Monday, October 8, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: Hell Fest

Hell Fest was written by Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler and Akela Cooper. Yep, it took three people to write this! Five, if you count William Penick and Christopher Sey, who get "story by" credit. It was directed by Gregory Plotkin.

Sherwood previously penned Leatherface, and was an uncredited writer on London Has Fallen. Butler and Cooper previously wrote for various TV series, and Hell Fest appears to be their first theatrical work.

Plotkin is primarily a film editor. His sole previous directorial work was on Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.

I was pleasantly surprised by Hell Fest, as it's a tightly plotted little film that feels like a throwback to slasher movies of the 1980s . That's a good thing, by the way. It's smartly written, and manages to wring a few surprises out of the well worn genre.


The thing that impressed me most was its central concept— a haunted house attraction with a REAL slasher inside. That's an awesomely clever idea, and I can't believe no one ever thought of it until now.

Best of all, the characters in Hell Fest are all reasonably intelligent and react to the situation like an actual human being would. That's a rarity in movies like this. 

Many armchair reviewers are complaining that there are no innovative kills in the movie. I guess since it takes place in an amusement park, they were expecting appropriately themed kills? What do they want, someone getting stabbed in the eye with a cotton candy cone? Real ammo in the shooting gallery? Death by ring toss? 


I think these critics are missing the point here. The whole idea of the movie is that the characters are never quite sure if they're witnessing an actual death or not. If the kills were outrageously complex and elaborate, then it'd be obvious they were all part of the act.

So far Hell Fest has grossed a less than spectacular $9.5 million worldwide, against its $5.5 million budget. That's too bad, as I actually kind of enjoyed the movie and want it to succeed. Meanwhile, horrible pile of garbage Slender Man has somehow managed to gross almost $50 million. There just ain't no justice...

But all may not be lost. Due to marketing costs, most movies these days have to gross twice their production budget before they make a profit. I honestly doubt Lionsgate spend much promoting this film, as I only saw the trailer once before it premiered. It wouldn't surprise me if Hell Fest has already passed it's break even point.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
In the film's prologue, we're introduced to "Hell Fest," a huge traveling haunted attraction theme park that pops up in a different city each Halloween. That seems... unlikely, but let's just go with it. This particular year the park's set up in Orange County (California? Florida? Indiana?). A group of teen girls walk through the park and  enter one of the many mazes. One of the girls accidentally gets separated from her friends, and soon becomes hopelessly lost inside the maze.

She enters a smoke-filled room, complete with dozens of bodies hanging from the ceiling. At the end of the room she sees a man in a hoodie wearing a creepy, melted face mask, who's known as "The Other." Why that less-than-inspired name? Eh, it's what he's called in the official press blurb, so that's what I'm going with. 

Anyway, the girl realizes The Other's been following her all night, and tells him she knows he's just a park employee and that he doesn't scare her. The Other then lunges forward and stabs the girl with a real knife, killing her. He hangs the girl from the ceiling, where she's mistaken for one of the fake bodies.

A year later, Natalie (who's VERY obviously the movie's Final Girl) comes home from college and visits her former roommate Brooke. Their reunion is interrupted by the appearance of Taylor, Brooke's new roommate. Natalie's less than thrilled to see Taylor, who used to bully her in grade school. 

Brooke excitedly says Hell Fest has landed in their town this year, and they've managed to score VIP tickets to the sold out event. Brooke and Taylor are going with their boyfriends Quinn and Asher, and invite Natalie along as well. She seems troubled by something and doesn't want to go, until she hears that her secret crush Gavin will be there. Suddenly she changes her tune and agrees to go.

That's pretty much all the character setup we get! On to the slashin'!

Meanwhile, a mysterious man in a hoodie and worn out steel toed boots (whose face we never see) enters Hell Fest. Once inside the park, he puts on the same melted-face "The Other" mask we saw in the prologue. He slowly wanders around the park a while before running into a girl named Britney. She calls him an asshole and storms off. The Other then steals a knife from a distracted food vendor and follows Britney.

Natalie and the others arrive at Hell Fest, where they're met by Gavin. He passes out their special VIP wrist bands, which allow them to skip the long lines, and they excitedly enter the park. It's a vast space (more on that in the thoughts below), divided into several different themed areas. Brooke and Taylor literally shove Natalie and Gavin into one another. The two laugh at their friends' less than subtle attempts to get them together, and make awkward small talk.

The guys head off into one maze, white the gals enter another. As they wander around, they're suddenly confronted by a frantic Britney (the girl we saw earlier), who begs them for help. Suddenly The Other appears and grabs Britney, who shrieks and tries to get away. Brooke and Taylor believe it's all part of the act, and continue through the maze. Natalie hangs back, wondering if she's witnessing an actual assault or not. As she watches in horror, The Other stabs Britney in the gut, killing her. He then looks up at Natalie, who realizes she just witnessed a murder and runs off.

