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Hell Fest

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.

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