow *cough*), so maybe something that didn’t involve an underwhelming slasher villain could have been a lot more effective. Maybe two of them get in a fight in one of the attractions and of them breaks a bone or gets injured by one of the props! I could see that working in a movie like this if they would have just taken out of the pointless murdering!
In the end, I can only make a recommendation based on the movie I saw, and frankly this is gonna get overshadowed soon enough; especially with the new Halloween movie on the horizon. It’ll definitely be worth checking out once it gets a home release, but to go to the theater for it? Nah. I liked this movie and think that it should get a bit of a cult following, but the actual film doesn’t quite work well enough to justify a ticket. Now if they make ANOTHER one that DOES understand what works and what doesn’t about this premise, then we might have a movie worth checking out! Heck, it’ll probably be out by next Halloween considering how straightforward the conceit is, and hopefully they’ll get someone with a bit more ambition to helm it. Surely Rob Zombie can’t be THAT busy, right!?