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The Show Must Not Go On

Tony Todd
Tony Todd
CBS Films
 89 Minutes
Directed by: Gregory Plotkin
Starring: Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards   
Hell Fest

With the considerable number of horror films hitting the theater screens every year, not to mention the enormous number of lesser fright fests that just go directly to video, you would think that the people who actually make these movies would have some idea of what is actually scary. Alas, far too often that’s not the case, with directors falling back on inserting overused jump scares as many times as they can fit such moments into the movie. The most recent example of this type of non-horror is Hell Fest, a film that takes a genuinely good premise and quickly reduces it to standard slasher fare.


Hell Fest is another example of the serial-killer-on-the-loose-stalking-clueless-teenagers genre that dates back to the original Halloween. However, this time the killer, who wears a red hoodie and a mask that looks like it partially melted from being stored too close to a fire, can operate more or less openly because both he and his prey are customers at the titular amusement park. Hell Fest is a traveling theme park whose attractions are all designed to scare the patrons. Among those Hell Fest attendees are the six main characters, all college students who barely manage to be one-dimensional. The best-developed character is Natalie (Amy Forsyth), the obligatory thoughtful heroine, who has arrived for a weekend visit with her BFF Brooke (Reign Edwards). After about two minutes of banter about old times, which serves as the movie’s only effort at character development, they head off to Hell Fest, along with gratingly obnoxious comic relief Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and their three dates, whose names might as well be Moe, Larry, and Curly.


As Natalie and friends make their way through the park, they encounter a variety of actors pretending to be characters from famous horror films, such as Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These faux monsters pretend to threaten the patrons and dismember other actors playing typical horror film victims. While I can’t imagine any park customer over the age of six being scared by an actor playing Leatherface running towards them in a park filled with fake monsters, this actually proves to be one of Hell Fest’s more ingenious plot devices, since it sets the stage for one of the movie’s best scenes.


That scene occurs when Natalie is making her way through one of the many funhouse mazes in the park and sees the red-hoodie killer slash a girl’s throat right in front of her. Naturally, Natalie is unnerved, and equally naturally, her friends don’t believe her (“it’s just part of the show”), and even more equally naturally, the killer soon develops a fixation on Natalie, resulting in his chasing Natalie and her friends for the rest of the film.


From that point on, Hell Fest becomes a series of set pieces in which one or more of the main characters find themselves alone with the killer, and mayhem ensues. The unique amusement park setting actually makes some of these encounters more credible than what usually occurs in horror films (allowing someone with a large knife to follow you around isn’t incredibly stupid if you think it’s all fake). Still, too many of these sequences disappoint because, after the potential victims realize their actual danger, the ensuing chase and occasionally gory kill are far too routine. Plus, since the movie takes place in an amusement park that’s essentially just an assortment of funhouses and mazes, one scene soon resembles the next other than some occasionally effective set design. And, as shown in the scene below, director Gregory Plotkin apparently feels the need to throw in a jump scare, in some cases every few seconds, just because he can.


Hell Fest has six credited screenwriters, and, based on what I can tell, it appears that one of those six may actually know a thing or two about horror. So, every few minutes, something genuinely unsettling occurs, such as the killing that takes place in front of Natalie. One such good moment happens when Natalie is frightened by the appearance of the red-hoodie killer, only to realize that she’s standing in the middle of about a dozen similarly dressed individuals because the costume is one of the park’s standard killer outfits.


Indeed, the filmmakers have actually stumbled on something that would have made for an incredibly unnerving horror movie. The hooded killer never unmasks, but in a better film, he would at times, leaving Natalie and friends uncertain as to which seemingly innocent-looking fellow park patron is actually a psycho killer. Similarly, the film occasionally toys with the notion that the protagonists are never really sure what is real and what is merely acting. Some of these concepts make their way into the movie, but director Plotkin is never able to exploit them properly.


The actors in Hell Fest, with two exceptions, are completely unregistering non-entities, even Natalie the film’s supposed heroine. The first is Bex Taylor-Klaus, who acts as if she had chugged a case of energy drinks before the film’s opening scene. Ostensibly a likable character, she was so annoying that I was actively rooting for the killer to dispose of her as quickly as possible. The second notable actor is the always welcome Tony Todd, who has a cameo as the announcer of a magic act. His two minutes of screen time are more enjoyable than the other ninety.


Hell Fest is far from the worst horror film I’ve seen, but it is frustrating, even more so because its amusement park setting hints of the far superior Funhouse, directed by Tobe Hooper. Of course, Hooper understood horror in a way that most of the people associated with Hell Fest do not, and, as a result, a chance for something truly memorable turns into a slasher routine with characters and goriness somewhat less memorable than the usual. As a result, watching Hell Fest becomes an experience somewhat akin to spending a couple of hours in purgatory.

In this clip, Amy Forsyth and Reign Edwards are chased by the killer.

Read other reviews of Hell Fest: 

Hell Fest (2018) on IMDb