Hell Fest

HELL FEST is a mainstream horror movie released on 2,297 screens by Lionsgate, but I never saw a trailer for it and only heard of it because Brian Collins recommended it on Twitter (he also interviewed the director). So I guess social media can still work for good old fashioned word of mouth, not just Russian disinformation campaigns.

For people who like horror but get bored of formula and cliche, this is probly nothing special. But for horror fans like me who enjoy variations on tradition, it’s a surprise treat: a slick, well-made straight-ahead slasher movie with some cool ideas, production value, a solid cast, even likable characters. I honestly thought they couldn’t make movies like this anymore – it seems straight from the post-SCREAM slasher revival, except without any meta stuff (other than we’re having fun being scared while the characters are having fun being scared). Also, no big names in the cast. The only face I recognized besides cameo-ing Tony Todd was Bex Taylor-Klaus from Scream: The TV Series. (But maybe others would be known to me if I was younger.)

The title refers to a huge touring Halloween event inspired by things like the Universal horror mazes. It’s kind of a fantasy Disney World or Lollapalooza of horror haunts with drinks and performances and endless attractions including the intense “Deadlands” section where you have to sign a waiver because the fake monsters and killers are allowed to touch the guests to scare them.

But within this place there’s a real masked killer who is for real stalking our heroine. How will she know, and who will believe her?

Natalie (Amy Forsyth, A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY) has come back to town to hang out with her high school best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards, Snowfall, MacGyver), and they end up going to Hell Fest with Brooke’s horror-loving/doesn’t-like-Natalie roommate Taylor (Taylor-Klaus, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER), their boyfriends Quinn (Christian James, Freefall) and Asher (Matt Mercurio, “FBI Analyst,” AMERICAN MADE), and Natalie’s crush Gavin (Roby Attal, The Long Road Home). Natalie doesn’t seem to be into this kind of stuff, but is game to go along, and the movie taps into the fun of being young and falling for somebody. Gavin is a dreamy, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME lookin dude, but self-deprecatingly flirtatious, and they seem convincingly smitten with each other. Forsyth is particularly good, and has just that right level of slasher movie groundedness where she’s better looking than all of us but not some creepy Barbie doll.

One small progressive detail I noticed is that the women, not the men, are the ones talking about getting laid, with references to women being in control (“ride that D,” “sit on [his] face”).

Admittedly it can be kinda silly when characters explain to each other how Hell Fest works, and I’m pretty sure the mazes aren’t impressive compared to the actual Universal ones, but they sure had to build alot of stuff for this movie, and it seems like a fun time being with friends and doing some shots and walking through all these winding tunnels of ghouls and mummies and shit. Until people start getting stabbed.

It’s not one of the gorier movies you’ll see, but definitely has some moments. I found myself concerned for these guys. Some bad things happen. But not, like, make you feel bad about life bad. Just fun horror movie bad. Not that it’s afraid to get dark. In the inevitable scene where they mistake a real attack for part of the show, Natalie stands uncomfortably long waiting to see how they’re going to “fake” a stabbing, taunting him to go on with it, not knowing she’s encouraging a murder.

The stalker wears an ordinary hoodie over a creepy wrinkled mask that reminds me a little of Tiny from HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES. We see him come through the metal detector and then acquire things he can use as weapons. I don’t particularly like that he taunts people by humming “All Around the Mulberry Bush,” but we can’t win ’em all. There are no red herrings, it’s not a whodunit. It doesn’t really matter who he is, just if they can get away. When it becomes clear that the climax will SPOILER take place in the much hyped scariest maze, I thought “duh, should’ve known” and also “this is perfect.” And it’s exciting when Natalie makes that badass switch from being the scared prey to insisting on survival.

I have a confession to make. One time in the 1990s I saw a shirtless guy with THE CROW makeup and painted on muscles at a Halloween dance and I decided it would be funny for me and my friend to silently follow him around for an hour or so. Everywhere he went, the soul-less black-dot eyes of our giant paper mache masks of Jeffy and Dolly from Family Circus stared blankly at him. I think eventually he sort of confronted us, and I don’t remember him being very mad, but watching this movie made me feel bad about it and wonder if there was something psychologically wrong with me that I would want to do something like that.

Anyway. Maybe it’s best we forget that story, friends.

