HELL FEST: Poster Cropped for Featured Image

When I was somewhere around 10 or 11 years old, I went to a HELL FEST lite style haunted house somewhere in Northeast Connecticut with my younger brother and one of my mom’s boyfriends. I was… shall we say… a child coward. I could not bring myself to actually go into the haunted house. (My younger brother, for the record, did go.) It turns out there is a place scarier than inside the actual spook exhibit. That would be waiting inside a car by yourself when the ghosts, zombies, and chainsaw aficionados wandering the parking lot notice you.

At fifteen, I attended a different Halloween event, this one in an old store in downtown Hartford. While my best friend and I waited in line, a witch approached us rasping, “Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiim.” Given we are both Tim, I nobly pushed him under the bus. I whispered, “I think she’s talking to you,” and took a big step backward. It turned out she was actually his cousin working a seasonal job. This was funny when my heart stopped beating somewhere in my throat.

My point being, I have an extensive record of being terrified by haunted house style amusements before even entering them. And yet I went to HELL FEST anyway.

HELL FEST: Natalie, in yellow
Amy Forsyth gets her club on in HELL FEST. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

The Idea Behind HELL FEST

Natalie (Amy Forsyth) works hard and rarely if ever, plays at all, nevermind hard. That said, her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) has finally lured her away from her studies for a visit. First up on the long weekend is a trip to the enormous seasonal amusement park/carnival/circus Hell Fest along with Brooke’s roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus NOTE: Taylor-Klaus identifies as non-binary so, for the sake of uniformity and clarity, the actor will be referred to with they/them pronouns for the rest of the article.

The character, however, identifies as a woman. Therefore this reviews uses she/her for the character.) Natalie remains convinced Taylor hates her, Taylor remains convinced Natalie is a wet blanket. Meeting them at the park is Brooke’s boyfriend Quinn (Christian James), Taylor’s boyfriend Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Gavin (Roby Attal) who everyone seems to be pulling for Natalie to at least hook up with.

Unknown to them, also at the park is “The Other.” The Other murdered someone at another Halloween “Fright Fest” style amusement park the year before. He apparently takes it VERY personally if young women at such events do not find the hard work of all the actors scary. When he encounters such a woman, he stalks and murders them in the park. Natalie becomes his latest target when she mocks him, convinced he is just part of the fakery.

From there it is on. The Other breaks with his usual MO, apparently taking this one especially personal. One by one, he targets Natalie’s friends first to isolate her before he gets around to her.

HELL FEST: Taylor, Quinn, Brooke, and Natalie
Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James (back to camera), Reign Edwards, and Amy Forsyth discuss if eyeball thing is The Orb in  HELL FEST. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Writing HELL FEST

HELL FEST comes to us courtesy of three writers Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper drawing on a story from two others, William Penick and Chris Sey. This many proverbial chefs in the proverbial kitchen typically do not act as a positive omen. In defense of that cliché, the movie is pretty standard slasher fare. Non-verbal personality-less killer? Check! He stalks a cadre of attractive 20-somethings as they joke, makeout, and then, too late, scream and fight their way through the film’s running time? Absolutely!

On the other hand, the quintet of creatives has written six likable characters, a rarity in the slasher genre. There is a genuine sense of friendship amongst them. Even where there is tension — Taylor and Natalie — the relationship evolves and grows. In fact, the way those two bond feels accurate to how people in college on a big night out can “find” friendship. When it comes to slasher films that is no small feat.

More often than not, viewers find themselves annoyed with the protagonists. Often it gets so bad they end up cheering for the killer to eliminate the cast with creative brutality. The dialogue is nothing incredible but it feels natural and age-appropriate without overreaching on the slang. It feels recognizably present day without being stamped for immediate expiration. I also appreciated, largely, the script’s pacing. Two deaths seem too hastily staged, one literally next to the other. Overall, however, the script nicely teases out deaths. Moreover, the order of the kills nicely subverts genre expectations.

