Studio: Phase 4 Films
Director: Lou Simon
Writer: Lou Simon
Producer: Lou Simon
Stars: Norbert Velez, Aniela McGuinness, Todd Bruno, Gema Calero, Giordan Diaz, Tom Stedham
A reality show prank goes horribly wrong when a practical joke turns an unstable man into a murderous slasher.
A teaser trailer for “Hazmat” summarizes the movie’s concept in five sentences: “In the 1960’s, the government secretly experimented with chemical weapons. In 1969, a fire in the lab killed 138 men trapped inside. Some say the building is now haunted by the men who died. In 2013, a television crew goes inside to film a practical joke on a disturbed young man. What can possibly go wrong?” Quite a bit. And that includes things going wrong on both sides of the camera.
“Scary Antics” is a faux reality show that snatches ratings by humiliating marks dubbed “chumps” with fright filled practical jokes designed to put some color in the victim’s shorts. Adam has had enough of his lifelong friend Jacob’s constant brooding and creepy behavior since the death of his father. Melanie describes Jacob as “dark and really gloomy.” Adam’s girlfriend Carla adds that she would not be surprised if Jacob turned out to be a serial killer. In weighing these observations about the disturbed man, it makes perfect sense that staging phony murders in a building Jacob believes to be haunted would be a smart idea, right? Of course, the prank cracks Jacob completely. He dons a containment suit and gas mask, grabs a fire axe, and becomes a real serial killer now known as “Hazmat.”
That might be an okay launch pad for a slasher movie, but that is all it is. “Hazmat” takes a premise and confuses it for a full story. What passes for a plot is little more than a thin justification for 80 minutes of mediocre mayhem.
“Hazmat” is so upfront about its premise that it feels like a red herring. The too obvious setup creates an idea that a smarter revelation must be around the corner that could redeem the film before the credit scroll. A fair slice of time is spent on a backstory for the chemical factory involving the death of Jacob’s father, a disfiguring accident, and rumors of paranormal hauntings. “Scary Dave,” the host of “Scary Antics,” also has a partly developed biography of tension with certain crewmembers on his production team.
With these threads comes the thought that maybe things are not as straightforward as they seem. Hazmat wears a mask, after all. Is it really as simple as Jacob having a screw loose and his personality flips to become a mass murderer? Perhaps something supernatural is at play. The facility’s dark history could be having an influence. Or maybe Jacob was never even the real mark. Considering the discord behind the scenes, could the crew have set up “Scary Dave” for the ultimate table turn?
None of these possibilities turn out to be the case. The film really is just Jacob/Hazmat killing the “Scary Antics” cast and crew with an axe, and that is not a spoiler.
For an equally brief moment, “Hazmat” flirts with complicated moral dilemmas when the crew is forced to consider using potential victims as bait and they ignore cries of help in order to protect themselves. These quick scenes melt into missed opportunities for developing drama as asides glossed over in favor of focusing on the axe swinging frenzy.
The heart of the issue is a roster of personalities so slow witted that they are impossible to root for. One character makes a break for the back exit in an effort to go for help while the others remain barricaded in the office. He even makes it all the way to the door. While any other person would leave nothing but a Road Runner dust cloud by continuing to tear out of the house of horrors, this fool stops in the doorway and talks to the camera so that he can update everyone caught in the control room about his progress. What he actually does is create the perfect chance for Hazmat to catch up and put a blade in his neck.
No one can find his/her way out of the rectangular building without a map. And even when multiple characters have that map in their hands, they still read it incorrectly and end up lost. The only person who is able to navigate the supposedly labyrinthine hallways with any success is Hazmat himself, even though he is wearing a gas mask and is operating in the dark.
The screenplay’s answer for making the victims relatable and sympathetic is to give them the exact same family man status. “Scary Antics” actor Tim has two kids at home. Dave the host states that he does the show to support his daughter. A/V technician Steven twice refers to his two little ones. Even Gary has a moment to add that a pregnant girlfriend makes him an expectant father.
Uneven performances across the cast and from individual actors rounds out the clunkiness. Some roles, such as Adam’s girlfriend Carla, are entirely lifeless. Other performances, including Tom Stedham as Steven, are believable but marred by random moments of stilted line delivery. Stedham mutters “oh no” as if a drop of spaghetti sauce just stained his favorite polo, instead of in horrified response to witnessing another brutal and bloody homicide. The performances rarely take the time to emote anything of substance. If they are not running, hiding, or gasping, the actors simply spit out words to move things along.
Things come full circle when the end credits launch with an obnoxiously throaty death metal song. This is the moment when “Hazmat” confirms that it has only followed an outdated formula for routine horror entertainment without applying any unique passion of its own.
Review Score: 35