Natalie catches up with the rest of the gang and tells them what just happened. Predictably, they don't believe her. She notices The Other following them, but Taylor insists he's just a park employee. Natalie's still not completely convinced.


Gavin steers Natalie away from the others, and the two of them bond. He tries to win her a stuffed animal in a carnival game, but fails miserably. They enter a photo booth, sit down and take goofy pictures of themselves. The Other walks up and stands ominously outside the booth. The machine dispenses their photos, and The Other reaches down and takes them.

Brooke, who somehow knows Natalie and Gavin are in the booth, sees The Other steal their pictures. She yells at him and he runs off. Brooke chases after him, but he dodges into an alley and she loses him.

Natalie says this confirms that The Other is a murderer, but the gang still doesn't believe her, as Brooke says he's just a perverted park employee who gets off on other people's photos.

The gang then heads for the Dead Lands, an extreeeeeeeme, extra scary area of the park where the costumed employees are allowed to touch and man-handle the guests. After the scare with The Other, Natalie's reluctant to enter, but Taylor shames her into going. Gavin tells them all to go on ahead, as he has something to do first. Natalie doesn't want to leave him, but the others drag her to the entrance.

We then see Gavin's secret mission, as he returns to the carnival booth to get a prize for Natalie. He tells the bored employee that he just blew $50 trying to win a stuffed animal, and asks him to just give him one (ah, a typical entitled American!). The employee tells him to get lost, and Gavin sulks away.


Just then he sees another employee exit a building with a cartload of stuffed animals. Gavin sneaks into the building, finds a toy and steals it. On his way out he's confronted by The Other, who smashes his head with a High Striker mallet. That'll teach him not to steal! The Other then takes Gavin's phone and texts Natalie that he's on his way back, and has a "surprise" for her.

As the gang enters the Dead Lands, Natalie's horrified to see The Other inside, waiting for her. An exasperated Brooke tells her to look around, and points out that ALL the employees in this section of the park are wearing identical The Other masks. The guys and girls split up again, going into different mazes. Natalie gets separated from Brooke and Taylor and encounters The Other. Unsure if he's the same one that's been following her, she runs and manages to escape from him.

Meanwhile, Quinn and Asher wander around their maze, and become separated (lots of separating in this movie!). Asher runs into The Other, who stabs him in the eye with a prop syringe, killing him.

The gang meets up again outside, and are concerned that Gavin and now Asher are missing. Just then a costumed monster sprays Natalie with green ooze. She and Brooke find a restroom to clean it off. While there, Natalie admits she's been distracted by school lately, and suggests the two of them vacation in Spain.

Elated, Brooke skips out of the restroom while Natalie enters a stall. She texts Gavin while she's peeing, and hears his phone dweedle a few feet away. She bends down and sees The Other's worn out boots standing right in front of her stall. He begins banging on the door, trying to smash it in. Natalie slithers under the side barrier into the adjacent stall to escape. He then reaches over the top and grabs her, but she's able to fling the door open and escape.


For no good reason, Brooke's now convinced Natalie's right about The Other. Cut to the two girls telling their story to a disinterested Security Guard. He's convinced the "attack" was all part of the act, and since Natalie wasn't physically harmed, there's nothing he can do. 

The girls suddenly realize Taylor's missing, and run off to warn her. They find her on a nearby stage, where she's volunteered for a mock beheading hosted by The Barker (played VERY briefly by Tony Todd, who shows up to the set for one afternoon).

Taylor's placed in a guillotine and restrained by an Executioner. Natalie notices the steel toed boots protruding from his robe, and realizes they're the same ones worn by The Other. She tries to run up on stage to save Taylor, but is stopped by security. The blade comes down and seemingly slices off Taylor's head. The Barker bends down, picks it up and holds it high above the cheering crowd. Natalie then realizes the head's just a prop, and the whole thing was for show. The Security Guard tells Natalie she's banned from the park, and marches her away. Brooke and Quinn follow along behind, trying to convince the Guard to let Natalie go.

The stage curtain closes, leaving Taylor alone with the Executioner. She asks him to let her out of the guillotine, and he takes off his hood, revealing he's The Other (and was apparently wearing TWO masks!). He adjusts the guillotine and drops the blade again, which slices part way into Taylor's neck. He makes another adjustment, but before he can lower the blade again, she escapes and runs into the park. The Other follows behind her.

Taylor begs for help from the crowd, but again they all think it's part of the act. A guest shoves her into the arms of The Other, and he stabs her in the gut. Quinn witnesses Taylor's death and attacks The Other. He stabs Quinn several times, killing him as well.

