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Hell Fest

Posted October 7, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Gregory Plotkin has recently made a name for himself as an editor by way of the Paranormal Activity franchise, Get Out, Happy Death Day, and… uh, Game Night. Bit of an outlier there, but the editing in that movie was awesome, so whatever. Anyway, Plotkin makes his directing debut with Hell Fest, alongside five screenwriters (that’s including story and screenplay credits), almost all of whom get their first feature writing credit with this one.

And it shows. Five goddamn writers, and they couldn’t come up with a better script than this. For fuck’s sake.

To be clear, I absolutely love what the filmmakers were going for. We’ve got a straightforward slasher flick about a traveling horror show carnival full of staged jump scares and actors in elaborate costumes, and one of the attendants (credited as “The Other” and played by Stephen Conroy) is secretly an actual homicidal psychopath in a mask who’s out to kill people for real. So the victims and witnesses are all totally unsuspecting because everybody thinks it’s all part of the act.

What we’ve got here is a movie about hapless teenagers getting stalked through a haunted maze, trying to find their way to safety through so many literal twists and turns, never entirely sure which jump scare is hiding the actual killer. While this admittedly isn’t a very novel premise, stretching it out into an entire movie is pretty creative and really not a bad idea. Moreover, the scares are nicely paced and presented, with some neat reversals and fake-outs for good measure. It also helps that we’ve got master composer Bear McCreary providing an elegantly eerie score to back up the scares and the atmosphere.

As for the killer himself, he doesn’t really have much in the way of personality. He’s got his mask, sure, but we quickly find out that there are dozens of people throughout the park wearing the exact same mask. Otherwise, he’s known primarily by a pair of scuffed-up shoes and his proclivity for humming “Pop Goes the Weasel” — a song that so perfectly embodies the jump scare, I’m amazed it isn’t a horror cliche.

(Side note: Speaking of cliches, say hello to another obnoxious and uninspired use of the Wilhelm Scream in the climax.)

There isn’t very much to make the killer unique, but that’s kinda what makes him so effective in this context. We have no way to know where the killer is or who the killer could be at any given time. But what’s far more important is that we never see the face underneath the mask. Because the mask is the true face.

The movie is very clear in its theme that we never know what’s lurking beneath any literal or metaphorical mask. You never know which perfectly nice and unassuming person could turn out to be a serial killer, and you never know which charitable sweetheart looks utterly terrifying. Looks can deceive, and our Halloween costumes are an important annual reminder of that. And of course, it’s just plain fun to wear the most elaborate costume you can put together, and to see what other costumers can dream up.

Pretty much every second of this movie — literally from start to finish — is about why we like to be scared. It’s about the visceral adrenaline rush that comes from an unexpected jump scare, followed by the relief that comes with knowing the blood is fake and the blades are rubber. It’s about the challenge of predicting the scares and looking for the zipper on the costume, and the satisfaction of getting that right. It’s about the strength and courage to directly confront fears, both real and imagined. Perhaps most importantly, it’s about overcoming fake dangers so the real dangers are easier to cope with when they come.

To me, this movie perfectly represents what Halloween is all about. At its heart and core, everything I love about the holiday is here. The problem is that while all of this is amazing in theory, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

To start with, for all of these events to take place in the same amusement park on one night, the management would have to be inept to a comically implausible degree. For instance, I’m sure it wouldn’t be this easy for random people to walk undetected and unimpeded into areas meant solely for employees. And I’m confident that such a well-attended and well-staffed attraction would have no trouble immediately finding a corpse lying around, at which point every ride and maze would be immediately shut down, with the flood lights turned on and the effects turned off so everyone inside could exit in a calm and orderly fashion.

Look, I freely admit that I’m no lawyer. But if the management isn’t taking every reasonable safety precaution to meet industry standards, legal requirements, and basic common sense, I’m pretty sure those liability waivers aren’t worth jack shit. Just saying.