Why don’t I distract you with a weird question? Is there such a thing as a public restroom hand dryer so high up on the wall you can stand under it and dry your hair? They have that in this. Does that exist, or did they have to make it up because it was the only stand-in they could think of for the scene that’s usually in a shower where the person bows their head and lets the water wash over them to show how troubled they are?

I feel like we’ve seen more than enough cameos by horror icons and there’s no reason to ever give a shit, but Tony Todd’s works well for this particular special appearance because he’s in one scene as a Hell Fest emcee in sort of a Baron Samedi type costume, and then you hear his voice in automated recordings in mazes as if he’s the mascot or the ghost host.

The poster says “From an executive producer of The Walking Dead,” but they’re referring to Gale Anne Hurd so they oughta say FROM THE PRODUCER OF THE MOTHERFUCKING TERMINATOR.

Another interesting credit I noticed was “The Other mask by Tony Gardner.” At first I thought “Just because Michael Myers is ‘The Shape’ doesn’t mean every killer has to have a pretentious unstated name,” but then I realized nobody is gonna write a whole script only calling the killer “Killer,” so I get it.

Anyway, Gardner was the first zombie to crawl out of a grave in the “Thriller” video, he was involved in creating Daft Punk’s helmets and their movie ELECTROMA (which has a really funny makeup gag), he designed makeup for DARKMAN, ARMY OF DARKNESS, FREAKED, and SEED OF CHUCKY, and more recently he designed the mask for HAPPY DEATH DAY. So he knows what he’s doing. And it’s a cool mask.

This is the second movie for director Gregory Plotkin, if you count the PARANORMAL ACTIVITYs as feature films – he directed part GHOST DIMENSION after co-producing parts 3, 4 and THE MARKED ONES. He’s most experienced as an editor, having cut almost all of the PARANORMAL sequels, plus GET OUT, HAPPY DEATH DAY, GAME NIGHT, and this. The screenplay is credited to Seth M. Sherwood (LEATHERFACE) and Blair Butler (POLAROID) and Akela Cooper (Grimm, Luke Cage), story by William Penick & Christopher Sey (SECRETS IN THE WALLS) and Stephen Susco (THE GRUDGE, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D).

More like this, please. You gotta have some regular horror movies or the arty ones won’t have anything to turn their noses up at.


This entry was posted on Monday, October 8th, 2018 at 11:15 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

39 Responses to “Hell Fest”

  1. It’s not a masterpiece, but to get all Carly Rae, I really liked this one.

    I’m sort of surprised by the tepid response from both the horror community and some critics who should know better (a D+ from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky). It’s about as satisfying as a slasher pic can be without trying to rewrite the script. It’s fun, it’s scary, it’s occasionally kind of disturbing. The witness-to-an-execution scene is terrific, too. But teens don’t really say “dope” that much anymore, so the writers should have put more time into researching that part.

    I also heard nothing about this movie, but only went to see it because you and a couple people on this site said it was good. You were all correct.

  2. “But teens don’t really say “dope” that much anymore, so the writers should have put more time into researching that part.”

    I’ll have you know a teenager just last week told me my name is “dope.” I’m hoping it’s gone through the full cycle from current to outdated to retro and on to perennial. Like how “cool” is now just part of the language.

    I already shared my thoughts on this movie so I’ll just reprint them here for posterity:

    Hey, anybody else see HELL FEST? At first I thought I was imagining things when I saw a movie with that title in my local listings. It must be some Christian special event screening or something, because they simply don’t show generic slasher movies with gimmicky premises and zero name stars in movie theaters anymore. Then I realized that The Secret must have finally worked, because I’ve been asking the universe for exactly that for years now. So I saw it, and I’ll be honest: it’s not gonna blow your doors off. But it’s utterly unpretentious, it gets right down to business, has a good mix of a light tone and serious scares, the ensemble acting is a step above the kind of Wal-Mart $5.99 blind buy this most closely resembles, and it has actual production values. Sets! Props! Lighting effects! Extras! By god, it’s been years since I’ve seen a regular ass horror movie that could afford extras. And best of all, not one single solitary character in the entire film is dealing with a past trauma. Nobody has to see this slasher rampage as therapy. Nobody is being redeemed for a goddamn thing by the events of this film. Nothing is a metaphor for anything. It’s just a crazy guy trying to kill some kids because they’re there, not to provide a cathartic event to help somebody get over the loss of their child or whatever the fuck dull melodrama every single fucking horror movie of the past ten years has assumed we’d feel like sitting through just to watch somebody get stabbed. There’s even a part where it would have been SO EASY for them to slip in some traumatic backstory. When the sassy black BFF tells the Final Girl (both very tolerable) “I’ve really missed you,” I was just waiting for her to add “You just haven’t been the same since your parents died”…and then she never did! She missed her because she’d been studying too much! That’s it! No manufactured drama, no fake character arc, no half-hearted stab at “transcending” the genre. It’s a story about trying not to get stabbed and that’s it. It doesn’t feel the need to pretend it’s about anything more.