All hell then breaks loose as everyone FINALLY realizes there's an actual killer in the park. The Security Guard calls the police and orders the park shut down. In the confusion, Natalie and Brooke break away from him and run to what they think is the exit. Unfortunately it's another maze, this one aptly named "Hell." The Other follows them inside and locks down the building, trapping them inside.

The two girls fumble around the various rooms, activating the sounds and animatronics as they enter each one. The 
Other eventually catches up to them and attacks, slicing open Brooke's leg with an axe. Natalie hits him in the head with a crowbar, grabs Brooke and drags her away. The Other gets up, calmly adjusts his mask and follows.

Natalie then figures out how to enter the various rooms without triggering them, so they can navigate the maze silently. They reach the last room, which is filled with dozens of mannequins wearing robes and white masks. Unfortunately it's a dead end.

A few minutes later The Other enters the room. He eyes the mannequins suspiciously, assuming the girls have disguised themselves with the masks and robes. He attacks what he thinks is one of the girls, but his axe gets stuck in a mannequin's chest.

As he struggles to pull it out, Natalie removes her mask and robe and hits The Other in the head with her crowbar. She tells Brooke to run, while she beats The Other senseless. Brooke finds a secret door out of the room (I guess?) and limps out. Natalie and The Other then battle it out, and it looks for all the world like he bashes her in the face with his axe.

Brooke then enters another part of the maze, and hobbles down a corridor filled with hands that emerge from elastic walls. Suddenly an axe slices through a wall in front of her, and The Other emerges. He chases Brooke down another corridor with mechanical monsters that pop out of hidden doors.

Just as he's about to kill Brooke, Natalie somehow jumps out of one of the doors. She stabs The Other with a knife, and he collapses. She picks up Brooke and they hobble down the corridor. Suddenly a door at the end opens, and they're relieved to see it's the police. The girls tell them The Other is right behind them.

The police search the maze, but all they find is a knife and a puddle of blood.

We then see Natalie and Brooke, huddling together and wrapped in typical movie ambulance blankets. A police woman tells them they searched the entire park but didn't find The Other.

Cut to an SUV as it pulls up to a house in the suburbs. The Other enters the garage, and opens a cabinet on the wall. Inside we see several masks that he presumably used at other Hell Fests. He takes off his melted face mask and hangs it up next to the others.

He then enters the living room, where a little girl's asleep on the couch in front of the TV. He stares ominously at her for a few seconds, as the music swells to a crescendo. Suddenly the little girl wakes up and squeals. "Daddy! You're home! Did you bring me anything?" He then pulls out the stuffed animal that Gavin stole, and gives it to her.

Thoughts:
• As I said before, I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I expected. It's nowhere near great, but it's exponentially better than any modern horror film I've seen in a long time (Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Slender Man). So lets start with a list of Hell Fest's positives, shall we?


— I was impressed to see a horror film that was actually rated R, rather than the usual watered-down PG-13. That's a rarity these days. 

— Jump scares are a cheap way to generate frights in a horror film, and I hate them with a white hot passion. Hell Fest contains quite a number of these jump scares, but for once I actually didn't mind them. The movie takes place in a haunted attraction, which pretty much revolve around jump scares! In the context of the film, they made perfect sense.

— Amazingly, all the characters in the film act fairly intelligently, and no one does anything overtly stupid. After watching eight seasons of The Walking Dead, in which every character acts like a complete and utter moron, this is like witnessing a miracle.

There are a couple of cases in which one of the characters gets separated from the group so they can be menaced by The Other. But it happens naturally, as they become lost in one of the mazes, and not because of any boneheaded decision on their part.

The closest anyone comes to doing something stupid is when Gavin deliberately leaves the group.But even then he has a logical reason for doing so, as he wants to try and win a prize for Natalie.

— From the first frame in which she appeared, it was obvious that Natalie would be the Final Girl. The movie "subverted our expectations" though, as Brooke manages to survive as well. I can't remember ever seeing a slasher movie that had TWO Final Girls, so kudos to the filmmakers for trying something unexpected.

— I liked the fact that we never see The Other's real face or find out who he is. That makes him all the more creepy, as he could literally be anyone, even your next door neighbor.

— OK, I think that's it for the positives. On with the bitching!

• This blurb pops up in the film's trailer and poster, and it's the most awkwardly worded thing ever. Why the hell would anyone ever say, "From AN Executive Producer?" Why not just say, "From Gale Anne Hurd, One Of The Producers Of The Walking Dead?

Hurd has a VERY impressive resume, as she's produced some of the biggest genre films ever, such at The Terminator, ALIENS, Alien Nation, The Abyss, Tremors and Terminator 2, among many, many others. Most nerds would recognize her name, and likely flock to the film if only they knew she was involved.

