The current obsession with the 1980s that has gripped the horror genre shows no sign of abating, as people who have presumably forgotten just what a misbegotten time that decade was all round continue to enable increasingly generic throwback movies, most of which actually don’t seem to understand – or are too scared to go near – the elements that made the slasher films of that decade so popular. Hell Fest, directed with some visual flair but no soul or conviction whatsoever by Gregory Plotkin, is just the latest of these films.
Clearly hoping to launch a franchise, Plotkin’s film might be seem as a modern throwback to the slasher films of the past, knowingly nodding towards the Halloween and Friday 13th series which taking things in its own direction. That’s really giving the film too much credit – in fact, Hell Fest is an utterly generic pastiche that gets all the bad parts of those slasher films – the annoying and unconvincing teens, the long wait for anything to happen – dead on, while missing all the fun elements. In this film, we have a bunch of extremely annoying teenage characters heading out to Hell Fest – a travelling spookshow where, some years earlier, a girl had been murdered and left hanging among the fake corpses of the show. This doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the travelling circus, which rocks up in town and opens up the sort of unconvincingly outrageous carnival of horror that only exists in movies (the real life versions of these events are, shall we say, a little less thrilling). Our motley crew of heroes – a serious-minded and so certain-to-survive girl, back in town, her would-be boyfriend, her best friend, some utter gobshite that none of these people would even briefly hang out with in real life, plus some anonymous corpse fodder – all head off the the show, having scored VIP tickets that allows them into the ‘Darklands’, where – whoo! – the actors playing the clowns, monsters and psychos can actually touch you. Also there is a mysterious figure wearing a mask, who telegraphed Final Girl Natalie (Amy Forsyth) sees knifing another guest. Is this part of the horror show, she wonders, or is it real? For reasons that fall apart the moment you start to think about, the killer whose face is covered by a mask decides to stalk the only witness to his crime, despite the fact that she can’t identify him and doesn’t even know if she has actually witnessed a killing (in fact, given that she carries on partying away, it seems safe to say that she doesn’t think the crime is real).
Eventually, after a very long time, Natalie’s friends start dying in a series of remarkably lacklustre and not very set piece set pieces, as the killer chases her through the park and the security guards – the sort of condescending, unreconstructed men who have not signed up to #believewomen, clearly – assume that she’s just another girl who can’t take the intense horrors of the attraction, dismissing her pleas for help until it is too late.
There are a couple of decent moments – the fact that the killer is wearing a mask identical to several Hell Fest employees is a neat twist, and the film does, admittedly, look gorgeous with it’s Dario Argento-inspired lurid lighting. There’s an interesting final shot that makes the monster all too human, and that’s unusual. The spookshow element, where fake threats mix with a very real one, is not a bad idea either, but it’s thrown away on such a lacklustre film that it feels like a real waste – if the film was entirely without merit, it wouldn’t seem like such a wasted opportunity. And the truth is, I’m clutching a straws here – on the whole, Hell Fest is entirely without worth. It’s a film where the killer is entirely forgettable, without even a cool mask to create a new, blankly terrifying personality, and his murders are carried out with so little panache (a series of splashy deaths is the least we can expect from a retro slasher, surely?) that they barely register. Of course, things are not helped by the fact that most of the characters are so one-dimensional that less than 24 hours later, I’m struggling to remember anything about them. Even final girl Natalie fails to be either sympathetic, relatable or appealing. The one memorable character is Taylor, who is supposedly a rebellious, punk bad girl complete with trendy mohawk, and is played by Bex Taylor-Klaus with a breathless, desperate, skwarking noisiness that I assume is supposed to be endearing but actually manages to be continually grating. It’s a terrible – or at least terribly misguided – performance, all bluster and trying too hard to be wacky, like that awful person at work who constantly likes to point out how completely mad they are, when everyone else thinks that they are a sad, vacuous idiot.
Of course, this is the sort of film that is essentially so out of touch that it has Natalie’s BFF Brooke (Reign Edwards) telling her that she needs to change into some cool clothes for Hell Fest, and then cuts to a shot of the whole group looking a mid-American as you can get. Maybe it’s a joke I didn’t get, but I fear Plotkin really does think that his characters look like the edgy cool kids, rather than the bland dullards that they are. It’s a film that crowbars a Tony Todd role into the story – because he’s a big horror icon – but then wastes him on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role that doesn’t even have a name. It’s a film that has a few gloppy gore effects, but nothing you won’t see on any other mainstream horror film, and studiously avoids the sexuality and nudity of the 1980s films it is trying to ape – not daring to go there in the #metoo era, it seems. And it’s a film that copies the movies of the past without showing any sense of understanding what made those films work.
All in all, Hell Fest is a film that has no purpose, no point in existing and nothing to say. It is, essentially, an entirely worthless exercise, and the 89 minutes you’ll spend on this could be much more productively used on pretty much anything else.