Hell Fest (2018)

Hell Fest first published by Sight & Sound, Jan/Feb 2019

Review: 2018 has seen the release of Owen Egerton’s Blood Fest, Ante Novakovic’s Fright Fest and now Hell Fest – all similarly titled, and all exploiting the recent growth in horror-themed amusement events. These films may largely unfold in scare mazes and ghost trains, but their real fixture is the hall of mirrors, given that they offer a carnivalesque reflection of their own thrill-seeking viewers, who, from within the safe confines of the theatre, similarly desire to get close – but not too close – to their own mortality. Conversely, all those scary rides, grisly tableaux and costumed figures are modelled on the tropes of horror cinema. Set a real killer loose on one of those events, and the security of both those fun lovers at the park, and of those watching in the theatre, is challenged, even as acts of bloody murder can easily remain hidden in locations designed to resemble charnel houses. After all, at a fright event, or indeed at a horror film, we both hope and expect there will be blood.

That is certainly the dynamic of Hell Fest, directed by Gregory Plotkin, who previously helmed Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015), and edited four other Paranormal Activity sequels as well as Get Out (2017) and Happy Death Day (2017). “Fear is an aphrodisiac,” as Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) points out near the film’s beginning. “It reminds us that life is short, and our only compensation is to reproduce.” What Taylor has in mind is that single Natalie (Amy Forsyth) and Gavin (Roby Attal) should couple up at the ‘traveling horror show’. What she cannot know is that, over this Halloween night of fun and frights, the lives of several people will be terminally shortened as a hulking masked figure known only as ‘The Other’ (Stephen Conroy) stabs, hammers, guillotines and axes his way through the co-ed body, using the scary milieu as perfect cover. If Natalie is to survive the night, she must play this killer at his own game, exploiting the tripwires and traps and masks all around her – even as the only actual reproductive activity going on here is The Other’s mute reprisal of numerous slasher clichés, in artificial locales where such conduct seems right at home. 

When Natalie first encounters The Other about to stab a terrified young woman, she eggs him on with the words, “Just do it,” thinking that it is all part of the show. It is a peculiar moment, as this all-round good girl is made complicit in an act of murder. Yet that is akin to the conflicted feelings of most horror viewers, who will their darkest fears to be enacted as on-screen entertainment. Meanwhile the film’s relentless villain, whose very name denotes a removal from societal norms, turns out, once the mask of Otherness has been removed, to have a life more everyday and familiar than we might like to suppose. The slash and dash, though ably executed, is a little rote – but it is in these momentary frissons where horror fantasy meets reality that Hell Fest works best.

Synopsis: A young woman is murdered by a masked man – ‘the Other’ – at a travelling horror show, her corpse left undiscovered for days amidst grisly props. Two years later, at Halloween, Natalie joins best friend Brooke, her roommate Taylor and their respective boyfriends Quinn and Asher at Hell Fest, where everyone wants Natalie to hook up with Gavin. In the Deform School maze, Natalie urges the Other on as he stabs a woman, thinking it is a performance. The Other starts stalking Natalie, creeping her out. When Gavin stays behind looking for a prize to give Natalie, the Other crushes his head with a mallet. In the Dead Lands area, Asher gets separated in a maze, where the Other stabs him through the eye with a novelty syringe. The Other menaces Natalie in the toilets. Security are called, but cannot trace a man wearing the same mask as many of the staff. Taylor cheerily goes on stage for a mock execution. When the Other tries to kill Taylor for real with the  guillotine, she flees, but is stabbed in public along with Quinn, creating a panic. The Other chases Natalie and Brooke into the Hell maze, but they manage to elude him by donning masks themselves and fighting back. The Other, injured, escapes, and drives to his suburban home, putting his mask away in a cabinet, and greeting his young daughter with a stuffed toy from Hell Fest. 

© Anton Bitel