Initially conceived as a yearly horror franchise similar to Saw and Paranormal Activity, with a sequel released each following October. Hell Fest, released in 2018, is a gruesome throwback to 1980s slasher flicks. Equally violent and bombastic, the film includes many amusing moments for lovers of both scare mazes and ’80s horror. As a result of its formulaic and often uninspired screenplay, however, Hell Fest suffers from a number of issues that diminish its quality as a nostalgic slasher, even when taking into account it’s distinct horror-festival setting.
Plot Summary: On Halloween night, a group of friends make their way to Hell Fest, a ghoulish travelling festival loaded with rides, games and scare mazes, hoping for an exciting night of thrills and chills. But, as the night continues, the scares soon become all too real as a masked serial killer turns the horror-themed festival into his personal playground…
Before director Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, Crimson) was chosen to helm the project, a handful of other filmmakers were considered, including Jennifer Lynch and Neil Marshall. Needless to say, whilst Hell Fest is competently directed, the premise of the film is really where most of its appeal resides, as the idea of a pursuing killer blending in with an enormous crowd dressed as various ghouls, maniacs and monsters is a rather alarming concept, of which the film takes full advantage. For instance, when the group first encounter the killer chasing another girl through a blacklight-lit scare maze, they assume it’s all part of an act, so they merely watch as he butchers her. As opposed to sporting a single mask throughout the runtime, the killer, only referred to as “The Other,” also swaps out his disguise at many points. Distinguishing the character from horror icons like Michael Myers, despite Stephen Conroy’s physical performance appearing reminiscent of Michael’s movements in the original Halloween from 1978.
The rest of the cast, including Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Roby Attal, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James and Matt Mercurio, portray their characters sufficiently. The actual characterisation of the group is where most of the screenplay’s problems lie, as the teens come across as rather cliché archetypes. This issue is only worsened by the screenplay placing more emphasis on the characters’ relationships than their personalities during their first few scenes together, which is also where a large amount of the film’s corniest dialogue can be heard. On a more positive note, Hell Fest is the second horror flick to feature the voice of horror legend; Tony Todd, in a theme park, the first being Final Destination 3 in 2006. Todd later appears in person, too, portraying an enthusiastic stage announcer and providing the murderous proceedings with a brief jolt of energy.
In terms of the visuals, the cinematography by José David Montero is quite visually interesting, making fantastic use of the daunting yet colourfully lit location of Hell Fest, particularly whenever the camerawork employs wide shots to display the true scale of the bustling festival of frights. Moreover, when it comes to the killings, Hell Fest does a fine job of slaughtering the teens in creative ways through an array of superb practical effects. However, many of these kills are unfortunately spoilt by the film’s over-reliance on shiny CG blood, which somewhat takes away from the charm of the 1980s-inspired artificial heads and rubber eyeballs.
Similar to the film itself, the original score by Bear McCreary feels contemporary yet simultaneously like a nod to the past, as the score combines two musical styles with synth and orchestral, along with some violin harmonics later in the soundtrack. The signature track of the score; Trophies, effectively serves as the killer’s motif and lurks in the background for most of the runtime (similarly comparable to an abundance of classic slashers). Many of the other tracks, such as Technical Difficulties, Guillotine and Welcome to Hell, do an admirable job of building suspense when required, but aren’t that memorable by themselves.
Of course, the most noteworthy aspect of Hell Fest has to be its exceptional production design, which utilises an eye-catching assortment of scare mazes segments, costumes and props from numerous Halloween events all across the United States. A fair amount of the decorations were borrowed from Six Flags Over Georgia’s annual Fright Fest, while many of the costumes were leased from the Netherworld Haunted House in Georgia, one of the highest-rated scare attractions in the country. Furthermore, many members of Hell Fest‘s production crew had formerly worked as scare maze decorators, designers and staffers, so they were more than familiar with the set-up of a scare attraction.
In summary, Hell Fest certainly isn’t anything new. The film isn’t reinventing the slasher subgenre, nor is it trying to. Hell Fest is merely attempting to be an entertaining, modern-day slasher that pays homage to horror classics of the 1980s, and in that sense, I suppose it succeeds. It’s just a shame that Hell Fest doesn’t go further with its violence or horror-festival setting, as the production design is undoubtedly one of the most impressive elements of Hell Fest. And I’m sure that if any scare maze enthusiasts were to watch this slasher flick, they would be blown away by what the production crew accomplished with the detailed costumes, props and sets on display. Rating: high 5/10.