Hell Fest (2018)

SEPTEMBER 19, 2018


It's truly happening! After the success of last year's Happy Death Day, I was hopeful that a slasher revival would be forthcoming, but wasn't sure if the lesson studios would take was "PG-13 slashers can work!" and ruin everything. But both Halloween and Hell Fest are rated R, and while the former has almost no chance of flopping (I heard it's tracking to open higher than most of the other sequels even grossed in their entirety) due to its legacy and seasonal timeliness, if folks show up for an original, straightforward body count flick like this, I think my slasher requirements will be met for the next couple years. And they damn well should show up, because this gets a lot more right than wrong, owing more to Halloween than Scream and doing a damn fine job of capturing the spirit of Halloween Horror Night type attractions.

At any given point during any of the dozen or so times I've been to one of these seasonal attractions (in which a theme park - Six Flags, Universal, etc - is redressed with scary stuff and mazes during September and October), I've wondered if a real life murder could go down right in front of me and my fellow punters without us realizing it wasn't part of the act. Clearly, whichever one of the six credited writers came up with the idea wondered the same thing, and that's more or less what kicks off the main plot in the movie. Our killer is stalking a trio of random girls in the park and crosses paths with our hero group, who encourage him to kill the girl, assuming it's just as fake as the giant furry spiders that scared them moments earlier. He obliges, then sets his sights on them, freaking them out and on occasion permanently separating one from their friends... all while the park is open. Unlike The Funhouse or (ugh) Dark Ride, this doesn't cheap out and come up with some convoluted reason for our heroes to be in the park alone with the killer - they're just trying to enjoy their evening, and he's able to hide in plain sight, having donned the attire of the guys in one of the park's signature mazes (if you've ever been in one, you'd know that each ride's "icon" killer appears several times - I must have seen half a dozen Myers in the Universal Halloween 4 attraction).

Not only does this keep the movie from having to strain more credulity than necessary for a slasher (let's face it, they all kind of have to politely request you look the other way on a few points, especially a modern one with cell phones), but it also gives the film a rarity for slasher films: an abundance of solid jump scares! Short of having the killer pop out every five minutes without actually doing anything, it's hard to give an audience those "Boo!" moments in these things without resorting to fake scares, like people inexplicably creeping up on their friends, or the heroine walking backwards and bumping into something, and of course we can't forget the classic "let's crank the volume of a ringing phone" maneuver. These things are tiresome even on first viewing, and make a film easy to avoid going back to, but an audience used to things like Annabelle: Creation and the Insidii might get restless at something paced like a traditional slasher, where you might go a while without anything particularly scary beyond a POV shot or something.

But not in Hell Fest! Since the rides are operational and the kids aren't aware they are in danger, they are free (and right) to keep going through mazes, where our killer usually follows them, but if not the other characters in the mazes pick up the slack (not to mention props that are triggered to pop out at them), and it helps keep the film "popping" in between the kills. Because, let's face it, if he was offing people left and right from the start, there'd be no way to buy that the bodies weren't discovered, which would in turn close down the park. And even if not, there would have to be a way for our heroes to not get suspicious - it's not like Friday the 13th where they can assume they're in another cabin (and of course, they wouldn't have cell phones to ask). So if you were to look at some sort of chart that marked where the kills fell in the runtime, you might sigh a bit as it would look like the film didn't have a lot of "action", but in reality it keeps things moving by letting our characters do what they came there to do, and let us in the audience have that fun along with them. It's a gamble that pays off, at least for me

And it IS fun to hang out with these kids, because - thank the gods - they're actually likeable and, get this, they don't hate each other! If you read a lot of my stuff you'd know how much I detest the seemingly endless trend of having our protagonists be involved in some sort of cheating scenario, where the heroine either cheated with her boyfriend's best friend, or her boyfriend cheated with HER best friend. The point, for lack of a better word, is to give the characters a reason to split up (and, after they've been killed, an excuse for the other people not to think much of their absence, "they're just blowing off steam, leave them alone for a while"), but the writers here found ways to do that without cliched conflict. One guy splits away from the pack to win his girlfriend a stuffed animal from one of the overpriced carnival games, for example - it's the same end result, but in a way that's endearing instead of obnoxious. Why this seems to be such a hard concept for the folks behind any of the films Hell Fest will inevitably be compared to (including, sadly, the new Halloween, as the main girl's boyfriend pulls a Brady and starts kissing another girl) is beyond me, but I was very happy to almost feel sad when someone got killed - no one here "deserved" it.

As for the kills, they might be spread out but they deliver, with the killer (dubbed The Other) having a thing for head trauma, which legit startled me the first time I saw it in action (and then I laughed at the recollection that people were convinced this would be a PG-13 movie). The Other is also a solid addition to the slasher roster; his costume is "basic" enough that it can conceivably be recreated by a half dozen actors in the park, but not so generic that you'd fail to recognize it should he get to appear in a sequel or get his own action figure someday, so it's got one up on the Prom Night remake if nothing else. As for weaponry, he gets lots of points for resourcefulness - I won't spoil all his implements, but grabbing the ice pick from one of the park's sno-cone stands is pretty inspired.