• I hope Tony Todd fans didn't come to this movie expecting to see him in a starring role. He's onscreen for a minute and a half, tops. Oh, and you hear his voice over a loudspeaker a couple times too. But that's the extent of his participation.

He must have rolled onto the lot at 8 AM sharp, filmed all his scenes in an hour or two, collected his paycheck and been home by lunchtime.

• Is it just me, or does The Other's mask look like someone took Saw actor Tobin Bell's face and melted it? The mask has the exact same high forehead, squinty eyes and tiny mouth as Bell. Coincidence or intentional?

• At the beginning of the movie, Natalie returns home from college, and acts troubled and distant. Her friends notice her twitchy emotional state, but when they ask what's wrong she says doesn't want to talk about it.

I assumed her problem would end up being a plot point, as she'd reveal she flunked out of all her classes or was pregnant or something.

Nope! Instead we never find out what the hell was wrong with her. About halfway through the movie she tells her bestie Brooke that she's been "distracted by school," and suggests they vacation in Spain. And that's the end of her "problem." For the rest of the movie she's perfectly fine.

It almost feels like there's a scene or two missing.

• In many horror films, the cast winds up in an isolated location, preventing them from calling for help and allowing the slasher to pick them off at his leisure.

Unfortunately the advent of cell phones have eliminated this plot device, as the characters can summon the authorities no matter where they are. This has forced screenwriters to come up with increasingly contrived reasons for the cast's phones not to work.

In the third act of Hell Fest, Natalie and Brooke are trapped in a maze and being chased by The Other. The girls suddenly remember their phones, and try calling the police. For no good reason, they both say, "I have no signal in here!"

That's odd, especially since earlier in the movie Natalie and the others were texting each other like crazy. Obviously there was reception in the park. Funny how there just happened to be a tiny dead zone in the one building they're in. Talk about lazy writing!

• Although I liked this movie quite a bit, even I have to admit the whole concept of the Hell Fest park doesn't make a lick of sense. We're told several times that Hell Fest is a traveling haunted attraction, one that sets up shop in a different city each year.

But as we see in several overhead drone shots, this isn't some dinky little collection of tents in a shopping center parking lot. It's a MASSIVE theme park that's easily the size of a Six Flags or even DisneyWorld! 

How the hell does THAT work? The mazes are all housed in permanent buildings, there're numerous theme park rides, eating establishments and electrical and waste disposal substations. There's even a goddamned roller coaster! Based on its size and complexity, realistically it would take YEARS to build the place!

Do the Hell Fest organizers really start construction in a city five years in advance, open it for the month of October and then close the place down and move on? Somehow I doubt it.

Maybe they only set up in cities with recently failed theme parks, and they just swoop in and hang up Hell Fest signs.

• At the end of the movie, we find out that The Other is an everyday loving dad who dotes on his young daughter.

Apparently this ending is very divisive, as some are calling it the worst thing they've ever seen, while others praise it as brilliant.

For the record, I'm in the latter camp, as I think it's an amazing ending. The notion that he's an anonymous everyday citizen is far more chilling than if they'd revealed him to be a cackling supernatural revenant. He could literally be living right next door, and you'd never suspect a thing...

• The Other returns to his cozy suburban home, and it's obvious from the look of the place that he and his daughter have lived there for quite some time. Years even.

Wait a minute... he was at Hell Fest this year, when it's presumably in his city. But he was there last year as well, when it was held in Orange County. It's implied he's been going to it for quite some time.

So does that mean he follows the festival around the country, driving to whatever city it's in, 
like a murderous Grateful Dead fan?

It's almost like the screenwriters forgot about the traveling aspect of the park after they brought it up.


• Does The Other have a Wolverine-type healing factor? We clearly see Natalie stab him in the side, and the police find a puddle of his blood inside the maze. Yet when he returns to his home in the suburbs, he's perfectly fine.

Inside his garage, The Other opens a locked cabinet and hangs up his melted-face mask. We see he has quite a collection of Hell Fest masks.

Note the one in the upper left corner. It looks a LOT like a mask of the Pig-Faced People from the Eye Of The Beholder episode of the original The Twilight Zone.

By the way, The Other apparently really likes his Melted Tobin Bell mask. Not only did he wear it to this year's Hell Fest, but as we see in the prologue, he wore it to last year's as well!

Hell Fest is a fun little throwback to slasher films of the past, with an awesome concept that feels innovative and original. It's surprisingly smart, tightly plotted and reasonably well-written. I was also impressed with the brutal and faceless villain, who could literally be the person next doot. Best of all, it features characters who act like actual humans and don't do anything overtly stupid. It's not perfect, but it's exponentially better than any horror film I've seen this year (which I will admit is damning it with faint praise). I give it a B-.

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