“This guy keeps following me around. It’s so creepy.” This is, more or less, the opening line of Hell Fest, delivered in voiceover over the opening credits. With this first line, the entire plot of Hell Fest is described. This guy, in a mask, keeps following around the group of people that we are asked to suffer through for 90 minutes. And it is, purportedly, creepy.
Hell Fest is Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse by way of The Houses October Built (note: neither films alluded to are very good). Using a horror-themed amusement park as its setting, people are harassed by an anonymous masked man who appears to the characters as an employee hired to scare. Of course, it wouldn’t be a horror movie if that was all it amounted to.
Before we get to the theme park—“Hell Fest,” if you couldn’t already guess—we meet our trio of femme heroes. Natalie (Amy Forsyth) arrives at the door of her childhood friend Brooke (Reign Edwards), who is now roomies with Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a person who Natalie has an aversion to for some unexplained reason. The three of them discuss drinking, hooking up, and dressing like sluts (because, according to the film, Halloween is the “one time of year you’re allowed to let out you’re inner slut”).
At least the film shows enough restraint to not actually dress their female characters up in hyper-revealing garb. It is clear that the script wants to drum up a female empowerment narrative in these early moments, put a level of self-awareness in the male gaze-y slasher tropes. But the dialogue doesn’t add a whole lot of irony to its discussion of how Natalie “wants the D.”
There is a desire, perhaps, on the screenwriters’ parts for the female characters to be able to express sexual desires without being tormented by creepy men (the entire film, in fact, is about a creepy man tormenting them). This message is all well and good—in fact, a deconstruction of feminine sexuality in horror is a welcome change of pace most of the time—but the script doesn’t do the work to send the message. Unlike another 2018 film, Revenge, which takes the male gaze in the rape-revenge film and flips it to empower the female character, Hell Fest takes what could be a timely dialogue on female representation in horror films and abandons it as early as possible in lieu of stabby-stab horror action.
In short, director Gregory Plotkin and the screenwriting team on Hell Fest care more about the hell than the fest. There is no celebration to be had. There is no real female empowerment; we merely watch as characters, both female and male, get sliced open willy-nilly.
There is little cleverness in how these eviscerations are staged and executed, either. There is one clever piece of logic factored into the film—it involves a sharp beheading object, and I will say no more—that shows that the creative minds behind this story understand the genre and its logical shortcomings. But otherwise the film tediously ambles through the theme park in wait of the next killing.
And the film is a literal jump scare factory. Being inside a scare theme park, the film is allowed to throw in numerous false jump scares into its plot. Most of the “scares” in the film are part of the fake attractions. When the killer comes into the fold, there aren’t really scares at all. Just contrived murder set pieces.
These contrivances run as deep as the plot itself. It becomes clear that the killer in the film follows a strict set of rules, and those rules are defined by a committee of screenwriters. Want to put our heroine in danger so that the audience stays on the edge of their seats? Of course! Can’t kill the heroine, though…so the killer just knocks her out and walks away? Perfect!
Then there are the phone rules. 2018, and horror still hasn’t figured out how to maneuver around phones. This script decides to ignore conventional logic. These characters are millennials; they are definitely sending texts left and right. But when they need to call 911…no service, obviously. Even when a text has been sent seconds before. Because texts and phone calls don’t depend on the same signal or anything…
Yes, these sound like nit-picks. But they are straws that break the camel’s back. When the rest of the film is bland and hollow and meandering, you are left looking at the minutiae for entertainment. And that minutiae was clearly not considered by the team behind the movie.
Imagine seeing a giant hammer. Imagine an entire film pauses to make sure you see it. Then imagine that hammer used for the least creative means. Chekhov’s hammer, and it bores you to death.
That is Hell Fest. No one is interesting. Nothing is novel. 90 minutes pass by unimpeded by fear or intrigue. You leave the theater to forget the film tomorrow. Sure, you recognize Bex Taylor-Klaus from the mostly underwhelming Scream: The TV Series and hope to see her energy used correctly in the future. But otherwise the images moving across the screen fade almost as fast as they are projected.
Hell Fest: D+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)