Hell Fest was directed by Gregory Plotkin (Crimson, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension), written by Seth M. Sherwood (Light as a Feather, Fruitcake), Blair Butler (Polaroid, The Invitation) and Akela Cooper (The 100, M3GAN) and stars Amy Forsyth (We Summon the Darkness, A Christmas Horror Story), Reign Edwards (The Bold and the Beautiful, Love You Anyway), Roby Attal (Red 11, Partner Track), Bex Taylor-Klaus (Scream TV series, Riley), Christian James (Cerebrum, All American), Matt Mercurio (Mile High Escorts, Ten), Stephen Conroy (The Host, Carter & June), and Tony Todd (Sky Sharks, The Changed). It’s about a group of friends touring a horror-themed amusement park, only for them to find that one of the scare actors isn’t a performer like they thought.
The Plot: Slashers had matured by the mid-1990s, having been roasted by Scream, there was nowhere else to go with the formula except for the remake/reboot route. After that ship had sailed, some evidently yearned for the flatness of the subgenre to return, and Hell Fest aimed to please. If that’s what you want to call it.
Seasonal attraction “Hell Fest” has been opened for business, with Natalie (Forsyth) being brought along by friend Brooke (Edwards) and roommate Taylor (Taylor-Klaus). Each of the girls brings along a counterpart; Gavin (Attal), Quinn (James), and Asher (Mercurio) respectively pair up and meander around the grounds for an inordinate amount of time before any of the writers decided to bring a vague sense of narrative into play. Setups for each section of the park are present but aren’t linked to progression and are indisputably secondary to the endeavour, making them a bit moot.
Eventually, the amusement park’s mascot takes on a murderous realism, as “The Other” (Conroy) takes one out of the group, which is about as far as the story really goes beyond repeating the cycle. Quite simply – there’s not much here to talk about aside from lapses in logic; the most obvious of which is a stunt pulled at the Barker’s (Todd) show which probably won’t go unnoticed by even the most checked out of audiences. All told, there’s nothing to tell, making Hell Fest a faithful return to flimsiness.
The Characters: Because the story is all but nonexistent, it’d be reasonable to think that the listless participants in the festival’s activities would make some impressions; positive or negative, but aside from some pleasant awkwardness between the two of them, there aren’t many.
Natalie and Gavin, hollow as they are, at least have some chemistry. All of the other characters have been trying to make a couple out of them but Natalie’s studiousness has kept her away from social affairs of any sort. What exactly makes the two of them so perceivably compatible according to the others is anyone’s guess, but they nonetheless share a believable reservation about reacting or stepping out of line in front of each other.
Plotkin’s other screen fillers are poor renderings of old genre standbys. Though Brooke at least seems like a decent character to observe, Hell Fest doesn’t pay her any mind. Perhaps that’s a better option when the others like Quinn and Asher are generic dude-bros that jump from cliche to cliche: horniness to alcohol, alcohol to rowdiness, rinse, repeat; and Taylor’s equal level of banality is different only in Taylor-Klaus’s overacting compared to the thoroughly unremarkable work of James and Mercurio.
A step back even compared to past genre offerings; the characters of Hell Fest barely even qualify for that label. Natalie is fine but everyone else lacks definition from the actors, forget the script.
The Horror: Terror should come easy for a movie set in a horror festival, but Hell Fest only gets the bare minimum level of fright because it only goes for said minimum, relying on memories of slashers of the past without thinking about doing its own thing.
Plotkin does an okay job at building some degree of unease here as The Other gradually closes the gap between himself and the main characters, starting off with what appears to be a detailed demonstration of a stabbing in one of the many haunted houses, but everyone but Natalie shrugs it off. Motive can be inferred here, presumably since our leads saw the event – they’ve gotta go – which is a feeling that escalates to a point just shy of comical.
Problems and plateaus arrive in the horror department once the first of the group is taken out. Hell Fest doesn’t know what to do with itself between each kill, resorting to the rule following scare actors as they do their jobs. Since the movie has already established a look of shots containing the real killer, subsequent scenes don’t have the impact they should. Not helping the cause is Natalie who has a true genius moment when she figures out that the employees come out from the black curtains on the sides of the walls. Whoda thunk it?
Most of the kills aren’t even worth waiting for. The best of the bunch is the first one, which is easily the most intense scene in the movie full stop. Because the fun of slashers is normally derived from the deaths, repetitive gut and eye stabs just don’t cut it (pun if you want it), just like the horror theme overall in Hell Fest.
The Technics: With a highly desirable shooting location at its disposal and a competent editor at the helm, Hell Fest is an authentic and largely acceptable film from a production standpoint. Limitations arise due to other factors, but it’s got a good look to it all.
Being obsessed with its own set dressing and production design gets Hell Fest a fair distance through its runtime before the monotony truly sets in. Production designer Michael Perry (It Follows, The Curse of Bridge Hollow) did a fantastic job at recreating a true-to-life horror attraction with plenty of blacklights, props, game stands, and rides in a Six Flags that was closed for its off-season. Plenty of what was used to make the fictional festival was on loan from real ones, making the authenticity palpable.
Plotkin and David Egan (DC League of Super-Pets, Dave Made a Maze) do a good job of getting coverage between setpieces with their editing too, even if the kills seem to be cut down from their original form. Additionally, the pacing of Hell Fest suffers, but not because of the runtime, which is only 89 minutes, but rather because of the writing. The three screenwriters (and another three credits pertaining to the story) did an abysmal job of making the movie feel like a real walk through a horror festival since it stops and starts continuously to focus on adlibbed dialogue (I can only imagine the final script being about as long as this review) that rarely lands.
Hell Fest nails its look thanks to its production design and has a thin but watchable couple in the making but it just can’t bring anything else to the table once the first act has passed. It recalls the days of old, but it’s hard to think of a reason for doing so.