Directed By: Gregory Plotkin
Release Date: September 28, 2018
Starring: Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus
I love Halloween. It's no secret, and judging from the number of horror films I've written about here to date, any regular readers are probably well aware that the season speaks to my tastes. And outside of the films that gleefully embrace the holiday, few things really embody what this time of year is all about as much as horror haunts.
For nearly a decade now, it's been pretty much tradition amongst my friends and I to visit haunt events, such as Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios or Knott's Scary Farm, where wandering fog-laden pathways in which creatures lurk, waiting to frighten victims, or exploring elaborate mazes where danger could be hiding in every corner is part and parcel to getting us in the spirit of the holiday. Whether they're at big venues, like the Universal Studios-set event, or smaller ones, there's a culture that pervades the whole experience that has established certain expectations and rules no matter where you go.
Gregory Plotkin's Hell Fest is a film made with a clear awareness about what said experience is like. From the security checkpoint its characters have to go through to enter the park to the sliders and stilt-walkers and chainsaw-wielding maniacs that roam the streets of the titular event to the long wait times of mazes, it's obvious that everyone involved in bringing the film to life has actually been to these types of events and love them just as much as those of us who look forward to going to them year in and year out.
Unfortunately, though, said adherence to that very experience also makes where the film veers away from reality for the sake of maintaining its narrative flow jarring to the point that logic is all too frequently thrown out the window, undermining the film's simple, effective premise in a way that's distracting more than engaging. And when I say simple, Hell Fest truly is, as the film's entire plot boils down to a group of six friends, including nervous Natalie (Amy Forsyth), her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards), and the overexcited Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), going to Hell Fest, a traveling horror haunt, only to be stalked by The Other, a mysterious masked killer.
That's really all there is to Hell Fest, which features the group making their way through the scare zones and mazes of the park as The Other picks them off one by one, with an eye on Natalie in particular. On paper, it's a fun idea, and its carnival setting opens the door for all types of clever kills and set pieces that the film sadly never leans hard into; outside of a quick death involving an oversized mallet that’s punctuated by a high striker gag and a sequence involving a guillotine, The Other relies on just stabbing people to get the job done.
And that brings me back to the issues surrounding the film's suspension of logic, with Hell Fest standing as a movie of extreme convenience. For everything it gets right in translating the haunt experience to the big screen, like some of the things I mentioned earlier, all the things it gets absolutely wrong end up serving as flaws in the overall narrative. For instance, Hell Fest itself is a traveling haunt experience, yet everything about it – from just how detailed the rides and mazes are to how absolutely massive an acreage it seems to cover to the sheer volume of people employed – seems like something that would take weeks or months to set up and take down even once, let alone over and over again to travel the country during a single season. But, hey, it's a movie, so I can let it slide so long as everything else within that framework holds up.
But it doesn't. The Other, unable to get a weapon into the park, manages to steal a knife a food vendor leaves right out in the open unnoticed. Later, he uses a real needle and a real fire axe he found within mazes – a liability nightmare, certainly – yet when two characters are looking for their own weapons to fight back against him with, it's all plastic, cheap props, as is to be expected. At one point, a female character spends at least five to ten minutes in a bathroom, going from washing her hair out to drying it to relieving herself, and not a single person comes in aside from The Other.
If you've ever been to a haunt, a theme park, or just anywhere with even the slightest amount of crowding, this just simply wouldn't happen. You're never alone for long, if at all, and yet Hell Fest conveniently isolates its characters in the most impossibly isolated places. Even in the mazes, the characters find themselves separated and apart, fodder for The Other, yet, again, in real life, security is everywhere in one form or another; there are always employees hiding in corners to ensure that people don't mess with the sets or the actors, or even other guests conga lining their way through with you.
The sheer lack of oversight by the park and the convenience of things like actual weaponry being present and easily accessible to guests suggests that Hell Fest itself is something supernatural; that, perhaps, these characters have wandered into Hell itself. But that's not where the movie goes, electing to stay in "a real world" – as much as it can – by the time the credits roll, which only goes to expose how large the holes in the film's logic are simply because they can’t be explained away by some larger, sinister force at work.
And even with all that, it would still be easy to forgive it were the characters themselves worth connecting with, but they're all so one-dimensional that it's just impossible to. Two of the male friends, Quinn (Christian James) and Asher (Matt Mercurio), are frat bros dialed up to 11, and Taylor’s rebellious, punkish attitude is always "on" to the point that she becomes a walking caricature, all their loud, tiresome personalities making up the type of group that one would actively try to avoid at events like this, more interested in overreacting to things around them and drawing as much attention to themselves as possible in a way that's absolutely grating. And if I wouldn't even want to stand in line behind these people for a half hour, why would I want to watch them for nearly two hours?
When the film's characters are paper thin and so much of what The Other does relies on too heavy a suspension of disbelief, the minds of the audience end up wandering to places no good film should allow them to go. During the aforementioned bathroom scene, for example, said character opens a bathroom stall only to be grossed out by what she sees – which feels all too real – only to move on to the next stall, drop her pants, and sit down on a dirty toilet without using a seat cover. It's such a small thing, but it sticks out because of how much laughter it elicited while watching it unfold, unaided by the fact that she uses toilet paper to clean herself up only to start touching her face and hair immediately after, something that had everyone more audibly disgusted than any of the violence The Other commits throughout the film.
This sequences leads into the reveal that The Other is also in the bathroom, just outside her stall's door, but the distraction of this unintentional humor robs the events that follow of any tension, and that's the ultimate problem of the film as a whole. All the convenience, all the rooting for The Other to just start getting to taking these characters out, all the wondering about why these characters aren't truly concerned that their friends are disappearing, and so on adds up and overwhelms the film, which simply isn't strong enough to overcome its faults.
That's not to say that everything is a total bust. I dug Bear McCreary's funhouse score for the film. A cameo from horror icon Tony Todd as part of a stage show feels like just the right type of enjoyably cheesy thing one tends to see at haunts. There are moments of humor that work, such as when the film cuts between two couples making out and Natalie being a fifth wheel, and genuine tension, as when The Other kills another Hell Fest guest in front of Natalie and she can’t figure out whether it’s real or fake. Even visually, the film effectively captures what these types of events tend to look and feel like, however broadly.
But sadly it's just not enough, as Hell Fest is weighed down by too many negatives and miscalculations. When one leaves a great haunt, there's a sense of excitement about what could possibly be in store for next year, but with Hell Fest, which wraps up with an attempt to entice its audience back for a future sequel, the end result is a film you catch once and likely never revisit again, especially when there are so many better options out there in the horror genre, a true waste of a slick, full of potential concept that, hopefully, someone, someday can make better use of.
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