Fright Fest (American Fright Fest) (2018)

Fright Fest first published by SciFiNow

Fright Fest (aka American Fright Fest) opens in a creepy hospital basement, where a young blonde (Ashley Blankenship) is captured, bound and sliced by a maniacal surgeon and a man with a chainsaw. It is such a concentrated combination of killer clichés that viewers will be relieved to hear a director, Spencer Crowe (an overacting Dylan Walsh), shout “Cut!”, and to realise that we have in fact been watching a film within a film. The problem for Fright Fest, though, is that its real scenes are even broader than the fake ones – an effect which might make it difficult at times to tell fiction from ‘reality’ (in a film that is all about the fake-out), but which also condemns Fright Fest to being as schlockily third-rate as one of Spencer’s own, entirely fictive films (with titles like Death Bitch and Blood Tears).

Eleven months later, in smalltown Sommerton, Pennsylvania, incumbent Mayor Fowler (the director’s brother Kresh Novakovic, also overacting) is facing a downward trend in the polls. His plan to put on a live horror event at the local abandoned asylum might seem somewhat out of left field as a measure to win back electoral favour. Even more improbable yet is his decision to entrust the staging of the ‘fright fest’ to Spencer, now washed up with multiple DUI offences on his record, and a man whom Fowler himself acknowledges is “a lecherous, skirt-chasing degenerate gambler, deadbeat dad and drug addict.” Spencer is a cartoonish Hollywood sleazebag – a self-serving, abusive, alcoholic Weinstein figure who treats his cast and crew as objects and who is willing to sacrifice anybody and everybody else to renew his own fortune in the business.

In other words, Spencer is an irredeemable monster, and emphatically not a safe pair of hands. When psychiatric inmate Ruben (Jonathan Camp), a different kind of monster, escapes and returns to the asylum that was once his home, gatecrashing the fright fest’s opening night and actually killing people, Spencer, who is recording everything from his control room, sees this relentless masked slaughterman as his perfect collaborator in the greatest ‘real’ horror since Conan Le Cilaire’s 1978 mondo flick Faces of Death – which Spencer cites with glee.

Spencer’s sycophantic, put-upon production assistant Finkle (Pancho Moler, Sick-Head from Rob Zombie’s 31) and cast members Taylor (Madison McKinley), Rico (Romeo Miller), Estelle (Mercy Malick) and Steph (Robert Scott Wilson) reluctantly join forces with another escapee, the possibly just as deranged and dangerous Mason (Luke Baines), in their panicked attempts either to escape or to confront a maniacal murderer who at first seems just part of the show.

Written by Robert Gillings and directed by Ante Novakovic (Leaves of the Tree, 2016), this is a silly, gory affair that tries to conceal its own shortcomings (in terms of narrative, characterisation and dialogue) beneath its postmodern trappings. It is hard, though, to avoid the impression that it uses a highly contrived set-up to establish a premise which, once grasped, has little to it beyond repetitive, circular slash and dash. Still, the very fact that a film named Fright Fest is having its world première at the actual  FrightFest brings an extra frisson of reflexivity to Novakovic’s movie mirror world.

Strap: Ante Novakovic’s meta-slasher Fright Fest keeps faking out the viewer as a killer executes a real massacre at a live horror event.

© Anton Bitel