    Honestly, in a healthy horror scene a movie like this would be no big deal. But right now, when my favorite genre has a stick way the fuck up its ass and is showing no signs of removing it any time soon, getting to see an unapologetically meat-and-potatoes horror flick in the theater like God intended is some kind of miracle.

    Majestyk says check it out. Or wait for THE VVITCH 2: CHARACTER ACTRESS STARES INTO CAMERA WITH SEPIA FILTER ON. It’s your money.

  3. Believe it or not, I can personally attest to a relationship of several years with a hand dryer mounted on the wall at head height. From 2014 til earlier this year I was living in interior Alaska, and it was pretty common in the town I was in for people (including me) to live without running water at home. So there were a lot of places around town where it was ok for pretty much anybody to take a shower at. The one I went to was the only mens’ locker room I knew of that had a functional head-height hand dryer, and I had super long hair when I lived up there, so for at least half the year it was important that I dried it thoroughly before I went outside or it would freeze. I’d never seen one before either, but it sure was convenient… I wonder if it’s more common in womens’ locker rooms regardless of what state you’re in though?

    Great review, too— as a fan of every ‘brow’ level of horror, IRL haunted houses, and movies where Tony Todd is the most famous person in the mix, I really want to see this thing now.

  4. That this isn’t meta in any way (especially with that premise) is a thin-air miracle, especially in light of what I’m told about the new Halloween.

    I do like metaphors tho

  5. I’ve seen hand dryers high up on the wall before. But it was in a bathroom / locker room attached to a gym in an office building. So it’d be like after you came out of the showers and were dressed in the locker room, you could dry your hair under the high on the wall hand dryer. But that’s the only one i’ve ever seen. Definitely not in a public bathroom.

  6. Maybe they installed them because they know girls are going to get blood in their hair and will want to rinse it out.

  7. I actually wondered that too, Majestyk. I think I can buy that. Although this is supposedly a touring thing, and that bathroom seemed to be a permanent structure with proper plumbing, so– okay, I’m overthinking it.


    Hey SHIN SUSPIRIA has been getting really good word of mouth!

  9. I just remembered these hair handdryers from my youth. They seemed to be standard in German public pool back in the 80s and 90s, but I haven’t seen one of those in years.

    Anyway, this movie is really “just” a slasher? Nothing meta, no synth score, no purposely bad FX, no hand drawn poster, that imitates old VHS covers, outside from that half-assed photoshop filter to make it old?

    Sign me up!

    I haven’t heard of it either, until people on here started talking about it, but I suspect it will get a super expensive limited edition Mediabook in a tin can release here soon.

  10. Well here is the “throwback” trailer that exists for the movie so they did try meta.


  11. That trailer reminded me I didn’t mention that the security guard is a real asshole. I was thinking that the plot would still work if he was really nice and understanding but just didn’t know how to help them.

  12. @Sternsheim

    Well, I guess in these days, that’s how you have to play the game. But as long as the movie itself isn’t like that, I can life with it.

  13. An amusement park nearby advertised with something they called HELL FEST HALLOWEEN PARTY. I didn’t think much of it. But now I want to go! Problem is, I’m in London at the time.

  14. Geoff: I’m trying not to be a prick about this, but my recent history with horror movies that have gotten good word of mouth is somewhat less than stellar. I tend to assume these opinions are held by people who’ve seen like 12 horror movies in their lives and think that qualifies them to judge what the scariest one of all time is. Turns out it’s always whatever movie they just happened to catch at a film festival. What a coincidence. Couple that with possibly the most boring trailer you could cobble together from the concept of inexplicable witchy psychedelia happening at a European ballet academy and you have a movie I’m pretty sure I should steer well clear of. I just don’t know why you’d look at the glorious Technicolor indulgence of SUSPIRIA and be like “You know what this movie needs? Less color.” It’s got “85% critical/15% audience Tomatometer” written all over it. It looks every inch a movie people pat themselves on the back for not being bored by.