"Why didn't he bring a weapon?" you ask? Well that's because one of the many details they get right is that these parks often have metal detectors, presumably out of fear that this sort of thing would happen. The production built pretty much everything horror-oriented on the grounds of an existing park that they only had access to for a few weeks, and it's pretty damn impressive considering that - as you might expect from an original R rated slasher movie - they didn't have a lot of money at their disposal. The mazes feel very much in line with what you'd find at your park, such as a demonic school and an old timey carnival populated by scarecrow zombie things, and I had to smile at the moment where, despite their "front of the line" passes, they still had to wait for a bit at one of the bigger attractions, as that happened to us on occasion the other night at Universal. Naturally, for the plot to work they have to take a few liberties, such as the fact that the mazes aren't peppered with staff members trying (failing) to blend into their backgrounds and not break the immersion while ensuring no one's up to shenanigans, and no one else ever seems to be remotely near the kids when they're going through the various attractions, but for the most part you'd probably never doubt this was a legit place.

There are spoilers of a sort in the next paragraph, so skip that one if you don't want to know anything about the killer and his backstory!

Still there? OK, one of the things I loved most is that the killer has no backstory, or even a name. And I know I warned about spoilers but the movie kind of "reveals" that it won't be a whodunit as soon as he shows up in the park, because we've only met our group of six heroes (who arrive at the park about ten minutes into the movie) and they are all still together when he arrives - if it's a whodunit, there are no potential suspects, and we see a sliver of his profile which cancels out the rare characters we meet later, such as Tony Todd in what is really a cameo (and should have been kept as a surprise since his one scene occurs like an hour or so in) and an older, slightly portly security guard who doesn't believe our main girl when she starts suspecting something is up. We are given one tiny bit of information about him in the film's final scene, but otherwise he's still a blank slate. If we get a sequel, they can keep letting him be a mystery, or they can start building up a mythology, but for now they did it exactly the way John Carpenter did in 1978 (and even HE had a name and some kind of backstory), so if you come out of the movie complaining that you don't know "Why", you're a bad slasher fan.

Ultimately, my only real concern with the movie (besides committing the sin of offing two characters at once in a low body count slasher - you gotta spread the wealth, even if it works as a shock) is that the climactic battle is pretty short, one of those deals where you "know" that it ain't over yet and the killer's gonna get back up and have a bigger fight, but no dice. It'd be like if Halloween ended on Laurie stabbing Myers by the couch, without the closet scene upstairs, or if a Scream movie ended with only one killer (hehe). The concept behind a chunk of the finale, involving motion sensor scares that are alerting the killer to their location (and vice versa) and our heroine having to turn the tables and stand silently among some mannequins, is inspired and all works good - it's just over too quickly, as if they were afraid of going over 90 minutes (it's a lean 88, right in the ideal territory for these things) and scrapped a second showdown. Then again, maybe they were worried that inflicting too much damage on the guy would put things into supernatural territory, so perhaps if we get a Hell Fest 2 it will be easier to accept.

Otherwise it's an ideal entry in what I call the "B+ movies", where it's doing exactly what it needs to but doing it well instead of just doing it "more". We spend enough time with the kids to like them (the burgeoning romance between the heroine and her crush is legitimately endearing to watch, and both actors play the awkwardness wonderfully), but not so much that we ever forget what kind of movie this is. The kills are gory without being gratuitous or grim, the killer has got the slow-walking/creepy standing around thing down pat, and the setting is used for nearly its maximum potential (I wouldn't have minded a scene of our guy nonchalantly trailing them, without calling attention to it - perhaps filing through a queue a few groups behind or something?). They even find a way to make good use of cell phones! I admit some of my enthusiasm may stem from being so deprived of solid fare as of late, but let's not forget that the slasher sub-genre thrived when it was just keeping things simple and giving people a good time at the movies. I know everyone's got October 19th circled on their calendar, but are you really gonna wait for the entree when you can have a solid appetizer right now? There's room for both. Indulge!

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. I thought it was solid enough, especially considering we're kinda left wanting for this kind of movie, but I hoped for it to be better than it was.


    I'd say that as a slasher fan, my biggest grievance was when it teased a really cool kill, and then...we got a couple more knives in the gut in a movie that already had plenty.

    And that sort of feels emblematic of my bigger problem with the movie. I was expecting it to really take off once it started delivering the goods. That syringe kill got a big reaction out of the audience(which was quite small) and the movie never goes far enough to provoke that kind of reaction again. It just kinda reaches a plateau after a certain point.


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