HELL FEST: The Doctor!
This handsome fella is but one of the attractions at HELL FEST. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Casting The Leads of HELL FEST

As alluded to above, the lead cast does a good job. They take each of their characters beyond the dumb unlikable stereo/archetypes that often clog slasher films. I especially liked Taylor-Klaus’s take on the overly enthusiastic friend. They lace the character with big and small reactions that lend her depth, ensuring that Taylor can be irritating at times but you end with genuinely enjoying her.

The awkward chemistry between Forsyth and Atall is convincingly lowkey as well. They find that space between high school and adulthood where college “dating” lives, the place where the panic of “I can’t let him know I like him” still lingers, albeit in a lesser form.

HELL FEST: Brooke and those masked people
Reign Edwards meets some new friends in a scene from HELL FEST. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Casting The Rest of HELL FEST Call Sheet

Really the only supporting player that matter is The Other, the mask-wearing boogeyman of the piece. I apologize for the lack of actor identification, but according to online sources, he goes unnamed in the cast listing. However, I would swear the end credits said otherwise.

Anyway, The Other’s face is never visible beneath the masks he wears. For the majority of the film, he dons a sort of wooden looking number that recalls the bizarre schlock horror movie THE GRANNY which is interesting but allows no movement beneath it to register. As a result, he ends up with limited movements including head cocks, “shhhh” motions, and confident unbroken strides.

Even the film’s ending that aims to alter our perception of the killer fails to make him particularly memorable.

HELL FEST: The Other
The Other really would like to know what you think of his recent renovation in a scene from HELL FEST. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Filming of HELL FEST

I am actually far more familiar with director Gregory Plotkin’s work as an editor and assistant editor than his directing one of the umpteen PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels. From what I understand his installment is considered the least of them, but he acquits himself rather well here. He nicely utilizes the funhouse backdrop to escalate the tension, inverting the formula to make us anticipate haunted house scares and delivering the killer periodically instead.

His grasp of geography, however, is pretty dubious. First of all, Hell Fest has to be like 3 times the size of Six Flags New England. At one point, the camera shows us it stretching into the distance, literally without end. In practice though, the mazes and rides seem stacked up against and on top of each other. Instead of utilizing the mazes’ layouts to build tension, Plotkin never properly defines them.

It isn’t to say there is no tension to the scenes in the maze, only that they are entirely derived from the fact that a killer is stalking them and not at all from the setting. I don’t have much to say about it, but it feels important to mention Plotkin LOVES gels. Nearly every scene once in the actual attraction is saturated in reds, yellows, blues, or an unrelenting swirling mix of colors. Gore fans will likely leave the film unsatisfied as, beyond one head crush, it is pretty minimal.

Fans of creative kills will likely feel mixed. There are a couple of interesting murders involving various park elements. However, mostly the kills are delivered via bladed weapons. However, the creative skills that we do get I quite liked. They made sense given the surroundings but still registered as clever.

HELL FEST: Asher and Quinn
Matt Mercurio and Christian James find the skulls a-plenty in HELL FEST. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

That’s a Wrap!

HELL FEST is not what I would call new. “True” horror fans will likely find it not particularly scary, not nearly bloody enough, and too conventional in its murders. For this coward, however, I found myself surprisingly enjoying it. I enjoyed the characters and their interactions. The use of a haunted house attraction as the setting was pretty smart and led to a good mix of tension and earned fear releases.

The villain was not particularly creative but I kind of get a kick out of the fact that his whole motivation resides in people not properly committing to the bit when it comes to letting themselves be scared. The film’s coda involving him is something of a non-event to me, but I’ve noted it has kicked up a lot of dust online from both pro and anti-camps so that might be worth seeing to find out your feelings on it.

So, yes, ultimately, this guy who has had a frightful history with haunted house attractions says you could do worse this Halloween season than getting your spooks from HELL FEST.

One Comment

  1. […] you of tales from Halloween movies both frightfully good and terrifyingly bad. (And remember, HELL FEST is still out there being a perfectly decent slasher film if you need that itch scratched.) And […]

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