Even so, what well and truly sinks this movie is its victim pool. I can’t even talk about them as human beings, much less as characters. We’ve got Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards, Amy Forsyth, Christian James, Matt Mercutio, and Roby Attal playing our victim pool, and not a one of them gives a performance worth a damn. They show zero motivation aside from fight, flight, or fucking. They have basically zero agency in the plot. The dialogue actively steers away from exposition, clearly and deliberately making sure nobody learns the first thing about how our walking targets know each other or what history they have together. I spent 90 minutes with these walking targets and the filmmakers made perfectly sure that not a one of them got a single iota of development or charisma. That’s really kind of impressive.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention horror icon Tony Todd, who got a legitimately awesome cameo role. So there’s that.)

Last but not least, we’ve got a fake-out in the climax that totally and irreparably breaks the plot. It’s not even a fake-out, it’s a kill that nobody could have possibly survived, except that somebody somehow survived it and we don’t know how. It’s like a shark jumped up and snatched a reel of film, which is especially embarrassing upon the recollection that this movie’s director has a background in editing! Disgraceful.

I want to like Hell Fest, folks. I really do wish I could recommend this. The filmmakers clearly had their hearts in the right place, there are some solid ideas here, and the movie could’ve easily been a sweet little tribute to why we need horror entertainment. But I can’t get around how this movie had FIVE. FUCKING. WRITERS. All those people in a room together and we still couldn’t get a functional plot or a single character worth a fraction of a damn. I can’t even recommend this for a fun little home viewing, because heaven knows there are too many better slasher films out there for the same purpose.

If nothing else, I hope this serves as a proof-of-concept for the rookie filmmakers involved and I wish them all better luck next time.

A Simple Favor

Posted October 7, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Even in this day and age, in which no franchise can ever be allowed to die, I think we can all agree that Ghostbusters is now well and truly dead. We’re never getting another movie as good as the first one, we’re sure as hell never getting the original gang back together, and fans the world over have made it perfectly clear that nothing less will be worth their time and attention. Moreover, the influence of Paul Feig in this turn of events can hardly be overstated. And no, I’m not talking about Feig remaking the team into a group of diverse women in an effort to modernize the concept — it’s really fucked up how that was such a dealbreaker for some people (the Chinese government, for example).

No, I’m talking about Feig’s distinctive brand of humor. His rambling brand of comedy, in which actors ad-lib for interminable scenes in a scattershot attempt at making characters who are quirky and lovable. It’s not funny or endearing, it’s just lazy and annoying. It’s a directorial style so invasive that it overpowers any genre and any performance. There was never a chance that Ghostbusters (2016) was going to work as a balanced horror/comedy/adventure when Feig and his cast deliver comedy with all the precision and subtlety of John Rambo delivering 0.30-caliber rounds.

For that matter, this imbalance was also a huge problem with Spy and The Heat. It’s not that Feig can’t make a good spy thriller or a good action flick, because he’s clearly proven that he can — he just can’t make a decent action film that’s also a comedy. This is most likely why neither of those movies ever got sequels. Then again, it worked perfectly well with Bridesmaids — which had the freedom to be a full-on romcom without any obligation to balance that with any other genre — and that movie never got a sequel either. In fact, it’s very rare for comedy movies from any filmmaker to ever get sequels.

And why is that? Because sooner or later, the joke gets old. Most filmmakers can’t keep a comedy premise going for two films, but Feig’s comedy can’t even last for one movie. He has to keep jumping genres in a failed attempt at keeping his style fresh.

So here we are with A Simple Favor, in which Feig tries his hand at a new genre: The semi-erotic mystery thriller. Adapted from the 2017 novel by Darcey Bell (and optioned before the book had even been published), Feig directs from a screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, late of American Horror Story and… ugh, Nerve.

Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, a single mother living off the life insurance payout from her recently deceased husband. She’s a naive romantic and a lonely busybody with too much energy and no life aside from raising her son. So she volunteers for everything and keeps a cooking/crafting vlog, doing everything she possibly can in a hopeless and misguided attempt at getting people to like her. She just wants a friend and a shoulder to cry on. Enter Emily Nelson, played by Blake Lively.

Emily and Stephanie meet through their sons, who go to school together. Emily takes a liking to Stephanie, who of course reacts strongly to any kind of positive attention. It also helps that Emily lives in an opulent house, she has a handsome and loving husband (Sean, played by Henry Golding), she has a wonderfully successful career, and perhaps most importantly, Emily simply does not give a fuck. She drinks. She swears. She has a full-frontal nude portrait of herself in her living room. Yet she’s perfectly calm and put together, every word delivered from her lips with cold and calculated precision.

