At the very least, there have been worse excuses to make a $5.5 million slasher flick for nearly 2,300 theaters-worth of patrons, and perhaps even worse excuses for starting one’s annual October horror binge a few days early – though this still isn’t a very good one. With six different pairs of hands and eyes credited as either creating the story or crafting the screenplay from its details, it’s perhaps a little surprising that Hell Fest could squeak by so many creative individuals, not accounting for the inevitable bevy of producer notes, and still come out this hollow. Admittedly, that surprised feeling might not last very long as one considers how well films composed and written essentially by committee tend to perform qualitatively. Lest we forget the knowledge that the various producers and higher-ups at Lionsgate and CBS possibly wouldn’t be too worried about general audience reception affecting box office performance given the low price tag.
We all possibly knew what were getting with Hell Fest. Gregory Plotkin’s only other directing credit was 2015’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, and most new slasher films these days, not just those that are Hollywood-produced, are mixed bags of varying low-budget foulness. Was it so wrong to dream, anyway? Before anyone would have seen any concept or promotional art and production stills, the mere premise was enough to provoke even the slightest curiosity, and it doesn’t take the most seasoned slasher savant to understand the dark cleverness behind it. Slasher films often partially thrive on the authenticity and overall effectiveness of their settings, from summer camps to middle America suburbia. Not only are large-scale horror festival theme parks an intriguing selection for what they offer creatively and aesthetically, as well as their never being used before (aside from Blood Fest), there’s something perversely titillating about a slasher flick taking place not in an isolated location where the characters only have themselves to help, but rather a public gathering in which the characters are surrounded by strangers who don’t believe they are truly in danger.
The material additionally proves fertile ground for meta-observations about the cynicism and awareness with which many filmgoers bring to the latest cinematic horror bonanza, having been so desensitized to the usual, archetypal acts and physical manifestations of deranged villainy that they wear their toughness on their sleeves. There was also the potential significance of a plot that meaningfully exploits concepts of belief in victims, particularly of female characters often subjected to overly sadistic treatment in such films, but all of these contemplations are too intelligent and thoughtful for a movie like Hell Fest. In the end, any semblance of originality and stimulation is too intelligent and thoughtful for a movie even called Hell Fest. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect these things of a film whose intentions are overtly to provide filmgoers a throwback to classic slashers and all of their glorious simplicity, but nostalgia can only get a film so far when there exists such a profound creative void in all facets of storytelling and filmmaking.
Slasher flicks don’t require every single aspect of both be near ideal, as they are intentionally products hoping to latch onto and take advantage of our most primal instincts. Poor acting, dialogue or a generally formulaic nature can be easily forgiven or overlooked if the rest of the film surpasses baseline expectations in a few more categories: a solidly executed premise, properly used setting, snappy pacing, relatable characters with distinguished, if one-note personalities (assuming one doesn’t have time for depth and development), memorable villain design and clever or otherwise fun kills. Often times, it’s a matter of getting the most important of these requirements right rather than all of them down pat to provide a positive viewing experience, however, the same is true in the reverse. In spite of what it genuinely gets right, Hell Fest still remains one of those slasher films that falters under the combined damage of what it gets wrong.
At 89 minutes, Hell Fest is at the very least well-paced enough to not continue overstaying its welcome the moment you realize you won’t be getting much more than what you’ve seen. The setting proves visually interesting throughout with a season-appropriate aesthetic and design sure to make any Halloween junkie feels right at home, with enough extras and delightfully costumed park actors to provide extra feelings of authenticity. It unfortunately reeks of missed opportunities, though, in context with the premise the further along the plot proceeds and the steadier the core protagonist group are picked off one by one. Leading up to the climax, there are only three kills and they all take place away from the main hubbub of fest patrons in either mazes or employee-only areas, disappointingly forgoing the potential dark titillation of cannon fodder characters being hacked to pieces in front of a watchful, yet unsuspecting public.
All but one of said kills, involving a character’s head and the hefty mallet of a ‘test your strength’ hammer game, offers any creativity or a sense of guilty B-movie fun, while the rest are mundane stabbings that almost intentionally elude even a modest spout of blood or display of viscera. One of those, to be fair, involves a hypodermic needle through a character’s eye for those easily upset by this kind of horrific gag-slaying. It additionally doesn’t help that the film cheats us out of a decapitation placed directly at the climax of the narrative just before proceedings go off the rails, only for the relevant character to get stabbed after successfully escaping guillotine bondage. And if all of this sounds as unexciting and blood pressure suppressing as it is, wait until you see the nameless slasher’s comically uninspired hoodie, baggy jeans and boots with warped and roasted Greek tragedy parody mask get-up.
To be fair, for as little as we know about him aside from a bafflingly pointless revelation just before the end credits teasing any potential prequels and/or sequels, his character has more definition than any of the core group we follow through the story. Their collective and individual flatness goes above and beyond mere one-note archetypes, because even archetypes have their way of assigning personality to each individual and differentiating them from their soon-to-be slain counterparts. When it comes to Hell Fest’s protagonists, you can’t even so much as apply any type to who they’re supposed to represent, as eventually you’ll find that conventional stock characters like “The Final Girl” and “The Scholar” have been swapped out for “The Main Girl,” “The Other Girl,” “The Other Other Girl Who’s Discernibly More Punk,” etc. Sooner rather than later, these vague descriptors will supplant their actual names in your memory, as well.
The actors who portray them are fine, if not especially noteworthy enough to keep this particular issue from growing worse as the narrative progresses, and while this admittedly isn’t the best sort of material with which one could truly display their thespian skills, their presence and occasional energy doesn’t hide how shapeless and featureless the plot containing them is. It’s not particularly fulfilling writing a review that reads as bullet point after bullet point as opposed to creating one’s own story about the viewing experience, but Hell Fest is so dreadfully disengaging a by-the-numbers slog that you’re practically left without a say in the matter. It’s simply a film that “happens to you” much like encountering a masked psychopath in a park full of people pretending to be masked psychopaths happens to you, and I can hardly think of a good, nay tolerable slasher flick that wasn’t involving in some way – even if it involved us merely through a single slow-motion clip of some character’s head actually being lopped off.