  15. RON HOWARD VOICE: He did NOT try to not be a prick about this.

  16. Haha, you should know I’m your side. No matter how much praise it gets, it screams over-hyped (by a bunch of prudes) Indy-horror all over it.

  17. Also: “Man, this driving progressive rock score by Goblin really kicks this movie up a notch. ‘Kicking things up a notch’ is SOOOOO mainstream. For our version, let’s hire the sad orphan boy from Radiohead to murmur all over it.”

    This movie is trying to fight me, you guys.

  18. While I liked THE VVITCH more than you did, Majestyk, I agree with you. I don’t care what non-horror fans think are the best horror movies. There’s always an air of condescension to declarations like “finally, IT FOLLOWS… a rare literate horror film.” No, you guys just weren’t paying attention.

    And I’m side-eyeing the new SUSPIRIA the same way. The director is talented, and I might even be excited if it were just called something else. The original is so much about its aesthetics that it makes no sense for anyone else to remake it. Besides, didn’t BLACK SWAN already try to remake SUSPIRAI?

  19. Without trying to derail the discussion, but in terms of horror movie hype from people who don’t care about horror: Man, am I annoyed by all the people who currently act like the new HALLOWEEN movie is the first and only time that we saw Jamie Lee Curtis return and have one last fight with Michael Myers.

    But one part of me hopes that Curtis still lives and stays healthy for two more decades, so that they can make another HALLOWEEN movie, in which she fights Michael one last time and everybody pretends that this hasn’t happened before.

  20. Right, and of course I’m going to see the new HALLOWEEN and hope to like it (I was an extra in a David Gordon Green movie once), but something about the hype already feels too prestigious for this series. They’re already taken this “let’s ignore the sequels” route. It would be more interesting if they acknowledged ALL of the sequels actually happened and tried to tie together the various dimensions of reality.

  21. “Everywhere he went, the soul-less black-dot eyes of our giant paper mache masks of Jeffy and Dolly from Family Circus stared blankly at him.” Did you make your own Family Circus masks? Dude, you absolutely have to write a screenplay if you haven’t already.

  22. Hmm. Might actually have to get all sociable for a change and go out into the great big world and see a movie in a theater instead of at home.

    Of course, I have vodka at home, so… It’s a tough decision.

  23. There must be something in the air right now because BLOOD FEST is even better than HELL FEST. It’s the meta version of this story but not in a bad way. The in-jokes are all in-universe, SCREAM-style. They don’t break the forth wall. Very little winking at the audience. The humor comes from the characters and the reality of the situation. I appreciated the meta aspect here because they actually did something with it beyond making the kind of surface-level observations common from the pastiche industry. BLOOD FEST is ABOUT horror. What it means to us, why we like it, why we feel positive emotions about something so seemingly negative. Great production values, solid gore, charismatic cast, a bright, fun, fast-paced tone. So far it’s this Halloween season’s clear winner.

  24. Hey SPOILERS here, what do you guys think of the very ending of the movie, with a surprising (?) reveal about the killer? It’s kind of an interesting beat, but I’m not sure what the filmmakers thought they were getting at, if anything.

  25. I don’t think they were getting at anything and that’s what I love about it. It’s a fact that a good many serial killers have perfectly normal home lives and they used that fact as a little ironic twist. It’s not part of an overarching message or metaphor. I think it’s great to sometimes just let a cigar be a cigar.


    I’m fine with that, but it does seem like an odd thing to end on. Maybe it would have worked better if SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER he’d hugged his daughter first, and THEN gone over to his cabinet o’ many murders. That way the final note is something a little more relevant to the narrative.


  27. But that would ruin the suspense of seeing him sneak up on this little girl with possibly murderous intent. If they did it your way, the film would suddenly take place in the home of some random daughter-hugging dad. The sequence only flows because the scene begins as an introduction to the killer’s lair before segueing into the twist. Start backwards and the structure collapses.

