Hell Fest (2018)
Rated R for horror violence, and language including some sexual references
Score: 3 out of 5
The advertising for Hell Fest sold a no-nonsense slasher movie that, while boasting retro flair coming out of every orifice (to the point where they put together an '80s-style grindhouse trailer that was honestly what sold me on it), didn't go out of its way to copy the slashers of the Reagan years, at least not as far as the film's aesthetic is concerned. And that is exactly what it delivered, warts and all. The plot and characters are paper-thin beyond the hook of the setting -- what if Friday the 13th was set at Halloween Horror Nights? -- but it was still a well-made slice of unpretentious slasher goodness, with a handful of memorable kills, a very fun climatic chase sequence, solid actors to give the underwritten characters more life than they probably deserved, and a clear affection for both horror movies and the sort of Halloween events that this film is based around, enough to make up for the deficiencies in its script.
I wasn't kidding about how simple the plot was. It's about six college kids, the girls Natalie, Brooke, and Taylor and their respective boyfriends Gavin, Quinn, and Asher, who attend a massive, traveling Halloween amusement park called Hell Fest filled with haunted houses and roaming scareactors. There, a mysterious masked man credited only as "the Other" has arrived with murder on his mind, and when he hears our protagonists making some snide remarks, he targets them for death. That's it. No ifs, ands, or buts. The protagonists' relationships are given the barest framework in the opening twenty minutes, but after that, they're one-dimensional to the core. Take the setting out of the equation, and you have what is quite possibly the most archetypal -- or, if you're a bit more cynical, cliched -- slasher story ever made.
If you're looking for smart, witty writing or anything beyond your basic slice 'n' dice, look elsewhere. This is a movie that is completely dependent on the cast to make things work, given that the script gives them all but nothing to work with in terms of character. Fortunately, the actors they got here did more than enough to pull it off. It was the women who got the greatest focus, with Amy Forsyth as Natalie and Reign Edwards as Brooke making up the central pair but the MVP undoubtedly being Bex Taylor-Klaus as Taylor. Having previously been one of the saving graces of MTV's adaptation of Scream (at least until the big reveal of season 2 ruined her character), Taylor-Klaus plays her character as a flirty tomboy prone to both snark and PDA with her boyfriend, and is by far the most entertaining character in the entire film. Between this and Scream, if they ever made a live-action version of the '90s cartoon Daria, Taylor-Klaus would be my first pick to play Jane. That's not to say that the men in this film were any slouch, either. The actors playing the boyfriends were good enough to keep their own characters interesting, even if they existed primarily to be cannon fodder, but it's horror legend Tony Todd who steals the show. He only physically appears in one scene, but his unmistakable voice permeates Hell Fest as the announcer on the loudspeakers, giving safety instructions and warning guests to watch their back lest they get scared to death. He lends a touch of old-school horror atmosphere to the film that greatly empowers its secret weapon.
That, of course, is Hell Fest itself. Setting the film at a Halloween event gives it the perfect excuse for every cheap jump scare that it throws the viewer's way: they're coming from scareactors who are paid to harmlessly scare the main cast. The film heavily recognizes what it has going for it in the setting department, and uses it effortlessly to build a carnival-esque atmosphere that mixes the fun of a haunted house with legitimate bite. The jump scares are initially presented as the fun and games that the protagonists are expecting, making the genuine malice of the Other stand out that much more, eventually combining the two to leave viewers on their toes as to where the threat will come from. The Other is a figure who is pointedly inspired by Michael Myers from Halloween or Billy from Black Christmas, a man whose face we never see and whose name and motive we never learn; the only time we see him not in slasher mode is at the very end in a scene that only raises more questions about him than it answers. I loved this about him, that the film didn't spend any time laying down his backstory. Some slasher killers, like Pamela Voorhees in the original Friday the 13th and the various Ghostfaces in the Scream films, have been elevated by their backstories, but for every one of them, we get films like the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween sequels that stripped all the menace from killers whose motives were once as simple as "child killer comes back for revenge" or "dude's just fucking psycho". Hell Fest believes in the "keep it simple, stupid" rule: there's a dude with a sharp object, he's got a mask that lets him blend in with the crowd, and he utterly demolishes everybody who gets in his way. The kills are few in number compared to Jason Voorhees' greatest hits, but while there are a bit too many simple stabbings, there are some potent ones mixed in, with such highlights as a hanging in a room full of fake corpses where nobody would recognize the body as real, a head caved in with a mallet from a "test your strength" carnival game (complete with a satisfying "ding!"), and a painful eye gouging with a syringe that homages a similar scene from Halloween II, as well as a hilarious and humanizing fake-out where the Other finds out the hard way that his choice of murder weapon was sub-optimal. The Other is all too human, but as he whittles down the cast and propels the film to a terrifying chase in a Hell-themed haunted house maze, he establishes himself as a dangerous presence.
The Bottom Line
Hell Fest is wholly derivative of other slasher movies, but in this case, the difference between an homage and a ripoff is the quality of the finished product, and this film manages to pull off the former with a fun, well-made slasher story that respects the classics while still standing on its own two feet. It does little new, but it does what it does mostly right, and I can see it becoming a minor cult classic in the future.