Basically, imagine the kind of character Sharon Stone would’ve played in the mid-90s, but under Feig’s direction. Though come to think of it, Stone would probably be willing and able to play a role like this at her current age. That could be interesting. I digress.

Anyway, Stephanie and Emily bond until they start calling each other best friends. Then Emily asks Stephanie to pick up their kids — not uncommon at this point — and Emily drops off the map until she’s presumed dead. That’s about the point when Stephanie slowly takes her place as Sean’s new live-in girlfriend, and that’s when shit gets really weird.

At the core of all this is a genuinely thrilling mystery romp. The clues and red herrings are well-placed, the setups are effective, and the payoffs are nicely satisfying, even if they tend to create retroactive plot holes. We also get some non-linear storytelling going on, with effective use of flashbacks for exposition and character development.

The problem, of course, is with the comedy. Feig’s signature brand of aimless and awkward humor stops the pacing dead in its tracks and robs the film of any tension. This is most especially clear in the recurring chorus of Stephanie and Emily’s fellow school parents (played by Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla), so annoying and useless that they completely and totally deflate the movie with every appearance.

But easily the most notable casualty is Anna Kendrick. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a perfect fit for the character on paper, if only she wasn’t working under Paul Feig. Her persona and screen presence match Feig’s style to the point where they bring out the worst of each other in a destructive and self-indulgent feedback loop. Granted, there are a couple of times when Stephanie confronts her supremely fucked-up backstory, and those moments were nicely gut-churning to watch. Otherwise, there was never even the illusion of Anna Kendrick playing a character, just Anna Kendrick going through her usual adorably awkward schtick for Feig. Even when the character is supposedly developing into a stronger and more confident woman, the character was so aggressively, implausibly, consistently chipper that I simply couldn’t buy it.

But then we have Blake Lively, who actually spins the rambling comedic style to her advantage. In Lively’s hands, it’s genuinely hard to tell if Emily has no internal filter, or if every word out of her mouth is deliberate. We can never tell if she really is that awesome, or if she’s a pathological liar. While everyone else is embarrassing themselves by stuttering every excuse and awful joke that pops into their heads, Emily actively looks smarter and sharper with every off-the-cuff remark. I can’t remember the last time I saw Lively turn in such a genuinely compelling performance with a more intriguing character.

Then we have Henry Golding. I’m sorry, folks, I really do want to like the guy. I think it’s wonderful he’s been getting so many chances to prove that an Asian leading man can be just as pretty and boring and useless as any white leading man. But seriously, Golding has so little charisma and screen presence that the filmmakers would have been better off casting goddamn Scott Eastwood as the male lead. Even Charlie freaking Hunnam might have been an improvement.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Sugenja Sri and Rupert Friend, each of whom gets a legitimately funny cameo role. We’ve also got Linda Cardellini and Jean Smart, each of whom get small yet vital cameo roles in the back half. Not that they were awful by any means, but I found myself disappointed that the filmmakers didn’t go for stunt casting in those cases. It would have been so much more shocking and memorable if those roles had been played by Kate McKinnon or Melissa McCarthy or something.

Oh, and I don’t even want to mention the child actors by name. The less said about them, the better.

On a final miscellaneous note, the soundtrack was dominated by foreign-language tracks, mostly in French. I’m not entirely clear why, but it’s a nicely distinctive touch.

Basically put, A Simple Favor is a wonderful script and two solid female leads in desperate need of a different director. I can see how the feminist angle and the socially awkward protagonist appealed to Paul Feig, and he admittedly does great service to both of them while crafting a genuinely entertaining mystery thriller. But it’s all destroyed in Feig’s scorched-earth approach to humor. The mystery thriller is a genre that demands precision, which doesn’t even remotely mesh with characters and a director who uncontrollably blurt out everything they’re thinking.

Any fans of Paul Feig’s work will find a lot here to love and should see it immediately. For everyone else, Blake Lively’s performance and the intriguing mystery plot make this a solid home video recommendation.