“Hell Fest” is a moderately successful horror movie based on a concept so strong that maybe the film should have been even better.
Here’s what we get: Three college-aged girls are reunited for an evening at an annual haunted house on steroids. “Hell Fest” is actually like a limited-term theme park, with a few rides, some target games and a lot of costumed entertainers being features. The girls have “VIP” tickets.
Each of them has a beau to accompany her. Canadian Amy Forest plays the brunette, relatively reticent (though foul-mouthed) Natalie. Her friend is curvy Brooke, played by Reign Edwards. And then there’s the gleefully sexual, fishnet hose-wearing Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klause).
The most innocent of the three seems to be Natalie, who isn’t sure she has an “inner slut,” though she does like the boy who is escorting her to “Hell Fest.” He’s kind of sweet, but utterly incompetent at the ring toss game when he tries to win her a stuffed ghoul.
We see the park, the monster disco (with go-go ghouls), the mechanical creatures and human spooks in the midway, the mazes and the converted tunnel of love and so on. In one scene we see a guy in a hooded sweatshirt wearing what seems to be a Leatherface mask. He is dismissed by a girl on the midway who doesn’t think him scary.
Later Natalie sees him standing over one of the girls with what she assumes is a fake knife. She encourages him to finish his victim off with the weapon. When he does, she wonders if she hasn’t witnessed a real murder. Worse yet, sweatshirt begins to follow her and her friends around the park.
Early on Natalie’s fellow splits off to try to buy one of those stuffed ghouls he couldn’t win. Sweatshirt isolates him in an employee locker room and brains him with a heavy mallet.
Meanwhile, the surviving five have gone off to the ride that will take them to an area where the actors are allowed to touch the customers. Sex and fantasies about it are as important to horror films are murderous attacks, so this special section of the park ought to be a cinematic happy hunting ground.
For example, the girls go into a fun house called “Girls’ Maze” and find a hallway. Along the walls, arms, some of them probably human and alive, stick out into the passage they must travel. As the hall narrows near its end, they are almost sure to get groped. This is both blatantly politically incorrect and one of the most attractive features of director Gregory Plotkin’s movie.
Meanwhile, one of the other boys is getting offed by Leatherface. Then the other one dies. Fishnets agrees to be guillotined in front of an audience of enthusiasts. But Leatherface turns the fake beheading into what should have been real.
And before long we’re following Natalie and Brooke as they try to survive repeated attacks by the deliberate Leatherface. In a funhouse, they reach a dead end. And at that juncture, Natalie sets her jaw and starts looking for weapons. She’s going to fight back.
But not immediately. First she and Brooke will hide behind white, mouthless masks in a room full of them. Leatherface sniffs the coeds out. Brooke escapes. And we are robbed of the scene during which Natalie escapes her pursuer. Or does he escape her?
There’s another major detail in the last reel that the movie doesn’t bother to explain. But the ending is generally satisfactory, and there is the traditional horror movie reversal ending, this time a reversing of our assumptions about one of the characters.
That’s nice. But the movie doesn’t offer enough that’s well-conceived. And it doesn’t build as it goes along. Which is itself a minor failure of imagination.
Still, we can make too much of the failure of “Hell Fest” (named after a French heavy metal Rock event) to reach an ideal level. It can be surprising. It has some sexiness in it. Its characters are young and attractive. And there’s a guillotine.
What more do we want?