Halloween is right around the corner. The season for creepy costumes, pumpkin carving, and candy collecting is nigh. Above all, it’s the season for haunted hayrides, menacing mazes, eerie escape rooms, and spooky spectacles. These attractions are more popular now than ever. Forbes reported on the numbers: Halloween spending reached $8.4 billion in 2016, and it was estimated to reach $9.1 billion last year, so the timing is perfect for a big-screen horror film that’s set almost entirely in an amusement park on All Hallows’ Eve.
Hell Fest falls back on a familiar formula: put archetypal, good-looking young people in peril on a dark night and let the body count commence. The “Hell Fest” of the title is a traveling carnival that features a labyrinth of horror-themed rides, diversions, and themed rooms, and attracts thousands of fans wherever it goes. It’s all fun and games at first, but our heroes soon find themselves trapped in a bloody abyss of terror when a masked serial killer turns the theme park into his own macabre morgue. Using a mix of urban legends and facts based on actual crimes, the story unfolds in tried-and-true sequential order.
While there is a paint-by-numbers feel to the tale, the cast is likable and definitely worth watching. Sweet Natalie (Amy Forsyth) pays a visit to her best friend, party animal Brooke (Reign Edwards), unaware that Brooke’s obnoxious roommate, Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), is in town for the holiday weekend. Natalie was looking forward to some quiet time, and is disappointed when Brooke and Taylor’s boyfriends Quinn (Christian James) and Asher (Matt Mercurio) make plans for them: VIP, front-of-the-line tickets to Hell Fest, an extreme carnival headed up by an enigmatic, sharp-dressed man (Tony Todd). Although she’s not a fan of frights, Natalie is convinced to join the group when she finds out that her crush, Gavin (Roby Attal), bought her a ticket. While the characters don’t put any new twists on old tropes, the actors playing them are above par. Natalie is a heroine you’ll care about, and Taylor, while somewhat maddening in her over-the-top personality, is given gravitas thanks to nuance provided by Taylor-Klaus.
The masked murderer, known as The Other, is purposely nondescript. His MO is to blend in with the scare-actors working in the park and in the mazes. He wears a mediocre mask, a plain work-shirt, hoodie, jeans, and boots. He’s not huge and hulking, nor does he crack wise with biting quips to taunt his victims. There’s an advantage to that I suppose, but I prefer slashers with spirit and flair. When it comes to the kills, they are of the R-rated variety—heads are smashed and throats are slashed—but aside from a few effective chase scenes, there’s not a lot of suspense leading up to them. Award-winning composer Bear McCreary’s sinister score does help to elevate anticipation, and the production design by Michael Perry (who was nominated for an Emmy for his work as an art director on the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand) is impressive.
Before directing Hell Fest, Gregory Plotkin helmed one feature film (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension) and edited many others (his work on Get Out and Happy Death Day is stellar). He’s certainly no stranger to the genre, but Hell Fest feels more like an editor’s film than a director’s. It hits all the expected beats at the expected times and there are montages aplenty, but there’s a lack of style and no personal stamp on the film that I could discern.
There are surprisingly few movies that take place (almost) entirely in amusement parks; among them are Carnival of Souls, The Funhouse, Final Destination 3, and Dark Ride. The most effective use of the setting tends to be within the context of a larger story (Something Wicked This Way Comes, House of 1000 Corpses, Zombieland) because no matter how many different haunted houses there are, there’s only so much that can be done within those walls. This means there’s bound to be more filler than frights (hence, Hell Fest’s many montages).
Hell Fest is a solid, workmanlike horror flick. It’s fun and I did enjoy it overall, but it’s not the kind of film that will be able to hold its own against this season’s other heavy hitters.
Movie Score: 3/5