The slasher movie continues to be one of the most reliable horror subgenres. Cynics might say that’s because they don’t require much in the way of resources or talent to make. That’s a little too cynical for Schlockmania so consider this instead: the slasher movie is like a simple recipe that doesn’t require a lot of ingredients but demands a certain focus and flair to pull off.
Hell Fest offers an interesting example of Schlockmania’s theory in action. The script sticks close to the basic formula requirements, focusing on a group of college kids going to the title attraction for an evening of spooky fun. It’s essentially a horror theme park with a variety of scare-themed mazes and actors in spooky masks roaming throughout the park to frighten visitors.
Among the ranks are the studious, stressed Natalie (Amy Forsyth), her party-hearty pal Brooke (Reign Edwards), the sarcastic and punkish Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and Gavin (Roby Attal), an easygoing guy interested in Natalie. Unfortunately for them, there is a faceless killer known only as The Other (Stephen Conroy) prowling the crowd, looking for victims who don’t respect his scariness. Natalie makes the mistake of shrugging him off and the hunt is on.
Hell Fest doesn’t try to offer any daring twists to the slasher formula. Instead, it pursues its course in a straightforward, business-oriented style, manipulating a simple set of resources to their best effect.
The film’s key attribute is the novel “horror park” setting, which allows an entire amusement park to have a bunch of spooky trappings. The production design and costume crews really did well by the filmmakers here, offsetting the dreary look of many post-Saw horror films by giving the film’s setting plenty of color and classically gothic flair. The film exploits this setting to its fullest, providing an evocative, visually interesting setting for each stalk-and-slash sequence.
And that’s not all. The script makes the cannon fodder protagonists a little more interesting than usual, including a better-than-expected level of dialogue, and the cast of young, t.v.-tested talent gives interesting performances. Forsyth in particular makes a subtle but effective Final Girl-style heroine, getting nice support from Attal as her shy-guy aspiring beau and Taylor-Klaus, who adds a shot of energy as the group’s resident wiseass. Horror fans should also look out for a brief but fun cameo from Tony Todd.
The final piece of the puzzle is steady direction from Gregory Plotkin. He’s done more work as an editor than as a director and his work leans heavily on those editorial chops. This really boosts the film’s effectiveness because his editor’s touch results in a series of carefully calibrated setpieces that wring the maximum suspense from each setup. There’s the occasional splash of gore but these sequences favor the buildup as much as the aftermath: highlights include a stalking scene in a set of bathroom stalls and a real squirmer that uses a guillotine stage set. The film also dispenses with the usual jump-scare trick ending in favor of something a little subtler and more disquieting.
In short, Hell Fest is a programmer but it’s a rock-solid one. It doesn’t waste any time, displays its knack for stalk-and-slash suspense consistently and offers just enough inspiration in its staging to keep the proceedings from getting stale. Modern horror fans can enjoy and old-school slasher buffs will appreciate the respect it shows for the fundamentals of the form.