Gregory Plotkin’s throwback slasher Hell Fest has a pretty killer premise: A group of college students hit up a Halloween theme park (like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, just off-brand enough not to get them sued) where they’re pursued by a knife-wielding killer clad in black and sporting a mask that roughly looks like the Necronomicon from the Evil Dead films.
There are some occasionally brutal kills — a Test-Your-Strength mallet providing the single best one — and the leads, including Channel Zero’s Amy Forsyth, are all likable enough, though they’re saddled with some occasionally tinny dialogue. It has all the makings of a solid October night at the movies, so why didn’t I like this at all?
Well, for starters, I’m always super wary about theme park films — there’s only so much showing people having a such a visceral experience like a roller coaster ride that I can take without losing interest, even if it’s inherently cinematic — and Hell Fest doesn’t really know what to do with its attractions or even the very character of the park itself in a unique or particularly interesting way (not to mention that a solid and scary film could act as its own roller coaster ride without the extras). The latter half of the film devolves into maze after maze where our leads will be caught in, running from the killer, and it’s hard to tell them all apart, especially when they simply become jump-scare bait. It’s aesthetic is pulled straight from the Halloween display at your local Hot Topic, full of generic “horror” bullshit that snuffs out what few moments of light remain, including a fun appearance by Tony Todd. And, perhaps even worse, the park’s staff is only represented by one security guard, so we don’t even get to enjoy the chaos that properly ensues once they discover they have a killer in their midst.
That, in fact, is the main problem, one that nearly every modern slasher has suffered from: The faceless killer just doesn’t really work very well in this context, and it feels more like laziness than anything else on the part of its six credited writers and storytellers. I get it: There’s no way you want to compete with the most obvious figures in this genre — Jason Voorhies and Michael Myers for two — but that’s not an excuse for you to wholesale take that imagery without providing the slightest hook. The reasons those two characters work is because, well, they’re characters. They have backstories and motivations, and their sense of presence comes entirely from that — you know why to fear them. Our killer here is a nameless garden-variety psychopath, whose supernatural speed and strength seem out of place in this particular approach. If you’re going to the faceless whodunnit route, your other characters have to pick up the slack, which the film isn’t really equipped to do, so the empty deaths and the anonymous killer make the entire film utterly generic.
Watching Hell Fest is like going up a roller coaster, and pausing right before the big drop, only to realize that the ride is stuck and that park staff is walking up the side of the coaster to come bring you back to the start. It’s one lame ride.
Featured image by Jackson Lee Davis via CBS Films.