Hell Fest might just lead the next slasher resurgence — that is, if there’s one on the way. The golden age of slashers has come and gone, and even calling it a golden age is kind of misleading considering the undisputed big hitters Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Scream (1996) were released years, even decades, apart.
There’s been rumblings of a resurgence over the past ten years or so, thanks in large part to Adam Green’s lively Hatchet series, which began in 2006 and whose fourth and strongest installment Victor Crowley was surprise-released in 2017 after being filmed in secret. Likewise Tragedy Girls, Happy Death Day, Cold Prey and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane all make a strong case for the modern slasher.
Hell Fest, on paper, sounds interminable. In fact, if you were unlucky enough to stumble across The Funhouse Massacre on Netflix then the idea of another horror movie set at a haunt likely fills you with dread. Late last year, the supremely underrated Anthony DiBlasi released his own take on extreme haunts a la the infamous McKamey Manor with Extremity. Hell Fest, by comparison, is more in the vein of a Howl-O-Scream-style theme park haunt. It’s more fun than soul-destroying.
The flick was actually filmed on location in Atlanta at Six Flags’ annual FrightFest event, which adds a considerable amount of authenticity (The Funhouse Massacre, on the other hand, looked like it was filmed in someone’s backyard — not that haunts such as Scream-A-Geddon, which takes over a farm in Florida every year, don’t have a certain charm, but I digress). There are plenty of real-life scare actors and performers on hand as a result to wander around and spook visitors.
Among the revelers are Reign Edwards’ Brooke, her randy roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and their boyfriends Quinn (Christian James) and Asher (Matt Mercurio) respectively. Tagging along reluctantly is our heroine, Natalie (A Christmas Horror Story‘s Amy Forsyth), who’s been talked into going by long-time, but little-seen, BFF Brooke but is really there hoping to catch the eye of the sweetly shy Gavin (Roby Attal), who’s also scored them VIP passes.
The setup is relatively simple, much to Hell Fest‘s credit. Director Gregory Plotkin, working from a screenplay credited to five people, understands that the draw for horror fans is the thrill of being at the event itself. And man, does it really feel like you’re at Hell Fest. The camera swoops in and out of various cool attractions, stopping to catch a performer running up behind an unsuspecting person, brandishing a chainsaw, while the rave-y score makes the whole thing seem like the wildest party in the world.
The killer slips in alongside everybody else, glimpsed only from the back, like a shark making its way upstream. A nondescript white dude in a grey hoodie, he blends in almost too easily, and the question of where he’s going to acquire the all-important murder weapon (these events tend to have massive “NO WEAPONS” signs upon entry, which adds to the scare factor) is answered seamlessly. Meanwhile, Taylor and the guys giddily inform Natalie that somebody died for real at a haunt not too long ago.
Considering Hell Fest combines the, er, talents of the director of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimenson, a wet fart of a film, and one of the writers of Leatherface, a movie that functioned as a star vehicle for Stephen Dorff, it’s genuinely remarkable how well it works. Much of the flick’s strength comes from that brilliant, well-realised, and tangible setting, which provides everything from set dressing to extras but if the premise didn’t grip, all of those things would work against it by providing necessary distraction.
The young, mostly unknown cast is totally game. As Natalie, Forsyth rolls her eyes but she’s never whiny or a complete wet blanket. Likewise, her connection to Brooke is well-established, their friendship lived in (a moment when they bond over a planned trip to Europe is genuinely sweet) and believable. As her mouthy roommate, Taylor-Klaus is hilarious. She’s currently starring in Netflix’s Dumplin’ opposite Danielle McDonald and Jennifer Aniston, a role that’s different from this one but which also displays the edge that could make her a star.
Hell Fest boasts some star power in the form of Candyman himself, Tony Todd, who acts as both the voice of the haunt itself and pops up in a well-done cameo. The Funhouse Massacre, funnily enough, utilised the talents of one Robert Englund but, in contrast, put him right up front and then quickly went downhill from there. Here, Todd is used throughout, but his cameo isn’t a highlight necessarily because everything that’s happening around him is just as exciting.
While a lot of slashers tend to focus on the stab ‘n’ slash technique, Hell Fest features some truly inventive and brilliantly disgusting kills — mainly because the killer has to improvise, but still. The gore is impressive and, at least to my eye, mostly practical. The body count is high and it’s never quite clear who will survive. A bathroom-set sequence, during which Natalie realises she’s actually been texting the killer, not Gavin, is tensely well-executed. The emphasis is on establishing these kids as characters we care about, rather than as bodies to be picked off one by one.
Likewise, an ending that riffs on a trope even diehard slasher fans are sick of is a hilariously cruel gut-punch that ensures one leaves Hell Fest with an evil grin as wide and lopsided as the mask beloved by the nondescript killer. It’s wonderful to see a modern horror go back to basics like this without feeling the need to pay homage at every turn with meaningless callbacks. The movie might seem like nothing special on paper, but its simplicity is its greatest strength.
It may be 2019, but there’s still a hunger for bloody, scary, and defiantly old-school fare like this and Hell Fest is up there with the best the sub-genre has to offer. See it before Happy Death Day 2U rolls around to (hopefully, brilliantly) turn the slasher on its head once again and bask in the nostalgia.
Catch Hell Fest on DVD, Blu-ray, and on Demand from January 8 2019
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Gregory Plotkin
Writer(s): Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, William Penick, Christopher Sey, Akela Cooper
Stars: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards, Tony Todd
Release: December 28 2018 (Digital), January 8 2019 (DVD, BD, On Demand)
Studio/ Production Co: Tucker Tooley Entertainment
Length: 89 minutes