    Anyway, I like it. It doesn’t mean anything. This is a movie without themes of any kind. It’s just a suspense contraption and that’s all. I feel like too many horror filmmakers work backwards now. They start with the metaphor and then try to jury rig a scenario around it instead of letting a story organically create its own themes. Some stories just don’t have any. And that’s fine. THE EVIL DEAD for instance. No metaphors or allegories or anything in that thing, and it’s a masterpiece. If your style is right for the material, it becomes all the substance you need. No need to goose it with that English 101 bullshit.


    Mr M —

    But I’m not asking for the film to make some kind of sweeping thematic statement, I’m just asking it to stick to its established central conflict. The way it plays, the last beat of the film suddenly introduces a completely different conflict totally absent anywhere else in the film. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t the very last shot of the film, but ending it that way makes it the thing we leave the film thinking about.

    (Also, reversing the two beats in the coda would in no way ruin the suspense; since we see him go to his murder closet first, we understand immediately that this is his house, and therefore this is likely his daughter. Since he’s obviously been doing this for awhile and living a successful double life, it makes the idea that he’s any threat to this girl sleeping in his own living room seem unlikely. Better, I think, to introduce the killer standing in this unknown living room. Oh shit, he’s escaped, and now he’s gonna take out his revenge on this poor girl! Oh wait, no, this is his daughter, holy shit, he’s been living a double life! Maybe he’s rethinking his evil ways now that we see him in a tender domestic situation? Oh no, look at his closet of murder, not only has he done this before, he’s done it far more than we ever suspected and is surely going to do it again, setting up a sequel! THEN you smash cut to title, back on message.)


  29. After reading this review, I felt able/compelled to go out and support generic slasher horror on the big screen. Plus, after my most recent such experience — Happy Death Day — was so surprisingly enjoyable i was thinking this might be a two-peat.

    I was a little disappointed. It was okay, had some good moments, but I thought it was mostly not scary, and the Halloween fright carnival vibe was surprisingly non-atmospheric and undercut things for me a bit. Surprisingly not scary by the time it’s 25th room of fake body parts and buy in mask jumping out. Visually and stylistically the killer is less inspired than a lot of the random ghouls in this, and he’s pretty much a generic, more slightly built lumbering slow-stalker. Not bad, but mostly forgettable.

    Also, I thought the end was trying to go for the “how messed up is that?” vibe and tell a little flat. Perfectly fine little slasher, but doesn’t do much to distinguish itself beyond the central premise, which is admittedly a new setting for a slasher film, but is that all you got?

  30. I’d like to second the recommendation for BLOOD FEST. Really scratched an itch I didn’t need know needed scratched.

  31. My college dorm bathrooms had head level hand dryers in them. There was one guy who always stood naked under one every morning and dried his entire body under it.

  32. This is a pretty enjoyable slasher, nothing more or less. Decent scares, 80-ish minute runtime, good chemistry between the leads. It doesn’t break new ground but it does do a few things I’ve never seen before (mainly that scene with the guillotine!). I also really liked the subtlety of the sorta-twist ending – *SPOILERS* where you quickly see a photo in his mask-closet of a woman who looks alot like our protagonist/other victims. Any other movie would have a cop or doctor spell out “He had an ex/baby mama who left him and now he’s going after girls who look like her!”, but this movie just leaves it out there for you to hopefully catch.

    On a side note: I know some people here like the refreshingly non-meta aspects of this, but part of me was wondering what this would be like if it was set during the Universal Halloween Horror Nights (where every funhouse is based off a movie). I mean, having the needle in the eye death happen in a Halloween II funhouse, or the axe-swinging finale set inside The Shining might be too obvious and distracting for some, but I think I’d prefer it to the generic (and kind of interchangeable) houses we got in the movie.

  33. Actually that does sound cool.

  34. That’s more or less the plot of BLOOD FEST, a more meta but also more interesting version of the “real horrors at a ska horror festival” premise, minus any trademarked properties.

  35. “Fake horror festival” is what I meant to say, in my opinion. Though I’d watch the one about the ska festival, too. “They came here to do the Running Man. Now they’re just running, man.”

  36. “And now let’s see who the killer really was!”

    (pulls off mask)

    “Venerable 90’s ska-punk staple Reel Big Fish? But why?”

  37. RBF: You know how hard it is to turn a profit in today’s music industry with nine band members?

    *drops to floor from stab wound*

    *Final Girl drops knife, assuming killer is dead*

    AUDIENCE: Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!

  38. Tex-ska-s Chain-ska Mass-ska-ska

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