The simple, smart premise of Hell Fest turns a haunted attraction into a masked killer’s playground. The murderer blends in with the haunt’s actors, who only pretend to want to murder horror-loving patrons of the themed carnival. The naturally chaotic setting full of frights leaves potential victims vulnerable and provides cover for the slasher as he stalks his prey.
Though the film isn’t terribly inventive or scary beyond this intriguing central conceit and the five credited screenwriters struggle with the group dynamics of the potential casualties, it’s a fun, well-paced slasher. This is a fine way to kick off a horror fan’s Halloween viewing season.
(Probably) future final girl Natalie (Amy Forsyth) visits best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards), whose roommate is fast-talking horror superfan Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus, an energetic standout). Natalie and Taylor have a contentious history that’s hinted at yet never explored or utilized for tension, in just one example of the superficial grabs at character depth. At least they have something; the three dudes that accompany the girls to Hell Fest are virtually indistinguishable beyond who they’re hooked up with.
It’s not that we need to care intensely about these people before they’re sliced and diced, but sloppily-written half-measures leave the characters stuck between sympathetic individuals and recognizable archetypes. It’s neither particularly jarring nor rewarding to see any of them disposed of. A mutual crush between Natalie and Gavin (Roby Attal) is flat and uninteresting, but it does lead to a neat sequence involving text notifications.
The production design and sudden, violent slashing is where Hell Fest shines. The park itself looks and feels authentic, with crowds being besieged by cackling clowns and chainsaw-wielding performers. There’s also a progression to the mayhem as the central group makes its way through the attractions. Early mazes are cheesy, filled with blacklights shining on arrows taped on the floor, marking a path sure to be interrupted by masked figures jumping out from behind curtains. When the situation gets more serious, the design of the mazes becomes more realistic and scarier as well.
The look of the killer – credited as “The Other” though that moniker is never stated – is efficiently creepy. S/he wears a hoodie, boots, and a plain brown mask that looks like a melting paper mache zombie face. An elusive motive ups the creep factor, and some information provided in the final act adds a bit of understated social commentary about The Other and its macabre activities.
Director Gregory Plotkin indulges in ultra-violence with heads smashing, needles through eyes, and the like, without lingering on viscera in a way that drains the fun from the experience. An editor whose credits include Get Out and Happy Death Day along with this film, Plotkin keeps the action tight, aside from a set piece involving a guillotine that could use some tidying, and the forward thrust smooth even if there’s nothing seriously terrifying or tension-rich.
A prologue that’s basically a short film version of what’s to follow sets expectations for us and serves as a urban-legend-like story to spook visitors to Hell Fest. The first kill in the park is very well-done in the sense that we know it’s “real” while the characters view it as very believable theater. There’s a nice balance of that suspension of disbelief throughout, and Plotkin doesn’t push it to the point where the characters become overly stupid for the sake of the plot. They remain just generally not very bright, doing things like leaving a wounded killer wounded on the ground instead of finishing him off.
While gleefully hitting the expected slasher beats in an entertaining way and staging the action in a rich, horror-friendly environment, Hell Fest is an enjoyable horror circus worthy of a Tony Todd cameo as master of ceremonies.