Hell Fest is unapologetically a slasher film, bringing together six teenagers to be stalked, slashed and brutally offed by a masked killer who never speaks, only mumbles a child’s song and has no apparent motivation other than the need to kill. This fact has been harped on by nearly every reviewer — it’s derivative and has no explanation for the villain. Obviously, none of them were around for the slasher cycle. This is a film that has no need to be elevated or called anything other what it is — a popcorn horror movie that’s out to entertain you by any means necessary. It’s exactly what I hoped for — a competently made film with plenty of jump scares and no shortage of the red stuff.
Hell Fest is a traveling horror theme park that — for now — is making its home in Cincinnati (that said, the film is shot in Atlanta, using the Six Flags Over Georgia’s Fright Fest decorations and the haunters from the Netherworld Haunted House). A young girl is separated from her friends and soon murdered by The Other (Stephen Conroy, who has quite the resume for his stunts). As the camera pulls back from her corpse, we notice that she’s now become a prop in the haunted house.
Natalie (Amy Forsyth, who braved the No End House on the SyFy show Channel Zero) comes back to town to ger former apartment where her best friend Brooke is now living with Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus, Dumplin’). Our heroine doesn’t get along with the new roomie and the feeling is mutual. But things have been off lately — instead of partying, she’s only cared about school and work. But this weekend, she’s here for a good time, which means that she gets set up with Gavin as the girls get VIP wristbands for Hell Fest, along with Brooke’s boyfriend Quinn and Taylor’s man Asher.
Natalie first notices The Other in line, as a girl insults the haunters and yells at the killer. He steals a snow cone knife and stalks her through a maze as the girls are seperated from the boys. In the last section of the haunt, that very same girl appears and they think she’s just one of the actors. The Other kills her in front of Natalie, who demands that she just get it over with, not knowing that she’s seeing the real thing.
The killer stalks the group as they move through the massive Hell Fest, including stealing photos of Natalie and Gavin making out in a photo booth. As the teens move into the more intense sections of the park — the Dead Lands — The Other begins offing them one by one. But he’s also pretty inventive, stealing Gavin’s phone to stay in touch with Natalie. As the group rides into the next section of the park, it’s revealed that there are many Others and it’s simply a mask worn by employees.
However, after a haunter dressed as The Fly sprays Natalie with goo, she cleans herself up in the bathroom while reconnecting with her best friend Brooke. She texts Gavin and hears his phone beep in the next stall, revealing that The Other has been after her the whole time. There’s a great part here where she’s drying her hair and we just see him show up and touch her hair and disappear that’s incredibly well shot.
They try and inform security, but the guard tells them if he arrested every employee that scared someone, there wouldn’t even be a Hell Fest. While all that’s going on, Taylor agrees to be beheaded on stage as part of a magic show. The girls believe that the killer is really going to get her, but it’s all part of the act…until the killer reveals himself backstage.
Taylor escapes, only to be sliced up in public, causing a panic and the two final girls — Natalie and Brook — go on the run from The Other.
The best part of this film? Tony Todd plays The Barker, whose voice is in every ride and attraction, as well as appearing on stage for the magic show. It’s always a joy to see him in any film and his distinctive speech pattern made me applaud from my couch.
What really pushed this movie forward for me was the skill that director Gregory Plotkin (who edited Get Out and Happy Death Day) and cinematographer José David Montero displayed. There’s plenty of moody fog and Bava-esque lighting, as well as the kind of stalk and slash jump scares that I felt the Halloween remake was sorely missing.
Hell Fest is nothing more than a slasher in the best traditions of the genre. And that’s exactly what it should be. There’s an eye decimating kill that will please Fulci fans, someone’s head gets smashed open with a hammer and all manner of folks are placed in danger by a killer who could really be anyone. Sure, there could have been more subtext. Of course, there could have been more motivation. But really, all we want out of a haunted house is to show up, be scared and have plenty of fun. This movie does exactly what it was made to do and does it quite well.