Studio: CBS Films
Director: Gregory Plotkin
Writer: Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, Akela Cooper
Producer: Gale Anne Hurd, Tucker Tooley
Stars: Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tony Todd, Roby Attal, Christian James, Matt Mercurio
Six unsuspecting friends face true fear when a masked murderer infiltrates a Halloween haunt theme park.
Not that one Hollywood project wouldn’t intentionally step on another’s neck to be first to the finish on a trend du jour. But with the feet-dragging usually done getting a script to the screen, it’s generally impossible for a studio to put anything through a development pipeline fast enough to play catch-up.
Snide cynics can be quick to call one of two similar films a ripoff. More often than not though, we’re talking about what’s more kindly called “parallel thinking.”
That’s how we ended up with two Christopher Columbus movies, “1492: Conquest of Paradise” and “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery,” releasing within two months of each other in a 1992 market when moviegoers didn’t even want one. 1998 more infamously brought us “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” also within two months of one another. The Columbus movies at least had the 500-year anniversary of their namesake mistaking the Bahamas for India as an excuse for existence. How Hollywood ended up with duplicate space rock disaster movies is a bit more challenging to parse.
Horror fans got their own dose of dueling duality in 2018 with “Blood Fest,” a fun fright film about friends stalked by multiple madmen in a wild Halloween theme park, and then “Hell Fest,” a far less fun fright flick about friends stalked by a single killer in a ho-hum Halloween theme park. Though decidedly different in tone, deeper details, and entertainment value, audiences saw these single-sentence summaries as close enough to choose sides over which is the “better” of the two “horror haunt run amok” movies. I’m here to tell you it isn’t even a close comparison. “Blood Fest” (review here) is Muhammad Ali to “Hell Fest’s” Glass Joe. By a country mile.
It’s always a bad sign when three different writers are credited with crafting a straightforward slasher that runs under 90 minutes. For the record, those three writers are Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper.
It’s always a worse sign when three more writers are credited as coming up with the story, which is no more complicated than “masked killer terrorizes six friends.” For the record, those names are William Penick, Christopher Sey, and Stephen Susco.
Let’s afford the benefit of the doubt by assuming there’s no possible way it took seven heads (including director Gregory Plotkin) to come up with what “Hell Fest” became, which is a thriller as beige as they come. Let’s blame only half of them and imagine that the ideas conjured by the first trio were so unbelievably outrageous that some suits said, “nah, bring in three more people to dull everything down to something palatably pedestrian.” I can’t think of a more plausible scenario to explain how this many people became creatively involved in something so formulaically flavorless that a film school freshman could have drafted it in a weekend.
I’ll say this for the eponymous Halloween theme park featured in the film. If Hell Fest ever set up shop in my neck of the woods, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Not for the novelty, but for the unbelievably accommodating convenience of impossibly individualized entertainment no matter how massive the crowd.
I stopped attending Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights when the wear and tear on my patience outweighed the fun factor. $100 per person to spend two and a half hours in line for each two and a half minute maze simply doesn’t scream, “what a fantastic way to celebrate the season!”
Hell Fest is just as packed as Halloween Horror Nights. Throngs of enthusiastic patrons excitedly crowd every cranny of each cattle queue and midway path, hooting and hollering like a drunken college campus amped for a music festival weekend in Indio. Yet every single one of these people who aren’t part of the film’s main sextet inexplicably disappear when it comes time to enter a maze, use a locker, or take a trip to the restroom.
Imagine being able to walk at your own pace through every attraction, never once butting up against anyone who entered ahead of you, or being bumped into by someone who entered after. Now imagine being able to take your time, doing whatever you wish, without a single park employee supervising over a security camera or nagging you with a flashlight to “move along!”
It gets better. How would you like six, count ‘em six, full minutes alone in a public bathroom to gab with a girlfriend and then dry your hair with a blower bizarrely mounted two feet above your head without a single stranger ever interrupting to use the facilities herself? Curiously, people crawl all over Hell Fest in every exterior shot, but those same crowds vanish into air thinner than the plot whenever space needs to be made for the heroes and heroines.
Set aside the wildly inaccurate representation of how Halloween haunts operate. “Hell Fest” offers plenty of reasons to roll your eyes that aren’t related to logistical ludicrousness.
Quick, if you’ve seen “Hell Fest,” name any one of the film’s friends off the top of your head. Can’t do it, can you? “Hell Fest” staffs itself with cursory personalities who gently coast primarily on photogenic appeal. About the best thing to be said for the protagonists is that they are good enough for basic B-movie work, although you’re barking up a bare tree if you expect a third dimension to anyone’s depth.
Speaking of plainness, the anemic antagonist, dubbed ‘The Other’ for whatever reason, is the dry Saltine cracker of slasher movie villains. At a time when genre movie PR folks love to prematurely tout “the next horror icon” in press releases for instantly forgettable films, it’s almost refreshing that “Hell Fest” doesn’t even leave its feet to whiff an air ball at a basket of boredom. I can get behind the Michaels Myers mystery of a faceless killer with no known motive acting solely as a delivery device for death. What I can’t understand is outfitting him in an American Apparel hoodie and nearly nondescript mask. Does “Hell Fest” want ‘The Other’ to be drably indistinct?
So the premise is pfft and the characters are too. Can “Hell Fest” be redeemed by some imagination in its style or inventiveness in its kills?
It could have been, but it isn’t. The next time a debate heats up about R ratings versus PG-13, pin up “Hell Fest” as the poster child for a pointless R. The film puts up at least a pair of moderately gruesome kills. But the death toll stays low at six, making it mostly meaningless to pinch in thirty seconds of gore when a PG-13 path would have ended at the same destination.
Loaded on long sequences of walking through room after room while yawns pile up far faster than bodies, “Hell Fest” isn’t even paint by numbers. It’d be more apropos to liken it to one of those “coloring” books for preschoolers where they merely rub a wet marker over a white page until it fills itself in, then promptly fades back to empty space as it rapidly dries.
Review Score: 35