A masked killer transforms a horror-themed amusement park into their own carnival of terror and torment in 2018's Hell Fest. If you missed Hell Fest in theaters, you can now watch it on digital platforms (ahead of its January 8th release on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD), and to celebrate Lionsgate's digital release of the movie, Daily Dead talked with director Gregory Plotkin to discuss his real-life experiences with haunted attractions, making changes to the screenplay, collaborating with producer Gale Anne Hurd, filming at Six Flags White Water, and his ideas for a sequel.
Before we dive into the movie itself, what was your experience growing up with slasher films and haunted attractions?
Gregory Plotkin: I grew up a huge fan of slasher films. Halloween is one of my all-time favorite films. I was really enamored with that film, and I remember taking friends to see Halloween II in the theater for a birthday party, something I would never let my kids do now at that age. I grew up on Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
When this script came across my desk, I was so excited, cause I really just wanted to pay homage to the films that I grew up loving; those really great ’80s slasher films.
I went to haunted houses as a kid and as they became more popular, I was into them, but I just never really just got into the culture of it all. When I started developing the film, I realized there's such a great subculture [around haunted attractions]. There are festivals for haunts, there are conventions for haunts, and I got to do some research around the country at different haunts, and they're amazing! The amount of intricacy and production design and story design is awesome, and I’m a huge fan.
What are some of your favorite haunts that you got to check out while doing research for Hell Fest?
Gregory Plotkin: The Netherworld attraction in Atlanta is phenomenal. I got to spend a lot of time there, and I got to go through the different mazes a few different times. It was actually scarier the next morning when no one was in there, when I got to take some private tours of the places. It's actually almost scary being totally alone, lights on. You kind of get to really see everything and, especially being alone in these mazes, it's kind of freaky.
I went to some great places in New Orleans, and there’s just some really great stuff by the side of the road. It was so under the radar, but you go in, and it's just phenomenal. There are a couple of haunts that were in traveling box cars and they would just sort of move the haunts around from place to place.
Hell Fest had been in development for a number of years before you came on board. When you took on this project, did you make any changes to the original story?
Gregory Plotkin: When I came on, I almost completely changed it. It had been developed by a few different directors and I love the premise of the haunts, but there were some things I just wanted to ground more.
The first thing I pitched in one of my first meetings was the bathroom sequence, which is in the film and was very important to me. We also changed the backstories. There was a much different relationship between the girls and boys. And there was a little brother at some point in the first script that I read.
I think every director just sort of makes it their own. What I really wanted to do was just honor a lot of the places that I have seen, and that was really important to me. I wanted the audience to be able to say, "You know what? I've either been to a place like this or I really want to go to a place like this."
The characters felt very grounded in reality. This feels like the type of people you would see or hang out with at a haunted attraction.
Gregory Plotkin: I really wanted to make them accessible. I think the other really big change was that I'm a very huge fan of strong female characters. My first meeting with Gale Anne Hurd, who is a legend, was amazing. She and I kind of bonded over Ripley, who’s been my heroic type forever. I just love that character.
In the [original] script that I read, the girls were saved by guys, and I just didn't want that. It doesn't feel real, and I really wanted these women to be strong characters that would be able to fend for themselves. So, I tried to create that type of atmosphere. I think my actors appreciated it and we had a lot of fun developing it in that respect.
Did you know that you’d have an R-rating the entire time? This movie definitely goes for it with its kills and practical effects.
Gregory Plotkin: We know we wanted an R, let's put it that way. So, we definitely covered ourselves for the R rating and we shot it hoping we’d get it. The studio was really wonderful in allowing us to explore that. I think people were so hungry for a slasher film that honored the genre and embraced the rating.
And the practical effects were great. Talking with Gale, she went through a list of, "We did practically on Aliens. We did this practically on Terminator. We did this, this, and this." So, it became, "Of course we're gonna do it practically. Why do it CG?"
We had a great crew. We shot the film in 23 days, but we were able to do practical effects, and reset them quickly. Everyone had a lot of fun, and [the actors] were able to see it happen right in front of them.
My understanding is that you had a setup at Six Flags. Can you talk about the work involved to convert what they had into your Hell Fest attraction for the movie?
Gregory Plotkin: We filmed at Six Flags White Water, which is their water park. The Six Flags amusement park wasn't available because of time constraints and so forth, but the water park was closed for the winter.
We had very little prep time, but Michael Perry, our production designer, is a genius. Michael had experience with haunts, having worked on Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, so he was really in tune with everything.
We went in there with a plan. Michael had some really great meetings ahead of time. I had a huge lookbook, about 300 images or so, that I carried with me at all times saying, "I want to do this, this, this, and this."
Then, the huge break for us was that Netherworld was in the process of moving from one location to a new location. So, they had actually torn all their stuff down and they were gracious enough to say, "Come in here and take whatever you want while we're in the midst of our move."
So, we really got to kind of pick and choose amongst their amazing inventory. We were able to really transform this park. Again, it was a water park. Nothing was there.
At the end of the film, it’s revealed that your killer, your “Other,” is not the stereotypical slasher. He doesn't fit the mold of a loner or outcast. Where did that idea come about? Was it something you came up with or was it always in the script?
Gregory Plotkin: It's something I came up with. Basically, the whole idea of this killer to me was… There's so much anger and negativity on the internet. We all use the internet every day, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or whatever it is. I find that some people are so angry, rude, and negative. They say the most awful things when they're hiding behind a keyboard—things that they would never say to a person to their face.
Somehow that became, metaphorically, that the killer wears the mask like so many people hide behind a keyboard. And these are just normal people. People you see at Starbucks and they look like the nicest people in the world, but they'll say just the most awful things online. Somehow, this mask and this killer became that. And I just had this idea that he's a normal guy. He’s not disfigured.
You look at serial killers, and [many of them are], unfortunately, the person next door. You always hear the stories of, "I never thought that person was capable..." And so that's where it came from.
Has there been any serious talk of a sequel or prequel since Hell Fest was released? Do you have ideas in mind for where to take the story next?
Gregory Plotkin: I'm not sure the box office was what people were hoping for a sequel. Everyone's been so wonderful from CBS, Lionsgate, Gale [Anne Hurd]. We have a lot of ideas. I think this is a character that we want to explore. I really want to explore Tony Todd’s character [and the fact that] he owns this place more. Tony is just a phenomenal person and a phenomenal actor. He and I had a lot of conversations about it.
And there’s this whole idea of that mask room was kills that he's done in years past. I have thought through quite a few fun new kills we could employ and some different scenarios. Six or seven years ago, these parks were not as elaborate and intricate as they were today. We have a lot of different geographical locations where we could stage a park. If we're lucky enough to do it, I would love to. But, unfortunately, it's not in my hands right now.