Here’s perhaps an embarrassing question: what exactly is Rooster Teeth? I don’t mean that inquiry in the literal sense, as even though I’m not previously acquainted with their work, I at least might be able to tell someone asking said question literally that, in the broadest terms, they are a relatively young, but massive entertainment company dedicated to the various tendrils of geek culture whose content associates itself with comedy. Instead, I mean to ask, what is their thing? Among various other media entities with the same or a similar missive and target audience, and outside of an incredibly loyal fan following, what makes them unique, or what is their voice? Especially considering whatever they have is particular enough to be a successful arm of Otter Media, itself a subsidiary of the gargantuan WarnerMedia multimedia conglomerate and thus kingpins AT&T?
On a similar note, what exactly is Blood Fest – again, not a literal question. Though I recognize that few people outside of those who might have seen it at either SXSW or any of the various Fathom Events locations on August 14th would be able to reply, the readily available details are that it is a Rooster Teeth-produced horror-comedy written and directed by Owen Egerton about a trio of self-proclaimed horror movie buffs attending the titular event with locations throughout its carnival of carnage celebrating various subgenres, only to find out its leader’s plans are more dastardly than the average Halloween Horror Night. Breaking everything down to the specifics, its intended identity is a meta-fueled pastiche throwback not only cycling through subgenres, monsters and references with rapturous glee, but also offering its own esoteric subtext about horror as a cultural entity, how it stands today and what qualifies as true horror.
But as a film seemingly intending to have something meaningful to say, I can’t help but still wonder what the hell it’s trying to say, particularly with regards to horror movie fandom, arguably its largest philosophical target. The crux and intended weight of everything Blood Fest perhaps wants to stand against arrives in the form of two monologues coming from Egerton himself, playing the festival’s charismatic big-top ringleader Anthony Walsh. In his first and only address to the feverish masses, Walsh laments over perceived negative changes to common iconography – “our vampires glitter, our zombies have become soap opera stars” – and the alleged transmogrification of the genre from a taboo breeding ground for fans to something devastatingly “common,” explicitly referencing franchise merchandising and making subtler digs at safer commercialized studio content, complete with Trump and populist politics dog whistles – “Want to make movies scary again?” Walsh asks, followed by immediate applause.
From the language he uses here, in addition to his final reminder that those who “know the rules” might escape his horrendous hellscape, and more importantly as the film’s chief antagonist, he represents the vocalized embodiment of the toxic gatekeeping rationalities plaguing all sects of nerd ephemera, horror included with not-so-implicit swipes at Twilight and The Walking Dead, the former especially needing no explanation as to its particular relevance in this context. Whereas those familiar with many a genre fiction’s explicit proclivity for self-awareness and overall cynicism toward horror’s conventionality may yawn with reflexive disinterest, since lampooning tropes has become as much a trope of eye-rolling post-modern fare, it’s relatively intriguing watching yet another exercise in genre savvy use such as a springboard for demonstrating and comically exaggerating the malignancy of those who consider themselves and their opinions the height of niche intellect.
This admirable undercurrent, however, runs into some clumsy inconsistencies regarding the film’s core characters and the rest of the fodder surrounding them, namely with regards to the significance of rules. Know the rules and “you just might make it,” Walsh proclaims, and throughout their navigation of his maze of the murderous macabre, Dax (Robbie Kay), Sam (Seychelle Gabriel) and Krill (Jacob Batalon) hang upon those words as if they were holy writ. And while they continue on, those who outwardly disregard the genre entirely, appropriate its aesthetics not for passion but rather artistic gain or both all meet gruesome ends – though, to be fair, two of them fall on the more pleasant side of the spectrum than one other stereotypically snobbish hipster film director-type. Even if it weren’t intentional, the implication nonetheless remains that only those who know the genre inside and out are worthy of it.
There’s a faint hint at the idea of breaking the rules being what saves the protagonists from an untimely demise, instead, but it isn’t followed through on well enough to eliminate the film’s heartfelt, but ultimately misguided ode to the glory years and forms of the horror canon. Not to mention, Walsh’s second monologue pays outdated lip service to the peak days of Moral Majority and their propagandist notion of violent media’s adverse influence upon impressionable minds, and the climax reveals an antagonistic presence even greater than Walsh’s signifying these archaic ideologies made manifest. Such a twist may have played well in the New Christian Right’s heyday of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but in today’s political landscape instead comes across as a disconnected mind drastically late to the party.
It’s deflating watching something so in tune with the genre and its simultaneous critique of a certain part of fandom and reverence for the rest of it, and by proxy the genre itself, mess up its integral commentary when few other, if any projects have directly addressed it, especially considering the various and admittedly many scenes when Blood Fest is a genuinely endearing wander through genre madness. Madcap set pieces loaded with practical effects and gore complement the moments when Egerton’s script lovingly embraces the gonzo nature of his albeit familiar Jurassic Park-cum-The Cabin in the Woods premise (the many details of which are best left to surprise), and even some slower moments when Egerton allows his cast to ham it up prove nearly as entertaining for those who are patient with the film’s alternating tonal assemblage. Some may find these latter scenes exponentially unnecessary and pace-stifling, particularly since they add little to no value for its purposefully paper-thin protagonists, but they just may get sucked back in by the film’s methodical journey through one realm of horror iconography after another.
Though in additional fairness, the narrative’s progression is perhaps a tad too deliberate, particularly during these scenes of downtime, sometimes risking engagement for the sake of cramming in inside baseball-style genre fact drops and on-the-nose, somewhat superficial meta nods to various facets to filmmaking and storytelling as art. Additionally, even when it transitions back into gloriously gory mayhem and vintage camp, it continues riding a nebulous divide between too-big-for-its-britches genre/fandom deconstruction and down-to-Earth, crowd-pleasing cult movie entertainment. You’re never quite in the know as to whether Egerton and the rest of the Blood Fest crew want to be cleverer than the next rib-poking love letter or safely no more ambitious than the rest considering the violence it asks and allows you to enjoy guilt-free, and not only do these disparate identities not come together the way Egerton and Co. might hope, it’s kind of disappointingly ironic that a movie so sure of its genre chops can’t solidify a sufficient reason to have its cake and eat it, too.
It’s an odd movie to feel so indifferent towards given an apparent passion for the genre it intermittently lampoons and valorizes, hoping its equally knowledgeable audience will respond in kind to a palatable, progressively-inclined nerdiness, particularly those equally frustrated with the superiority mindsets among some dividing a subculture that ought to be as welcoming as it thinks itself in a broader cultural context. You’d like to and may give it points for trying, perhaps even argue the supposed unfairness of taking too many points away due to any perceived failure in intellectual consistency, but if you come to the table talking of new ideas, you better have the details supporting them fleshed out enough to stick. In a way, Blood Fest uses its love for horror and the several forms it takes to distract us from said emptiness, and to an extreme degree, that’s as disheartening a con as attending a festival intent on murdering you for your own adoration.