The most interesting aspect of Hell Fest is its setting: a rather large and labyrinthine horror amusement park of sorts, full of mazes and attractions and costumed employers all in the service of scaring the pants off the customers. The exhibits and rides are all elaborate and detailed, in keeping with the increasingly extravagant events that pop all over the country this time of year, making one beg the question: why watch this movie when one can find a real-life horror show to slink through instead?
The truth is, even if you don’t have any such destination near you, there is really no reason to watch Hell Fest anyway. Ostensibly a throwback to the glory days of slasher movies (circa the 1980s), Hell Fest is too calculated in its objectives, missing the grittiness and nastiness of the movies it wants to emulate and coming up with nothing interesting at all to say about the genre 30 years later.
The central idea — that a masked serial killer could get away with literal murder in a horror amusement park because it would look like part of the show — is in theory an interesting one; after all, horror attractions of this sort are a booming business around the country. It could be used to explore our continued fascination with the genre as well as our ability or lack thereof to distinguish between truth and fiction, a sound concept in an age when horror movies are touching on all kinds of social issues.
But despite a few cursory nods in that direction, Hell Fest’s script (which somehow took six screenwriters to cobble together) abandons any pretense of having a subtext or even a text, really. Director Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension) just throws six dull college-age characters into the park and has them wander around for the better part of an hour before anything starts to happen.
Most of the movie consists of people strolling through the park, occasionally getting scared, while the killer stalks them and keeps getting mistaken for one of the workers. The main dilemma for the first half of the movie is whether or not sweet but bland Natalie (Amy Forsyth) is going to hook up with personality-free Gavin (Roby Attal). Even a cameo by legendary Candyman star Tony Todd just feels more like an obligation than the thrilling pop culture flashback it’s meant to be.
The kills, when they come, are about as gruesome as they can get in a major corporate venture (the film is a co-production of CBS Films and Lionsgate), but we’ve seen them all done before in far gorier and more visceral fashion. As for the killer, generically named “The Other” in the credits, his get-up and demeanor are forgettable and any sense of a larger motivation or agenda to what he’s doing — anything to give him the mythic quality of the villains in this types of films — is absent. A scene near the film’s end that gives him the barest hint of a back story has a fleetingly creepy feel, but is too little too late.
Which kind of sums up the whole movie. In an era when films like Hereditary, Get Out and The Babadook are once again using the genre to say something unique about the way we live our lives or the social and familial structures we find ourselves in, Hell Fest has zero to say about anything and fails to even replicate the sleazy charms of the era of genre movies it wants to tap. Save your money and go out instead to a horror attraction in your town — you’ll be less disappointed.
Hell Fest is out in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye