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“Her killer left her body in the park three days. They thought her body was a freaking prop.”

The premise is intriguing enough: a horror theme park travels the country seeking to scare visitors out of their wits. Each ride, game, and maze’s sole purpose is to terrify. How easy would it be for a masked killer to wander in and out of Hell Fest playing God? Very. The heightened atmosphere means no one is paying close attention to pleas for sympathy; it’s all part of the act. Audiences eagerly watch him stalk parkgoers and are thrilled because they think they’re watching a show. That they do nothing to stop the killer is his biggest thrill. After getting away with murder at Hell Fest once already, the killer sets his sights on homecoming college students Natalie, Brooke, and Taylor.

Natalie (Amy Forsyth) is home from college, looking to reunite with her longtime friend, Brooke (Reign Edwards), but she’ll have to share her time with Brooke’s college roommate, Taylor (MTV’s Scream standout, Bex Taylor-Klaus). Prompted by her thrill-seeking friends, Natalie reluctantly attends the ghoulish festivities. It doesn’t take long before she regrets the decision. Visibly shaken, every park employee goes out of their way to frighten Natalie, going as far as targeting her repeatedly. Her friends get in on the game too. The one time Natalie manages to keep her cool during the staged theatrics, she witnesses an actual murder.

If it weren’t for Halloween, Natalie, Brooke, and Taylor wouldn’t even be there, but Halloween sometimes brings out the worst decisions in people. Especially Hell Fest employees. As bodies start piling up, the trio of ladies and their boyfriends fight to stay alive, but the security guards and staff meet each report with mild stupidity–or catastrophic incompetence. For a park that had a girl killed onsite and is forced to take out massive liability insurance policies, they should be a little more aware. Why even keep a working guillotine in a park where you were found responsible for an accidental death? To boot, a security guard has the gall to tell the teens “I can’t arrest people for doing their job” after investigating one such scene for all of a minute. And with that one line delivery, Hell Fest fatally strains the credulity of every member of its viewing audience.

The horror genre is one that regularly tests the limits of realism, but films like Halloween, The Exorcist, and the like avoid that problem. Which is why they’re classics. Unfortunately, Gregory Plotkin’s new film abuses horror enthusiasts in regard to their ability to suspend disbelief. Hell Fest cannot overcome the routine way in which characters act in ways that are merely service to moving the script along. Some “dumb” decisions have to be made for a horror movie to work, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of audience intelligence. Any script that requires decision-making that dopey should invest in some rewrites. Throw in a generic slasher to the mix and Hell Fest has little to offer. A shame considering the film could have easily propelled the film to cult favorite status. The lighting and set design are noteworthy; Amy Forsyth is a capable final girl candidate; and a Tony Todd cameo (Candyman, Final Destination) all have the markers of a solid horror entry, yet the film is generic to a fault.

Gregory Plotkin, who served as an editor on Get Out, Happy Death Day, and Game Night, has a feel for how briskly Hell Fest should move, turning in a running time of under 90 minutes. The script is really what handicaps the film. Short of screaming, the cast isn’t asked to do very much. As soon as any exposition between characters takes place Hell Fest’s momentum screeches to a halt. The premise lent itself toward exploring creative avenues, but the follow-through offers no creativity whatsoever. The best slasher types are more compelling when they’re unknowable; the same can’t be said for throwing a hoodie and a bad mask on someone and pretending that they’re Michael Myers. The only defining trait of Hell Fest‘s antagonist is that he’s slow.

However, the film is a pleasant surprise in regards to the writing of the female characters. All three actresses show potential as future scream queens. In fact, Hell Fest may have been better served by jettisoning the boyfriends entirely. The female leads (Forsyth, Edwards, and Taylor-Klaus) are more layered than their male counterparts, and their dynamic could have been explored further instead of taking additional time to introduce boyfriends that don’t register with viewers. Young couples are usually a staple for slasher films, though when only half of them are interesting, it’s best to–pardon the pun–jettison the dead weight.

Hell Fest isn’t as much of a slog to get through as Truth or Dare or Winchester, but that is a very low bar for a season that has David Gordon Green’s Halloween coming and Suspiria released after that. Hardcore slasher fans might find something to relish in the practical effects and cinematography, but everyone else will feel buyer’s remorse for Hell Fest.


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